Sunday, 8 March 2015

How not to get bored at the airport

When you travel on a budget, you sometimes put up with suboptimal travel arrangements to save a bit of money. Quite often, I end up taking a flight at some stupid hour, like 4 in the morning, which means I'm going to have to put in most of the night at the airport, or with a ridiculously long layover - 12 or 15 hours between flights - but which isn't quite long enough to get out of the airport and actually see anything.

So, what to do in the airport when you are bored as heck?

  • Do your research before you go. Most airports have pretty decent information on facilities available on the web. You can also find useful stuff on where you can sleep at airports (at some, like Athens, you can't: at others, like Doha, there are rooms full of recliners to get a few z's) if you arrive, as I did once, at two in the morning and take off again at five-thirty. I always look for stationery stores and fountain pen retailers; I can always spend half an hour or so in any Montblanc concession and I'm overjoyed if there's a high end pen shop in an Asian airport (for some reason you always find the best stuff out there and not in Europe).
  • Look for the airport magazine when you get there. It's not always great reading (though sometimes it can be interesting), but often will have extra information. Some airlines also leave their magazines out in the lounges, and though some are deeply tedious bits of corporate promo, others are well worth reading (I particularly like Vueling's magazine with its fascinating city features and infographics).
  • Some airports have fascinating exhibits. Did you know there's actually an art gallery at Charles de Gaulle? It's free (as long as you're checked in) in Satellite 4. There's a Rijksmuseum offshoot at Schiphol, too, and my favourite, in the departures hall at Ibiza, a vast selection of model aeroplanes. Many airports have interesting temporary exhibitions - I found some gorgeous photos from a landscape competition in Doha, for instance, and a flower exhibit in Bangkok.
  • Sometimes the architecture can be worth seeing. Madrid airport's curved roofs and swooping support struts are amazing - light-wells give interesting shadows and the patterns and textures are a real delight for any photographer; it's my favourite so far.
  • Many airports have an observation deck if you're interested in planes, or simply fancy watching them take off and land as a relaxing exercise that's a bit more interesting than sitting in a chair watching nothing. There's a handy list on the Airfare Watchdog blog. The deck also usually gives you the best view you'll get from the airport of the surrounding landscape.
  • Investigate local culture. While most airport retail outlets are either touristy and trashy, or relentlessly global in their branding, you can usually find one or two real local outlets. For instance, in Bogota domestic airport I found a bar selling the products of the Bogota Beer Company - an outstanding small brewer with some really characterful beers - while in Schiphol Dutch beers helped me while away a couple of hours between flights. In Bangkok airport I found a little Thai cafe selling sticky rice and mango, admittedly at a stiff mark-up. In Delhi, alas, the only local culture in evidence was a plethora of rather useless bureaucracy...
  • Ride the transit system between terminals. You probably won't see much, but it's a change of scene.
  • Walk! If you've been on one flight and are about to go on another, you're doing yourself a favour and reducing your chances of getting DVT. Plus, you've got nearly zero luggage, so why not go wandering? Airports are full of long corridors that you can march along from one end to the other. (Pick one that's not full of people waiting for flights, though.)
  • If there's free internet, you've got it made! But check the rules - there may be limits on connection time. If there are, plan your access times carefully and download as much as possible to read offline.
  • Check the flight board. That sounds tedious, but it can actually be quite interesting seeing where flights go to from the airport you're in, particularly if it's not your home airport. At Calcutta Airport I first noticed how many Indian airports had regular flights - Bagdogra, for instance, which I'd never heard of before.
If you know you're going to have a long layover, it's worth seeing whether you can exit the airport and visit the city instead. For instance Doha now offers visitors a relatively cheap and easy visa for a short visit. Make sure, if you want to do this, that you check with your airline first.

You *can* always pay money to use a first class lounge. But then that rather destroys the point of accepting that longer layover to save a bit of money, doesn't it?

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