There's plenty about an airport you can tweak to give yourself a better travel experience.
Airport terminals are the backdrop for just about every human emotion you can name. Anticipation, frustration, alarm, rage, panic, joy, boredom – airports see it all, every day, but the emotion that I feel most is amazement. The International Air Transport Association says about 8 million people travel on a commercial flight daily. That's about 6 billion passenger movements through the world's airports in a year, once on the way in and once on the way out for every flight. When you consider that all but a minuscule number of those passengers will pass through these airports without incident, and that both they and their baggage will most likely arrive safely at another airport that might be half a world away, well, that's amazing.
We fixate on the highs or lows of our chosen airline – the cabin service, the food, the leg room, the on-board video system, the behaviour of our fellow passengers. These are things we cannot easily change, but there's plenty about an airport you can tweak to give yourself a better travel experience. The ease with which we manage arrival at the terminal and passage through security, our choice of food and beverage, what we might buy from the duty-free shops if it's an international flight, where we might choose for a stopover on a long-haul journey – these are all decisions we make for better or for worse.
From far too many hours spent in airport terminals, here are some tried and tested strategies to fine-tune your terminal time.
ARRIVAL AT THE AIRPORT
Before you leave for the airport check that your flight is departing on schedule, no point being there if not. Airlines recommend you arrive to the airport three hours before an international flight but that's usually excessive. If it's a flight from Sydney, my local international, I plan to get there two hours before. If it's an overseas airport I'll take advice at my hotel. Hotel staff are typically conservative in their estimation of travel time and time to get through check-in, immigration and security. Take their advice as a worst-case scenario. If I'm on a domestic flight at an overseas port I aim to arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes before flight time.
But there are exceptions: If you're wrangling kids give yourself another half hour.
If you're returning a hire car to an unfamiliar airport add another 30 minutes. You'll probably need to refuel the vehicle and finding a filling station close to the airport can be nerve-wracking. Also, tracking down the car hire return can mean several loops around the terminal, they're often not well sign-posted.
If your airline allows internet check-in do it, that queue at the check-in desk is always shorter.
If it's a third-world airport there's a fair chance you might have to show a copy of your flight details to a military guard stationed at the door of the airport. You need it on paper. An itinerary on your smartphone or tablet might not cut it. Be prepared, you'll have a hard time getting in if you don't have it handy.
It is becoming common or airports around the world to offer a baggage wrap service. Your check-in bag is placed on a machine which cocoons it in several layers of clingy see-through plastic. It's cheap, and the purpose is to deter would-be thieves who might pilfer your luggage once it disappears from sight – (sadly locks are no barrier). The wrap also offers an extra layer of protection for your bags. Any tampering would be immediately apparent when you retrieve your bag. Some travellers maintain this is a complete waste of time, but they're probably ones who have never had anything go missing from their luggage. There are airports in the world where you should definitely have your bag wrapped, and that can apply to your destination airport as well as the one you're departing from. If you see locals having their bags wrapped it's a good indication that you have reason to do the same.
Before you say sayonara to your baggage at the check-in desk, a colourful wraparound strap will help it stand out from the crowd on the baggage carousel at the other end.
BEST AIRPORT TO ARRIVE IN
My vote? Hong Kong. Frequent and efficient train service from the city and if you're flying out aboard a major airline you can check your bags in at Hong Kong and Kowloon stations up to 24 hours before flight time; see hongkongairport.com.
Economy class passengers without the right credit card or frequent flyer status that will open the door to a business-class lounge have another option in pay-for-use lounges. You can expect showers, buffet-style snacks and non-alcoholic drinks, coffee and tea, free Wi-Fi and quiet and comfortable seating. They vary enormously in quality, amenities and services so it pays to do your homework before you pay for access. Check reviews on Tripadvisor Lounge Buddy,or Sleeping in Airports. Lounge Buddy and Sleeping in Airports also allow you to buy lounge access in advance and this is usually cheaper than if you pay at the lounge door.
If you can, check how crowded the lounge is before you pay to enter. In a crowded lounge the buffet table might look like a plague of locusts has been through, you might not get a shower before your flight is called and seating is at a premium.
Access to these lounges usually comes with a time limit but even if you outstay your welcome the time limit is rarely enforced.
Some airline business class lounges also offer entry to economy class passengers on payment of a fee. These are usually a better option than other lounges that are open to all fee-paying travellers. To find out, locate the airline's website and check their lounge access policy.
For travellers who might travel economy class several times during a year, Priority Pass, gives you entry to more than 850 lounges around the globe. The standard plan costs $135 with an additional fee of $36 for each lounge visit, but a better deal is the standard plus plan – 10 free lounge visits for an annual fee of $340.
BEST PAY-FOR-USE AIRPORT LOUNGE
The Plaza Premium Lounge at London Heathrow's Terminal 2A – The Queen's Terminal – lifts the bar for user-pays airport lounges with its clubby, moody atmosphere, a wellness spa, a champers and tapas bar and a primo selection of food and drinks. The cost? US$57 for two hours, US$89 for five hours. Pricey but worth it. Step right this way Mr Bond.
