A Passion for Travel, Part 7: Airport Survival Strategies

UK Airport Treat

UK Airport Treat


It may sound weird, but Clive and I don’t mind airports.

A lot of people whinge and moan about how terrible they are, and we wouldn’t exactly say they’re fun.  Most are pretty boring.  Some are better than others, and the best, especially in Asia, are quite civilised.  I wrote about Singapore’s Changi Airport in ‘Asia 101:  How Not to Get to Paris’.

Clive wants nothing more than a good observation deck from which to watch planes taking off and landing.  They’re hard to find these days.  He’s always on the lookout for a good viewing area, even if it’s only a large window.

We’ve developed a few strategies to make our time in airports as painless as possible.

Bamboo Garden, Changi Airport, Singapore

Bamboo Garden, Changi Airport, Singapore

Allow Extra Time

One rule of travel, and I suppose of life, is to expect the unexpected.

I’m not advocating pessimism; unexpected events are positive as well as negative.

It’s just that when we set out on a trip, I feel I already have enough to think about.  I can’t stand worrying about whether we’ll get to the airport on time, or have enough time there to check our bags and get through Security.

Experience has taught us it’s wise to build a couple extra hours into our schedule.  Our motto is:  we’d rather read at the airport than stress about getting there.

The Vagaries of Traffic

When you live in or near a large city, traffic chaos is the major risk.  On the day I moved to Sydney with my late husband and son, our Connecticut shuttle bus had a fender bender with a New York taxi on the Whitestone Bridge.  The drivers had a lengthy argument, there were no empty taxis cruising by, and if we hadn’t left home with time to spare, we would have missed our flight.

Last September, Clive and I awoke on trip day to news that the Sydney Harbour Bridge was closed due to an accident, the Harbour Tunnel was backed up for hours, and our shuttle service wanted to know if we’d rather take a ferry and train.  Thanks to having extra time available, we made it to the airport with no drama.

I read an article by a woman who said she spent years becoming stressed and angry at departure time because her husband never wanted to leave home until the last possible minute.  He enjoyed making a mad dash to the departure gate and boasted of his ability to avoid wasting time in airports.

His wife decided it was worth the expense of two taxis for her to leave an hour before he did and meet later at the airport.  She relaxed and stopped worrying, and wondered why she hadn’t thought of it years earlier.

I’m glad Clive and I like to leave home at the same time, but I thought this woman’s solution, obvious as it may be, was brilliant for couples who struggle with one being an early bird and the other a last-minute person.

Check-in before Security

When I walk through the doors of an airport, I feel we’re almost on our way.  I’m constantly amazed at how many thousands of people are coming and going around the world.  Airports are definitely great for people-watching.

Even with online check-in, which I wrote about in ‘A Passion for Travel, Part 6:  Departure Checklist’, passengers still need to queue to check bags.  We’ve found it impossible to predict how long this will take or how long the lines will be for any given airline in any particular airport.

If for some reason we haven’t been able to do online check-in, we’ve more or less figured out how use self-service terminals, which are becoming more and more prevalent, and often mandatory.  (I’ll spare you a digression into my pet peeve of businesses making customers do the work.)

Then there’s that little sigh-of-relief moment, when bags are checked, seating is confirmed, boarding pass is in hand, and all you have to handle is the carry-on bag.

After check-in, we find a place to sit down and fill out our departure cards.  We’ve also started taking a bottle of water and snack from home, usually a couple pieces of fruit, to eat before we go through Security.  This avoids paying outrageous airport prices for fast food like Krispy Kreme (always hard to resist) and Subway, which seem to be almost as global as McDonald’s.

Since it’s no longer possible to take a standard bottle of water through Security, we throw our old one away and buy a new one on the other side.

We’re never sure about taking food through, so we don’t.  At Newark Airport last year, the apple in Clive’s carry-on was confiscated as ‘organic matter’.

Many airports have shops before and after Security.  We usually save getting a coffee, browsing, and doing any last-minute shopping as a reward for getting through Security.  Some airports, like Charles de Gaulle in Paris, have almost nothing after Security, and not much before.  In those cases, the reward for getting through is having nothing more to do but sit, talk, and read.

The Security Hurdle

Security is the final departure hurdle these days.  Almost all airports require you to remove your laptop and put it through separately.  Shoes on or off is always a question, so we don’t remove ours until it’s clear it’s required.

The easiest times we ever had going through Security were a few years ago, when for a short time each passenger was allowed one and only one carry-on bag.  We couldn’t believe how much faster it made the process.  Now we’re back to people carrying on everything but the kitchen sink, all of which can cause inordinate delays on the Security line.

securityClive was less than impressed on his first few trips to the U.S. with me, when his boarding pass for every flight came up with ‘SSSS’, for special security line.  He was photographed, fingerprinted, and patted down every time, and his wallet and camera were put through extra X-ray checks.  I’m happy (and so is he) this hasn’t happened in the past year or two.

Lines for passport control and Security are as unpredictable as those for check-in, so we always go through sooner rather than later.

After Security – Aaahhh, the Trip Has Really Begun

For us and I’m sure for many travellers, there’s something psychological that happens when we get through Security.

