Navigating the big, beautiful, bright, and always efficient Madrid Barajas Airport

We've been putting together a brief guide to Madrid, one of our very favorite cities, over the last several months. The spectacular city case for Madrid, Spain, Part 1: Plazas, restaurants, and the best spots to visit and Madrid, Spain: Getting there, getting around, and where to stay began our series. Today we're continuing the "getting there" theme with specific advice for navigating the sprawling Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport (MAD), not just the gateway to the Spanish capital and the European Unions's third largest city, but an architecturally stunning feat that we think is one of the best airports through which to travel.

MAD is great for ease of access via public transportation, consistently speedy passport and customs operations, immense open spaces that ensure efficient people movement and room to move about, presence of the Iberia airlines hub that makes the airport highly interconnected with destinations served by sister company British Airways and OneWorld partner American Airlines, and of course the beautifully sweeping architecture you'll find particularly in Terminal 4. Its primary downside is the navigational complexity that one might expect from any airport that features one of the world's largest terminals by physical space.

The airport consists of four terminals numbered 1-4, with Iberia and all of its OneWorld partner airlines occupying Terminal 4 (T4) and the satellite (T4S) which is connected to T4 by underground point-to-point rail. Terminals 1-3 account for all of the other airlines, physically disconnected from T4 by a surprising 2 mi / 3.2 km. Given its size and dominance for the big international routes, we're going to focus our discussion exclusively on T4, so if you're not flying Iberia.

Getting to and from

I recommend getting to and from the airport using either the Madrid Metro's line 8 (pink), or the Cercanías commuter rail service of which both have stations that lead directly to and from T4. Consult a map to determine which you should choose based on where you're staying in the city, but we generally prefer Cercanías because it deposits you directly at the city's main railways station, Atocha. Metro line 8 will generally force you to make at least one station transfer to get to where you are want to go. You can easily follow signs to both from within the terminal. Click here for a bit more insight into the Madrid train system.

Moving about once inside

I've mentioned physical size several times, and I can't overstate how much this impacts your experience. For example, if you're taking off from one of the boarding gates in T4S (the H, J, K, M, R, S, and U gates) -- a common experience for me -- you're going to go (in order, this is useful) from check-in to baggage security screening to train to passport control to gates, a process that could take you 45 minutes despite the fact that you're likely to only devote about 27 seconds of that time to the (usually) obscenely efficient passport control. The bottom line is to allocate plenty of time not because you'll be waiting and queuing very much, but because you're going to do a lot of walking. Do not be discouraged or necessarily think yourself lost as you find yourself snaking up and down escalators and through the labyrinth passageways; follow the clear signs and you will win in the end.

That said, the place is a cathedral to modern architecture, characterized by sweeping wood-lined ceilings and towering crystal clear windows that bathe the concourse in beautiful light from dawn until dusk. There are some cool details here, one of my favorites being that the structural pylons that support the ceiling from the floor are painted in subtle gradient colors, so the color palate changes very gradually from one end of the long terminal to the other. You'll be walking about it lovely surroundings.

Relaxing in the T4S Iberia lounge

We're big fans of airport lounges, particularly on international travel when arriving with plenty of time to spare is wise. Iberia's lounge in T4S is accessible to (among others) passengers with OneWorld Emerald or Sapphire status flying on a OneWorld flight that day, so my American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum gets me through just showing my boarding pass. The front door is a bit tricky to find if you're not careful because it is right in the middle of the duty free shopping area... like entering a hotel or upscale restaurant directly from a mall. Just be on the lookout.

You'll see why this is one of my favorite lounges once you are inside: big windows through which to watch airfield operations, a buffet with a plethora of decent food options, wine, and an all-you-can-drink supply of Fanta Límon (my favorite soda, incidentally not available in the U.S. so I'm happy to get my kicks in the lounge before departure). This is a worthwhile detail regardless of any weird carbonated sugar water fetishes you may or may not have.

Airlines and destinations

Iberia and its regional affiliates moved over 21 million passengers through the airport in 2016 (that's almost 42% of the over 50 million total annual passengers). Sister company British Airways and partner American Airlines picked up another 1.1 million+ between them, and that accounts for none of the other OneWorld partners that effectively mean T4 / T4S route at least half of the entire passenger load. Passengers to and from the United States fly from Dallas / Fort Worth, Miami, New York JFK, Philadelphia (and possibly Charlotte, though we've never been able to find an actual ticket to and from here) on American, Newark and Washington-Dulles on United Airlines, and Atlanta and New York JFK on Delta. Iberia itself flies direct to Boston, Chicago O'Hare, Miami, New York JFK, and Los Angeles, while Air Canada also makes a good option given its ubiquity in the U.S. via its hub in Toronto. Competition tends to make JFK the most cost effective jumping off point between the United State and Madrid.

There are, otherwise, a plethora of great options for direct flights within Europe and around the world. We're currently eying a $27 ticket from MAD to Bordeaux, France, later this year. More to follow on that.

Bottom line

Madrid ties with Washington National as my favorite airport, so I approach this with a bit of bias. That said, it's your obvious gateway to the Iberian Peninsula, and makes a great entry point to Europe in general. It also happens to be both efficient and beautifully designed, and always makes for a pleasant travel experience if you build in the time it will take to walk from point to point.