Where are the world’s best airports? And the worst? Our Foreign Editor, Lisa Gerard Sharp, has toured the world finding the best, here are her findings
The World’s Best Airports
Top airport terminals have upped their game, with world-class shopping, sleek lounges and spas as standard, and gyms, swimming pools and cinemas as extras. The top terminals are truly surprising, tempting world-weary travellers with tranquil Zen gardens or shopping extravaganzas. Singapore’s top-ranked Changi Airport even offers a free city tour to visitors stuck in the terminal.
Whilst Changi leads the way, other large Asiana such as Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Tokyo Haneda and Seoul are also praised. In Europe, top airports include Amsterdam Schiphol, London Heathrow, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Munich, Zurich, Porto and Prague. In the Middle East, it’s Dubai and Doha. In North America, it’s Vancouver and San Francisco, with bus-depot Los Angeles living up to it LAX title. Auckland leads the Pacific Rim contenders.
Travellers rave over Changi, praising the slick, 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 a gym, cinemas and television lounges. Then there are themed gardens, sleeping lounges, a four-storey slide and 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. In the new Wellness Oasis spa in Terminal 1 there’s even a fish spa that exfoliates your feet.
As the world’s second busiest, Dubai is clearly doing something right. It is acclaimed as the best in the Middle East and the region’s best-connected. 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 a 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 edifice.
The new Terminals 5 and Two are world-class. Yet this is a consumer-conscious airport with limitations – chronically overcrowded and needing a third runway. But at its best, Heathrow can be superb, especially in the sleek new Terminals with 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. Terminal 5 has less-good catering but an amazing spa – only for business class travellers.
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 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.
Doha Hamad Airport opened in 2014 to rave reviews, with more services to be unveiled shortly. 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. Although Wi-Fi is free and unlimited, the seating is still rather restricted in some areas. Despite good French and Lebanese eateries, the dining options are currently less impressive than at Dubai Airport. But it’s early days.
Helsinki is an innovative, ultra-practical hub, with efficient public transport links. The airport approach is consumer-friendly and experimental, all 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 new services such as 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. Recently, travellers have appreciated the ergonomic sleeping arrangements, which are still being finessed. It’s unclear whether the relaxation areas, containing sleep pods, beds and comfy armchairs, will be made a permanent feature.
As a model of Germany efficiency, Munich Airport is the country’s best. Certainly for snow-clearing it is a world leader, though it is criticised by some of our readers for the signage being in too small type (making it difficult for oldies). Munich scores highly in terms of city transport links, general efficiency and good design. Also appreciated is the free Wi-Fi, comfortable seating and the quiet rest areas 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. This year, they even established a palm-fringed beach. Extravagances aside, what really delighted voters this year were the relaxation zones and sleep pods in Terminal 2.
Auckland, New Zealand
Auckland is efficient but seemingly laid-back, 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 general 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.
San Francisco Airport, USA
In contrast to all that is amiss at the hated Los Angeles Airport, there is little wrong with San Francisco. Maybe “airport envy” could be a new form of rivalry between these two Californian cities. Instead, as North America’s second-best airport, San Francisco enjoys a similarly soothing atmosphere to Vancouver, further up the coast. The laid-back 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. Other inspired touches include yoga for fun as well as reading and reflection rooms.
Travellers are delighted by the easy rail or road 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 Fran 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.
Seoul, South Korea
Seoul Incheon Airport is one of Asia’s finest, a model of 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.
* See Sleeping in Airports for a rigorous analysis of airports in terms of comfort, convenience, cleanliness and customer service.
Our Good Holiday survey was helped by discerning jet-setter Mavinder Puri, luxury boutique hotelier, and head of Nira Hotels and Resorts. For Puri, “the immigration procedure sets the tone of the country, and the traveller’s experience there: is immigration welcoming, efficient or aggressive?”
Moreover, Puri rightly rates airports for their ability to help you escape them. After Singapore, he believes Zurich is the world’s slickest airport, with a superb valet parking service. Certainly, our affection for Gatwick is challenged by the lengthy new security and immigration procedures, and where the electronic passport “fast lane” is slower than the slow lane. We asked the airport and they said – Don’t blame us – this is the UK Border authorities slowing things again.”