World's best airports for stopovers, food, shopping, hotels and lounges named

Most travellers have a love-hate relationship with airports. We love going there, because it means there's a holiday happening, or at least an exciting trip to somewhere different. We hate being there, however, because most airports are soulless, expensive and uncomfortable.

You're constantly at someone else's mercy in an airport. The prices charged are the prices you'll have to pay. The transport options are non-negotiable. The long queues aren't going to change. The shops will always be the same.

I've spent countless hours wandering around airports thinking about how I could improve them, the facilities I would add, the annoyances I'd take away, to create my perfect terminal. And most of these ideas aren't wildly original or controversial – they've been stolen from various hubs around the world (many, admittedly, from Singapore Changi, which is as close to perfect as currently exists), cherry-picked to form my ideal Franken-airport, the sort of dream terminal from which I'd fly on every journey, given the choice.

Timelapse: Inside the world's best airport

A day in the life of Singapore's Changi Airport, one of the world's busiest, portrayed in a stunning timelapse. Video: Changi Airport Group

It's all about putting the customer first. It's about creature comforts, and culture, and leisure, and taking the things that make travel great and amplifying them, while taking the things that make travel horrible and limiting their influence.

So take note, Kingsford-Smith. Listen up, Tullamarine. These are the elements required for airport perfection.

THE LEISURE FACILITIES

THE AIRPORT Munich International Airport, Germany

WHY WE LOVE IT I don't think I'm alone in wanting to actually do something when I'm at an airport, rather than just sit around. I'd hit golf balls if there were a little driving range. I'd play putt-putt. Or, if I was at Munich Airport in August, I'd go surfing on the stationary wave that's set up – and open to the public – in the Munich Airport Centre. Or I'd have a go on the four-storey-high slide at Singapore Changi.

ONE MORE THING There's much more to love about Munich Airport, including a clean, simple layout, great dining and shopping facilities, and even a Christmas market every December.

ESSENTIALS Munich International is 35 kilometres north of the city, and can be reached by S-Bahn train in 40 minutes. See munich-airport.de/en

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See: Why Munich International is as good as Changi

THE POWER POINTS

THE AIRPORT Hamad International, Doha, Qatar

WHY WE LOVE IT Pretty much any traveller on a long journey will need to charge something at the airport: a phone, a laptop, a tablet. And few airports have outlets from which to do that. Hamad International in Doha, meanwhile, is a fancy looking airport with surprisingly few useful facilities, except that it has many power points – under the counters in the food court, set into the chairs in the waiting areas – designed for use by the public, which is a true boon in the modern age.

ONE MORE THING Regardless of which airport you're in, there are tricks to finding power points. Check around kiosks and shops, or on structural pillars, under a television, or at a gate that's not in use.

ESSENTIALS Hamad International is 15 kilometres from central Doha, and can be reached by taxi or bus. See dohahamadinternational.com

THE ROOFTOP POOL

THE AIRPORT Changi Airport, Singapore

WHY WE LOVE IT Every airport should have a pool. Singapore Changi will be mentioned often in this story, because it is a phenomenally good airport. It has plenty of facilities designed for leisure and relaxing – there are massage therapists, an orchid garden, a cinema, games rooms, and even a butterfly garden through which stressed-out fliers can stroll – but it's the rooftop pool that takes the cake. Sunshine and swimming: that's what stopovers should be about.

ONE MORE THING Seoul's Incheon Airport also has some great leisure facilities, including an ice-skating rink, and a golf driving range.

ESSENTIALS Changi is 25 kilometres from downtown Singapore, and can be reached by taxi or public transport. See changiairport.com

THE PUBLIC TRANSPORT ACCESS

THE AIRPORT Pudong International Airport, Shanghai, China

WHY WE LOVE IT It's about 30 kilometres from downtown Shanghai to Pudong International Airport – however, travellers can cover that distance in eight minutes thanks to the Maglev train, which hits speeds of 431km/h as it whisks passengers to the terminal. Sure beats sitting in traffic for hours.

ONE MORE THING Hong Kong, too, deserves a special mention, given you can check in for your flight from the train station at Central, and there's a similar system for Zurich Airport, where passengers flying Swiss Air can check their bags in from any train station in Switzerland.

