What makes a good airport?

The better side of KLIA2
The better side of KLIA2

Flying in and out of airports across the world can feel kinda glamorous and exciting on your first big trip, but after you’ve taken so many flights, it can become routine, boring, or indeed tedious. Knowing you have to pass through this or that airport can be a source of relief if you know the place is well-appointed, or encourage a feeling of dread when you know you have to connect at a place like the Low Cost Carrier Terminal in Kuala Lumpur. Thankfully, that one’s a thing of the past and hopefully the new KLIA2 will get its act together soon.

Air Asia Planes lined up at KLIA2
Air Asia Planes lined up at KLIA2

What do you look for in an airport? Some aspects are pretty obvious. Cleanliness is surely up there wherever you go. That combined with decent toilets because odds are even if you’re not transiting in an airport, arriving or leaving you’ll need to pay at least one visit to them. KLIA2’s toilets were diabolical. If you’ve just arrived in India for the first time, you might be a little apprehensive. You probably don’t want to use your first squat toilet when you’ve just arrived at 2.30am after a long flight.

Some airports, like KLIA2 seem to have the idea that cleaning the toilets actually means just hosing them down. Ah, no thankyou very much! They can be slipperier than a slippery eel! That slipped on itself! This was the policy in the old LCCT as well.

In contrast the KLIA1 terminal is one of my favourite airports. It’s huge, clean and shiny. And it has a plethora of outlets to shop at to your heart’s content should you be looking to fill some time and splash some cash. For me, that’s not the be all and end all of airports though, but a good selection of food outlets is a must. That’s where say Tokyo’s Haneda airport is a bit of a let down. Less confusing and smaller than Narita, if it only had a wider range of places to eat it would be great because it’s much more convenient than Narita.

Everyone came out to say goodbyeat Haneda Airport, Tokyo
Everyone came out to say goodbyeat Haneda Airport, Tokyo

For all those heading to Japan, if you can fly in Haneda (or out) then that’s the go because Narita is a long way out from the city, costing a lot more to get to and from, and also, the airport taxes seriously impact you ticket price when you use Narita. Nevertheless, I don’t mind an airport a long way from town if the transport is efficient and reasonably priced. You’re looking at a minimum of 30 bucks by train from Narita on the slow train which takes around 90 minutes. The fast train is just that but much more expensive.

Heathrow is similar. A long way from Central London, it can feel like taking the tube into town from Heathrow is like taking another long-haul flight. The express train into London is like 20-30 minutes which is great, but again more expensive. However, I think well worth the money.

If you’re planning on sleeping at an airport, well you’ll be looking for benches without armrests or a clean spot on carpet, which funnily enough I did find in Heathrow 15 years back, as opposed to Moscow airport where all seats had armrests rending sleep impossible.

A good airport should be navigable, you should be able to know where you are on the map and how to get to your gate and anywhere else in the airport you might want to go. This is something most big airports struggle with. Dubai is clean and glitzy but it’s so big it’s daunting. You need to know if there’s a shop or restaurant you wish to frequent which side of immigration it’s on. Nothing worse than going through immigration with four hours on your hands to discover the awesome Thai restaurant is back before customs!

Dubai airport, 6am before the madness
Dubai airport, 6am before the madness

I personally don’t mind empty airports, but they might creep a few people out I guess. Tashkent in the middle of the night was almost empty. It meant I got a full bag search (yay me!) but there were no crowds to fight through. In contrast, Heathrow, Dubai, Hong Kong, most international airports in the States etc are stressful experiences. Last time I flew through Dubai it was insane, I felt I was fighting to walk in the direction I wanted! I remember Houston Airport being huge and incredibly busy too, although it was a pretty nice airport.

What makes or breaks an airport for you? For me, I think that Singapore (Changi) And KLIA1 might just about be the best airports I’ve been in. Also, Guangzhou is a surprisingly big but well laid out airport too. Chinese airports are often insane, and not in a good way! Shanghai’s second airport is a nightmare, especially if you are taking Spring Airlines!

