The Maze That Is Frankfurt Airport

FRA - Frankfurt

If you’ve ever been to Frankfurt Airport (and not Hahn, the one Ryanair pretends is close enough to be associated with Frankfurt), then you know that it is one massive place. The terminals can be confusing to navigate, and there’s basically an entire city attached to the airport. When I was there on my Lufthansa A380 trip in May, I had the chance to explore a little. Since connecting in Frankfurt is pretty common these days with United’s tight partnership with Lufthansa, I thought it would be fun to explore the place a bit in a blog post.

Let’s start with a map (click to expand):

Frankfurt Airport Layout

It seems like Frankfurt should be a very easy airport. There are only two terminals today and they’re connected inside. The larger Terminal 1 is the domain of Lufthansa and its Star Alliance partners, Condor, and a few other minor stragglers while Terminal 2 is for everyone else. Seems pretty simple, right? Somehow, it doesn’t seem that easy when you’re on the inside.

Part of this is because the terminals are connected to public transit, high-speed rail, hotels, and shops in various places, so it gets to feel like a labyrinth. The good news is that if you get lost, you can survive in there for years without stepping foot outside. There’s even a supermarket down there, though it took us several wrong turns before we found it.

The two terminals are divided into five zones with A, B, and C in Terminal 1 and D and E in Terminal 2. I didn’t find it difficult to follow the signs for departure, but have your walking shoes on. When we departed from the high C gates, it was a trek to get out there. I will say that at least security is pleasant. The people were friendly and efficient. I particularly liked the contraption that automatically sends bins back to the beginning of the belt, so you don’t have to wait from an agent to slowly lug them over.

The Awesome Departure Flip Board

But before you get to security, make sure to stop and marvel at the enormous Solari boards. Frankfurt still has the old school departure boards that shuffle the letters and numbers as they update. There is nothing that screams “travel” more than those boards, and the content is pretty awe-inspiring as well with some very exotic destinations posted.

There are currently a handful of gates that can handle large A380-sized airplanes, and those gates are excellent. The ground level has a normal boarding lounge, but then there is an upstairs lounge that serves premium passengers. Each lounge serves two gates and boarding goes directly from the lounge to the airplane. It’s a great way to go.

Gate Boarding Area From Lounge

Of course, one of the downsides about Frankfurt is that there are a lot of bus gates, so you may have to be shuttled out to the airplane.

Arrivals were somewhat more confusing for me. When we landed, we were on the same high C gates and had to walk for ages. But when we through customs, I was lost. I kept looking for the Lufthansa arrivals lounge but wasn’t sure I was going the right way. At one point, I had to briefly walk outside and cross over a small road to get back into the terminal where the lounge was.

Lufthansa Arrival Lounge Area

The lounge itself was very nice with a great, refreshing shower, though I do have to say that I like the shower BA had at Heathrow better. Still, I highly recommend using the facilities if you’re in a premium cabin on the airline.

From there, you’ll see Frankfurt Airport’s greatest strengths. It is deeply connected into the transportation network of Europe. There are frequent local trains into the city and the airport’s close proximity means it’s a very fast ride. On top of that, the airport has a high speed rail stop that’s so efficient that some nearby cities don’t even have air service anymore. If you want to go the 100 miles to Cologne, for instance, then Lufthansa codeshares with high speed rail to get you straight there. If that’s not enough, the airport sits at the intersection of two major autobahn arteries which makes driving easy. I can only wish more US airports were this connected into a multi-modal network.

The high speed train station is actually forming the base of a monster new “airport city” they call The Squaire. This thing has shopping, office, living, hotels, etc and seems to be slowly opening in phases. The Hilton that’s opening there accompanies the Sheraton which is also attached to the airport. Lufthansa put us up at the Sheraton and it was a nice place, though the hotel itself is monstrously large.

The airport has been on a building spree as of late, and that doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. Frankfurt will be opening its fourth runway later this year and eventually that will boost capacity by around 20 operations per hour. (For those of you who live in the UK, building a new runway is what happens when your government isn’t short-sighted.) This will help handle expected growth that will start to be served when the new extension to the A concourse is finished down the line.

The runway configuration at the airport is actually quite interesting. There are two main parallel runways that see the bulk of the traffic at the airport, but then there is another perpendicular runway that is used only for departures to the south. You can see it at the bottom left side of the map above. Why is it only used for departures? I imagine it’s because arrivals on that runway would interrupt operations on the other runways. (There are also some mountains to the north that might be of concern.)

