Picking favourite airports is subjective. Security and speed-of-escape can be more crucial than sleep pods. Even so, the top terminals are truly surprising, tempting world-weary travellers with tranquil Zen gardens or even a brewery.
Subjectivity plays a role in our preference for particular airports. Sometimes the difference lies in the detail. For a high-roller, it could be the chance to win a Ferrari in Dubai airport’s supercar lottery. For lesser mortals, it might be the fabulous fresh mozzarella bar at Rome Fiumicino airport, or the Fragonard perfume picked up at Nice Duty Free. Airports are almost as individual as we are.
Business travellers also rate airports for their ease of access and speed-of-escape factor, with Tallinn and Zurich being two of the best. The joys of a small but efficient airport can’t be underestimated. Certainly, my affection for London Gatwick is challenged by the lengthy security procedures. It’s puzzling that the electronic passport “fast lane” can often be slower than `the slow lane.’
Even if the Far East leads the way, Europe’s airport terminals are also upping their game. The best offer world-class shopping, sleek lounges and spas as standard, and gyms, swimming pools and cinemas as optional extras. Munich airport even boasts a brewery. Singapore’s top-ranked Changi airport offers a free city tour to visitors stuck in the terminal.
In the Far East, Singapore’s Changi comes out on top but Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo Haneda and Seoul are also praised. In Europe, top airports include Munich, Tallinn, Zurich, London Heathrow, Helsinki, Amsterdam Schiphol and Copenhagen. In the Middle East, it’s Dubai and Doha. In North America, it’s Vancouver and San Francisco, with Auckland leading the Pacific Rim contenders. We begin with the best in Europe, moving onto Asia, the Middle East, North America and the Pacific Rim.
Heathrow Airport c Mikael Buck/Heathrow
Heathrow Airport, London
Let’s be patriotic for once. At best, this is a consumer-conscious airport. We all know Heathrow’s limitations – that it’s chronically overcrowded and needs a third runway to remain competitive. But at its best Heathrow can be superb, especially in the sleek Terminals 2 and 5, which have shorter queues. Much depends on which of Heathrow’s five terminals you are funnelled through. Terminal 5 is bright, bold and airy while Terminal 2 has vaulted ceilings and natural daylight. Signage is generally excellent, especially in the new terminals. Airport security is streamlined and reassuringly safe. A “personal shopper” can be booked to guide you through Duty Free. Expect world-class shopping, bars, eateries, and even customer service. Spa junkies will love the pre-flight beauty treatments. Terminal 2 boasts British brands, such as John Lewis, Harrods, Caviar House and a Heston Blumenthal experience, complete with an authentic wood-fired pizza oven.
Tallinn Airport, Estonia
Estonia’s Tallinn Airport is one of the surprises on my list, as much as a pleasant surprise as Tallinn itself. The airport is compact, comfortable, well-designed and efficient. Above all, it’s an easy airport to negotiate as you could move through the airport in around fifteen minutes. It all bodes well for the new British Airways London-Tallinn route that launches in Spring 2017.
Sleeping in Airports, the well-respected airport comparison website (www.sleepinginairports.net) praises Tallinn as a place that “makes travellers feel truly at home.” Despite being such a high-tech city, there are few obvious gimmicks, beyond the sleep pods. Fun aspects include quirky announcements made by jazz and opera singers, and the airport library, proof that Estonians are big readers. Given Tallinn’s size, late-night departures and long layovers are limited but that’s fine. Ultimately, it’s all about efficiency, with friendly service, short queues and temping cafes making this one of Europe’s easiest, most accommodating airports.
Helsinki Airport, Finland
Helsinki is an innovative, ultra-practical hub, with efficient public transport links. Much like the Finns themselves, the airport is consumer-friendly and experimental, with the goal of giving customers exactly what they want. The management aren’t afraid to act on customer surveys. As a result, the airport has piloted free yoga and Pilates classes, pop-up Finnish restaurants and even a “Selfie-wall” and an art gallery. Superior customer service is matched by quiet efficiency, with e-passport kiosks that virtually eliminate queues. Travellers appreciate the ergonomic sleep pods and comfy relaxation zones – as well as the delicious Finnish chocolate and potent liqueurs on sale in Duty Free. The Finns also do great airport shopping, from reindeer rugs to classic Scandinavian kitchenware.
Munich Airport, Germany
As a model of Germany efficiency, Munich Airport is regularly regarded as the country’s best airport. Munich compares well with some of the top Asian airports. It also scores highly in terms of city transport links, general efficiency, good design and clear signage. Also appreciated is the free Wi-Fi, comfortable seating and the quiet zones with reclining seats. For more privacy (and a small fee) you can book a “sleep pod” for a few hours. Passengers in transit with time to spare are encouraged to explore nearby. You can choose from mini golf, spa treatments, and even tours of the airport brewery. Munich is a civilised airport, much like the city itself. Extravagances aside, what really delights some visitors are the relaxation zones and sleep pods in Terminal 2.
