Air travel: the good, the bad and the ugly

Posted on 23 November 2011

I love the airport and flying. Honestly I actually love it.

There’s nothing like the thrill of arriving in the departures terminal, bag packed and slung around your shoulder, listening to the ping of airport announcements. I love the prospects of air travel: that feeling that you get when you know you are heading off in a little tin can, that in a matter of hours (OK realistically it might be a fair amount of hours, sometimes a day or two), you’re going to be putting you’re feet down on another patch of a country, another continent, another land, another culture.

Airport travel may have its downside, but more modern airports are taking a keen interest in providing the best possible experience for travellers in transit, providing a smorgasbord of entertainment, dining and shopping facilities to rival any city. To be fair not all airports are catching on to the idea that the experience can be more than just getting a boarding pass and hoping that the check in clerk does not make you pay excess baggage for that extra three kilograms that you’re bag has magically grown by. Airports are the portals where many of us begin or end our travels; they are the starting blocks that jet us off to a new adventure, or the welcome sigh as you begin the journey home.

Airport travel does not have to be as bad as you might think, here are some of my favorites reasons why:

The best airports and airlines in the world

Changi International, Singapore
: This is a traveller’s paradise, especially if you have been doing any long term backpacking/budget travelling in and around Asia. The entire airport has free wifi and for added value an entire entertainment deck with a free movie theatre and an XBox/Playstation console area. There are special ‘snooze chairs’, a 24-hour massage and spa facility, a music lounge, live band venue and a $10 nature trail including a Butterfly, Cactus, Koi Pond, Orchid, Fragrant and Night Light Garden. Just hope you don’t land up in the budget terminal, there are no fun things there.

The slow lounges in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban: This is real little treat that I have only recently discovered. Free wine (and not the cheap box-du-plonk either) great little sarmies and salads that you can eat to your hearts content and free wifi. Check with your bank to see if you are allowed to access this section of the airport lounges, you might be pleasantly surprised that it’s not just for the upper browed and higher crust.

The seating in Zurich International Airport.
In the lounge they have the most wonderfully cushioned rows of chairs encased in an enormous glassed atrium. And the security guards won’t come and tell you that you can’t sleep on them. You can also hire bicycles; in-line skates or walking poles if you feel inclined to take a trip around the outside area of the airport. The Starbucks has the best seating with power outlets for all you’re technical bits and bobs.

Narita International, Japan
: A labyrinth to navigate, but the Japanese make everything so efficient and easy it’s wonderfully fun getting around. The shops in the international departure areas make for phenomenally good shopping but watch out if you are a gadget freak like me, or addicted to all things Japanese, you might end up with a mountain of carry-on luggage. Nothing makes me happier than a nifty little bento box complete with beer in a vending machine; or fresh sushi and tepanyaki before a long haul flight; or enjoying the killer in-flight, Asian-inspired dishes (even in cattle class) Arrigato Daimas.

Hong Kong International
: Voted by many as the top airport in the world to be stuck in. Want to know why? The airport has a nearby nine-hole golf course, an interactive movie studio and the largest 4D movie theatre in Asia, apparently. There is free wifi and clean showers to make use of during you’re layover. Incredibly, many airports don’t have a 24-hour food service; often shutting down and making life very solemn and grim if you have the misfortune of having a layover for a few hours in the pre dawn and can’t even grab a cup of coffee. Hong Kong has taken care of that with a wide variety of 24hour food and drink options, not just one lonely cappuccino stand. Heaven. If you arrive at a busy hour you might be able to catch some tea making demonstrations or Chinese medicine workshops. If that’s not you’re thing they have a PlayStation Gateway with different kinds of game simulators (we loved the golf one) a kiddies play area and a children’s TV lounge if you are travelling with the family.

Flying in Southeast Asia
: Air Asia was a revelation for us when we were in Singapore and wanted to hop over to Indonesia: as cheap as chips but without the ‘scare factor’ of many other budget airlines. And if you get a chance, the Malaysian food in-flight is very good.

American Airlines flight to the states
: Finally about two years ago American airlines opened a 16-hour non-stop route to the states. Breaking up that incredibly long haul of doing a monstrous amount of hours flying to Senegal and then having to pit stop to refuel, only then making the trip over the pond meant travelling to the states would accumulate a massive amount of jetlag into your system. Not anymore. This flight is a small lifeline for those of us who want to get in, and get it over with as quickly as possible. Just don’t go to the bathroom with more than three people standing around, they still get a bit jittery when people begin to crowd. Expect one of the best onboard entertainment systems, with everything and anything you might want to keep you entertained.

Turkish airlines to Europe: Who knew, Turkish airlines? Amazingly efficient airline, and a bonus of a layover in Istanbul, which is one hell of a great city to explore if you have the chance.

Madrid international
:  A bit of a monster to move around, but an airport that boasts some amazing restaurants, wonderful sangria by the jug full and fabulous little tapas bars with views over the runway. Taking off  with two other airplanes simultaneously flanking you (this airport is incredibly busy) is quite an experience.


The worst airports and airlines in the world

For posterity and to maintain a small amount of objectivity; here are a couple of the airports that you hope you never land up in:


Lagos International: good luck fighting (I mean that literally) your way through that airport. My partner has had the misfortune of witnessing two men engaging in a boxing match around his bags and had to pry them out from underneath them while avoiding flying fists. Bribery is rife and sometimes, if you have a connecting flight, you might just end up missing from the passenger list resulting in having to bribe your way onto the plane.  It’s not for the easily agitated.


The airport in Qatar: Something has gone terribly amiss at this airport. The last time I was there, there was the most incredibly foul smell coming form the canteen/take-away area that wafted through the entire airport. There is also virtually nothing to do inside the departures terminal, which is saying a lot considering that quite a few international terminals have not much to do in them as is. If it’s a long layover, be prepared to be very ill and very bored.


Local Mozambique airlines: Sometimes they are OK, sometimes the door falls off when you land.


Flying anywhere in Russia:  Put it this way, the series Air Crash Investigations could run a five-year-long program segment just using the airlines and planes of Russia. It’s harrowing.


A great website resource: The guide to sleeping in airports :


Photo courtesy of US National Archives.

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