The new runway will be for arrivals only, balancing out the number of runways that can be used for departures and arrivals.

In the long term, development will be on the south side. Until just a few years ago, the entire south side of the airport was the Rhein-Main US Air Force Base. When that was shut, the airport got the land and it is working on developing plans for a new massive Terminal 3. Lufthansa’s A380 hangar is already there on the south side, but there will be a lot more as this place continues to grow bigger and bigger.

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65 comments on “The Maze That Is Frankfurt Airport

  1. It *is* a maze! I found that the older the airport, the harder it is to get around. Probably because they build one terminal after the other, 20 years apart or so. I haven’t seen all the aiports on this planet (yet), but to me Schiphol and Heathrow are even more confusing.

  2. Maybe the third runway is only used for takeoffs (probably in one direction only) due to some sort of agreement with the local community when it was built. This sort of ‘compromise’ happens a lot in European politics rather than endless debating. Think Boston’s newest runway.

  3. The security folk are very nice and concerned about the passengers’ well-being. I was connecting back to the US and forgot I had. A can of beer a colleague snagged for me in the DME business lounge. When the security guy took it out of my bag, he asked me several times if he should throw it out or if I was. The spot. He seemed quite concerned for me that I was going to have to give up my beer (it was a German brew and I think I saw some drool). I ended up discarding the brew in the locked weaste bin to his dismay.

  4. Brett, I’ll be flying to Frankfurt in October. Did you find that a lot of people spoke english? Were there signs in english to help navigate?

    Great write up.


    1. Jeff, well over half of anybody you’ll encounter here will speak English fluently. Just make sure you ask people you meet whether they speak English before you continue. (Doing this in English is fine.)
      Bernd in Frankfurt

      1. That’s true for most of Europe and especially Germany. Many Germans speak better English than most Yanks. The only place I’ve been in Europe where it was somewhat difficult was Ukraine. Turkey and Morocco were also easily navigable. I got off a cruise ship in Tangier and a guy trying to sell me something switched to 5 different languages because I wouldn’t answer him. I was impressed.

  5. CF,

    I haven’t used FRA in about 5 years, but the one time I did, it served our purpose well. I flew in from AMS to meet my dad, at which point we needed to take a train to a destination near DUS. On the way back, we flew from Berlin to catch our Northwest flight back to DTW. The airplane -> train thing and multi-carrier connection (separate tickets) went pretty well, and left me wishing we could do things like this back in the States.

    1. Never mind. I guess the better question is, why do you have a Cranky around the web post during the week? Don’t you save them for Saturdays?

    2. Whoops. I gather posts throughout the week and just schedule it to go up on Saturdays. I put the date wrong. The post has been put back as a draft and will go live again on Saturday.

  6. You’re missing the A pier – a good half of it. Blue line should go down parallel to the taxiway. ;-)

    1. As is the case with OAK, too. Pretty lame. I’m excited that SLC’s airport rail line from downtown opens next year. It definitely makes things easier.

      1. True but at least my tax dollar is still planned for the aerial people mover systerm instead of using the surface Air Bart bus service. Now if they would only do it instead of just ‘planning’ it…

  7. CF or anyone who has used it…I am using some *Gold miles and flying LH First Class in a few weeks (sadly not the A380, but I am hoping it is one of the refitted 747’s). How was the FCT? How long would you say is needed to “enjoy” all the benefits. This is my first time flying First, so I want to make good use of it!

    1. FCT is amazing. It all depends on how long you want to spend there and what you want to do. They have private rooms with showers, relaxing massage chairs, little office cubicles, a bar, and yes, a cigar lounge. I have pictures here.

  8. I’ve seen the grocery store in AMS and thought it was a brilliant idea. For those living alone off for a week being able to grab some milk, eggs or other perishables for the next morning is a great idea.

    When I get in late my first errand the next day is doing this anyway. Even a 7-Eleven type mini mart would be helpful (Not just stores with one refrigerated case selling $3 sodas.)

  9. There are also tours of the airport provided throughout the day in German and English from a dedicated tour desk. I was also there in May and would have taken it if I had more time – it looked very interesting.

  10. I haven’t had to use FRA for connecting to other flight. Just as a destination/origination and haven’t had any issues with anything (language, finding things, etc.). The train stations (regional and long distance) are pretty easy to find and very convenient.

    The FCT is, obviously, excellent.

    I’ve been there twice in the last 2+ years and enjoy my time in Germany more and more. I’d love to work there for a year or two.

