personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

Top 6 Tips for Having a Great Time in an Airport

I read a post on Lonely Planet earlier this morning that listed 16 tips for safe trips - all good stuff and worth looking at for novice and seasoned travelers.

As we end the year there is no shortage of top ten lists or top anything lists, so let me give it a go with my own travel tips for surviving in airports based on far too many economy flights zipping around the world over the last decade. Feel free to agree or disagree with this list, but I'll do what I can to make it as original as possible. I call this list the top six tips for having a great time in an airport, but that was just to grab you - I don't think it's possible to have a great time in an airport if you're stuck as an economy traveler like me. Which is why the list stops at six instead of ten!

1. Go through airport security as naked as possible and make sure your damn laptop is easily accessible
OK so I'm exaggerating a little but not by much. I've been groped, poked, prodded, and treated like a would-be terrorist enough times to know how to make the security check as effortless as possible. I no longer wear my belt before going through security, it's tucked neatly in my carry-on, as is my watch and phone if I'm carrying it. I always take off my shoes - I noticed in Vienna that my shoes had metal rods in them - BEEP BEEP BEEP. Take off your damn coat before you stand in line, especially if you're in front of me because you'll just annoy me as you take it off and empty your pockets of all your change, ATM receipts, candy and keys.

As for the laptop, most airports ask you to take it out of your carry-on if you've got one (some odd exceptions were Sri Lanka and Indonesia, places where BOMBS sometimes go off, or at least used to). Some security officials, like a few at Schiphol who I am convinced were failed drill sergeants, can unnerve you enough to go through security and pick up someone else's laptop. Sounds nutty but it happened to me, and it really sucks when you show up in Jakarta after two days of travelling, open up the laptop and realize, Waitaminnut, who the hell is Elisha and why is she a user on my laptop? Oh crap this is not my laptop. The story did have a happy ending at a train station in Amsterdam two weeks later. I made the exchange with Elisha and felt as much as I ever will like a secret agent.

2. Don't try to cheer up people who work at airports, they are for the most part miserable
I should know I used to work at an airport as a teenager and froze my tail off hustling travelers for taxi rides. Doesn't sound that bad but some days the temperature dropped below -30 Celsius and all I had for comfort was a small booth (in which I was not allowed to sit) that had a heater with two settings: OFF and BURN YOUR FINGERS THROUGH YOUR GLOVES. But seriously (sort of), here's my list of unhappiest people working at airports (in order of least unhappy to most unhappy):

5. Folks who work in shops. These people are actually borderline happy/bored shitless/sometimes unhappy. The exception being any airport in South Asia and Southeast Asia, where shop attendants are always happy, especially the women. Thailand and Singapore, seriously happy all the time, jumping out of their stores to greet me.

4. People who work at the airline counters. Most of the time, especially with Air Canada, I feel like I'm disturbing them in their own home. Their look says, Oh what do you want? I get better service from the automatic check-in counters. Friendlier too.

3. Security people. The lousiest of the bunch are all working at Charles de Gaulle airport. Nasty, rude, impatient, and regularly insulting the passengers in transit as they put their luggage on the conveyor belts. Most of their insults are directed at those who do not look as though they speak French, so the security guards mock them by joking amongst each other. What they don't realize or don't care about is that some people who are not from France do in fact speak French. To all of them I say mange de la marde. And in case you were wondering, the most thorough security officials are in Winnipeg. They take their job VERY SERIOUSLY, although I do not know why.

2. Customs officials. How happy would you be if your job was to stamp passports for people who, let's face it, want to spend as little time as possible talking to you so they can get to their luggage? I say hi and thank you in a local language when I can, but most customs officials are unresponsive. The ones here in Montreal look for the most part like college students. "Where did you go?" They'll ask. "Ouagadougou." That usually shuts them up.

1. Travelers who just missed a connecting flight. Ouch, just stay away from them. 

3. Try to avoid the first toilet outside the boarding gate
Once you get off your flight, if you're stuck in transit at the airport you will likely have to use the toilet if you're stuck there for a while. If you're an economy (or sardine-class if you prefer) traveler like I am most of the time, you get stuck with the public toilets - the lounge is an idyllic paradise with wonderful toilets and you will never attain the greatness of others who walk into that sacred land. I avoid using toilets on planes as much as possible because I DON'T FIT IN THEM and also because people really show poor hygiene at 35000 ft. Never walk in an airplane toilet without your shoes. 

But back to the airport loos. Don't go to the first one you see out of the gate because everyone else will be going there. Hold it in for a while and find one that's away from busy foot traffic. You'll inevitably find one and hopefully you will not have noisy neighbours in adjoining stalls. 

4. Get comfortable if you're in transit, but not too comfortable, eh?
I did a mental calculation one day waiting for a connecting flight in Paris. I estimated the total number of days of my life spent waiting in airports. At the time it amounted to 24 days, or almost 600 hours. If I have a long wait in a lousy airport (LOUSY: Winnipeg, Medan, Newark, Manila, Dakar, the old Delhi transit lounge, oh the list goes on), I make the best of it by finding a good seat. Almost every airport has "premium" seats with higher backs, but you have to search for them, like the second floor of Schipohl. Take the shoes off, tuck them close to the carry-on, put the feet on the carry on and get comfy. Try not to hog space by splaying yourself across four seats, your stinking bare feet oozing a stench reminiscent of high school lockers next to me. And yes, I do see your fat belly if you stretch your arms over your head. Worse still when you turn sideways and present your hiney to me, crack and all.

In the nicer airports (NICE: Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Vancouver, Dubai), pace yourself, walk around and browse through every store, and treat yourself to a magazine or buy a friend a kitsch souvenir.

5. Stay away from children
I have two children and I love them dearly. I really do. But I hate kids in airports. The kids I have seen in airports have been, for the most part, noisy, whiny, complaining, stinky, loud, obnoxious, hyper, crying, annoying, hungry, tired, and bored out of their little minds. I can't say I blame them. But the parents don't know how to handle them most of the time. Here's a hint, clueless parents: try not to read your latest magazine from RELAY and talk to your kid instead. Or put down your little Blackberry and explain to your kid the wonder of an airplane taking off. 

6, Man up, it's only air travel
A couple of weeks ago the news was showing weary travelers stuck at airports because their flights were cancelled owing to the bad weather in the UK. "This is the worst experience ever," said one. "This is truly horrible, I've been here all day," lamented another. C'mon people, you're stuck in airports. That's it. They lost power at the airport in Moscow for a few hours last week - I can see how that would be annoying. But however bad you think air travel is, remember that your life could be a lot worse. It certainly is for plenty of others. Make the best of the time you have in airports, sleep, read, go for a long walk, write postcards, write in your journal, or chat up a stranger and practice your small talk.

Enjoy your travels, be safe, and a Happy New Year to all.

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