For most of us, spending time in airports generates about as much anticipatory excitement as, maybe, cutting toenails. You have to do it. It’s not fun and often sloppy and uncomfortable, and after hour six you might feel like pulling out those nails instead of enduring another hour watching people shuffle and roll down a crowded industrial corridor.
On a recent set of flights that took me from Addis Ababa to Thailand and then to Los Angeles, I had a veritable layover extravaganza to enjoy: six hours at Dubai International Airport, 12 hours at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand and 12 hours at Inchon International Airport in Seoul, Korea.
Rather then have a meltdown and yell at the idiot travel agent in New York who booked this catastrophe, I leaned into the experience and decided have a good time. This is what I found.
Buy Buy Dubai
Flying from Addis Ababa, where I had spent weeks moving in hard hewn, dusty, difficult circles of broken streets and cracked communication, to Dubai was like waking from a warfront and find yourself on …Rodeo Drive. Unlike Addis, credit cards were accepted everywhere and if gold, diamonds, Godiva chocolates or beluga caviar wasn’t my thing I could always get a Starbuck’s or a Pinkberry, which I did – and paid by credit card.
The international airline terminal at Dubai International Airport (DBX) is a mile-long aisle of style end to end with such designer shops as Tiffany, D&G, Fendi, Nike and shops selling gold by the bullion or brick competing with, well, those standard duty-free juggernauts.
The airport offers a hotel, rentable by the hour for $50 during the day, $60 at night; or by the 24-hour period for $334. And with it comes Internet and use of a business center. And plugs.
I was surprised to see that in such a forward-focused country that sells bejeweled Vertu phones in casual airport kiosks, plugs for charging said phones are at a minimum and highly sought by today’s charge-hungry travelers.
What I did find were welcomed phalanxes of lounge-style chairs, occupied by restful travelers. I also found the Marhaba Lounge where, for no questions asked and $45, even the lowliest economy class traveler can enjoy a variety of sandwiches and fruit, PCs at the ready, comfortable loveseats and boosted Internet (the pubic Wifi is free but not powerful). You can wander through a fake woodsy park in the middle of the terminal or have your photo taken with you buddies at a pro photo stand. You can find Apple iPod accessories. And yes, you can have liquor. Authorities in Dubai tend to look away when it comes to hotels and airports.
Beating the Heat in Bangkok
Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) Airport opened in 2006. It’s a modern megalopolis, the pride of Thailand, with a name that means Golden Land. And was the scene in 2008 for yellow and red shirt “peoples” protests (rumored to have been paid for by the various political parties) that practically shut the airport and tourism industry down in a weeklong massive sit-in.
Today, that airport is hopping with all manor of shops, restaurants, and, thankfully, spas. I had 12 hours to kill so decided to pace myself through a day that included a lot of sleeping, some serious relaxing, some price roaming and some dutiful reading.
First check: Wifi. Free but you need to get a code from one of the many information kiosks scattered around the international terminal.
Second check: prices. I needed to buy a rollie carry-on and was not pleased with the prospect of doing this at an airport. I came across a variety of duty-free notion shops selling a range of rollies. One in particular caught my eye – a Kipling that was durable, attractive, and on sale – for $250. I examined every possible rollie option that day as I had plenty of time to do so and came up with an American Tourister with three-year U.S. warranty for $100.
When it came time for food, on my limited budget I passed up the delicious Thai restos offering pad thai specials for about $12 for the welcomed site of a Subway franchise and a satisfying turkey sub for $4.
My treat came in the form of an hour-long foot massage at one of four spas I found listed. The massage cost about $20 on a chair in a room with many such chairs. No lingering, though.
Finally, sleep. At various ends of the corridors were large rambling spaces filled with large chairs, comfortable couches (and wall plugs). People sprawled, children were kept quiet or played in a nearby kids’ zone, and all was well for a few hours in a comfortable setting where even the distant airline announcements really did not disturb.
At Suvarnabhumi, it is possible to bypass the airport experience and head into town by the rail link between the airport and Makkasan terminal in the city. Lockers at the airport can accommodate medium-sized bags and the 28.5 km trip into central Bangkok takes 15 minutes by express train and 30 minutes by commuter for just a dollar or two.
Easing Away the Hours at Inchon
Inchon gets the Oscar for great airport acts when it comes to wowing international passengers in shock by the news of a lengthy layover. Just as transit passengers are getting their walking legs back as they enter the international terminal a kiosk stands in bold lettering: Transit Tours Information.
For anyone with more than a few hours to kill, HanaTour runs an airport concession that takes these air passengers into Seoul and shows them a good time. As Seoul is some 50 miles from the airport, you really need at least 6 hours to be able to say you saw Seoul on your time between flights. There is a Best of Seoul tour that takes in the Changdeok Palace, the Jogyesaa Temple and hip ‘n happening Insadong for artful shopping. A Myeong-dong Tour heads to Gwanghwamun Palace, Cheonggyecheon Stream that flows through the downtown business district and Myeong-dong, the Fifth Avenue of Seoul.
Another tour takes you to the DMZ for a quick gander at North Korea, if shopping and temples are not your passion. Most tours cost between $20 and $50 per person, often with English-speaking guide, a VIP comfort bus and lunch. If you only have three hours you can go local and tour the area around Incheon. If you have four hours and $1,800 to spend you can have a full medical workover at Inha University Hospital. All tours have scheduled departure and return times.
As I had been to Korea a few times I chose to explore the airport instead, starting with a badly needed shower, which I got on the third floor for free, including towel. The midnight flight from Bangkok left me in total exhaustion, which I addressed on one of the four free massage chairs in a quiet space by the complimentary business center. The zero gravity loungers nearby were all taken.
Further down the hall were a library, a hotel (six hours for $56), a bar and café all quiet and barely populated as the level was one up from bustle of the airport’s duty-free malls. As I was flying Asiana I was aware of the airline’s policy to provide a free hotel room to passengers with layovers exceeding eight hours. But my ticket was not a round trip fare so did not qualify. Instead, my ticket did qualify me for a 30% discount at an airport lounge.
For $20 I was able to enter a stately lounge open to all passengers who want to pay the regular $35 entry. It also had a massage chair as well as a bank of computers, plenty of table space, couches, CNN, magazines and a fantastic selection of healthy food. After sleeping off the flight I was able to lunch on seaweed soup, fresh salad fixings, sandwiches, a variety of hot veggie and meaty Korean stews, and libations that included beer and wine. The five-hour lounge limit is really not imposed, although I was off to explore the spa across the hall and deliberated over getting a manicure for $20 or a shiatsu massage for $40.
Downstairs on the second level, the corridors were crowded with shoppers avidly hunting and actually finding bargains among the designer goods. But within the frenzy were pods of peace: places where one could paint and create. The airport offered special zones for passengers to try their skills at creating traditional Korean artworks with worktables, materials and local artists to explain it all. Several children joined the adults in learning how to mix stamp prints with watercolors. Elsewhere a violinist and cellist performed on a stage by an electronics shop. In a separate moment a procession of men and women intricate traditional garb launched into a small play.
Soon enough I heard the announcement for my flight. It took me nearly 48 hours to fly home from Bangkok but the getting there was, indeed, its own destination.