People who discover that I travel often, long-haul mostly and for weeks at a time, say, sagely, during cocktail chat, “You must be a genius at packing.” Actually … no. I’m a graduate of the school of “But what if I need…”
As a packer, I’ve cut back on the books, thanks first to Kindle and now to iPad, though not so much when it comes to movies (Netflix doesn’t transfer out-of-country). Fashion-wise, I have found ways to maximize variety while minimizing outfits. But I’ll confess: Give me too much time in an airport and all hell breaks loose.
On a recent vacation jaunt from Newark to Helsinki, which took a whopping 22 hours thanks to late departures and missed connections, my most egregious problem was neither sleep deprivation nor travel annoyance. It was the extra time for shopping.
Once I got bored with sitting in the Newark lounge, it occurred to me that I could buy presents. In the airport’s expansive mall, I found a slinky New York-themed T-shirt for my teenage niece, a Big Apple-decorated onesie for the latest addition to my spouse’s Finnish family, and a couple (okay, a bulky wodge) of magazines to support me through the three-week-long English-language desert that is a vacation in Finland.
And that was just Newark. Once we arrived in Frankfurt, where we’d just missed our connecting flight and had four bleary hours to kill, the airport’s liquor stores offered quite the bargain-hunger’s justification. Finland’s taxes on alcohol make otherwise reasonable prices for wine, vodka and Champagne ridiculously expensive, so we loaded up. My husband’s impulse purchase of German sparkling wine put us over the top.
Suddenly, we were carting seven bags of carry-on stuff onto an airplane (these in addition to the two very chunky suitcases, full of American gourmet items, DVD’s and other necessities, that we’d already checked). Boarding the two-hour flight from Frankfurt to Helsinki, I felt like — to paraphrase my Finnish husband’s charming interpretation of American aphorisms — one of the “Beverly Hilly-Billies.”
So no, I am not a great packer. I will invariably have too much of one thing and not enough of another. But I can offer one silver lining: the things you scramble to buy because you don’t pack well will be the souvenirs you remember the most.
When vetting flights and possible layovers, I take my options for connecting airports very seriously. What’s the distance between connecting gates? How speedy is immigration? Can I find something halfway decent to eat and a quiet, clean spot to sit and wait?
The availability of ultra-hip technology never entered the picture for me, until I recently discovered two airports where it’s actually fun to have a layover.
LaGuardia International Airport, New York City
Mention LaGuardia, and you can pretty much be guaranteed a grimace, wince or groan. But perhaps no longer. LaGuardia has Botoxed its image with the installation of 2,500 iPads throughout Terminals C and D. Tall tables with stools (like those you’d find in a bar) are anchored with iPads that are free for anyone to use.
Scroll the Internet, post on Facebook, play games, monitor your flight — even order a fancy cured beef panini and a beer and have them delivered directly to your table from a nearby eatery. The iPads are a great way to kill time.
(Good news for Minneapolis and Toronto: They’re both scheduled to see similar iPad installations in the coming months.)
Changi Airport, Singapore
Changi is a techie’s dream. The airport won the 2012 World Airport Award for best leisure amenities from Skytrax, a British airline data compiler that runs an annual airport passenger satisfaction survey in 160 countries. The Wi-Fi is free and signals are Speedy Gonzales fast. More than 500 free Internet stations are sprinkled throughout the concourses and gates.
But what’s happening in Terminal 2 is the main attraction. The terminal houses an entertainment center where you can distract yourself with Xbox 360’s, Playstation 3’s and other gaming stations. There are also free, 24-hour movie theaters (in Terminal 2 and also in Terminal 3).
It can be tough to escape the drudgery of an airport layover, especially for seasoned travelers who’ve seen and done nearly everything imaginable. Sure, you can hop a train or take a taxi to the city center for a little sightseeing (time permitting, of course). But honestly, sometimes that’s just too much effort after an eight-hour flight. Do we really have to resign ourselves to spending hours in a rock-hard chair listening to the same songs on our iPods over and over again?
Virgin Atlantic doesn’t think so. The airline, which is known for its less than traditional approach to flight service, recently installed an industry-standard recording studio in its Clubhouse lounge (open to Upper Class passengers and Flying Club Gold members) at London Heathrow. Musically inclined passengers can record, edit and mix a tune before e-mailing or uploading it to record companies, broadcasters, producers, etc., all while waiting for a flight.
After hearing about this out-of-the-box service, we couldn’t help daydreaming about other swanky amenities that could make an hours-long layover more pleasurable than painful. As we noted in Best Airports for Layovers, there are already some pretty neat options out there.
At Hong Kong’s International Airport, for example, passengers can step outside to play a few rounds of golf at the USGA-approved nine-hole Sky City Nine Eagles Golf Course. Travelers at Singapore’s Changi International Airport can also soak up some vitamin D before boarding as they stroll the airport’s five themed botanical gardens, which are home to a variety of flora as well as more than 1,000 live butterflies. At Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, travelers can brush up on Dutch culture at the Airport Library, which features about 1,250 books, including Dutch fiction that has been translated into 30 languages. And in Zurich, the airport rents bicycles, inline skates and Nordic walking poles so passengers can explore the surrounding areas while they wait.