AIRPORT TERMINAL HOTELS
The airport hotel is a great way to break up a journey, particularly for Australian travellers faced with a long-haul flight. Located within the airport terminal, they offer the tired traveller the chance to grab a few hours of quality sleep between flights straight off the plane, without having to pass through Customs and immigration.
These airside hotels are typically bland and facilities are minimal but they offer quiet, a comfortable bed, and a shower. You probably won't find dining facilities within the hotel but there are plenty of choices within the terminal.
Play your cards right and you can use your overnight stop to make your long-haul flight more bearable. For example if you choose Korea's Incheon Airport Transit Hotel, Singapore's Airport's Ambassador Transit Hotels or Bangkok Airport's Louis' Tavern Transit Hotel for your flopover en route to Europe, you could take a daytime flight out of Australia, grab several hours' overnight kip and board a morning flight to your destination. All your flying is done in daylight hours and you arrive in late afternoon or evening, which means you can check straight into your hotel, unlike so many Aussies who arrive in Europe at dawn.
Prepare for the experience with a change of underwear and socks, a fresh shirt or T-shirt and toiletries in your carry-ons.
Another option is sleeping pods, which are making an appearance at airports around the world. These offer quiet and comfort for travellers with several hours of layover time on their hands. At the upper end, you get a workstation and flat-screen TV plus a bed; in squeezier versions it's just the bed with a roll-top to give you some privacy. London's Gatwick and Heathrow, Amsterdam's Schiphol, Munich Airport, Moscow's Sheremetyevo, Dubai, Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport and Abu Dhabi have installed pods, with more airports set to join the podosphere.
BEST TERMINAL HOTEL
The Eaton Smart Transit Hotel in New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport offers smallish but crisp, well tailored rooms with a little more style than the average.
EATING AND DRINKING
Airline food might keep hunger at bay, but the human body was not designed to digest food in a cabin pressurised to 2000 metres. Nor is it ideally suited to digesting the food that most airlines serve their economy class passengers. Once you get on the aircraft you're at the mercy of airline catering, which makes eating pre-flight in the terminal a better option but you're going to be picky. You're going to walk past the fast food joints, past the delicious smells of hot chips and bacon wraps, past the doughnuts glistening with sugar and spice in that come-hither way. Because all this fatty, salty, sweet food is going to have consequences – none of them good.
There's some evidence to suggest that in combination with a cramped airline seat, a heavy, fatty meal inhibits blood flow, with a potential increase in the risk of deep vein thrombosis, which can cause severe damage to your brain, lungs or heart. There is also the issue of altitude-induced flatulence. Chow down on food with high saturated fats and even some vegetables such as onions, cauliflower, cabbage and that internal gas field, baked beans, and you might be well advised to steer clear of naked flames.
What you will prefer is fresh, raw and wholesome food. Lean protein is a wonderful filler-upper but choose protein that isn't crumbed, crusted or deep-fried, so no chicken nuggets. Almonds and cashews, preferably unsalted, are a great snack food. Fruit shakes are good if they contain yoghurt and no added sugar or honey. Herbal teas such as ginger and peppermint are soothing and a better choice than coffee.
BEST AIRPORT FOR EATING AND DRINKING
Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport takes gold in the food and beverage department. Bubbles Seafood and Wine Bar is a serious wine bar with an impressive range of Taittinger champagnes. There are also good seafood platters. The Harvest Market is good for all things fresh and natural, including Dutch cheeses; Juicy Details for fresh fruity drinks; the Park Cafe for eating on the sunny terrace and the East Bar for Asian-style small plate dining.
The recent downing of a Russian airliner over Egypt, most likely due to an explosive device placed in the cargo hold, has highlighted the vital role airports must perform if we are to travel safely in the skies.
You can only take bottles of liquids, aerosols and gels with a maximum capacity of 100 millilitres in your carry-ons. This should not come as a surprise, the rule has been in place for many years and it's well sign-posted. Those who wait until they're standing at the X-ray scanner to drink the water in their bottle create delays and annoy other passengers.
After the check-in desk but before I join the march-through for the security check, all my coins, keys, watch, phone and anything else in my pockets goes into a small zippered pouch, which disappears inside my carry-on bag. This avoids the scrabble at the X-ray conveyor belt to get everything into the tray, with the chance of losing something in the process. I once neglected to collect the key to my suitcase from the tray and the lock had to be sawn off in my Delhi hotel.
Laptops and tablets have large batteries that could be utilised in some mischief-causing device. Therefore they need to come out of their hiding holes while they pass through the X-ray scanner. Don't be surprised. You might be asked to remove your shoes and probably your belt as well.
Jackets, cardigans, jumpers and hats will need to be removed, placed in the trays and passed through the X-ray scanner. Full body scanners exist for a reason but they do get it wrong. My last flight out of Sydney the scanner identified my kneecap as an object of concern.
BEST AIRPORT FOR SECURITY
Changi Airport, Singapore. Robust, efficient and highly professional.
