I love airport layovers. The idea of having a twelve-hour layover on a new airport thrills me more than my laboriously planned vacation itself. In my book, airport stops should be a minimum of six hours; four hours is fairly acceptable. Anything below that is nothing more than having an international bathroom break before you go sprinting again to switch planes.
To be all fair, I also used to hate airport layovers. Who would want to be trapped in an airport for ungodly long hours while your sanity withers away with every tick of the clock? But having to fly between Manila and Jeddah several times a year for six years, I have learned to find a way to entertain myself during those long airport layovers instead of venting my pent-up frustrations on random airport personnel.
During my early years of traveling, my usual layover escape route always involved endless mind games with an airline personnel in the hopes of securing a complimentary hotel accomodation. However, as years passed by, I realized I’m missing out more when I’m trying to go out than staying at the airport. So I stopped going that route and started appreciating the multi-cultural microcosm happening inside the airport.
The ten thousand people you meet at the airport
An airport is the smallest melting pot of all the world’s traveling population. With thousands of people going in and out, you are sure to meet someone with a very interesting story to tell.
While waiting for the boarding call at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, I sat beside a family from Sweden who was currently on a ’round the world tour. The father was an architect, while the mother was a journalist currently on her maternity leave. Traveling with them was their two-year-old son who would run all over the place and only return to her mother for breastfeeding. Seeing their growing child and knowing that they still have another year to travel really surprised me. How would I know that Swedish companies allow up to three years maternity leave had I not met them? Although, according to the mother, she was not receiving 100% of her salary but still, who would say no to that arrangement?
But you could still get a glimpse of a nation’s culture and ways of life even if talking to strangers is not your thing. You will be amazed to see how people conduct themselves in public even by just observing them from afar.
Once when I was on an eleven-hour layover at Dubai International Airport, I was comfortably sitting on an inclined chair near the boarding gates while waiting for my flight to Jeddah. A guy, probably in his mid-twenties and have eyes suggestive of his Oriental descent, was sitting on the floor with his headset on and was oblivious to the people walking in front of him.
Suddenly, in the middle of his self-imposed bliss, the guy was interrupted by a Middle Eastern guy about his same age. He was asking to borrow his phone charger; to which he obliged. A few minutes later, another Middle Eastern guy came to ask for the charger from the other Middle Eastern guy. Soon they were conversing in what one would easily mistake as an exchange of expletives but, having been in the Middle East for awhile, I knew they were not actually arguing. Perhaps startled by the sudden loud exchange of words, the Oriental guy put out another charger just to appease the two.
Marvel at an airport’s architecture and unique features
Changi Airport may boast of their flower gardens but nothing beats the Jungle Boardwalk of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. A garden you say? KLIA has an entire forest at their disposal.
But even without comparing it to KLIA, I found Changi Airport quite disappointing.
Days before my first scheduled layover in that airport, I took time perusing their website and planning what to do, where to stay and what to eat while I was there. An orchid and sunflower garden, a cinema, a pool, and everything beautiful plastered all over their website got me so hyped. I was so excited for my seven-hour layover only to be disappointed upon my arrival to see that the airport was too cramped and very poorly lit.
Having been to several airports in the past, I realized the reason why I find the Changi Airport too cramped is because they don’t have enough windows. Windows allow more light to come in and create an illusion that makes a room look more spacious.
Airports may often be built with a western vibe but you can’t ignore those tiny details that are unique to a country’s culture. And you can’t begin to appreciate them when all you do is sulk about the long wait. Busy yourself exploring the airport and scrutinize the architectural marvel in front of you.
Taste a foreign culture through food sampling
From the distinct ingredients to the method of food preparation, the simplest dish can reveal so much about the local culture. Even the manner the food is served and eaten reflects so much about a country’s history.
In South-East Asia, my current favorite airport when it comes to delicious food is the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. I would usually go for a bowl of Nyonya Laksa at Old Malaya Kopitiam as it allows me to taste a local Malaysian dish without getting past the immigration.
Nyonya Laksa is the signature dish of the Nyonyas or the female descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malayan archipelago between the 15th and 17th centuries. History has it that during the Ming Dynasty, the Emperor of China betrothed her daughter to the Sultan of Malacca as a form of strategic ties between the two regions. The couple settled in the Malayan Peninsula and eventually, the royal entourage wed the locals and formed the first permanent settlement and the first generation of mixed Chinese-Malay race. During the settlement, the Nyonyas developed their unique cuisine which combines the Chinese traditional cooking and the local Malay ingredients.
Old Malaya Kopitiam is located near the Jungle Boardwalk along gates C11 to C17.
During my airport layovers in any of the Gulf countries, however, I don’t usually do the food sampling. I practically live in the Middle East and what food I can sample at the airport, I can eat anytime I want at home. Saudi Arabia has zero tolerance for alcohol so whenever I’d go out of the country, I splurge on beer and spirits. I would usually hang out at the Skybar in Terminal 1 of Abu Dhabi International Airport whenever I have the chance. Drinking alcohol within the boundary of the Gulf region provides a certain kind of kick. This is also the reason why I would always ask for a can of beer or a glass of red wine whenever available on board while flying to and from the region.
Other paid and FREE services and facilities to help you make the most of your airport layovers
Pardon my emphasis on the word FREE but who doesn’t want FREE stuff and services, right?
- Use the FREE shower facilities to freshen up – While other airports have pay-per-use lounges with baths, others offer complimentary shower facilities you could use for free. Dubai International Airport and Abu Dhabi International Airport both have free shower facilities. Click on the links for complete details or check your airport websites if they offer the same for free.
- Avail of FREE meal vouchers – Airlines issue meal vouchers if your airport layovers go over five hours. Proceed to corresponding flight transfer desk and present your previous and current boarding passes to claim your voucher. The free voucher may only afford you a sandwich from a deli shop, a bowl of noodles, or a regular burger set meal at McDonald’s but most food concessionaires allow you to upgrade your meal at an additional cost.
- Watch FREE movies – At present, I am only aware of the following airports with free movie facilities: Changi Airport (Singapore), Hong Kong International Airport, Vilnius Airport (Lithuania), Portland International Airport (Oregon), Vaclav Havel Airport (Prague). Click on the links for complete details or check your airport websites for the same.
- Take advantage of the PAID baggage storage services – Explore the airport more conveniently by storing your bags at luggage storage facilities. Dubai International Airport will look after your bags for 12 hours for AED20 to AED25 depending on the size of your bag. Changi Airport charges USD4 to USD12 per 24 hours. Most airports offer this service, visit the airport website for complete details.
Bonus Info: You can have your blanket and use it, too
While passengers are allowed to take home copies of in-flight magazines, they are not allowed to take everything else outside the plane. If you’ve been itching to bag that fluffy piece of an in-flight blanket but is afraid to be reprimanded, if not penalized, there’s a “legal” workaround to do that. During your long airport layover, proceed to any airline service desk and declare your need to take a nap. The airline staff will provide you a sealed blanket if you would ask. The option to either unpack it for use or stash it in your backpack is now up to you. Or, as the sub-heading suggests, use the blanket and keep it, too.
I have amassed a collection of blankets from different airlines using this tactic; it actually works.
Time has a mischievous ability to purposely slow down when you’re arduously waiting for it. It plays mischief by making you feel the wait a thousand times longer. Ignore it and you’ll realize how you never have enough.
And without going through that traveler versus tourist debate, this is how I keep myself entertained during long airport layovers.