ESSENTIALS Pudong is 30 kilometres from Shanghai, and can be reached by Maglev, Shanghai Metro, or by taxi. See en.shairport.com.

THE AUTHENTIC LOCAL FOOD

THE AIRPORT Changi, Singapore

WHY WE LOVE IT This shouldn't be difficult for airports to understand: even if travellers are just passing through, they want to sample the local culture. And what easier and more enjoyable way to do that than with food? Singapore Changi does this perfectly with its replica hawker centre, where hungry travellers can grab traditional Hainanese chicken rice, char kwai teow or Singapore chilli crab before their next flight.

ONE MORE THING The new Tom Bradley terminal at LAX is also good for local food, with several Los Angeles restaurants represented. San Francisco, too, has a Napa Farms outlet with plenty of local produce.

ESSENTIALS Changi is 25 kilometres from downtown Singapore, and can be reached by taxi or public transport.

THE LOUNGE FACILITIES

THE AIRPORT Kingsford Smith Airport, Sydney

WHY WE LOVE IT In the perfect airport you would without doubt have access to somewhere like the Qantas First Lounge at Sydney Kingsford Smith, where well-heeled or just extremely lucky travellers can luxuriate in a full sit-down restaurant that's absolutely free, plus a day spa, and private suites for meetings or relaxing. If we're talking business class, then the Cathay Pacific lounges in Hong Kong – which include showers and a dumpling and noodle bar – would have to be up there.

ONE MORE THING Recent upgrades to domestic and international terminals in Sydney have been a welcome improvement; however, the lack of a decent connection between the two terminals is an appalling oversight.

ESSENTIALS Kingsford Smith is eight kilometres from Sydney CBD, accessible by taxi or train. See sydneyairport.com.au

THE AFFORDABLE SHOPPING

THE AIRPORT Changi, Singapore

Airports love spruiking the fact that they have all these fancy, high-end stores, the likes of Gucci, Prada and Hermes, but how many people can afford to shop at those places? The perfect airport would surely feature a few stores you can actually buy something from. And of course, Changi has got it right. In Singapore you can visit the aforementioned luxury boutiques, but you can also call into Uniqlo, Cotton On, or Zara.

ONE MORE THING London Heathrow also offers surprisingly affordable shopping, with the likes of Boots, John Lewis and M&S represented.

ESSENTIALS Changi is 25 kilometres from downtown Singapore, and can be reached by taxi or public transport.

THE STUNNING SCENERY

THE AIRPORT Queenstown Airport, Queenstown, New Zealand

Travellers disembarking at Queenstown Airport will find themselves immediately surrounded by stunning natural beauty: the Remarkables mountain range towering over one horizon, Coronet Peak poking its snowy cap above the other, with grassy hills and sparkling Lake Wakatipu nearby. If only all airports had such lovely locales, travel would be a breeze.

ONE MORE THING Make sure you reserve a window seat if you're flying into Aspen airport, or Nice, or Rio de Janeiro, or Male in the Maldives – the views are stunning.

ESSENTIALS Queenstown Airport is seven kilometres from Queenstown, accessible by hire car or taxi. See queenstownairport.co.nz

THE LOCAL CULTURE

THE AIRPORT Incheon International Airport, Seoul, Korea

WHY WE LOVE IT It's nice that while you're experiencing the bad part of travelling – hanging around in an airport – you can also enjoy the good part of travelling – checking out another country's culture. Seoul Incheon Airport houses both the Korean Cultural Experience and the Korean Culture Museum, where travellers can make Korean crafts, or watch a dance performance, or check out thousand-year-old art works. Better than another lap around duty free.

ONE MORE THING Speaking of local culture, at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas travellers can play the pokies while waiting for their flight. Just saying.

ESSENTIALS Incheon Airport is 50 kilometres from Seoul, and can be accessed by train, bus or taxi. See seoul-airport.com

THE NICE PLACE FOR A DRINK

THE AIRPORT Hartsfield Jackson Airport, Atlanta, US

WHY WE LOVE IT Many overpriced bars in airport terminals are about as character-filled as, well, airport terminals. At Hartsfield Jackson Airport in Atlanta, however, you've got One Flew South, a cocktail and wine bar that's as good as any you would find in the city.. Maybe better.

