Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, or Sea-Tac, is a local behemoth—an airport in an aviation town. Originally built during World War II to free up Boeing Field and McChord Field for the military, it's grown into the ninth-busiest airport in the country. While the airport’s big in terms of traffic, it’s actually relatively small in terms of size: The whole airport only covers about four square miles.
It’s the only major commercial airport serving the entire Seattle and Tacoma metro area right now, so chances are if you’re reading this right now, you’ve experienced it already—or you’re about to.
The good news is that if you show up early (it’s over capacity, so security lines have become notoriously frustrating), Sea-Tac is not the worst airport to spend a little time in, if you know where to look. This guide is designed to help brand-new Sea-Tac travelers get their bearings, and maybe help hone some skills for the seasoned pros, too.
Getting to and from the airport
Your most reliable and cheapest option is going to be Link Light Rail, which costs anywhere from $2.25 to $3.25 depending on where you’re leaving from. It’s not always the fastest option, but it’s consistent—and the rail being separated from traffic means that it doesn’t get held up in the same snarls as a cab or a car.
The station drops off at the opposite end of the parking garage from where you’ll go to check in, across two skybridges, so it helps to have a haulable suitcase, which is just a pro tip for flying anyway.
There are times when taking the light rail isn’t the best option. The whole span of the route takes about 50 minutes, so if traffic’s clear, a getting a ride can be faster. And the last train leaves at 12:49 a.m.—the last train going farther than Beacon Hill leaves at midnight—so if your plane gets in late, the train can leave you stranded.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other options.
Take a car
If you can get downtown, many cab services provide flat rates. Yellow Cab, for example, has a $40 flat rate. (If you’re not downtown, the meter drops and you pay whatever you pay).
Taking an Uber or Lyft can be anywhere from $25 to $60 depending on traffic, route, and pickup location.
Driving to the airport
Driving to the airport is always an option, but in addition to spending all that time navigating in-airport traffic, you can really ring up a tab storing a personal vehicle. Parking in the official Sea-Tac lot costs $30 a day or $140 a week. Private lots, like Doug Fox or Shuttlepark, are cheaper and run 24-hour shuttles back and forth.
Another option: Car-sharing services Car2go and Reachnow have a deal with the Wallypark lot. That just costs whatever the car costs, plus $5 for any shuttle to or from the lot, and works both to and from the airport.
If you end up getting a ride from a buddy, maybe see if you can crash on a friend’s house in southwest Seattle or Burien; State Route 509 provides a quick back route to the airport.
Getting through security
There’s no magical way of getting through security. But we have a few tips.
- Show up early. Sea-Tac airport handles way more passengers than it was designed to, so the lines have gotten really long, both physically and temporally. Take your normal playing-it-safe time and double it if you don’t have Clear or Pre-Check.
- There are exactly five security checkpoints, and they’re all the best and the worst at different times of day. Compounding the issue: often, only a couple of gates are open to non-pre-check passengers at a time. Anecdotally, the lines with the bomb-sniffing dogs go faster.
- You can access all gates from all checkpoints, although some are closer than others to a certain gate.
- If you’re taking a short Alaska Airlines flight to Portland or Spokane, you can use security express lines usually reserved for the extra-fancy mileage plan members.
Getting to your gate
Most gates—in concourses A through D—are located as tentacles emerging from the main concourse and don’t require a lot of effort to get to. Two concourses, the north and south satellites (N and S gates) require an underground train ride, which travels in a loop and runs every couple of minutes. A new annex to concourse D is accessible via skybridge.
Altogether, there are three train lines to get around Sea-Tac: One to the north in a triangle between the C gates, N gates, and the main terminal; another in a triangle between the B gates, the S gates, and the main terminal; and another in a back-and-forth line to either end of the main terminal.
Keep in mind that the C gate station is closed throughout 2019, and the N Gates are undergoing renovations—although some improvements are already live.
Where to eat
Want even more detail on the restaurants themselves? Our friends at Eater Seattle have a full guide to eating at Sea-Tac Airport.
So you’ve gotten through security and have your shoes back on. If you’re flying domestically and have some time before your flight, Sea-Tac’s not the hugest airport in the world—you can take some time to explore. And some gates are better than others (although the whole airport is preparing for some major improvements, food- and shopping-wise).
Evergreens is a popular lunch spot for nine-to-fivers downtown, and a solid option if you need something light and fast.
Neighborhood Seattle is a decent spot to sit with a drink, especially if you’re looking for something local.
Vegetarian joint Floret brings some much-needed delicious sit-down food between terminals A and B.
Besides that, there are a couple of standard airport bars: Mountain Lounge and Africa Lounge. Neither are particularly exciting.
The B gates were kind of bereft of options for a long time—in a previous update of this article, we literally only mentioned a Sbarro—but now there’s a Rel’Lish Burger Lounge, a sit-down version of the grab-and-go stand in concourse C.
If your flight’s in a C gate, you’re in luck—you don’t have to hop around at all.
The most beloved airport food of all, Beecher’s, serves grilled cheese, breakfast sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and some to-go snack packs. There’s a Caffe Vita inside, too, so the best food and the best coffee are all in one place—and there’s even a Beecher’s vending machine if you just want a grab-and-go thing.
For those in the mood for a sweet treat, Kirkland-based macaron outfit Lady Yum also has a kiosk here.
Maybe stop by concourse C and get some take-out on your way to concourse D (although Eater notes that Camden Food Co. adds the first decent option here in a long time).
