Between mandatory checked baggage fees, chaotic boarding procedures, 17-inch seats and sometimes-soggy a la carte sandwiches, we’ve all experienced what a challenge it can be to fly these days -- particularly if you’re riding it out back in coach. But if air travel seems to have gotten a little more cramped and decidedly less amusing, the opposite can now be said for hanging out in the terminal before departure.
In recent years, major international airports have become increasingly creative in how they’re keeping us entertained on the ground, dreaming up amenities that range from 9-hole golf courses and beer gardens to 40-foot slides and ice skating rinks. Now, instead of causing consternation, long layovers and unexpected delays provide the opportunities to get our adrenaline pumping -- or chill out in ways we rarely find time for at home. Before you decide to pay extra for a nonstop ticket to your next destination, consider laying over in a hub with one of these unique perks or specialty services.
As evidenced by its multiple gaming stations, music video booths, an on-site movie theater and swimming pool (with swim-up bar!), no airport seems more committed to keeping you from getting bored -- and perhaps, from eventually getting on board -- then this one. Changi’s newest addition is The Slide@T3, a 4-story thrill ride that shoots brave passengers down to the basement at speeds as fast as 19 feet per second. For every $10 you spend at the airport, you’ll get 1 ticket to ride the slide (the shorter 1 1/2-story version at Basement 2 doesn’t require a minimum purchase).
Those of us not simply content to hike between terminals to catch a connecting flight can take advantage of well-maintained nature conservation areas (patrolled by park rangers) located between runways at the Zurich Airport. In the terminal, you can rent 24-gear bikes for a full or half day, along with Nordic walking poles and in-line skates, and use them in these green areas. Keep your eyes open: You might actually spot some wildlife, including rabbits, fox, deer and the occasional wild boar.
There’s no need to cab it all the way into downtown London in order to immerse yourself in the shopping mecca that is Harrods: There’s an 11,000-square-foot outpost of the world-renowned shopping emporium in Heathrow’s Terminal 5. You can find labels like Cartier, Etro, Salvatore Ferragamo and Zegna, or stroll through the gourmet food hall. You’ll find small boutique branches of the store in T1, T3 and T4 (where you can pick up goodies from Jimmy Choo, Valentino, Loewe and Roberto Cavalli), and at Gatwick’s North and South terminals.
Whether you’re craving a nap between flights -- or just want to avoid paying for a hotel -- you can get a little shut-eye in sleep suites, nap pods and dayrooms at airports around the globe. At the Minute Suites in Atlanta’s Terminal B, you’ll get a daybed with fresh linens, HDTV and your choice between an in-room alarm clock and a wake-up call ($30 per hour). Yotel at London Heathrow, Gatwick and Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport provides a compact-but-cozy space with a bed, desk and private shower in 75 to 100 square feet ($52 to $92). Several airports offer similar day rooms that also have showers; look for them at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, Narita Airport in Tokyo and the Zurich Airport.
Germany is, of course, the birthplace of the biergarten, so it’s fitting that you can find one without even leaving the airport premises. The 600-seat Airbräu brewery, located just outside of security, offers live entertainment, a huge buffet laden with Bavarian delicacies and, of course, a huge variety of house-made brews. Since one beer garden clearly isn’t enough, Lufthansa recently installed their very own 300-seater in their business-class lounge.
During the colder months, the Munich Airport offers a different sort of merry-making. The airport transforms a covered outdoor atrium between terminals 1 and 2 into a winter wonderland, complete with a free ice-skating rink and 50 market stands with gifts and goodies for purchase. This same space is used in summer to stage beach volleyball tournaments and arena polo matches.
This is no putt-putt play area: The 9-hole professional level course, created just outside Terminal 2 (and the AsiaWorld-Expo) at the Hong Kong Airport was built to USGA (United States Golf Association) standards and contains 7 par-3 and 2 par-4 holes set among rolling greens. The facility also has a Thai restaurant and a clubhouse. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is in the midst of building its own 18-hole course, which is designed by former Ryder Cup captain and US Masters winner Ian Woosnam.
Even before the government began requiring that airports must provide pet relief areas, the Atlanta airport had already begun building a 1,000-square-foot park for 4-legged friends. Located in Terminal South’s ground transportation, the fully fenced-in park offers biodegradable bags for waste, plus a landscaped area with flowers, grass, rocks, benches and 2 original pieces of doggie-themed art. Dozens of other airports now provide pet areas, including Miami International, San Diego International and Phoenix Sky Harbor; a comprehensive list and review of many domestic airport pet services can be found at petfriendlytravel.com/airports.
Some of New York City’s best concerts play not in Manhattan, but out in Queens at JFK’s JetBlue terminal. The “Live from T5” concert series debuted in 2009 and now regularly features major headlining artists from around the world. Past performers have included James Blunt, Taylor Swift, Raphael Saadiq, Sarah McLachlan and rock band Daughtry. To get in, you’ll actually need an airline ticket: All Live from T5 concerts take place post-security in the terminal marketplace.
Sports fishermen who journey to British Columbia’s legendary watering holes are usually determined to land the ultimate catch. Now, those skilled enough to hook a jumbo salmon or 100-lbs. halibut can enlist the services of the Fairmont Vancouver Airport’s fish valets: These marine experts will ensure that the one that didn’t get away is stored at the peak of freshness (minus 15 degrees Celsius) in the hotel’s 575-cubic departure-level fish freezer. How do you actually get your prized swimmer on the flight home? Believe it or not, you can take it (properly packed, of course) as checked baggage.
SFO has long promoted arts and culture -- you’ll find 20 regularly refreshed galleries throughout its terminals -- but it recently made headlines for its commitment to spirituality and mindfulness. Last year the airport converted a former storage area into the world’s first airport yoga room: The 150-square-foot space has mirrored walls and offers mats to movement-minded travelers looking to practice their asanas. Silence is appreciated, as the posted sign indicates; food, drinks, cell phones and shoes aren’t permitted inside.