McCarran’s Terminal 3: Where’s the Vegas?

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Terminal 3 (housing the E Concourse) at Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport opened this summer to much fanfare in the press. Everyone oohed and ahhed over the slick new technology, like self-check baggage kiosks and self-scanning ticket machines at the gates—all ostensibly designed to speed processes along. When I realized that my September flights would likely land and take off from the new terminal, I was excited to finally get a firsthand look at this new wonder. What a disappointment that was.

McCarran Terminal 3

Really? ‘Cause I’m not feeling it.

When my plane landed, and I stepped into the airport, I was disoriented. Did we accidentally fly into Las Vegas, New Mexico instead of Las Vegas, Nevada? Where was the sound of slot machines that always used to greet me, filling me with the excitement of knowing I was in “Vegas, baby”? Where were the ads for all the shows around town, filling me with the endless possibilities for how to spend my evenings on the town? Where were the long, long corridors of boutique shops and restaurants and all their shiny objects to entertain me during the walk to baggage claim?

It was as quiet as a library. I suspect there was a stern woman lurking behind a desk somewhere occasionally telling people “shush” and “For God’s sake, no fun is allowed in here!” The airport has taken away everything I loved about it, leaving me with a bland, de-themed terminal that could exist in any airport in any city in the world. Thanks for sucking the joy out of the Vegas airport experience for me, McCarran.

Terminal 3 Slot Machines

Lonely little slot machines in Terminal 3

Terminal 3, as you might imagine, was built to expand the airport and its capacity as well as upgrade facilities. Technically speaking, the airport accomplished what it set out to do. Terminal 3 has 14 gates, including 7 international. The concourse is 2300 feet long. There are plenty of electrical outlets and free wifi.

Terminal 3 is self-contained with its own baggage claim and taxi stand, so you no longer have to take a tram to the main building to get your luggage. It is efficient, if my experience was anything to go by. The security and taxi lines are not as long, so they move quicker. You can get in and out a lot faster. Of course, you’ll want to, because there’s little of interest to keep you here.

The dining choices are nothing to write home about—mostly counter service joints. (At the time, the only coffee joint was a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf shop with terrible coffee and worse service. This may have been replaced by a Starbucks; I can only hope.) And there are just a handful of shops (including 3 Hudson News outlets), an XpresSpa where you can get a 20 minute chair massage (in full view of everyone in the Terminal, ’cause that’s not awkward) and a shoe shine place. There’s no fear of blowing your casino winnings on a shopping spree at the airport, that’s for sure.

Terminal 3

Lackluster dining choices at Terminal 3

The airport website indicates there are 300 slot machines in Terminal 3, but I only saw a small room with machines that I suspect was also the smoking lounge and a couple of lonely little banks in the outer concourse. The concourse itself is vast and empty and cavernous. It exudes no warmth whatsoever.

Look, Terminal 3 may have technology out the wazoo and be all streamlined and efficient in moving people to and fro, but that’s not all the airport experience should be. It should offer a microcosm of the city it belongs to. I want to feel like I’m in Las Vegas the minute I step off the plane and I want to drag out my Las Vegas experience right up until I board my plane home.

I want to have a full table service breakfast, a Starbucks iced coffee and one last spin on the slot machines before I leave. I might like to get a chair massage, but certainly not where everyone walking by can watch me. I want to look around me and see people having fun. I want to be able to kill an hour roaming through multiple little shops full of kitschy Vegas memorabilia that I would never actually buy but secretly find amusing. It’s not that these elements don’t exist in Terminal 3; but the variety and abundance is currently lacking.

Terminal 3

Does this look like a place you’d want to spend time?

On the positive side, there is more than enough room in this terminal to add more restaurants, bars, slot machines, shops, and other diversions. It’s just a matter of whether or not they will. Until and unless they do, those of us who have to fly in and out of Terminal 3 will just have to start and end our Las Vegas experiences in our hotel lobbies.

Have you flown through Terminal 3 yet? What did you think of it?

32 thoughts on “McCarran’s Terminal 3: Where’s the Vegas?

  1. Hetz

    I totally agree. I caught a shuttle over to Term 3 to meet up with a friend. The baggage claim area was empty with only a few people passing through to pick up luggage. I felt sorry for the slot change lady sitting all by herself. No one was playing the dozen or so slots that had been placed there.

    1. Gray

      Yeah, the baggage claim area is pretty sad, too, Hetz. It really made me want to get out of there as quickly as possible. Maybe that’s their point?

      1. Rick Althouse

        As a resident of the city, I LOVE terminal 3. I cannot believe people are complaining because there ISN’T a crowd at the airport. Yep, terminal three is quieter, the parking is better, you can spot your luggage easily…what on EARTH is bad about that??