    I saw your “guest” post on BWI. I’m a MD native who relocated to AZ about 8 yrs ago. Sadly BWI is just a mess. Longish security lines, few, if any, lounges and usually, tons of construction. The car rental place is a good 10 minute shuttle ride (w/o any traffic issues) away. They have always had very hard times getting any international traffic and wasted money on building that international terminal.

    Compared to PHX, it scores poorly, even though neither has much in terms of international flights and both are poor in slowness of getting bags. PHX just seems much calmer, organized and cleaner. Security is usually much easier as well.

    1. Rich,

      Native Baltimorean here. Construction at BWI is no longer an issue. Re: the few lounges, US Airways pulled up stakes years ago as did Iceland Air and BA so BWI is primarily a WN hub with connecting service on the legacies.

      The international terminal was costly, I’ll concede that. But if you look at the economics for international flights and getting to DC, BWI makes a lot more sense then Dulles(which has a bunch of international flights). You can fly in and then catch Amtrak to anywhere on the BoWash corridor, bus to DC metro, MARC train from DC or Baltimore, or lightrail into the Baltimore….Dulles, not so much. They MIGHT have DC Metro connection in 2017. And don’t me started on those people movers.

      Re:Security, I’ve always flown through in less than 5 minutes.

      1. DC resident here, the multi-modal functionality of BWI is quite good (amtrak and md commuter rail to multiple points including multiple connections to dc’s metrorail system, light rail connection into balto system).

        Unfortunately, unless you’re looking for a flight on WN or FL (about to be just WN), this functionality is all but wasted as IAD has probably 98% of intl air traffic in this area, BWI has little more than hub service by the legacies and DCA will always be much more convenient for DC travelers.

        At least the IAD people movers have been disappearing since the opening of the underground train and moving walkways. Of course, Concourse C/D is still “third world” (with apologies to Donald Trump) and the International Arrivals Building is rivaled only by the DL terminals at JFK for ultimate suckage.

          1. What difference does it make if it’s because of subsidies? It’s there and I use it (along with a lot of other people). It saves me from having to use Dulles (which I hate with a passion).

          2. bma83 is correct; however, I agree with CF that it is worth pointing out because that makes it more susceptible to being dropped than other routes, all other things being equal.

    2. I agree with James above. I live in Northern Virginia and try to fly out of BWI whenever logistically possible (I don’t own a car so sometimes it’s a challenge to get up there). Far cheaper than DCA/IAD, not too crowded, several nice new terminals…has always been a painless and easy experience.

  11. I like to connect in Frankfurt – it doesn’t seem prone to arrival delays, and the food in the *A Gold/Senator lounges is great – and there are plenty of them.

    The airport is constantly under construction and it seems that every time the routes are different, but if you follow the signs you will always get where you need to go – and there is a lounge in every zone.

    Generally immigration in and out are fast, so it is easy to go landside during a connection, or even into Frankfurt or Mainz if you have a few hours.

    Pretty efficient airport given how many flights & pax it handles & how much construction. At lot better than LHR or CDG – on a par with AMS.

  12. Frankfurt airport is big indeed. Back in 1995 I took a flight from there to Paris — we spent 25 minutes taxiing (from terminal 2 to runway 18), compared to just 50 minutes in the air.

    Another issue with that trip was the VAT refunds — at Frankfurt they told me I had to get them in Paris, where my connecting flight would leave the EU; when I got to Paris I was told I had to process the refund in Frankfurt… I never did get the refund.

  13. The Fernbahnhof (long-distance train station) is great, though the Lufthansa connecting service leaves something to be desired. In 2002 I flew to Frankfurt with a train connection to Stuttgart (marketed as a Lufthansa code-share). The train ride itself was very nice, they put all passengers (even from coach) in a special first-class car on the ICE (high-speed train), with Lufthansa branding and table service. The problem was schedule — trains from the airport to Stuttgart left every hour, but the special Lufthansa cars were only on every other train, which meant I had to wait nearly 2 hours at the station, skipping a train that would have brought me to Stuttgart an hour earlier.

  14. Your map and photos of FRA are great, but one correction. Your blue shading understates the length of the current A concourse by almost half, because you have forgotten to shade in blue the outer A gates A26-42. These gates all face north, because the taxiway that planes use to go out for departures from runways 18 or 7L/R is too close to the western side of the A concourse for aircraft to park on its southern side beyond gate A26.