With airports like these setting a precedent for innovation, we can’t help but hope that one day they’ll all be the standard rather than the exception. And while they’re working on it, maybe they could think about featuring dine-in movie theaters, bowling alleys, cooking classes and or even roller coasters.
Which amenities would you add to our airport wish list?
Ugly architecture, crazy traffic patterns and parking in the hinterlands. Confusing signage, endless corridors, torn carpeting and uncomfortable seating. Not to mention endless delays, lost baggage and I-have-to-take-a-what-to-get-there gates. Airport terminals can seem soulless, sapping the joy from a trip. And the biggest offenders have made it onto Frommer’s list of the 10 worst airport terminals.
At the top of the list (or should we say the bottom?): JFK Airport’s Terminal 3 in New York City. Built in 1960 and now Delta’s international hub, the eyesore is set for demolition. Frommer’s describes it as having “a sense that the cleaning crew gave up in despair a while ago.” Perhaps they were given a different tear-down date.
Smack in the middle of the worst list is Amman Queen Alia Airport. Tell me how an airport named for a woman can receive such a bad rating for bathroom cleanliness. Sad but true: Skytrax, a global consulting firm, ranked it low on such basic necessities.
Chicago’s Midway Airport, which the U.S. Bureau of Transportation recently ranked as the nation’s worst for on-time departures, was only 10th on the Frommer’s list. (They decided the Windy City’s notorious winter weather should take the lion’s share of blame.)
Except for three hours stuck on the tarmac in Philadelphia with a stranger squeezing my hand (she was seriously afraid of flying and her meds had worn off), I’ve had fairly good luck in airports. I do remember nearly missing a flight out of Orlando International Airport years ago, just barely catching that ridiculous train to the gate in time. While the airport’s Web site insists it’s only about a 68-second ride, it seemed interminable as I worried that my attempt to reach my flight in time would be, well, terminal.
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As if long security lines and full airport parking lots weren’t enough, there’s another hurdle facing Turkey Day travelers this year: nasty weather. Relentless rain and heavy thunderstorms have already caused flight delays in Northeastern and Midwestern airports this week, and the outlook is still looking a little shaky today.
How can you make your Thanksgiving trip go more smoothly? As Ed Hewitt advises in Winter Travel Tips:
“Check weather at your connecting cities as well as at your departure and destination airports. We all want to know what the weather is like for the departure and arrival airports (particularly if we’re traveling on vacation), but you’ll want to know what is going on at your connecting airport as well. If the weather looks very bad, you may want to contact your airline to see if it can reroute you; it may be in its best interest to do so.
“If it does look like you will need rerouting, your chances of getting on a different flight will be greatly enhanced if you’ve already done the research yourself to determine which alternate flights might work best.”
We recommend programming your airline’s 800 number into your cell phone, as well as the contact info for any other airlines that also serve your route. And, of course, you’ll want to arrive as early as possible at the airport and check flight status frequently. Web sites like FlightStats.com can help; many airlines also let you sign up for flight status alerts to be texted or e-mailed directly to your phone.
Most airports tend to blur together in my mind into a haze of fluorescent food courts, gray walls and dull-eyed passengers — but every now and then I walk into one that actually makes me want to stay a while. On my last trip, it was Vancouver International. Airy, modern and impeccably clean, its terminals offered a few perks I wasn’t expecting — like recycling bins for bottles and paper, and armrests with cupholders on many of the seats in the gate areas. (I wondered why all the seats didn’t have them until I saw a woman stretched out for a nap across three of the cupholder-less chairs. Aha — smart planning.)
Even Vancouver’s bathrooms were a step above the airport norm. The spacious stalls offered plenty of floor space to maneuver a carry-on or two, and there were multiple hooks on the wall for purses, shopping bags and other paraphernalia. I once had a laptop bag crash down onto the bathroom tiles at the Philadelphia airport when I tried to hang both it and a coat on the only available hook — so you can bet I appreciated the extra wiggle room.
And don’t forget the free Wi-Fi. (Yes, Vancouver has that too.) When we recently asked our Twitter followers which amenities a great airport absolutely must have, that was the top response. “FREE Wi-Fi is a MUST!!” opined @BlkChickOnTour. “To charge for it is just plain greedy.” (See our Airport Internet Tips for more on this topic.)
Another techie traveler weighed in with her own, somewhat related preference: “Outlets! [My] pet peeve is finding [the] only outlets in [the] terminal snagged by people watching movies on [their] computer,” said @CAMillsap. While I didn’t see any in Vancouver, many other airports (such as Philadelphia International and Toronto Pearson) have added special charging stations to help travelers keep laptops, cell phones and other gadgets juiced up when they’re on the go — without having to huddle on the floor beside an inconveniently located wall outlet.
