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Airport guide: Surviving LAX

By Brett Snyder, Special to CNN
Los Angeles International Airport is quick to put many travelers on edge. A local frequent flier offers tips for a pleasant layover.
Los Angeles International Airport is quick to put many travelers on edge. A local frequent flier offers tips for a pleasant layover.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Take the free shuttle to In-N-Out Burger for fast food born in Southern California
  • The reLAX lounge is outside security and open to everyone starting at $15 an hour
  • Consider walking between terminals to avoid the loop route of the shuttle bus

Editor's note: Brett Snyder writes a weekly CNN.com travel column. Snyder is the founder of air travel assistance site Cranky Concierge, and he writes the consumer air travel blog The Cranky Flier. Do you have LAX tips? Share them below.

Los Angeles (CNN) -- For many travelers, just hearing three simple letters together can cause fits of anger and anxiety. Those letters? LAX. Los Angeles International Airport is a mess of bad traffic, decaying terminals and an inconvenient gate layout. But for me, LAX is home. It definitely helps to know your way around, so I'm sharing my tips with you.

I was born in Southern California and live here now, so LAX has been my home airport for decades. (Now I choose Long Beach when I can, but LAX is still the place to go for world travel.) I spent my childhood running from terminal to terminal, collecting timetables, and I even did a stint as a Travelers Aid volunteer at the airport in high school. That strong smell of jet fuel still puts a smile on my face.

Part of what I like is what other people hate: The airport hasn't changed in nearly 30 years. The last big project that changed the passenger experience at LAX was in the 1980s. Since that time, it's become a favorite traveler whipping boy for being a difficult place to fly.

Although there are some big projects in the works at the Bradley International Terminal as we speak, those still won't affect most travelers. What may help you is a few tips from someone who has spent far too much time at the airport.

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Think like a traffic genius: If you try to pick someone up on a Sunday afternoon, you'll encounter gridlock on the lower level roadway before you even get in the airport. Try using the upper roadway, which is less likely to be jammed. Just think about which level people are more likely to be on at each time of the day (mornings will be heavier on departures, for example), and use the opposite. As a bonus, if you're picking someone up on the upper level, I've found that the cops won't hassle you to move as quickly as down below.

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Navigate the maze for connections: One of the biggest complaints about LAX is that you may have to leave security, and even leave the building, to get to your connection. But some terminals actually are connected behind security through walkways or tunnels. Terminals 5 through 8 can all be accessed from behind security, so that includes United/Continental, Delta and, soon, Alaska Airlines as well as some smaller operators. Though there is a tunnel between American's Terminal 4 and Terminal 5, it's not open to the public. Do your research before you fly to see if you'll have to leave security. If you do, you'll want to build in some extra time.

Take a walk, not the bus: There are buses that take you between terminals at LAX, but sometimes you'll be much better off on foot. The buses go only in a counter-clockwise motion, so if you're in Terminal 3 and need to get to Terminal 1, it can take a long time for the bus to get all the way around. The sidewalks go all the way around the terminal area. Some are farther than others, but if you're going only two terminals away, walking might work out better for you. And that way you can enjoy our sunny Southern California weather.

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Let your pet stretch his legs: If you're traveling with a pet, head down to the lower level, and you'll find five hidden spots where your pet can go to the bathroom. These "animal relief stations" are between terminals 1 and 2; terminal 3 and the Bradley terminal; the Bradley terminal and terminal 4; terminals 5 and 6 (across the street); and at the end of terminal 8.

Get better food: LAX has finally started adding better dining options in the terminals, but if you have some time and want good food, consider going elsewhere. And what says Southern California better than In-N-Out Burger? Take the shuttle to the Parking Spot on Sepulveda (not Century), and you'll be right next door to In-N-Out. (The shuttle is free, but a tip for the driver would surely be appreciated.) Grab a burger and park yourself on the grassy area outside while airplanes roar above your head.

If you're looking for something more than fast food, you might want to consider running across the street to the Melody Bar and Grill for a more adult experience (read: alcohol and great food). For a white tablecloth level of dining, take a cab over to The Proud Bird restaurant just at the threshold to the south runway complex. It's an old-time aviation-themed restaurant with great views.

Within the airport, some of the better options behind security are El Cholo in terminal 5 and Gladstone's 4 Fish in terminal 3. Pink's Hot Dogs is outside security in the Bradley Terminal, and the space-aged Encounter Restaurant is at the top of the airport's futuristic Theme Building.

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Soak up some history: LAX is a historic airport, and there are a handful of places to catch up on history if you have the time. For a quick dose, head to the lower level outside the Bradley Terminal, where there's a plaque commemorating the first polar route flight, which was operated by SAS Scandinavian Airlines. If you have more time, cab it to the Flight Path Museum in the airport's old Imperial Terminal. It's free, but it's only open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Get some peace and quiet: If you just want a place where you can get some rest, you can always look at buying a day pass to those airline lounges that allow it. There is, however, another option. The reLAX lounge in the Bradley Terminal is a pay-for-play lounge that starts at $15 for an hour, up to $50 for the day. This lounge is outside security, so anybody can use it.

Prepare for car rental hell: If you're renting a car, make sure to leave some extra time for pickup and dropoff. None of the car rental agencies is right at the airport, so you'll have to take a shuttle bus to get out to their lots. This can be time-consuming. And don't forget to mark where to return your car; the signage leaves a lot to be desired on the way back in. If you're heading to the San Fernando Valley, Westwood, downtown Los Angeles or Irvine, you can take the FlyAway bus for cheap and then rent a car closer to your destination.

The long ride to the hotel: If you're staying at a hotel near LAX, you'll want to leave a time buffer there as well. Hotels have joined together to offer a joint shuttle bus with other properties to cut down on congestion. That means there might be a couple of stops before you finally get to your hotel, and it can take ages. Expect longer delays for lower-numbered terminals, because the bus still needs to wind its way around the airport.

These are just a few tips to survive LAX, but I'm sure other locals have plenty more. Offer your suggestions below.