Singapore Airlines at Heathrow c LHR Airports
Changi Airport, Singapore
Travellers wax lyrical over Changi, praising the slick but soothing atmosphere, the gracious staff, the airport’s intuitive design, and the sheer range of luxury facilities. Visitors can lap up the chic shopping, cool spas and swimming pool, as well as the gym, cinemas and television lounges. Then there are themed gardens, sleeping lounges, the four-storey slide and the free Singapore city tour. Complimentary Wi-Fi is standard, as is the chance to recharge gadgets at one of over 800 mobile charging points. Some travellers in transit mistakenly think they’ve landed in a world-class resort or shopping mall, rather than at a mere airport. In the Wellness Oasis spa in Terminal 1 there’s even a fish spa that exfoliates your feet. Unsurprisingly, Changi regularly dominates the “world’s best airports” lists.
Seoul Airport, South Korea
Seoul Incheon Airport is one of Asia’s finest, a model of Asian efficiency, although not quite up to Changi’s peerless standards. Seoul offers unlimited free Wi-Fi, along with showers, sleek private lounges, and even an ice rink. All the key services run smoothly, so much so that some passengers feel like moving in. Just in time, the Seoul team sends willing travellers in transit on free guided city tours, which will encourage many to return for a proper stay. Just when it all seems rather bland, Seoul shakes it up a bit. Korean Cultural Street is a clever concept that presents travellers with the best of local culture, from authentic Korean cuisine to energetic dance performances.
Dubai Airport, the Emirates
As the world’s second busiest airport, Dubai is clearly doing something right. Dubai is acclaimed as the best airport in the Middle East, as well as being the region’s best-connected airport. Elegant, well-lit terminals pay homage to east-meets-west Emirates culture. In terms of glamour and glitz, the shopping surpasses its rivals. The addictive Duty Free lulls you into believing that you still have money in the bank. The super-car lottery seduces many with the chance to win a flashy Ferrari.
Fine dining embraces sushi and Champagne bars. Restfulness comes in the form of Zen gardens or even a swim and spa at the five-star airport hotel. Dubai also pioneers “Snoozecubes,”comfortable capsules for power naps or serious snoozing. The only downside is that, despite all the extravagant touches, there’s a hint of two-tier system. The gates can be crowded, with a shortage of comfortable seating, unless you pay for a plush lounge. And there’s only 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi. But these are quibbles in this magnificent blend of East and West.
Doha Hamad Airport, Qatar
Doha Hamad Airport opened a few years ago to rave reviews. The airport underlines Qatar’s bid to become the region’s big power-broker. Seasoned travellers concede that the sleek terminal rivals Dubai in terms of luxury and comfort, perhaps catering even better to leisure visitors. Both security and the E-gates work smoothly, while facilities include upmarket shopping, several hotels, a spa, squash courts and a mosque. As a reflection of Arab culture, snoozing can take place in single-sex quiet rooms. Much like Dubai, Doha falls into the luxury trap of offering all the glitzy trimmings but occasionally falling short in covering the basics. Despite good French and Lebanese eateries, the dining options are currently less impressive than at Dubai Airport, but more is promised.
Into the blue c Heathrow Photo Library
Vancouver Airport, Canada
As the major gateway between Canada and Asia, Vancouver takes its role seriously. Consistently rated the best airport in North America, Vancouver excels in its welcoming, can-do attitude. This mission to help extends to friendly visitor centres, children’s play areas, and a 24-hour help desk. Practicality is paramount, including handy luggage storage and an efficient public transport system. Canada’s best airport also provides comfortable seating, including padded sofas, seats with footrests, and a number of new television lounges. Apart from rest zones, decent restaurants and a medical centre, there’s also a spa and gym at the adjoining Fairmont Hotel. More creatively, Vancouver Airport takes pride in its aesthetic appeal, with art exhibitions of native north-west Pacific Coast art. There’s also an engaging aquarium, which is popular with families. Given its user-friendliness and positive attitude, Vancouver also covers the basics better than other airports.
San Francisco Airport, California, USA
Whatever is amiss at Los Angeles Airport, there is little wrong with San Francisco. Maybe airport envy could be a new form of rivalry between these two great cities. Instead, San Francisco, North America’s second-best airport, enjoys a similarly soothing atmosphere to Vancouver, further up the coast. The laidback west coast attitude is infectious and begins with the engaging staff. The most welcoming sight is the ‘wag brigade’, a team of cute puppies trained to de-stress travellers. Apart from puppies, other inspired touches include yoga for fun as well as reading and reflection rooms. Travellers are delighted by the easy connections into the city, the free Wi-Fi and the convenience of the airport itself. The self-guided tours throughout the four terminals are not just for plane-spotters. San Francisco also scores highly on entertainment. If you can drag yourself away from the puppies, there’s an aquarium, an aviation museum and an eclectic array of art.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
Auckland is efficient but seemingly laidback, reflecting the unpretentious, outdoorsy nature of New Zealand life. For all its appealing modesty, Auckland is regularly voted the best airport in Australasia. The appeal lies in the atmosphere, which celebrates natural light and birdsong. Passengers are not allowed to forget that the “real” New Zealand lies just outside. The airport isn’t really about the shopping or the food, even if both are perfectly acceptable, as are the free showers and free Wi-Fi. The helpful staff and comfortable seating are added bonuses. But what matters more is the soothing atmosphere, so unlike the stress of a standard international airport.
See Sleeping in Airports (www.sleepinginairports.net) for a rigorous analysis of airports in terms of comfort, convenience, cleanliness and customer service.