In the Hollywood fantasia The Terminal, Tom Hanks survives just fine in an airport for months on end. Yet most travellers, impatient to get away or return home, typically view these vacuum-sealed gateways as necessary evils and the least favourite part of any trip.
But here’s a radical idea: Now that many airports have unveiled a new wave of art installations, java joints and cool amenities to distract and amuse, some savvy travellers are getting to airports early to check in, chill out – and even enjoy the pre-flight rigmarole. Here’s how:
- Every tipsheet on navigating airports features a series of common-sense admonitions: Double-check (minimum) that your itinerary, ID and flight paperwork are in order before leaving home. Confirm that the flight hasn’t been delayed. Get to the airport in time for check-in (typically an hour ahead of domestic flights, two hours prior to international departures). Keep travel docs in one pocket of a carry-on for easy access. And with the passport debate still on the front-burner of Canada-U.S. relations, eliminate any potential snags by obtaining or updating this vital piece of identification now. (Basic tips are covered in the Canadian Transportation Agency’s booklet Fly Smart, available gratis at http://www.cta.gc.ca/).
- The e-generation has unprecedented control over its flight plans. From a home or work computer, fliers can now purchase tickets, check in, choose seats, print boarding passes (up to 24 hours ahead) and, with some airlines, access stand-by lists. Already commonplace, the “paperless” e-ticket – which WestJet helped pioneer a decade ago – will be used exclusively by the world’s major airlines effective January 1, 2008. And in the race to score prime legroom near an emergency exit or avoid seats adjacent to washrooms, just check airtravel.about.com for an archive of airline seat maps (you’ll need to know the plane type, so consult with your travel agent).
- Self-serve kiosks at check-in still cause difficulties for the technically challenged, but roaming agents are available to help. Theoretically, however, it’s a snap: Punch in your booking reference or frequent flier numbers, or insert a major credit card, and follow the on-screen instructions. (For U.S. and international travel, you will also need to type in additional information at check-in such as your destination hotel name and address, and passport number.) Air Canada now also offers check-in service via cellphone or mobile device between 60 minutes and 24 hours prior to liftoff.
- Minimize pat-down time at security by keeping up with carry-on regulations. Be aware that anything battery powered must be in working order (or your laptop may be confiscated). Label all medications and don’t carry wrapped gifts. (Check “Security & Tips for Travellers” at http://www.calgaryairport.com/ for links to the latest guidelines.)
- Get comfortable with the idea of biometric data cards. Right now these definitive ID cards, which use thumbprints and retinal scans to combat identity theft, are in the test stage. Verified Identity Pass Inc., which has been operating its “clear lanes” in Orlando, Florida, since July 2005, is set for a Toronto start-up next year. And a similar Canada-U.S. pilot program called Nexus is now running in Vancouver; frequent fliers to the U.S. pay Cdn.$80 for tamper-proof ID that speeds passage through customs on both sides of the border following a quick iris scan.
- Eliminate the airport commute by overnighting at an airport-area hotel – some are literally steps from departure gates (e.g., the Delta Calgary Airport and Fairmont Vancouver Airport). Many lodgings offer day rates for those trapped in between-flight limbo. And New York-based MetroNaps reports growing interest in its futuristic “sleep pods”; though Vancouver International, for now, is the only airport in the world where you can catnap knowing you’ll be roused in time for boarding. (The pods are located in YVR’s U.S. departure lounge and cost $15 for two hours.) For hands-on stress-busting, chair massage therapists are now plentiful in airport corridors. And on-site spas are all the rage; in Calgary for instance, passengers can get giddy on fresh air at the OraOxygen Wellness Spa.
- Hasten one’s escape into dreamland: Pack noise-reduction headphones (also handy for deterring overly talkative seatmates). And if you dread that moment when the seat in front begins its descent, purchase the Knee Defender (U.S.$14.95 plus shipping; http://www.kneedefender.com/). The device clips to your tray table and sneakily prevents the full recline.
- Finally, eradicate flight-day blahs by getting into the holiday mood from the get-go. Take a cab (which may be cheaper than long-term parking when travelling for more than a week). Check in for your flight early, then relax over a latte or beer. And, if you’ve got time, linger near an arrival gate and watch as the jet-lagged are greeted by family, friends and lovers. The laughter, hugs, happy tears and ear-splitting grins are proof that airports, oddly enough, can bring out the best, not the worst, in us.