        1. Gray Cargill Post author

          Yeah, I agree with you now, Rick. (This is an old post.) The first time I flew through Terminal 3, the lack of Vegas pizzazz really threw me off. But on later trips, I grew to appreciate how quiet it was, especially on the return home.

  2. Dave

    I am also a bit bummed by the lack of Vegasness in Terminal 3, but the lower crowd levels and increased speed and efficiency of the various lines (security, baggage claim, taxi) more than makes up for it for me. It’s not a bad thing for me to have the airport as a buffer zone between Reality and Vegasland. Arriving, it means that I get to enjoy the transition slowly (ok, this is the airport with slot machines … now there’s the freakishly long taxi line … oooh, look, the Strip … and here we are at the hotel!). Departing for home, it’s like a gradual detox.

    I wouldn’t mind a better variety of stores, though.

  3. Nate

    I find it a little disturbing how Vegas seems like it’s more and more ashamed to be Vegas. It’s like someone high up is appalled by the idea of kitsch and determined to turn the city into a modern art display instead, completely overlooking the fact that kitsch is part of the fun! I was particularly disappointing to see this happen to the airport, since I always counted the incredibly vibrant atmosphere there as part of my Vegas experience. Now, like you pointed out, it’s just another cold, nondescript terminal that looks like every other airport terminal.

    On a side note, I’ve seen those public massages on the Strip as well, and I never got the appeal. It’s awkward enough in a private room, but having your head stuck in tiny hole while hundreds of people walk by and stare at you sounds like some kind of medieval torture. Maybe I’m just not enough of an exhibitionist?

    1. Gray

      I couldn’t have said it better myself, Nate. This is another example of de-themeing Las Vegas, just like so many of the Strip hotels have been trying to de-theme themselves. Love this: “having your head stuck in tiny hole while hundreds of people walk by and stare at you sounds like some kind of medieval torture.” LOL! Yes, yes it does.

  4. Abby

    I felt sooooo strange at Terminal 3’s baggage claim! It was so sterile, and there were so few people that I almost worried for my safety. Also, United about did me in. They make you check in at Terminal 3 — but then walk over to Terminal 1 anyway. That time, I had all of my luggage and was sweating by the time I got to my gate. Excellent post!

    1. JoAnna

      I think some of the United flights are out of Terminal 3 and some are out of Terminal 1. What is confusing is that some of the codeshare flights are the ones out of Terminal 1, but you don’t realize they’re United until you go to check in and you’re in the wrong terminal. They should put a couple more of the piddly regional airlines out at Terminal 3 and put United back in Terminal 1 to alleviate that confusion.

  5. Bick

    I visited over Christmas w/ my wife and two adult(still single) daughters.
    Didn’t go thru Term3, but had to chuckle about you’re slot sounds.
    I always whisper to my wife as we’re walking up the jetway, sssshhhhhh…….
    …..”hear that ?”…………”SLOT MACHINES !!”……..”yessssssssssss !!!”
    “I gotta stop and play” !!!! And I always love watching her roll her eyes at me. Well this time I was walking next to one of my daughters, and when
    I whispered the same thing to her, she said “hear what ?”
    And she was right. There were no slots to be heard. They have them
    tuned down so low. Not to mention the long lost sound of dropping quarters. I sooooo miss sooooo many things about Vegas.
    Also, the Christmas decorations were AWESOME !

    1. Gray

      Hi, Bick! Yeah, I miss that sound, too. I’ve noticed slot machines often have the electronic “coins dropping” sound when you win, but it’s not really the same, is it? Yay, I’m glad to hear the Christmas decorations were great this year though!

  6. Hardware

    Flew Sun Country into terminal 3 this past Halloween. Having flown there many times, it wasn’t lost upon me that I was in a different part of the airport than I was familiar with. I didn’t give it much thought, but yes, it was rather bland (and less congested) than I am use to.

    Arriving on a Sunday afternoon, I was stunned by how quick we were able to go from gate to baggage claim, and how quickly we were heading toward the car rental center.

    We left ourselves with time to spare on our return trip Saturday morning, so I had more time to partake in airport amenities, but wasn’t particularly interested.

    Yes, terminal 3 lacks the Vegas look and feel, but I don’t care. I’ll take quick and efficient every time.

    Delta is the dominant airline at MSP (which is the former home of the consolidated Northwest Airlines). Sun Country operates out of a smaller terminal here, too, and that means less amenities as well. But the next time I have to book a ticket to Vegas, if it comes down to a choice between Delta and Sun Country for the same money, (the two are usually comparable in pricing), I’ll choose Sun Country for the efficiency on both ends.

    1. Gray

      There’s something to be said for efficiency, certainly, Hardware. I think Vegas-based business travelers, especially, might find Terminal 3 appealing for that reason. Unfortunately, I’m one of those travelers who always shows up to the airport 2 hours ahead of time (like they advise), “just in case” and so if the lines are too efficient, I’m stuck with a looooot of time on my hands.