But good design and modern amenities can only take an airport so far. “The perks are the people!” said @johnmill79. “Give me good, clean customer service.” On this one, Canada wins again. I couldn’t believe how friendly the airport security folks were in Toronto, and even the customs person was almost — almost — cordial.
What do you find most essential for a great airport? Vote in our poll:
I’ve never missed a flight. I say this with a deep fear that, upon uttering such a bold statement, I’ll jinx myself and end up late for my next departure (which happens to be this afternoon). I’m fixated on arriving at the airport three hours or more before departure — whether for a domestic or international flight — and so far traffic jams, snaking security lines and ill-timed airport parking lot shuttles have been no match for me.
I think it’s inevitable that every avid flier will miss at least one flight at some point in his or her travel career, and I’m determined to thwart fate as long as possible. But I have to admit, I admire those dauntless travelers who stroll into the airport 45 minutes before departure and never run into any problems. How do they stay so calm? After all, arriving at the airport less than an hour before departure is not exactly the recommended check-in protocol.
In What to Expect at the Airport, we suggest the following: “For domestic flights, you should be at the airport at least two hours before your flight is scheduled to leave if you’re planning on checking luggage. If you’re bringing just a carry-on, allow at least 90 minutes. If you’re flying to Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands or an international destination, arrive at least two hours early. During peak travel times, allow even more time at the airport — perhaps an extra 30 to 60 minutes.”
What’s your take? Are these rules meant to be broken?
The next time you step up to the sink at an airport bathroom, your own face may not be all you see in the mirror. Two companies, Clear Channel Airports and Mirrus, have teamed up to design digital ads that are now being displayed on bathroom mirrors at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
The high-definition ads look like large posters until you step up to the mirror, at which point they shrink into one corner — allowing you to see both the ad and your own reflection while you wash your hands, adjust your combover or touch up your lip gloss. You can see how the ads work in the following video from Mirrus:
Relentless advertising is nothing new to air travelers, of course. In recent years, several airlines have experimented with putting ads on airplane tray tables, and the TSA has put them in some of its bins at security checkpoints. At least they’re not appearing inside the bathroom stalls — yet.
Every Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.
Earlier this week, I found myself at the airport more than four hours before my flight was scheduled to depart (thanks to an unexpected change in plans). Going through security and grabbing a meal killed only about 20 minutes. As I arrived at my empty gate, I found myself wondering, “Now what?”
If I’d been prepared, I could have spent that lengthy layover on something a little more productive than snacking, reading a novel and staring blankly at the CNN monitors. In Airport Layovers: How to Make the Most of Your Layover, Caroline Costello writes, “Want to get some cardio in during your layover? AirportGyms.com is a useful Web site where you can search for fitness centers in or around airports in the U.S. and Canada. If there’s no gym in your airport, stuff some sweats into your carry-on bag and go for a jog around the terminals. This is best to do at an airport that offers shower facilities — be considerate of the person who will have to sit inches away from your sweaty armpits on the next flight.”
According to AirportGyms.com, there are four different fitness facilities within 25 minutes of my airport (including two only five minutes away). For the cost of a day pass — between $7 and $10, depending on location — I could have spent 30 or 40 minutes lifting weights or running on a treadmill, taken a quick shower and gotten back to the airport with time to spare. And it would have been a heck of a lot better for my body than munching on that Cinnabon roll I just couldn’t resist.
With airlines charging hefty fees for overweight bags, the small difference between a 49-pound suitcase and a 51-pound one could add up to a big hit on your wallet. (Delta, for instance, charges $90 each way to check a bag weighing 51 to 70 pounds.) But what if your bag’s excess weight isn’t caused by what you’ve packed, but by a quirk of the luggage scale at your airport?
A reader wrote to us a few days ago on this very topic: “An airline recently tried to charge an enormous fee for [a suitcase that was] five pounds over [the weight limit]. We moved one very light fleece vest to another piece and ended up seven pounds under. That vest did not weigh 12 lbs; maybe it weighed 2. If they are going to charge such prices, shouldn’t they have to calibrate the scales?”
Unfortunately, a recent report from CBS Los Angeles shows that this sort of discrepancy is not unheard of. While most of the scales tested in the report passed inspection, one faulty scale at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) displayed a reading of 53 pounds for a 50-pound weight, and 109 pounds for a 100-pound weight. Although scales at airports are supposed to be calibrated on a regular basis, missed maintenance or normal wear and tear can sometimes lead to flawed readings.
So what’s a traveler to do? We recommend purchasing your own small luggage scale to use at home when packing; you can pick one up at a travel supply store for $10 – $20. These offer a quick way to make sure you’re not getting too close to your airline’s weight limit. Just be sure to allow for a little variation between your scale and the one at the airport. (Is your suitcase tipping the scale at 48 pounds? It’s time to lose that extra guidebook or pair of boots.)
Once at the airport, if you suspect that a scale is inaccurate, ask the airline employee to test your bag on another scale nearby.