In most cases, buying duty-free electronics, cameras, bags or clothing means you'll dodge the Value Added Tax, or the GST in the case of Australia. Don't let lust get in the way of caution. With the decline in the value of the Australian dollar, these items are relatively inexpensive here compared with the rest of the world. Retail leases within airports come at enormous cost. They're so lucrative that some corporations have built airports free of charge in return for the right to own and operate the retail space within the terminal. In order to generate the income required to pay their rent, retailers must charge high prices. Before you shell out for that Nikon camera or iPad Pro make sure it is actually cheaper than back home.
Alcohol and tobacco products are another matter since the tax is typically much higher and therefore the saving on a bottle of duty-free whisky or carton of cigarettes is greater.
If you buy duty-free liquor and take it on board in your carry-on and you have another stop before landing in Australia, it will most likely be confiscated before you re-board the aircraft at your next stop. The Australian government requires that passengers on inbound aircraft are subject to a final gate inspection before boarding the aircraft.
Aerosols or gels in containers of more than 100ml will be confiscated, even if they're sealed inside a tamper-evident plastic bag with purchase documentation attached. This means you can kiss that bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild you bought in Paris goodbye because it won't be getting on the plane with you at Abu Dhabi. The best idea is to buy your booze at your last stop before Australia, on board the aircraft or at the duty-free counter in the arrivals terminal. Another thing to watch out for – warranties. If you buy electronic goods you might not get a warranty worth the paper it's printed on. If you buy a laptop in Hong Kong you'll probably have a hard time convincing the Australian distributor to fix or replace it if something goes wrong within the warranty period.
In many countries travellers can apply for a refund of the tax they've paid on goods. This will happen at an airside refund desk in the airport terminal. Your purchase must be over a certain amount, you'll need to have the goods with you to show they are being exported and your purchase documentation in order.
BEST AIRPORT FOR DUTY-FREE
Hong Kong. There's better than average range of clothing and electronic gadgetry plus the usual culprits on the liquor shelves and perfumery. The Downtown Pricing Guarantee ensures retail prices are no higher than at the same outlet in the city.
FIVE THINGS THAT CAN GO BADLY WRONG AT THE AIRPORT
"But I need this 27 kilos. I'm going skiing and taking presents for my host family." No you're not. What you're doing is repacking your suitcase on the terminal floor, and better hope there's a friend or relative to take it back home. Excess baggage fees are huge.
London, Milan, New York – they've all got more than one airport, as do most major cities in Europe and the US. Make sure you're heading for the right one.
PASSPORT EXPIRY DATE
Check it. Some airlines will refuse to uplift you out of Australia if your passport expires six months or less before your return date.
MAKING A BOMB JOKE WITH SECURITY STAFF
PATTING THE SNIFFER DOG
Cute and cuddlesome they might be, but making friends is not part of their job description. Dog handlers bite as well as bark.
FIVE QUIRKY MUST-TRY AIRPORT FEATURES
1. The butterfly garden in Changi Airport's Terminal 3: A walk-through wonderland with tropical greenery, a six-metre waterfall and thousands of fluttering wings.
2. The Airbrau Brewery at Munich Airport: Here master brewer Rene Jacobsen brews semi-dry ale, weissbier, Jetstream pilsener and a dark winter beer with a taste you could carve.
3. The SFO Museum at San Francisco International Airport: More than 20 galleries scattered throughout the terminals on a rotating schedule of art, history, science and cultural exhibitions – fun, quirky and imaginative.
4. The ice skating rink in Seoul's Incheon International Airport, located landside: Cool stuff.
5. Fu No Yu bathhouse in Chubu Airport in Nagoya: The only bathhouse in Japan where you can watch planes land and take off in the buff.
FIVE AIRPORT FIXES
1. Bento boxes that I can take on board, so I don't have to eat what my airline laughingly calls food.
2. More discrete, purpose-built waiting areas. One for kids to run and shout, one for those who want to yell on their phones, play games or listen to music, a garden with fresh air and natural light, an outside swimming pool with refreshments and a quiet area.
3. Graded Wi-Fi. Free and moderate speed for all, with a faster option for a modest fee.
4. Security screening personnel who like their work and are able to give the impression they do not despise all of humanity. Sydney International, that's you.
5. Better architecture. The Foster + Partners designed Beijing Airport and Terminal Four at Madrid Barajas Airport prove airport design can be something beyond a shopping mall.
1. Walk this way
The travelator is not a relax-elator. Just because it whisks you along doesn't mean you've lost the power of locomotion. If you want to stand rather than walk move to one side.
2. Stop hoggings
Seating at boarding gates can get crowded close to flight time so that person with their duty-free shopping spread over the adjacent seat, the floor is the place for that.
3. Take your queue
Economy class passengers are often asked to board by rows. Back of the plane first, then progressively toward the front. So why is this person blocking the aircraft aisle having boarded out of turn and holding up an entire aircraft while they heft a 20-kilogram bag into the overhead compartment?
4. Don't over-share your music
Those Dr Dre Beats headphones pump out the sound my man but Drek just doesn't do it for me.
5. Don't be late
"Excuse me but my flight is boarding, mind if I jump in ahead?" Yes I do because you arrived late at the airport accidentally on purpose – whoops! and now you're depending on the kindness of strangers for a speedy trip through check-in, immigration and security.