    A very recent improvementn at FRA (and MUC) is the elimination of most security screening for connecting passengers. This was true in MUC on June 15 going from UA to the LH Schengen concourse, and in reverse at FRA on June 19 going from Schengen to UA transatlantic.

  15. My husband and I have flown into Frankfurt many times because it usually has the best prices on Icelandair to a destination in Europe. The train station is right there and you can go anywhere in Germany or connect up to Austria or other places in Eastern Europe. The bus transport outside is great and gets you into Frankfurt easily. Yes, on your first trip into Frankfurt the maze of the airport can be confusing especially getting to the train station. Go on-line and get a map of the airport which will save you lots of confusion. The airport has a good website and that helps a lot to navigate the confusion at first. Bon Voyage…

    1. Lufthansa isn’t building it, but the airport is planning to do so. The new single airport in Berlin is opening, but that isn’t going to change the fact that Frankfurt is the financial capital of Germany. It might help Berlin to attract more service, but it’s not going to really hurt Frankfurt at all.

  16. The third runway, 18, is basically used for starting only because the approach to land on 18 would a little like Kai Tak. Starting on the imaginary runway 36 would also be hard because of the mountains. And on top, it wouldn’t help having crossing runways. So it was an easy giveaway to all people opposed to building that runway back in the 80s. And there were a lot of them. The protests didn’t even end after the completion of constructions. Two police officers were shot during some riots. That was a crazy time back then.

    The high speed connection is just great. It’s not only the codesharing, the station is now one of the most important stations in the german network and offers a lot of connections besides the trains that run with LH number. With codesharing you even get your luggage transported to the main stations in Cologne or Stuttgart and receive them there instead of picking them up at FRA and carrying yourself into the train.

  17. Hmm, I have to dissent with most comments here, I find FRA to be a pain most of the time and avoid it when possible. Apart from being a maze, sometime it feels like I clear security a half-dozen time when going from one flight to another. Everything is constantly under construction, and even the parts that aren’t feel less than polished.

    Sure there are lots of lounges, but they’re often packed. Then you leave the lounge and (if flying Lufthansa) have to deal with LH’s awful boarding process.

    The transport options are excellent, I agree. And the first class terminal is a fantastic experience. (Though try taking the train when going to the first class terminal). And I totally dig the giant departures board, too.

    But compare FRA with Munich, and I think the latter wins in nearly every category, hands down.

    1. I agree that Munich is better than FRA, however, FRA is still better than LHR or CDG by a huge amount, which are often the alternatives (on BA or AF ofc). FRA is well run, although I do think that its size is actually hurting it, as the layout could be simpler and it can be confusing. Compare it to the layout of MUC, which is much simpler and easier to navigate.
      Or in the US, large hubs such as DTW, DEN that simply ‘work’ as far as layout is concerned.

      1. MUC’s easier because it is a LOT smaller and has far fewer x-atlantic options. This is kind of like comparing ATL to CLT. Of course, CLT is easier to use but that’s largely because there are far fewer options.

        1. It’s not just size… large airports can have good logical layouts (ATL isn’t so bad – better than LAX or IAD imo). Which would you rather fly out of – LGA or CLT? CLT is larger with international flights, and LGA is just a hot mess.

    2. I have to agree, FBKSan. I dislike Frankfurt, at least as a connecting airport, as the process of connecting to a U.S.-bound flight is (or at least was) a complete cluster. Coming back home from India, the process begins with getting off at a remote stand, then riding around in a bus for a good 10-15 minutes until you reach the main terminal. You then have to go down a long corridor, then another long corridor, until you reach a train to get to the U.S. destination gates. Then, a train ride, and another walk down a long corridor, before you then have to stand around for what seems like forever until the security check to the U.S. gates opens. Finally, the security check, which can sometimes take ages. The entire process can take a good 90 minutes. Maybe it’s better now (I haven’t set foot in FRA since late 2006).

      Then again, Fred, you’re right – it’s still not as bad as LHR.

  18. I taught in a town near Frankfurt for two years, 1985-1987, and flew into and out of this airport a number of times. One of the things we ex-pats really enjoyed was the underground area of the airport–an English language movie theater, the above-mentioned grocery store (the only source for taco shells back then), and a McDonalds, among other venues. I haven’t been back since 1987, and I wonder if I would even recognize it all now.

    Good post, Brett. Thanks.

    1. You are a couple years late. That underground area was still largely intact until recently. Now they rebuilt the whole thing. But you’d fell well at home in the godawful arrivals bunker. Nothing much changed there since they opened Terminal 1, I think.

