Plane travel tips and advice: Why you should always choose the window seat on a plane

I was once at the window of an aircraft that came buffeting towards Wellington airport, and all I could see through my oval peephole onto New Zealand were rock fangs lashed by waves, brooding hills, black storm clouds on a seesaw horizon. Then one of the world's remarkable runways was beneath me, as if someone had simply widened an urban street and decided to land jets on it.

Suddenly, cramped wooden houses were whipping past, so startlingly close I imagined a surreal slideshow of people inside drinking cups or tea or lying in the bath. I couldn't help but wonder what it was like to live in what I discovered later was Bridge Street in the suburb of Rongotai. As planes land, its inhabitants must endure a regular roaring cataclysm, enough to rattle porcelain on the sideboard and the teeth in grandma's head. A mechanical wind must rip washing from their garden lines and toss it into stunted trees.

I've never forgotten the view beyond my window as we thundered to a halt along Wellington's runway. Peer out of any aircraft and odd bits of the world roll past, however. If you're on the runway, they'll flash by in fast-forward. In mid-flight, they unfurl like one of those concertinaed, ancient Chinese books. Best of all is the quarter-hour on approach to an airport, when the landscape swells. Mountains look the size of molehills, then buildings look the size of people, then people lurch below. It seems amazing that they just get on with their everyday business while I'm hurtling at 250km/h in an aluminium tube towards a close encounter with concrete.

The world's best landing is sadly no more. When I first flew into Hong Kong I was young and still found flying a novelty. I had a window seat, of course, misted in the middle by my eager breath. From the right-hand side of the aircraft, the landing at old Kai Tak airport was beyond thrilling. The plane's wheels practically twanged the antennae atop apartment blocks and blew the toupees of plane-spotters on a car park roof. You could see the wrinkles on the faces of Chinese grannies on their balconies, and drying underpants, and peer into flats where televisions flickered.

Kai Tak's notoriously difficult runway 13/31 thrust out into the harbour on reclaimed land backed by hills sprouting high-rises. Pilots had to rely on their nerves and stick-and-rudder skills to navigate what they called the "Kai Tak heart attack". Pilots flew across one of the world's most densely populated harbours and had to veer sharply at low altitude, on spotting an infamous orange-and-white checkerboard, in order to line up with the runway. In the typhoon season, winds and poor visibility added to the drama. 

For passengers agog at windows, it was a tilting world of close urban encounters. You never really got to see the bigger picture. Hong Kong's new airport on Lantau Island isn't nearly the same thrill – though sometimes I wonder if we're about to land on water – but you get a better overview of Hong Kong's convoluted bays, packed skyscrapers and hills humped like a dragon's spine. 

Other airports are even better at displaying a whole city's layout, like Google Maps in satellite mode, or the sort of old-fashioned map that an army commander might unfold from a hilltop. Los Angeles is exceptional this way, though not if you're flying in from Australia, when you just see mostly ocean and last-minute surf on beaches. Land from the east and you see downtown LA, and Hollywood if you know where to look, even the hillside Hollywood sign. Plus lots of highways and flyovers and a grid of endless suburbs that would have desperate housewives fleeing. At the last minute, you swoop over rental-car lots bigger than Canberra and – where else but America – a burger joint with pointed red pyramids on its roof. 

Land by day in LA and you see an urban nightmare. By night, it's the great American dream, a fantasy cobweb strung with lights and Californian promise. I reckon the US is the best place for flying into big cities. Fly from the south into New York's LaGuardia airport and the plane usually tracks up the East River with the whole Manhattan skyline out the window (at least if you're sitting on the left). If you approach from the other direction, you'll have to settle for the New York Mets baseball park and Flushing Meadows' tennis courts. 

Washington DC's Ronald Reagan airport supplies icons too (again from the left-hand windows). You come in fairly steeply over the Potomac River and as the plane banks you see the whole of the National Mall from Lincoln Memorial to Capitol Hill, just like the opening of a political-thriller movie.


Over the years I've concluded a few things make for great views out a descending aircraft's windows. Cityscapes, yes. But tropical islands too. Flying to an isolated Pacific island is always a bit unnerving. Turbulence jolts you awake and the airplane-tracking icon is just a white dot on a big blue screen: not a jot of land anywhere, as if you've fallen off the flat Earth. And then beneath the wings appears an effervescence of reef and lush, jagged peaks that have gathered a fascinator of clouds from nowhere. Peacock-blue deep water meets aquamarine lagoon, palm trees unfold like a pop-up book illustration, and the runway will be wedged between mountain and reef.

For me, though, there are few aircraft  views to beat snowy mountains. You only have to fly into Queenstown to see why. The whole of the New Zealand Alps is a frozen pavlova below you, cut through by glacial lakes and dark valleys. As your plane descends, the peaks get closer, like a shark's mouth opening to swallow you up. You skim over a snowy ridge and straight up Lake Wakatipu with mountains on either side of the wingtips. (The Remarkables are the most spectacular; bag a right-side seat.) Even flight attendants gasp at the scenery they must have seen two-dozen times.

Lots of airports provide the great alpine views you'd imagine: Aspen in Colorado, Lukla airport in Nepal, Innsbruck in Austria, Geneva in Switzerland, though most of its scenery is shamelessly purloined from French airspace. Command a good window seat on long flights and you'll get the full panoply, the whole alpine pageant and panorama, for hours at a time. I fly Dubai-Geneva on a regular basis and, as the plane skims across northern Italy, you can see the full range of Alps from the right side of the aircraft. When the plane turns to approach the runway from the west it drifts past Mont Blanc, western Europe's highest peak, and a whole congregation of snow peaks straight from a Mormon's fantasy of heaven.

Any short ride across the Alps is splendid: Geneva-Venice, Zurich-Milan, Munich-Zagreb. For the Rockies, try Vancouver-Calgary, Vancouver-Whitehorse, Las Vegas-Denver, or any route that crosses Colorado. In the Andes, you can't beat flying from La Paz either to Lima or Santiago. Onwards from there, directly south to Punta Arenas unites mountains and fjords in a spectacle to make the soul sing.

I suppose, in a way, this is as close as we ever come to feeling like gods looking down on their creations. The Earth is vast and fragile, intimidating and beautifully patterned from 10,000 metres above its wrinkly, crinkly skin. High above Borneo it looks like broccoli – dense, dark green – and slurps with muddy brown rivers. Iowa is a collage of little squares like the demented doodling of an obsessive mathematician. Ireland is a muddled green patchwork stitched together by stone walls, crumbling at the edges into cliffs and restless seas. And you see wonderful things you might never see from the ground, like the northern lights, the frozen carapace of Greenland, the orange scalloped sands of Mongolia.

Does anything beat flying home? Australia is bony amber and scrap-metal red, parched and deformed. Dried-up river arteries dwindle to shrivelled veins and vanish into stone and sand. You can eat lunch, fall asleep, watch a movie and look out again, and Australia is still red and empty. Stare out through your oval frame and you can be intimidated or mesmerised or exhilarated, but you'll never be indifferent.