ONE MORE THING Munich Airport, meanwhile, features a proper German beer garden, called Airbrau. Zurich Airport, New York's JFK, and, of course, Changi, also have great places to drink away your stopover.

ESSENTIALS Hartsfield Jackson is 15 kilometres from Atlanta, and is accessible by taxi or train. See atl.com

THE PUBLIC ARTWORK

THE AIRPORT Los Angeles International, US

WHY WE LOVE IT While the bulk of LAX is a soulless hellhole, the Tom Bradley Terminal, from which most flights to Australia now depart, is surprisingly pleasant, not least because of the huge walls of video art that hang over the main hall. The terminal also hosts an array of shops, and some of the world's best lounges. If you're flying to the US, this is a great option.

ONE MORE THING Hamad International in Doha, San Francisco International, Schiphol in Amsterdam, and, of course, Singapore Changi, also have some great public art work to stare at while you wait forever for your flight.

ESSENTIALS LAX is about 20 kilometres from Hollywood, and is best accessed by taxi or private car. See lawa.org

THE AFFORDABLE AIRPORT HOTEL

THE AIRPORT Changi, Singapore

WHY WE LOVE IT Not only does Changi have three transit hotels, with rooms that can be rented out in six-hour blocks for about $60 each, but it also has two "snooze lounges", a "sanctuary lounge" and an "oasis lounge" in the main concourse. Some people's houses aren't that comfortable.

ONE MORE THING Some of the world's best airport hotels, as awarded by review website Skytrax, include the Regal in Hong Kong, the Hilton in Munich, the Pullman in Guangzhou, and the Sofitel at London Heathrow.

ESSENTIALS Changi is 25 kilometres from downtown Singapore, and can be reached by taxi or public transport.

IT'S TERMINAL: FIVE OF THE MOST IMPERFECT AIRPORTS

LONDON LUTON, UK

The glaring issue with London Luton is that the airport is not in London at all – it's about an hour out of the city by train, a journey that will probably cost as much, and take the same amount of time, as the flight itself. The airport is also notorious for long queues and some particularly shameless price-gouging.

LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL, US

The Tom Bradley Terminal is a shining beacon of modernity in this otherwise chaotic and largely substandard airport, where passengers have to walk miles to change terminals, and are forced to sit in cramped spaces with limited food and drink choices and patchy Wi-Fi

NADI INTERNATIONAL, FIJI

Fiji has designs on being a genuine stopover hub between the US and Australia, but will have to do far better with its airport if it hopes to achieve that aim. Nadi International has a couple of dodgy restaurants, a tiny duty free, and fairly questionable airconditioning. And that's about it.

GUANGZHOU INTERNATIONAL, CHINA

Nothing makes you want to get out of Guangzhou quite like Guangzhou International. This increasingly busy hub is becoming notorious for its overcrowding, disorganisation, and lack of anywhere to sit. Travellers can, however, pay extra to use the lounges, which is something.

LAGUARDIA INTERNATIONAL, NEW YORK, US

Though few US airports provide an experience that could be classed as enjoyable, New York's LaGuardia takes things to new lows, with constant overcrowding, a roof that routinely leaks, terrible food options, and the general feeling that you've suddenly been transported to a Third World country.

THE REAL AIRBNBS: THE PERFECT AIRPORT HOTEL

LOCATION

The world's best airport hotels are right next to the airport, if not inside. We're talking no taxis, no shuttle buses – just a short walk. The Crowne Plaza at Changi, recently named the world's best airport hotel by Skytrax, certainly fits this description, with a walking bridge connecting it to the terminal. See crowneplaza.com/Singapore

PRICE

It's nice not to have to spend too much money on your stopover, which is where the Pullman at Guangzhou Baiyun Airport comes in. The hotel, as well as offering plenty of comfort in five-star surrounds, has rooms starting from $140 a night. See accorhotels.com