  7. Brian

    T3’s baggage claim area needs to have its ceiling raised by a few feet. It definitely lacks the ambiance and excitement of the T1 baggage claim.

    Head on over to T2 if T3 isn’t doing it for you. More crowds there, and I think the facilities are just as nice.

    What really blows my mind is how un-busy (relatively speaking) the outdoor taxi area of T3 is. I wondered if I was in the right city the first time I walked out there.

    Another gripe, getting from T1 to T2 gate areas without official TSA intervention is apparently unpossible, which makes no sense at all, as I’m not sure what they’re trying to accomplish by locking the door in between the T2 tram service and the T1.

    1. Gray

      I agree, Brian, the taxi line is a world apart from T1. Hmm…I haven’t tried to get from T1 to T2 yet, so haven’t run into that problem. Sounds annoying.

  8. Marc

    Unfortunately this is the new Vegas. My friends in from NJ commented how dead it was in there and like everyone mentioned very un-vegas.

    I loved it for an airport run…no traffic and no cops yelling at me to move. 🙂

  9. Craig H

    I like the new terminal for it’s lack of crowds and size compared to the other large terminal. Once I found that the shuttle bus desks are inside here , as opposed to outside at T1, I was well on my way to having fun.
    Didn’t mind that most of the shops / restaurants were closed well before my 11:30pm redeye flight was departing because it’s the same way at the other terminal , so this was nothing different. I always take the redeye home.
    Washroom facilities are more plentiful at this new terminal also.
    Security and check-in were much faster.
    No complaints here.

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  11. Matt

    I think this post misses out on the essential point that Terminal 3 is a huge improvement over the old Terminal 2, which T3 essentially replaces.

    I’m not sure if you ever flew in/out of the old Terminal 2 (used for international & charter flights) but if you had, I don’t think you’d be complaining about the amenities at the new Terminal.

    I flew in/out of terminal 3 recently, when flying to London with BA, and was super impressed. I don’t see how anybody can debate that the new terminal is anything but a huge upgrade over the old Terminal 2 for international travelers. The facilities, restaurants, and duty free are so much better. Not sure when you flew but I’m almost certain that there is now a Starbucks.

    As a local I liked the lack of crowds and would fly with a domestic carrier that utilities T3 just so I can avoid the crowds at Terminal 1. Anything that makes travel faster is a good thing, in my opinion. I can agree that checking in at Terminal 3 if you are flying from Terminal 1 is ridiculous.

    1. Gray

      Hi, Matt, Thanks for speaking up on behalf of the international travelers! I am a domestic traveler and I’ve only ever flown out of Terminal 1. I certainly don’t have a problem with facilities being upgraded for those that needed it, but having only flown out of Terminal 1, this is not a step up for me. I’m glad it’s a step up for international travelers, though. Thanks for the news about the Starbucks, I’m very glad to hear that!

  12. Candace

    I totally agree! And I especially like what Nate said about Vegas being ashamed to be Vegas! Well put!!! We all go to Vegas for one reason. When I get off that plane I am ready for my vacation to begin and the excitement of Vegas, not serene surroundings and hushed silence! From Seattle I have two airlines to choose from to travel to Vegas, Alaska and Southwest, and with Alaska now in terminal 3, I will always fly Southwest!!! (Hear that Alaska??)

  13. RAYMOND

    I AGREE THAT T3 IS RATHER BLAND COMPARED TO T1 BUT I LIKE THE FACT THAT T3 IS EASIER TO GET OUT OF. I FLY OUT OF CLEVELAND EVERY YEAR IN APRIL AND OCTOBER ON UNITED AND NEVER HAVE ANY PROBLEMS. I’M NOT SURE WHAT JOANNA WAS EXPERIENCING WITH HER UNITED FLIGHT. ALL UNITED FLIGHTS ARRIVE AND DEPART OUT OF THE D GATES – THE ONLY DIFFERENCE NOW IS THAT YOU CHECK IN AT T3 INSTEAD OF CHECKING IN AT T1 AS IN THE PAST. IT’S A SNAP TO GRAB MY LUGGAGE AND HEAD OUTSIDE TO CATCH A RENTAL CAR SHUTTLE. I JUST WISH T3 HAD BETTER STORES AND PTS. OF INTEREST.

    1. Gray

      Glad you find it more convenient, Raymond. I’m sure you’re the type of traveler McCarran was aiming for with these changes.

  14. C

    Yes, I have flown out of terminal 3, and it was just blah. The other terminal namely the D gates concourse is so much better. Terminal 3 needs better food choices and a more Vegas atmosphere!

    1. Gray Cargill Post author

      C – I’ve come to appreciate the relative quiet and lack of crowds in Terminal 3 over my past couple of trips, but I still agree with you on the lack of good food choices (and things to do while waiting for your plane).

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