Surviving Airports 101

(Brace youselves for SO. MANY. AIRPLANE WINDOW PHOTOS.)

1478b9e8-ee5d-4514-8ff2-b8ce89bd6424Airports are pretty much the worst thing about travelling. (In fact, last year I wrote a rant about how much I hate air travel.) They are often so remotely located that you have to add hours to your travel time, the food there is overpriced and that annoying Spanish pre-teen won’t stop making weird noises with some sort of a toy megaphone that he’s got. (What kind of parents even give their kids toys like that??) Surviving airports can be the toughest part of your holiday, but hopefully these tips will help you make the beginning of your trip a little bit better.

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Planning your trip. If you can, get a flight that arrives during the day. That way public transportation is still running when you arrive and in some destinations it’s also safer to move around in daylight. Unfortunately direct flights are sometimes more expensive than ones with a transfer, so if you end up having to change planes, make sure you leave plenty of time between flights. Some airports list recommended transfer times on their websites so you can check how long it will take for you to walk from one terminal to another.

Arriving at the airport: This should go without saying but make sure you leave plenty of time to get to the airport. If you miss your flight due to an accident on the highway, a cancelled train or crowded airport parking, the airline isn’t responsible for reimbursing your losses. It’s better to do your own research and know exactly where you’re going – the latest I ever arrived at an airport was 40 minutes before my flight because a National Rail worker thought he knew a better way to get to Gatwick and told me to get off on a station where trains weren’t running for hours.

How early should you get to the airport, then?

  • 3 hours earlier on intercontinental flights with checked luggage
  • 2 hours earlier on intercontinental flights with hand luggage or shorter flights with checked luggage
  • 1 hour earlier for shorter flights with hand luggage

Many airlines close their check-in counters about 40 minutes before the flight leaves so of course these guidelines are not written in stone, but in my experience many airlines request you to arrive within similar time frames. On the other end of things, you can never be too early for a flight, although some airports don’t let you through security before the date has changed if your flight is after midnight.

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Dealing with luggage: Most airlines now require you to check in and print out your boarding pass by yourself on a machine, which is fine and useful if all goes well and hella annoying if the machine rages against you and doesn’t want to work. Usually there are a few airline attendants around, though, so it will be easy for you to find help.

Since many low-cost airlines charge for checked bags, more people than ever travel with hand luggage, which means that the overhead compartments on planes fill up to the brim. Sometimes you will be asked to check in your hand luggage free of charge to avoid this. I’ve found that they never ask this if you’re carrying a ‘softer’ bag, like a backpack or a sports bag.

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What to wear for your flight

Dressing up for long haul flights is a form of art in itself. Here are some general guidelines that I tend to follow:

  • Dress comfortably. This is especially important if you’re catching a long flight or have to wait at the airport for a long time. I pretty much exclusively wear yoga pants on airplanes, and I like to throw on a sweater or a hoodie – as long as it’s loose and cozy.
  • Dress down. Guys, I know it’s nice to look cute. I like to look cute. But when you’re travelling 30+ hours to the other side of the world, it shouldn’t really matter, right? Having said that, I only travel with clothes that I love and that make me feel comfortable in my own skin, so that no matter what I wear, I will feel good about it. It’s OK to strive for the ultimate combo of being comfortable AND looking good, but maybe pack your high heels in your luggage?
  • Minimalism rules. Getting through security is so much easier if you don’t have to remove handfuls of jewellery and other accessories. This is also why I love travelling in yoga pants. No pockets, no belts – no problem!
  • Layer up. I have never been to an airport where I wouldn’t feel cold after a while. Especially if you’re spending the night at the airport (what’s up fellow poor backpackers that chose the cheapest flight even though it comes with an inconvenient transfer time!), it’s important that you wear enough to keep you warm.
  • Bulk up. Especially if you’re travelling hand luggage only, you can save a lot of trouble by just wearing your bulkiest items of clothing instead of trying to squeeze them into that tiny backpack of yours. That’s why I almost always fly wearing hiking boots. It ain’t pretty but it gives me more space to fit everything else in.

I’m sure that by now you also know that if you’re checking in luggage, you should put a change of clothes into your hand luggage in case the airport gods misplace your suitcase. If you’re wondering how to get your hair out of the way, I wrote about that a couple of weeks ago.

