If you’re a frequent flyer and can brag about spending more time in the air or airports then your own home, then this guide probably isn’t for you. No doubt you know the best airports to hang out in, where to get free wifi, which airlines offer power outlets and the best inflight entertainment, right?
If not then you may be wandering aimlessly through your multiple trips without thinking about what makes your journey the most enjoyable and how to maximize your time spent traveling the world.
After visiting 53 countries, many multiple times and racking up hundreds of thousands of miles I feel like there are some tips I should pass on to make you a smarter, savvier suitcase entrepreneur.
This year alone I’ve taken 16 flights and flown to 12 different cities (not to mention cycling through 7 countries in Africa) and I’ve been through my fair share of airports, delays, nearly missed flights, excess baggage charges (blame my bike) and customer service experiences.
Below is my humble opinion based on a lifetime of travel and countless hours spent on the move, in transit and flying in the skies, of the best airports and airlines for a suitcase entrepreneur.
Bangkok’s fairly new international airport Suvarnabhumi Airport is huge and has the same shops repeated in each wing. It’s clean, bright and modern and excellent for long walks. You can pick up Thai massage for around $25 per hour which is only 6 times the price you’ll pay in Thailand – and relatively cheap in comparison to other countries in the world. It also has pleasant calming music which I think is missing from many airports. After spending over 6 hours in transit here I still found more things to explore and discover.
Amsterdam Airport Schiphol – funky, modern and relatively `crowd free’ this is a pleasure to walk around and for shopping. There’s also decent free wifi and plenty of places to sit down and relax should you not be tempted by the many Dutch food delights. It’s also easy to reach by public transport with the trains departing from within the airport to the city in around 20 mins for less than 5 euros which is a bargain. The signage is on the whole excellent and helpful and there’s a certain air of style about the European travelers you see here.
London Heathrow Airport – the world’s busiest airport is looking hot right now. Shiny polished floors, sparkling duty free shops and the famous bright yellow and black signs to guide you through your ultimate airport experience. With 4 terminals there are fairly decent walk times between them if you haven’t checked out your itinerary properly (speaking from experience). There’s also an array of book shops, cafes and pharmacies for all your travel and business needs. I can’t recommend the Heathrow Express train enough – 15 mins from Paddington to Heathrow for 19 pounds and free wifi.
Toronto Pearson International Airport – In 2011 this was voted the most improved airport which they proudly display on billboards and that they’re now aiming to be the best. I think they’re well on their way to be honest, largely helped because, as they tell you on posters, billboards and toilet stickers, you can get free wifi `everywhere. And you can and it’s fast and reliable and that quite frankly is bliss! It’s also clean with lots of natural light and a well laid out plan of terminals. HSBC seems to own the advertising though and signs could be clearer around connecting flights and separate baggage carousels. But I’m not complaining. Shops and cafes are modern, friendly and everywhere.
Dubai International Airport – One of the most intriguing designs with giants waterfalls cascading over lights, high arched glass ceilings, it’s also an eternally busy airport with all the shopping and bright lights you can handle. It seems to centre on one main passage way that means general foot traffic can slow your walk times and these are considerable – even if in a straight line. I like it because of the range of languages and cultures you can observe and the fact that you look out across to the city in the haze and can see the world’s only 7 star hotel. Plus it has a lot of reclining chairs that you see people zonked out on. What they desperately need though are a gazillion more power sockets in the entire airport so you can recharge.
Auckland Airport and Vancouver International Airport – I mention these both together because when I flew from one to the other it became glaringly obvious that they both were well designed and focused on nature and native culture. Both feature giant wooden totems, running water, fountains and the sounds of birds in a forest gently wafting throughout. High ceilings, smooth escalators, lots of natural light and an array of lovely shops and cafes, these airports pull of stylish, minimalist and nature inspired in a great way. They have plenty of areas from which to relax, sit down and recharge too and excellent business lounges.