One of two little annex islands, N Gate used to be pretty bad—Great American Bagel Bakery, in a region not especially known for winning bagels, had the worst one—but it’s getting a big upgrade, so there are a couple of new options to go with it. Local upscale food-cart-turned-diner Skillet has set up a location here, along with family-owned Vietnamese joint Bambuza Vietnam Kitchen and Bar.
Unfortunately, S Gate is not currently getting an upgrade, and its options are... not great. Sometimes you don’t know very far in advance whether or not your flight’s being moved to a satellite gate, but if you have some lead time, grab some food at the terminal before you hop on the train. Unfortunately, the train to the S gate leaves from the B gate—which has few good options of its own—so plan ahead.
What to do
Art at Sea-Tac
Each concourse at Sea-Tac has roughly between five and ten pieces of art installed, from bronze fish embedded in the floor (Judith and Daniel Caldwell’s “Flying Fish”) to stone mosaics embedded on columns.
Jim Green’s “Talking Fountains” are at B, C, and D gates; they make a gurgling water sound when you press the button. The sound art installations are a little more fun when you’re not groggy from a 6 a.m. flight.
The airport is so proud of its art collection that it even has an iOS and Android app to take you on a walking tour. Maybe you’ll even catch a rotating exhibit.
Music at Sea-Tac
Since 2012, the Port’s Experience the City of Music program has brought local artists to play for travelers seven days a week, including Tomo Nakayama and Champagne Sunday.
They also run a web radio station available over the airport’s Wi-Fi.
Shopping at Sea-Tac
Sacred Circle Gallery Gift Shop, located near Concourse A, is the latest addition to Sea-Tac’s retail offerings. Operated by the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, Sacred Circle sells Native-designed items, including clothing, jewelry, and other gifts.
Sub Pop records, the independent label that had a large hand in grunge (and a huge hand in Northwest music today), has a shop in the main terminal with music, clothing, books, and miscellany—including some decent whole-bean coffee. (This is a frequent site for the live music, too.)
Show Pony Boutique, which also has a storefront in Fremont, sells locally-crafted jewelry, accessories, and t-shirts at the C gates.
The Made in Washington store also has gifts by local artisans—it’s one of the N gate’s redeeming qualities.
Local phenomenon Glassybaby makes hand-blown votive candle holders. They’re a little spendy, but they’re a big deal here (and 10 percent goes to their charity fund).
Planewear has cute vintage Pan Am bags and a ton of aviation-theme clothes and gifts.
Where to relax
Most lounge spaces in Sea-Tac Airport are built pretty equally—they’re not the best, but they’re not the worst, either. There’s a high concentration of outlets in the seat for plugging in devices, especially at the A, B, D, and S gates. If the plug’s not working, check behind the seat—sometimes they get unplugged from the main outlet. The C Gate also has a fantastic workstation area, with bar-height desks with built-in outlets for getting a few emails out before boarding.
What most people do is find a sit-down restaurant, get a beverage, and wait—we made some recommendations above—although in most cases it’s harder to plug in at a restaurant than just a seat at the gate.
There’s also massages at the A and C gates.
Sea-Tac airport history
In the early days of flight, civilians caught planes at smaller airfields, like Boeing or McChord Field. During World War II, the military needed access to those spots—so the federal government tasked the Port of Seattle with building a regional airport.
They broke ground in Bow Lake—still a lake, no longer a town—on January 2, 1943. Then, the area was full of farms and orchards. One lone woman in a nightgown threatened surveyors with a rifle during the planning stages.
The airport was completed in 1944, but because of military operations, it didn’t effectively open to the public until the 1946.
Even then, passenger accommodations were not ideal; people had to wait for their flights in a Quonset hut called “the pantry,” heated by a single stove.
The terminal, built with Port reserve funds, wouldn’t be built until 1949. At its dedication, then-governor Arthur Langlie got extremely dramatic, calling it a “conqueror’s day” in a speech:
Man, on Puget Sound can now tell the eagles, the hawks, and skylarks to move over and say "We, too, have at last won our place beside you in the firmament of heaven.
As the aviation industry grew and the 1962 World’s Fair fast approached, the Port expanded the airport even further. Starting in 1960, they expanded Concourse A and added Concourse D.
The complex as we know it started to take shape in 1968, when an airport re-invention plan called for a new outer structure, a lower level for baggage claim and departures, and skybridges to a multi-deck parking garage. It also connected the highway systems to the airport.
This was also the start of the airport’s art collection; Sea-Tac commissioned $300,000 worth of art and borrowed exhibits from museums.
The expansion was severely complicated by the aerospace recession. Although the price tag of the expansion rose to $175 million, the Port finished the expansion in 1972. Yet another expansion added more space to the north in 1987. In 2018, an annex to the D gate opened, adding six more gates. A 2019 N Gate expansion added eight more, although the old gates are temporarily closed as the Port completes renovations.
The next big overhaul coming to Sea-Tac is a new international arrival terminal, built east of what is now concourse A and featuring an 85-foot-high aerial walkway.
- Wi-Fi is free throughout the airport, and while isn’t incredibly fast, it’s mostly reliable.
- Traveling with kids? There’s a play area at the intersection of the A and B concourses in case the littles have to get some sillies out before a long flight. That play area also features a “mother’s room” for quiet time or nursing.
- Nursing elsewhere? Sea-Tac has multiple “nursing suites”—more like little pods—located throughout the airport to provide a little privacy.
- Forget reading material? The King County Library System has free ebook kiosks set up in concourses A and D.