  19. it is a maze and somewhat confusing when u must connect to anothe rzone of the terminal esp if u go thru security and it is the wrong zone then u have to go thru again…but i love their 1st class lounge…

  20. Cranky,

    To your jab at the UK government, the situation in London is unfathonable. While I agree LHR is a nightmare, a plan to build a HKG style airport at the mouth of the Thames is never going to happen. I don’t know why the government hates aviation so much, especially since they are an island nation.

    1. I agree with you on all counts. I see absolutely no solution to the problems in London and it is only going to hurt the country.

  21. the Fernbahnhof is quite easy to use, though you do have to walk a little to get there.

    last time I flew FRA to the US, I found the pier being used for US-bound flights to be entirely and utterly inadequate. Crowded, undersized gate areas; barely any food options. It was weird, considering how pleasant the rest of the place was.

  22. For the typical American (myself), so into the intermodal-ness of travel (air-rail) at airports (I kid), it can be a bit confusing, trying to figure out at FRA if one is looking for a “long distance” train (Level 3, of the AirRail Terminal), or a “regional train,” (Terminal 1, Concourse B, Level 0). (But, I note, to many of us, level “0,” or a floor numbered “0” just doesn’t register, but if we talk real loud, maybe someone will help us out!)

    But, just wait, world travellers, until we at Dulles get our trains (Metro) running to our beautiful international airport. Assuming, of course, trains to Dulles will actually stop at or reasonably near the airport. (Apparently, anything “above ground” within five miles walking distance of the terminal is “reasonably close,” . Although I believe a place like Charles Town, West Virginia, is being defined by our politicians as “reasonably close” too, and oh yes, “affordable.” Certainly, good enough for us “little people.” flying to way out there Roanoke.

  23. So right!

    I’ve been to this airport a lot of times but i must say: i still feel lost in this wide area. If you have just a stopover here don’t underestimate the time you need from one Terminal to the other and ensure to have comfortable shoes ;)

  24. As a frequent flier via Frankfurt from London, I agree with Cranky’s assessment. I’d add that I’ve found that the check-in station just outside the terminal next to the rail link downtown has generally shorter lines and a speedier process. I learned this the hard way during the big snowstorm 19 December last year.

  25. I was in Frankfurt recently. Didn’t think it was any worse than Heathrow or Philly (which I’ve also been through this month). Sure it’s big, but unlike Heathrow its terminals are pretty well connected. Try getting from Heathrow’s Terminal 4 to Terminal 5 in a hurry, and you will wish you were in Frankfurt. And could someone explain to me why international passengers who already went through security before they took their first flight, are screened again in Philly before taking an internal flight? Yet on the way back you are scanned for the domestic flight but not again in Philly for an international flight ! The airport is stretched out too so when you add a long wait at passport control, a long wait at this second security screening and a long walk between terminals, I wished I was back in Frankfurt.

    1. That’s not Philly’s fault -that’s everywhere in the US. When you fly into the US, you have to go through screening again before getting on another flight. But if you’ve already been screened in the US, you don’t need to go through screening again until you leave the secure area.

  26. Hello Brett. I am flying from Chicago to Algiers next month via Lufthansa and I have 8 hours lay off in Frankfurt. Is there any bus tour offered during the day to visit Frankfurt and some nice spots out there? Please assist me with this since this is the first time landing in Frankfurt.

  27. I just want to say about the Frankfurt airport security abuse. They use very sensitive scanner that detect metals in your bras. This give the “security” a good reason to grab you for all body parts, stick fingers inside your bra and even between the legs. When I was asked the reason for that detailed search, the “security” told me that my sweater has metal strips (it was actually decorative metal thread and there was NO metal strips on my pants). It was disgusting and humiliating. It makes me wonder: how many bombs airport securities have found in the passenger’s vagina so far? Or was it just sadistic sexual pleasure for some female security??

  28. On our outbound flight, finding food/ drink in the terminal was a nightmare- we walked miles end to end looking at long lines, closed food stands, and eventually had to wait in one for a crummy selection of sandwiches from a cranky checkout girl, and jostle for seats, same with bathrooms

    So minutes before we had to go to the gate, I went up some random empty stairs looking for a quicker bathroom, and found a very nice, huge, comfy lounge, with a bar, great menu, nice clean toilets- everything you need.. and not a single other person in the whole place!

    If there was a sign for this anywhere I didn’t see it, and neither did any of the thousands of people on the lower level.

    Anyway that’s my one tip for this airport- head upstairs and escape the crowd

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