I’ve been on my fair share of airlines in this world and I’d have to say that the plethora of US based airlines and the busy airports that come with a population of over 260 million make you feel like a cattle sometimes, so it’s the airlines then that stand out from the rest that make an impact. For me this is
Virgin America – the purple lighting and party style set up makes you feel like you’ve walked into a trendy bar not an airplane and it suits me perfectly! I especially like the fun cartoon safety video and that you can purchase wifi onboard as well as access a wide variety of entertainment through their onboard system. Staff are friendly and look stylish and while you do have to pay for food and drinks (like most US airlines) it just seems cooler on Virgin.
Singapore Airlines – for many years they ruled the skies with their hot looking and always young air hostesses, beautiful outfits and charming service. For me this has not really changed, perhaps the perks and benefits have grown fewer as the industry has become so cut throat. But anyone who gives me socks, a toothbrush and an eye patch in a fancy bag wins me over and their food is decent quality too. They were also (if i’m not mistaken) the first airline with personalized inflight entertainment screens on the back of your seat and they still boast a great setup.
Air New Zealand – hands down one of the best airlines I’ve flown and that has nothing to do with my Kiwi pride. With clean, modern airplanes – including the super cool pod sleepers in first class (a world first design I believe), they also have the most entertaining inflight safety video thanks to the Rugby World Cup. In addition the staff are always dressed in designer outfits and are long serving professionals who seem to stick with the airline for years – always a good sign. The food is very good and there’s no end of quality wines. You also feel like your a human on their flights, not one of the masses.
Emirates – I’d always heard great things and finally got to experience it several times en route to and from Africa this year. They didn’t disappoint. Their planes have comfortable seats with decent space allowance, an excellent inflight entertainment setup, super pleasant and professional staff who all look quite enigmatic in their head gear and scarfs. The food is quite good and served regularly. Plus their night service means you’re never short of water or anything else you need. They also have one of the most generous baggage allowances at 30kg plus.
easyJet – some people might wonder why this budget airline has made it on my list given that you can’t reserve seats and the checkin halls and areas are not fancy plus you pay for a check in bag, speedy boarding and just about any upgrade. However their flights are ridiculously well priced, they’re usually on time (unlike Ryan Air), they’re branding is excellent – can’t miss an EasyJet plane with giant orange letters across it and they advertise cleverly. Their inflight magazine is an excellent read and their meals, drinks and duty free offerings are tempting. Plus the seats are comfy and they let you off both ends of the plane!
SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENTS
As you get used to the common pitfalls and experiences while traveling, here’s what I’d like to see more of in airports:
Free wifi – come on. It’s 2012. Provide it to us please! Or at least have a universal wifi connection like Boingo in EVERY airport. Also make the prices reasonable!
Regular people lounges – a yearly membership to access airline lounges as and when you need even if you’re not a frequent or business traveller would be uber cool.
Interactive touch screen directories – you get them in shopping malls but less so in airports, and a smartphone app you can install for all airport layouts would be da bomb (in addition to great signage and helpful info kiosks).
Friendlier service – I get that millions of people travel through airports but you can make a person’s day by going the extra mile with a smile, rather than just scanning their boarding pass or sounding like a robot over the loud speaker as you invite people seated in rows 15-25 to now board the plane. Inject some personality. Make travelers happier people!
Calming, upbeat music – in amongst the ongoing announcements is it too much trouble to have some soothing music to lift peoples’s spirits and make their airport experience more pleasurable. Music has been known to have significant effects on peoples moods and attitudes so use it to best effect.
Currency payment card – of course a credit card can be used anywhere but not everyone has one and not everyone wants to change money on a stopover or transit so why not consider a universal payment card of sorts that you can load in your own currency online, and at airport kiosks and then use in any airport for any local currency?
By the way my good friend and world traveler Chris Guillebeau run the most excellent Travel Hacking Cartel and for me it’s the perfect membership program because it allows you to save money on flights and hotels and earn free air miles so you can be a sophisticated suitcase entrepreneur.
It starts at just $15 per month!
Plus it’s backed up by the World’s Greatest Guarantee – you’ll earn at least four free plane tickets for every year you remain a member!