Long haul flights are a test of endurance.
Sleeping in an upright position (or, if you are like me, trying – and failing – to sleep), eating food that you'd never consider eating otherwise, watching movies you've already seen, and dealing with the constant din of noise and desert-dry cabin air are enough to make you count the minutes in a way that you haven't done since you counted down until the final bell in elementary school.
Uncomfortable long haul flights are one of the certainties of travel for people heading to East Asia from other continents. It's ten, twelve, or even fourteen hours inside the plane, often followed by a layover and another few hours aloft. There is a bit of a silver lining to this air travel ordeal, though. East Asia has some of the world's best airports.
Yes, we all know about the golf course and other attractions at Hong Kong International. I don't know about you, but for me, over-the-top amenities like that matter little to my sleep-deprived, dehydrated, cramp-plagued body when I land for a layover after an international flight. I want clean bathrooms, hearty food, a bottle of water that isn't completely overpriced, and a place where I can just chill out for a few hours and forget about the next leg of my journey.
After I figured out where to look, I was often able to find this kind of relaxation in Asia's airports. Here are tips for relaxing in East Asia's busiest (and best) airports.
South Korea's hub is a very busy airport and a popular layover point, especially for connecting travelers going to and from the US and Canada. It is also one of the world's best airports, according the the respected air travel survey firm Skytrax. Yes, it deserves a high ranking. Here's why: If you want to kick back, the Rest & Relax Zones, with lounge chairs, cushioned sofas and a surprisingly quiet atmosphere, are a very welcome feature. There are even a couple of free shower facilities that passengers can use to wash off before heading on to the next leg of their journey. If you have time to kill and would rather spend your layover getting your blood pumping again, the Korean cultural exhibits found in Incheon are a very interesting way to get your mind off of traveling without having to spend any money.
Yes, if you've been to Narita, you're already aware of the plentiful smoking rooms and beer vending machines. If you need more than a cig and a cold one to wind down between flights, then there are some other options. Pay-in showers are available in both the airport's terminals (you pay for 15 or 30 minutes, and the price includes soap, shampoo, towel and hair drier). Terminal Two has a “silence room” that you can use to give your layover a little bit of zen. Free wifi is available throughout the airport. It should be noted that Narita is not really a 24-hour airport, so you may not be able to get food if you arrive after 11 p.m. or before 5 a.m.
If you are traveling with your family, Beijing International is not a bad airport to find yourself in. Each of its terminals has a Kid Activity Zone where your youngsters can blow off some stream in between flights. Since wifi is free, parents can occupy themselves with some web surfing while the kids play. Beijing has several pay-in lounges, including Plaza Premium Lounges in Terminals 2 and 3 (the main international terminals). These venues have showers available (prices start at US$35 for a 3 hour pass). T3 also boasts an area that has been dubbed the World Kitchen. It is a massive food court with 72 vendors selling food from all over the world, from fast food to gourmet fare. If you are looking for a good meal, Beijing's hub is arguably your best bet in Asia.
Hong Kong Int'l
In the intro, we mentioned Hong Kong's more-over-the-top features. But it is actually an excellent airport for relaxing. The airy terminal buildings make it feel uncrowded here, even if it actually is filled with people. There are helpful charging stations for laptops and handheld devices in the airside boarding areas. Hong Kong has a impressive list of pay-in lounge options, with one of the best value choices being the $35 meal and shower packages available at the Plaza Shower and Relaxation Lounge (Terminal One). There are also children's TV lounges (featuring cartoons), play areas, and even a couple of miniature gardens. HKIA is truly a 24-hour airport, so you will be able to find food, showers, and whatever else you want no matter when you arrive.
Thailand’s relatively-new Suvarnabhumi Airport features an airy terminal and plenty of shopping options. There are a number of pay-in lounges, but they are rather pricey - starting at US$56 for three hours. Suvarnabhumi's free rest areas are a highlight for weary travelers. With furnishings like reclining chairs and children's play areas, these rooms are found in two of the airport's busiest concourses (B and D). Unfortunately, for people who want to really kick back, this airport is really geared towards one thing: retail. Internet service is spotty and hampered by 15 minute time limits. If you have more than a few hours, there are sightseeing tours offered for fliers in transit. These last 3 or more hours but are a good option for those who have enough time and energy to escape the airport.
Singapore's Changi Airport is arguably the best place for a layover in Southeast Asia. If you have an option of where to layover, I personally would recommend booking your flights so that you can fly though this airport (it might even be worth an extra US$100 or so in the overall cost of the ticket). Changi has really unique attractions like a butterfly room, koi ponds, and themed gardens with seating areas that make it possible to fool yourself into thinking that you are not stuck in an airport on a layover. Pay-in lounges (rates start at $39 US) can be found at Changi, but each terminal also has free rest areas with reclining snooze chairs (yes, that's real leather that they are covered with). Other diversions include a movie theater, a pool (US$14 admission), and an entertainment area and arcade. Internet kiosks are found through the terminals, and wi-fi access is free.