For many travelers, airports are places to get through as quickly as possible, not places to savour. The incessant buzz of advertisements, the frustration of being excluded from increasingly exclusive lounges, the overpriced food, the serpentine queues and the fruitless search for an electrical outlet can all make it a hellish experience.
But from time to time an airport can offer unexpected and pleasant services that alleviate the pain points of travel.
For Bill Tsutsui, 60, it was the vending machine at Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport in eastern Washington that sells canned cheese.
“You get very tired going through airports. Oh, yawn, another yoga room,” said Tsutsui, of Ottawa, Kansas. “There was something so beautiful, non-corporate and local about it.”
Mr. Tsutsui was one of more than 1,300 people who responded when we asked readers to tell us about your favorite airport amenities. His suggestions included, yes, yoga rooms (at San Francisco International Airport, Chicago Midway International Airport, and Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, among others), but also story dispensers, quiet gardens, and even a pool.
Here's a list that could make your next stopover really enjoyable.
Read a book, watch a movie.
Some airports offer a dose of art, music and literature. Linda Norris, of Treadwell, New York, singled out Amsterdam Schiphol Airport for its library and branch of the acclaimed national museum, both located after security on Holland Boulevard, the airport's cultural zone. These spaces are “oases of calm” that highlight Dutch culture, she said.
“The library is never busy; “It is beautifully designed and has a variety of comfortable seating,” added Ms Norris, 68. “Sometimes I look at his books, sometimes I don't, but it's a part of the airport that never feels rushed.”
Travelers can explore the library's collection of Dutch literature translated into some 40 languages (sorry, no loans).
At Portland International Airport in Oregon, there is a movie theater showing short films by Pacific Northwest creators (located after security in Concourse C).
At Chicago O'Hare International Airport, a tunnel of neon lights and mirrors by artist Michael Hayden and architect Helmut Jahn enlivens an underground hallway (located after security in Terminal 1 between concourses B and C).
At Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, there is a branch of Renaissance Books, a beloved local used bookstore (located in the main terminal, before security).
At Detroit Metropolitan Airport, professional musicians perform with two baby grand pianos in the gate area of the McNamara Terminal (located after security near gates A40 and A72).
Hit the vending machines
Airport vending machines often sell anemic-looking snacks and expensive electronics.
Tsutsui, a fan of canned cheese, said that as a frequent traveler to Japan, he is rarely surprised by what he finds in vending machines. But he found the cheese to be “pretty extraordinary,” he said.
Washington State University began experimenting with canned cheese in the 1930s, searching for packaging that would extend the product's shelf life. (The university says their cheese will last indefinitely if refrigerated.) The most popular variety is a white Cheddar named Cougar Gold after the university's mascot and one of the original cheesemakers.
The machine (which had recently been broken) is located in front of security, right next to the Hertz rental counter, and the cheese can be checked or transported to the plane.
Not a fan of cheese? At several airports in Texas (Austin, Houston, and Dallas-Fort Worth), there are cupcake vending machines offering a variety of flavors from the popular Sprinkles brand. Cupcake ATMs, as Sprinkles calls them, are restocked with freshly baked goods twice a day, a company spokeswoman said.
At Edmonton International Airport in Alberta, a kiosk offers free short stories of varying reading lengths (one, three or five minutes) by local authors, printed on what look like long receipts and available in French or English. The dispenser was created by a French company, Short Édition, which specializes in short works and attempts to encourage reading for fun (located after security on the departures level next to gate 60).
Leave without leaving the airport
Increasingly, airport designers are incorporating outdoor spaces that allow travelers to breathe some fresh air while waiting to take off.
Brent Kelley, director of architecture firm Corgan, said green spaces, such as terraces and gardens, were becoming a priority at airports.
“People are looking for that connection to the outdoors before they spend any time on a plane,” he said. “It started primarily with airline clubs and is becoming a favorite among airport authorities themselves.”