AMENITIES

As well as being walking distance from the terminal, and reasonably priced, the Grand Hyatt at Dallas Fort Worth airport has an outdoor pool, a day spa, a fitness centre, and special access to DFW's Terminal D, meaning hotel guests can dine at any of the airport's restaurants, plus shop at the boutiques. See dfw.grand.hyatt.com

FLEXIBILITY

There's nothing worse than having to pay for an entire night at a hotel when you're going to be there for only five or six hours. That's not an issue at Singapore Changi's Ambassador Transit Hotel, however, where travellers can rent a single room with ensuite in a six-hour block for $65. See harilelahospitality.com

COMFORT

After a long flight, all you really want is the comfort of your own bed. Failing that, however, an extremely comfy hotel bed will do, which is where the new Pullman Hotel at Sydney Airport shines. The fit-out is fancy and the staff are great – but really, it's all about that bed. See accorhotels.com

JUST PASSING THROUGH: THE PERFECT STOPOVERS

EASY ACCESS

Best bet: Hong Kong

Though Hong Kong's international airport is about 35 kilometres from the city centre, its high-speed rail access makes it a breeze for short stays. The Airport Express takes 24 minutes and costs $18 return. Departing passengers can check their luggage in at Central train station then spend the day wandering around the city bag-free – another huge bonus for those on a stopover.

AFFORDABILITY

Best bet: Bangkok

On a stopover you're there for a good time, not a long time, so ideally you want to do as much as possible in a short time, without blowing the holiday budget. Enter Bangkok, where a night in a four-star hotel will cost about $80, a belt-loosening extravaganza of a meal will cost about $5 (particularly if you're eating street food), and even transport is unlikely to set you back more than a few dollars a ride.

GREAT FOOD

BEST BET: KUALA LUMPUR

Even a short stopover is time enough to fill yourself with many of Malaysia's tasty gastronomic delights. Kuala Lumpur is a city obsessed with food, the sort of place where hungry travellers can feast on roti chanai (flaky bread with curry sauce), or nasi lemak (rice with sambal, egg and fried fish), or mee goring (fried noodles), or just about any spicy, delicious dish you can think of at open-air hawker centres such as Jalan Alor.

ROUND-THE-CLOCK LIFESTYLE

BEST BET: TOKYO

There's no time to waste on a stopover – you want to get as much out of this experience as you can, which means using every hour of the day. And night. In Tokyo there's so much to do, even in the wee small hours. Drink whisky in a smoky bar. Hit baseballs at a batting cage. Flip through manga books at a comic store. Play arcade games. Eat great food at cozy izakayas. In fact the only thing you can't do in the middle of the night in Tokyo is catch a train.

MULTIPLE FLIGHTS

BEST BET: DUBAI

The truly great stopover cities offer travellers a huge array of options for their onward flights. And Dubai, thanks to Emirates Airline's enormous coverage of the world, has exactly that. At this Middle Eastern hub you can take a break for a few days before flying to, say, one of six cities in the UK alone, or 30 more destinations in Europe, or even 24 cities in Africa. The world really is your oyster.

SLICE OF PARADISE

BEST BET: HONOLULU

Though there are some that consider an Asian hawker centre and a whole lot of good bars as their idea of paradise, for others it's something more traditional: white-sand beaches, warm water, palm trees, cocktails in coconuts, and a sense that time just doesn't matter any more. For the latter group, there's only one place you need to be stopping over on your next trip to mainland US: Hawaii. The only downside is leaving.

SHOPPING OPTIONS

BEST BET: SINGAPORE

Whatever it is you desire, there's a fairly good chance you can buy it in Singapore. This is a city that loves to shop, whether it's bargain-hunting at small local markets, or window-shopping for luxury brands at huge airconditioned malls. And you know, this being Singapore, that whenever your legs start to tire and your stomach starts grumbling, there will be some good food around to keep you going.

About the writer

During 10 years as a travel writer, Ben Groundwater has seen, and endured, his fair share of airports. His favourite hub is Singapore Changi, closely followed by Hong Kong International, while his most despised include LaGuardia, any London airport, and the "Low-Cost Carrier Terminal" in Kuala Lumpur. Groundwater's ideal way to waste time at an airport is to people-watch, usually while consuming junk food (which doesn't count if it's eaten at an airport). Read more stories by Ben Groundwater

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