First, make sure you have enough time. Then divide your wait into three blocks
Congratulations: You’ve made it to the airport well within your advised time, dressed in comfortable clothes and burdened only by your well-packed carry-on and nagging sensation that you’ve left your flat iron plugged in at home.
If you’re packing too much energy to just shuffle to the gate with a book and your phone, don’t wander aimlessly through the wilderness. A well-thought-out game plan can keep you on the path to travel tranquility. Here’s how I get the most out of my pre-boarding time at any airport, big or small.
Through trial and error, tears and terror at airports around the globe, I’ve devised a foolproof system to ensure that you not only make your plane, but have fun in the process. It involves dividing my time into three “blocks” – one for food, one for browsing, and one for peace of mind. Then figure out how much time you can spend on dining, shopping or relaxing, and you’ll never do the sprint of shame again.
Build your blocks
First of all, let’s avoid the rookie mistakes. No one wants to be the person sprinting to the gate after one too many cocktails while the overhead P.A. system blares your name to shame you into running faster. Make your list of priorities and assign a third of your time to each block by default. Then adjust. Can’t live without one last smoothie? Add more time to your “dining block” to track down the best blender in the terminal. Need to loosen those shoulders with some shiatsu? Relaxing will need more of your time. Your blocks will reflect what’s important to you.
Map out your flight plan
Knowing the basic layout of an airport can make or break your pre-travel wandering, and your prep starts before you even leave the house. If you’re not making use of the countless websites and apps (like the Billy app’s own built-in flight tracker tool, natch), you’re missing out. Sites and apps such as FlyerTalk, Gate Guru and AirGrub can help you find the best breakfast near your gate, the quietest place to skulk and people watch, or where to find power outlets so that you can catch up on The Americans in peace.
“If you’re all the way down at the end, there’s often going to be nothing to eat there.”
Although language and layouts may vary, every airport in the world has a certain structure, based on a few shapes. For the most part, airports will fall into one of three categories: a pronged approach shaped on some variation of a letter Y, T or F, a long, rectangular structure (often with a slight curve), or a sunburst/circular shape with forks emerging from a central structure.“You know that airports are basically laid out the same way,” says Toronto-based frequent flyer James Black. “If it’s a Y or a T, at that intersection is going to be where everything is because they’re going to want to shuffle as many people through there as possible. You know that if you’re all the way down at the end of one of those forks, there’s often going to be nothing to eat there, which is another reason not to stay at the gate.”
When it comes to airport eats, five minutes on the internet can save you from that sorry soggy breakfast burrito. “I’m looking for local specialties first, and then edible food. If something’s bad, but I can only get it in St. Louis, for example, I’ll still get it,” Black says. “I’ll go online and look at Yelp reviews, which is not always optimal, but it works.” For North American travel, Eater and Food & Wine both offer editor-curated airport dining guides, and Chowhound may also offer a plethora of opinions, depending on the airport.
If you’re surveying airport food choices without the benefit of prior research (which is, let’s face it, more likely), at least try to avoid the default burger/sandwich/sad-looking salad from the centrally run commissary.
“Airports are offering a healthy option in response to customer demand.”
Lisa Gordon, editor-in-chief of Skies Magazine, sees smaller airports partnering with local restaurateurs to increase their food service options in their retail spaces. “There have been times when I’ve unwrapped a sandwich at the airport and it’s been from a local restaurant in the departure city, which is a nice touch,” she says. “I try to look for fresh and healthy food and I think a lot of the airports are at least offering a healthy option in response to customer demand.”
If you do find restaurants run by local chefs in the area, be sure to look at the beverages to see if there’s a cabernet franc or artisanal gin from a local distillery that you may have always wanted to try (even with the airport markup, it’s probably still cheaper than buying a bottle).
Although in 2012, the average spend at an airport for a traveller was a mere $5.15, according to the Airport Council International (ACI) of North America. That means most people are missing out: Airport flâneurs are awash in options these days.
To shop like a pro, first clear security as quickly as possible. In most airports, you’re bound to find more interesting food, shopping and service options after the security gates (Newark Airport, for example, offers post-security bliss including Belgian beer, a whisky bar and a salumeria). Besides, do you really want to take your food-stuffed self through those body scanners, anyway? And as the lineups for clearance get ever more unpredictable, you want to maximize your shopping before boarding.
For many travellers who spend much of their lives in airports, there’s a certain buying routine or airport splurge that makes the day a bit more bearable. Whether it’s a pack of Mentos and a tacky fridge magnet (Black’s airport vice of choice) or a trashy bestseller, allowing yourself a budget to buy something airport specific can be a great way to make use of time. For me, the price of admission is a bottle of water and a no-brainer paperback that wouldn’t make it past the threshold at home (there are limits, however. Even an interminable airport delay wouldn’t make me resort to self-help tomes). I’ll confess to a fascination with Brookstone’s useless gadgetry, and window shopping while wondering about the mindset behind headband earphones or baby monitors for dogs is also a guilty pleasure.
When checking out the duty-free store, bear in mind that some brands (especially whisky brands) such as Glenfiddich and Laphroaig release “travel retail” editions that are only sold at airports. Ask the staff or do a little research and you might come back with a special gift for the Scotch lover at the office.
The number one way that you can ensure a less panicked experience is simple: Give yourself that time to relax by getting to the airport in plenty of time. “I’m weird and neurotic about time – I’m always at the airport way too early,” says Black. “It’s always easy to lose an hour of time to customs and security, and that just stinks.”
Sometimes, this tranquility can come from your choice of airport itself. And when deciding your route, bigger isn’t always better. Gordon prefers to fly out of smaller regional airports when she travels. “An ideal travel experience for me is often out of smaller airports where the parking is easier, and the terminal experience is better. The lineups are shorter and the security screening goes quicker. It’s just an easier, more relaxing experience all around,” she says.
From local art at Halifax Stanfield International Airport to outdoor garden spaces throughout North America, airports are bringing in the outside world to the airport experience.
Although spas and lounges offer tranquility for a price, sometimes the best things in airports are free. The most recent trend of furry companions in the shape of therapy dogs has been wagging its way across Canada, with options from Rottweilers to terriers taking the terror from flying for nervous passengers at airports in Thunder Bay and Halifax. For other ways to lower your blood pressure, Boston’s Logan International Airport offers walking paths and heart monitors to measure your cool.
“Volunteers may lead you to a yoga retreat, such as the one in Chicago’s Midway International Airport.”
Rather than working in the lounge, travelling light and wandering around the airport can help you find your own oasis of calm. And although silent airports are a new trend in noise reduction, it often pays to speak up at the airport. “I used to just put my headphone earbuds in, but not anymore,” Black says. “You run into people that you wouldn’t normally run into at an airport. You don’t have anything in common with them except that you’re both flying to the same destination or from the same place. It’s kind of neat – you get the chance to see what’s going on in the mind of your fellow man.”
Also talk to the airport volunteers (you’ll likely make their day if they haven’t had any questions for a while) and ask them about quirky or serene spaces. It may lead you to a yoga retreat, such as the one in Chicago’s Midway International Airport, an onsite viewing space to watch airplanes such as Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport’s Jacques-de-Lesseps Park, or an out of the way hidey-hole with power outlets, sun and comfortable chairs – every traveller’s nirvana.
Just don’t get too relaxed – your time will fly by before you know it.
Toronto-based writer and editor Leslie Wu has travelled through 50 airports across the globe while covering and consuming the world’s most interesting plates. Find her on Twitter @leslie_wu.