For any travelers out there (of which I suspect there will be many this month), layovers are often a necessary and incredibly cost-effective evil. Below you will find my experiences (or how I imagine my imminent experience will be) with five airports. These airports often serve as gateways to SE Asia, Europe, and North America.
The Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (how fun to say!) has a wealth of activities both within its terminals, and a short train ride away in the heart of the city. However, shopping and gambling are not of interest to me, and the city has more museums, so I have admittedly not spent a length of time in the airport. Amsterdam itself has so much to offer. The tram, all of the bikes ever, the Red Light district, and for those looking to sober up before continuing on their way, the Anne Frank Huis. Famous artist enthusiasts also have the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh Museum and rub it in my face as it was closed when I was last there. Go ahead. Do it.
China Southern’s main hub, travelers to SE Asia for the winter break may find themselves in the Guangzhou airport. If you have a significant layover here, there are free 72-hour visas and you can take the approximately one hour journey into the center of the city for sites, shopping, and sweets (or food in general; I don’t discriminate). If your allotted time can’t accommodate the traveling though, you will be sentenced to the hell that is Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. The few restaurants here are far from acceptable, Wi-Fi is sparse to non-existent, and if you haven’t come prepared with yuan, the currency exchange gouges you. There is a rather large fee for each bill, so if you were hoping to get only 1000円 worth, you’re simply lining their pockets. On my first layover here, my two companions and I opted to exchange a 万 instead. With this money, we spent our time eating terrible food, drinking, and irreverently playing the card game Mao. For five hours. The return trip alone was a lost cause to boredom. Skip Guangzhou if your budget can afford it.
Ah Incheon. If ever a city wants to look at how to treat in-transit travelers well, they need look no further than here. There are various Korean cultural activities and performances on both sides of security, lots of expensive food, two movie theaters, and much more besides. The amenities are astounding. By and away, though, my favorite aspect of Incheon is its Free Transit Tours. Depending on when you first arrive, you can go on a variety of tours for various lengths. The bright side of arriving painfully early is that you’ll then have the opportunity to go on the Seoul City or Cultural Tours. And I will be super jealous. My tour guide on the Incheon City Tour was amicable and I was pretty disappointed the time had to be cut short because of tensions with North Korea. The cherry on top of all this is that the transit tours are completely free. Sign up at the tourism desk before going through immigration, then check in and let them copy your passport and you’re all set. Another great thing about Incheon is that it is the major hub of Asiana Airlines. You can pay for tickets with them at a conbini, avoiding the transfer fees if you use money you’ve had to send home.
Along with Beijing, Guangzhou, and several other cities; Shanghai offers the 72 hour visa on arrival for those with a confirmed connection. I was only able to take advantage of this during one of my brief stays in the city. My other visit was soul-crushingly boring and I’ll not dwell on it. If you’ve the time, I highly recommend venturing out into the city. Taking the maglev is cool and rather inexpensive, especially considering how quickly it travels. The Bund is probably my favorite place in Shanghai, though beware of scammers and the high percentage of people that will stop you and ask for your picture. There is so much else to see as well. A day spent in Shanghai is a good day indeed.
This is also for my benefit as I’ll be spending six hours here in just a few short weeks. Full disclosure. There are many services in addition to shopping and dining at the airport, but if you have a longer time to kill, you can take the Skytrain into the city center. It takes about 25 minutes. Once there, you can find many cultures melding together, with French, English, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean influences easily found in various places throughout the city. My only trip to Vancouver thus far left me feeling very nostalgic for Japan when I wandered through the Book Off (which my very thorough Google search tells me is now closed; sorry guys). Fill up on Tim Horton’s before venturing out of the Great White North.
Don’t let the layover get you down, man.