It’s the big sigh-of-relief moment, when the formalities are over (notwithstanding occasional final gate security with United Airlines), that we really feel the trip has started.  Australia is still there, outside the windows, but mentally we’re now in transit and on our way.

The first thing we do is find a place to sit and have a coffee, and send final text messages to our families in Australia and the U.S.  Then it’s time to browse and maybe buy a few last-minute items.  My favourite browsing is for books.  Clive says, “Really?  I never would have guessed.”  I often find them at airports, which I wrote about in ‘Travel and Books, Part 3:  Always Room for Another Book’.
I  also think books are the perfect entertainment for children on airplanes.

I’ll write more about this in my next post.

Overseas Airports

At overseas airports, Clive usually looks at local newspapers and computer magazines.  In addition to books, I sometimes buy a fridge magnet.

Rowntree's Fruit Gums and Fruit Pastilles

Rowntree's Fruit Gums and Fruit Pastilles

Our biggest shopping decadence occurs at London’s Heathrow, where we buy too many of Clive’s favourite childhood lollies (sweets):  Rowntree’s Fruit Gums and Fruit Pastilles, Maynard’s Wine Gums, and my favourite, Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts.

We always say we won’t open these on the plane.  But after boarding and  spending hours on a long-haul flight, we sometimes can’t help ourselves.

Airports Made Easier

Bertie Bassett

Bertie Bassett (Yum)

Despite the challenges of air travel, we’ve found it can be made much easier if you do online check-in 24 hours before, allow extra time for getting to the airport, checking bags, and going through Passport Control and Security; take a snack from home; go through Security sooner rather than later; treat yourself to a coffee, book, or favourite lolly purchase; and breathe deeply and try to relax before you board.

My next post will cover our tips for how to best use, or at least survive, time on the plane.

More to come.

Related posts:
  A Passion for Travel, Part 1:  Introducing the Series
  A Passion for Travel, Part 2:  The Master Trip Calendar
  A Passion for Travel, Part 3:  Travel Planning Checklist
  A Passion for Travel, Part 4:  Packing without Panic
  A Passion for Travel, Part 5:  Travel Technology
  A Passion for Travel, Part 6:  Departure Checklist

6 Responses

  1. I think that is an excellent idea of the lady…I like to leave a bit earlier, but I suppose the difference is that Arni flies with his job from March til October, and cannot stand airports now, after 8 years…I like to go check in …have a coffee, go to the book store…and relax…! If our flight is an early one, I have breakfast there too!! I only fly once a year, so I make the most of it 🙂

  2. I am so jealous! It seems like you’ve been everywhere, and it must be amazing to travel so frequently.

    I’m very much a homebody, but when my husband and I travel, I love to get to the airport three or four hours early. I know this sounds silly, but I’ve found that airports are excellent fodder for stories.

    My husband likes to eat at airport restaurants, so we always do that after we’ve gone through security at IAH. Then I like to sit at the gate and write character sketches longhand on a legal pad.

    It is amazing how many personality traits you can pick up from people at airports. How they dress, how they interact with loved ones, how they browse at the duty free shop. We only travel two or three times a year, but I look forward to those occasions as much for the trips to the airport as for the vacations themselves.

    Great write-up!

  3. I’m another one who can’t stand to wait until the last minute to get to the airport. When we are going to take a taxi, you have to add at least 30 minutes in case of bad traffic. We’ve been taking the RER recently which is usually always dependable although lugging suitcases up and down stairs can be a pain. Once in, I think, Kalua Lampur, there was an incredibly long security line that took over an hour to get through. Thank goodness we had the time. I also check bookstores out. I hadn’t thought of looking at local goodies, except for chocolate.

  4. These are amazing posts. I must admit I hate the security bit and its so different in each country. Then when I get back to OZ I get all worried I have something to declare. Weare strict although I haven’t been to the USA for some time though. My daughter always gets chosen for security checks for some reason. I always tell her its her dark skin and olive hair. Now one part of your post hit home to me, sweets. When I lived in the UK I couldnt get enough of Aussie sweets. Then when I lived in the UK I fell in love with Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts. Nothing like them.

    Nothing beats my travel disaster of going to Thailand last year in the political upheaval. I couldnt wait to get home and may remain in Australia for some time after that I think.

    Thanks for this series of posts. Really helpful and very interesting. You could get them published in a travel magazine.

  5. Marco and I are definitely one of those “two-time” couples . . . by which I mean, if I’m not at the airport early, I feel like I’m late, and he is imPOSSible to drag out of the house beforehand. Sadly, two separate taxis are not in our budget for now. (Heck, right now, *one* taxi is not in our budget 🙂 ).

    You described so well that psychological sigh of relief that one feels, palpably, after having passed security. I admit that I’m one of those lugging everything . . .which then makes it hard to loll around the airport. But I do my best to be efficient.

  6. Thanks for these great comments!

    Anne, I’ll have breakfast at the airport, too 🙂 Sam, that’s fascinating about your writing and airport ‘personality profiles’. Linda, I agree about steps in the metro and RER – we found that too much of a challenge with heavy suitcases!

    Lilly, wow, can’t imagine being in Thailand last year, and I understand why you’d be happy to stay in Australia for a while. That must have been a scary experience.

    Kim, I’m sure with your travel experience you’re very efficient!

    Cheers all.

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