For many travelers, airports are places to pass through as swiftly as possible, not places to savor. The incessant drone of announcements, the frustration of being shut out of increasingly exclusive lounges, the overpriced food, the serpentine lines and the fruitless search for an electrical outlet all can make for a hellish experience.
But every now and then an airport can offer unexpected and delightful amenities that ease travel’s pain points. For Bill Tsutsui, 60, it was the vending machine at Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport in eastern Washington that sells canned cheese. Tsutsui was one of more than 1,300 people who responded when we asked readers to tell us about their favorite airport amenities. Their 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 short-story dispensers, tranquil gardens, even a swimming pool.
Here’s a list that might make your next layover actually enjoyable.
Books and Movies
Some airports offer a dose of art, music and literature. Linda Norris, of Treadwell, New York, singled out Amsterdam’s 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. At Portland International Airport in Oregon, there’s a movie theater screening short films by creators from the Pacific Northwest (located after security in Concourse C).
Vending machines at airports typically peddle anemic-looking snacks and pricey electronics. Tsutsui said that as a frequent traveler to Japan, he’s rarely surprised by what he finds in vending machines. But he found the cheese to be “pretty remarkable,” he said. Washington State University began experimenting with canning cheese in the 1930s, in search of packaging that would prolong the product’s shelf life. (The university says its cheese will last indefinitely if refrigerated.) The most popular variety is a white cheddar named Cougar Gold for the university’s mascot and one of the original cheesemakers. Not a cheese fan? At various airports in Texas (Austin, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth), cupcake vending machines offer a bevy of flavors from popular brand Sprinkles. The cupcake ATMs, as Sprinkles calls them, are restocked with fresh baked goods twice daily, a company spokesperson said.
At Edmonton International Airport in Alberta, a kiosk dispenses free short stories of different 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, that specializes in brief works and is trying to encourage reading for fun (located after security on the departures level by Gate 60).
At San Francisco International Airport, there’s an outdoor terrace in International Terminal G and an outdoor observation deck located before security in Terminal 2 that’s open to the public at select times. At Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, there are lush cultural gardens inspired by the islands’ Hawaiian, Japanese and Chinese heritage — think lagoons with koi and sprawling banana trees — surrounding the Terminal 2 ticketing lobby and the airport’s E gates. At Denver International Airport, there are three outdoor roof decks — one in each of the airport’s three concourses, past security — complete with fire pits and pet relief areas.
Don’t just kill time
To accommodate travelers with long waits between flights, Singapore Changi Airport has three different free bus tours of the city and a walking tour of the Jewel entertainment and retail complex that take just 2 1/2 hours; all tours are available daily. Incheon International Airport, which serves Seoul, South Korea, also has city tours that visit ancient palaces and even local golf courses, but these require at least a daylong layover. One tour features two of the most famed destinations in the center of Seoul: a sprawling centuries-old palace and Insa-dong, a neighborhood filled with charming craft shops and traditional homes. Another takes travelers to an observatory with views of the Demilitarized Zone.
At Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, there is an indoor, heated swimming pool in the Oryx Airport Hotel open to all airport passengers during select hours for about $48. The hotel, after security in the duty free plaza by Concourses C, D and E, also has a spa, showers, a gym, a 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 arrivals.
Let the children play
Children’s play areas, ideal for burning off some energy before or after a flight, can make a family trip survivable. Favorites included the new indoor play spaces at La Guardia Airport’s Terminal B in New York — miniature foam planes, control towers and even baggage claims children can climb on — and Copenhagen Airport in Denmark, which has both indoor and outdoor playgrounds with slides and a large wooden airplane. At Zurich Airport, there is an area by the A gates, past security, for families to unwind, offering toys, sinks, changing tables and a quiet space to nurse children. One reader raved about the “delightful” play areas with climbing structures, rocking horses, high-quality wooden toys, puzzles, books, dolls and video games. Staff on hand to help with family needs made it even better.
By Christine Chung