So folks, when booking flights, it’s not ever a bad idea to consider your connections and the airports you’ll be using. It could make the difference from a good experience to a nightmare!

5 thoughts on “What makes a good airport?

  1. Im fairly easy and happy in any airport but the worst ive seen is Istanbul for 2 reasons. First they dont bother with any language other than Turkish all the signs are in Turkish and let me ask you how many people in the world speak Turkish. Im not one of those who wants English everywhere I go but when you step in a large international airport you expect some ease with languages. The staff is monolingual too so dont expect help from them either. They are not particularly friendly they had misplaced my buggy and it tooks hours asking many members of staff to find it. No apologies nothing. Then when Turkish airlines set you up for a hotel night it may be at the hilton but it’s an hour and a half drive away in a stuffy and packed minivan without AC. And I hate that they make no effort to accommodate families with infants and toddlers. When waiting for our turn for the minivan (it’s so small it can’t seat everyone so you wait for it to male a drop then come back) it was past midnight and very hot yet they let us and a few other families with babies wait for hours.
    On the other hand of the spectrum London Gatwick is brilliant. Easy to find your way around and they have a special, faster and assisted route for people with disabilities or senior citizens or families with infants and toddlers. Smaller queues assistance with buggy or wheelchairs friendly patient and helpful staff. And yes plenty of clean toilets clearly indicated. Plenty choice of food too although prices are just ridiculously high.

  2. “Flying in and out of airports across the world can feel kinda glamorous and exciting on your first big trip, but after you’ve taken so many flights, it can become routine, boring, or indeed tedious.” -I couldn’t agree more. I’m the type of person who usually enjoys the airport visits as well. I like to roam around, visit the shops and cultural centers (like the one in Incheon), observe passengers from different countries and imagine their stories. Then again, airport visits can get tiring and boring too ESPECIALLY if you’re rushing, lack sleep or too occupied studying, finishing a speech or presentation. In as much as I would want to “savor” the moment of passing through different terminals and being up in the sky, I couldn’t help but ignore such moments because of just being too pre-occupied with something else.

    Anyway, as for airport preferences, I think the best for me would be South Korea’s Incheon Airport. I’ve been there twice, the most recent one around 3 months ago on a flight to New York from SEA. The reviews are true–it really is a great airport. As I’ve mentioned, they actually have a cool cultural center wherein you can get yourself busy with different activities (such as painting traditional handicrafts which you can bring home for free). There are different mini-exhibits of cultural and historical relevance scattered in the airport too. They also organize a “free” transit tour in Seoul if ever you’re one of those stuck in the airport for 5 hours or more. They have different tour packages for transit passengers, depending on how much free time you have before departure. If I remember correctly, you only have to pay for the meal (they brought us to a homey restaurant before) and for Palace/museum entrance tickets. (: They also have clean and spacious shower rooms, lots of of “sleeping beds” scattered (the only problem would be snoring travelers besides you :P), various computer areas, and lots of shopping and dining options. I think they also have spas and salons offered in the airport. Really, you won’t get bored here.

    Of all the airports you’ve mentioned, I haven’t been to those in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Heathrow and Moscow so I can’t really comment on those… Yet. Haha. Japan’s Narita and Sendai airports didn’t leave any special mark for me (although you must commend the immediate, swift and sturdy reconstruction of Sendai’s airport after the Tsunami struck). The same sentiment also goes for those of Dubai’s, Hong Kong’s, Singapore’s and Kuala Lumpur’s.

  3. You’re right, a good airport is very important if you have long hours of layover. In fact, KL was my first layover airport when I was going to Australia. I spent six hours at the KL airport on my way back to India. I must say it’s a plush airport, but I didn’t find many options to eat, except for starbucks.

  4. I love KLIA 1, it would be my favourite airport as well. Australian and European airports are depressing as hell if you’re there for a long time, as they’re generally not designed for transit stops. Dubai is ok, but huge and too much emphasis on the “top-end” shopping and dining experience, at the expense of more useful facilities.

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