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Changi Airport is a bae

How to kill time at the airport

If you’re lucky, you’ll spend your transfer time at a super cool airport like Changi in Singapore where the airport itself is full of attractions and places to keep you entertained. In case you’re not that lucky, here are some suggestions:

Read, write or play games: This is the classic way of spending time at an airport. Go offline and lose yourself in sudokus or travel diaries or a really good book. (I’m loving David Mitchell at the moment. I just finished Ghostwritten and I think it’s one of my favourite books now.) I also like to catch up on school work, translations or future blog posts if I’ve got the time and motivation.

Log into the wifi: I am delighted to see that more and more airports now are offering free wifi without any extra catches – thank you, all airports that do this! More often than not you’re asked to register or give your information details to log in, though. Use an email address that you’re not actively using anymore to register for airport wifi to stop it flooding with spam mail – I’ve had to create a new email after the amount of spam emails on my old account became unbearable after logging into airport wifi with it (I’m looking at you, El Prat Barcelona.)

Sport the sports: Sitting will slowly kill you. Well, not in three hours, more like in fifty years, but still. Take a walk around the airport. If you find a quiet corner, do some stretches or simple exercises to keep your blood flowing. The stress of travelling, eating badly on travelling days and the pressure in the airport cabin can all make you feel bloated so don’t worry, everybody’s feeling the same as you. Sportsing the sports helps a little.

Windowshopping can be a fun way to pass the time, but in my experience it’s not worth shopping for souvenirs at the airport – well, maybe if you want any of that name brand stuff from the tax free shops. But everything else – local spirits and chocolates, novelty key rings, even postcards – come at a much higher price than outside of the airport.

Since it’s not the main point of this post, I won’t go into too specific detail about how to kill time at an airport, but you can search Google for more ideas (and laugh at the ridiculous Wikihow illustrations). I’ve always wanted to try that airport treasure hunt thing…

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Preparing for your flight

Ok, so it’s almost time to board. Triple-check the gates – they sometimes change within a minute’s notice, and some airlines don’t even announce their gates until about half an hour before the intended departure times. (*cough* Ryanair *cough*) Don’t eat heavy before your flight but stay well hydrated. (Do remember to eat, though!) Bring snacks, lunch and all that from home if you can since airport restaurants tend to be, as they say, hella dear. (You shouldn’t take fresh fruit over state or country borders, though.) Go to the toilet just before boarding. If you’ve got peanuts as snacks, don’t eat them in the airplane since someone might be deadly allergic to them and just having an open pack of peanuts near them can do the thing. Grab a neck pillow and your book and you’re all set for the flight!

After you land

Unless you’ve got a connection to catch, you’re in no rush to leave the airplane. Let me repeat that: You’re in no rush to leave the airplane. So sit back and chill.

Hopefully you’ve got instructions on how to get to your accommodation on both printed form and on your phone – you know, just in case. It’s also good to know beforehand how to get there because sometimes the airport personnel can be incredibly, uh, unco-operative. In several different occasions I have asked the information desk at the airport what’s the best and cheapest way to get to the city and they’ve told me minicabs. Like dude – my whole second-hand shop outfit didn’t cost as much as a ride on a taxi will, do I really look like your target demographic for a cab? Are you getting a cut – is that why you’re so adamant that I take a cab? I once had this back-and-forth with a guy at Heathrow who, even after I told him, I’d rather take trains, awkwardly laughing and saying I couldn’t really blow my whole budget on a cab, still insisted that I take one.

All airports have got connections to public transportation. Take it, it’s worth it.

Oh and hey, did you know that if your flight was cancelled or delayed significantly, you can look for recompensation from the airline? They don’t advertise this option much since they obviously don’t want to give you all their money, so getting comped might be an uphill battle, but check what the airline regulations say and stand your ground. Make sure that when you make the claim you have all the exact details to give them – flight numbers, length of delay, financial losses, all that jazz.

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Whelp, that was it for a quick airport survival guide. Let me know if you liked it and if you’d like to see more stuff like this in the future! I’m headed for yet another airport in just a few days when I fly to Brazil on Saturday, and even with all my experience I made a rookie mistake and left myself only one hour for transferring planes. I’m sure I’m gonna be, uh, ok?

Do you have any tips of your own for airport survival?


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