Greenville-Spartanburg Airport in South Carolina boasts that what it calls its airside garden was one of the first in the country when it opened in 1962. It has sculptures, grass and plenty of seating, and is “ an incredibly cozy place to relax while waiting for a flight with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background,” said Nancy deJong, 69, of Greer, South Carolina.
At San Francisco International Airport, there is an outdoor terrace in International Terminal G and also an outdoor observation deck located before security in Terminal 2 that is open to the public at select times.
At Honolulu's Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, lush cultural gardens inspired by the islands' Hawaiian, Japanese and Chinese heritage (think koi ponds and sprawling banana trees) surround the Terminal 2 ticketing concourse and the E gates of the airport.
At Denver International Airport, there are three outdoor rooftop terraces, one on each of the airport's three concourses, beyond security, with fire pits and pet relief areas.
Don't Just Kill Layover Time
To accommodate travelers with long waits between flights, Singapore Changi Airport has three different free city bus tours and a walking tour of the Jewel shopping and entertainment complex that lasts just two and a half hours; All tours are available every day.
Incheon International Airport, which serves Seoul, South Korea, also offers city tours that visit ancient palaces and even local golf courses, but they require at least a one-day stopover. One tour features two of the most famous destinations in central Seoul: a sprawling, centuries-old palace and Insa-dong, a neighborhood filled with charming craft shops and traditional houses. Another takes travelers to an observatory with views of the Demilitarized Zone.
Incheon also has dedicated napping areas with full recliners and screens. There are free showers at several gates in Terminals 1 and 2, and travelers can do crafts or practice taekwondo at one of the airport's many cultural centers.
The new features are part of a trend in airport design to provide a greater sense of place. “We believe the airport is an extension of the city,” said Terence Young, director of the Gensler architecture firm, which worked on Incheon Terminal 2. “I think for a long time airports thought they wanted to be shopping centers. “We’ve really moved away from that.”
At Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, there is a heated indoor pool at the Oryx Airport Hotel open to all airport passengers during select hours for around $48. The hotel, after the security check in the duty free plaza next to concourses C, D and E, also has a spa, showers, gym, golf simulator and even squash courts.
At Helsinki Airport in Finland, travelers can stock up on gravlax and salty licorice at a 24-hour supermarket near the arrivals terminal.
Let the children play
Ideal for burning off energy before or after a flight, children's play areas can make a family trip a survival experience. Favorites included the new indoor play spaces at La Guardia Airport's Terminal B (miniature foam planes, control towers and even baggage claim areas that kids can climb on) and Copenhagen Airport in Denmark , which features indoor and outdoor play areas with slides and a large wooden plane.
At Zurich Airport, there is an area next to gates A, beyond security, for families to relax, offering toys, sinks, changing tables and a quiet space to breastfeed children. One reader praised the “lovely” play areas with climbing frames, rocking horses, high-quality wooden toys, puzzles, books, dolls and video games. Even better: the staff available to help with family needs.
Sensory rooms designed for neurodivergent travelers can be a sanctuary. The Pittsburgh International Airport version, with its soundproofed rooms, comfortable seats and simulated airplane cabin, is “fantastic for children with special needs,” said Blaire Malkin, 44, of Charleston, West Virginia. It's next to gates A, past security.
“It made a huge difference flying with our daughter who has autism and an intellectual disability,” Ms Malkin said. “I would like more airports to have spaces like these that take into account the needs of all travelers.”
In New Jersey, Newark Liberty International Airport's new Terminal A recently opened a 1,000-square-foot sensory room, pre-security, on the south end of the departures level. The room, designed to look as if it has a river flowing through it, has soft, colorful rugs, cloud-shaped lamps, and a mural of a mountain range. There are also bubble tubes, a sensory feature with sparkling beads and constantly moving bubbles. Travelers who need additional assistance can request an in-room security screening, as part of the Transportation Security Administration's TSA Cares program.
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