A couple of years ago, travelling with some wonderful friends, we were due to fly from Europe to Asia, with a plane change in Moscow. The first leg of our journey went well – at least, until we realised our plane had been delayed. Not by a huge amount, but enough that we were only able to get off the first plane at the time we should have been getting on the second.
With no flights leaving until the next day, and unable to enter Russia without visas, we experienced a farcical 24-hours stranded in the visa-free zone of Sheremetyevo Airport. I’d always secretly hoped to have a delayed flight – to be put up in a hotel at the airline’s expense, with free food. But I think it was just after my second or third ‘Number Eight Crispy Chicken’ burger during that 24-hour period (‘Number Eights’ were the only menu item our vouchers covered) that I began working on my debut novel.
With the surreal feeling I was going to be sentenced to eating nothing but Number Eights for the rest of my natural life, I began to appreciate that there is, indeed, almost always a catch with anything ‘free’. More importantly, I reflected on how fortunate we were to be accommodated in a safe environment with a specific timespan to look forward to our departing flight – an experience wildly different to that of asylum seekers detained indefinitely around the world.
And that’s what inspired me to write about Peter Ruddick – the fictional Minister for Asylum Deterrence and Foreign Investment who is trapped in an airport more nightmarish than the one I enjoyed.
Here’s my advice for avoiding – and coping with – airport delays:
1. Do your research.
Check sleepinginairports.net before you travel to make sure you pick the best airport to be stuck in – or, if you’re already stuck in transit, visit their guides to find out where to sleep, eat, shower, and recharge.
2. Travel with hand luggage only.
Not only will you save a huge amount on plane tickets, storage, tipping, replacement costs, unnecessary spending, and your bag itself, with carry on luggage only, you’ll spend less time in the airport as you won’t have to wait around for your suitcase to arrive on the baggage carousel. And if, like Peter, you ever get stuck in the airport, you’ll have all of your precious belongings with you – unlike Peter!
3. Avoid getting stuck in queues!
While Peter always pushes in line, knowing a little about human psychology can help you get through smoothly without cutting in. At check-in, security, immigration, or the food counter, pick the line to the left. Yahoo Travel explains that because most people are right-handed, the majority of travellers will automatically pick the queue to the right. Studies have show that queues on the left are typically shorter. It’s also a good idea to keep a screenshot of your boarding pass if you have an electronic one, rather than having to search through your emails or try to download it on crappy airport WiFi.
4. Eat right before your flight!
Airport food is notoriously expensive (and is second only to airplane food in poor taste). To avoid an upset stomach mid-air, check out this infographic on what to eat before you fly. It suggests drinking a lot of water in the days leading up to your flight and avoiding alcohol to dodge dehydration, as well as cutting out high fat and high salt foods (of the sort usually found in airport food courts) to banish bloating. (Readers of Number Eight Crispy Chicken will note that Peter follows precisely none of this advice – and suffers the consequences!)
On the topic of water, if there is one thing that’s more of a rip-off than the food at most airports, it’s that wonderful human necessity, water. At Helsinki airport, I saw bottles of water selling for €3.80 ($6.30 AUD). Instead, bring your own bottle and fill it with water once you’re through security. Most airports have drinking fountains, some of which even have dedicated filling taps. (Just be careful not to get wet like Peter!)
5. See if there are any apps that will be of use.
While the Yahoo Travel recommended Gate Guru is no longer available, Top Apps Like has a list of 20 similar alternatives. Hands-down my favourite airport app is the one used at my favourite airport (and also the perennial sleepinginairports.net favourite), Singapore Changi (iChangi). It not only provides details on the free WiFi access and boarding times or changes to your flight, but gives access to the free cinemas’ show times, the free tours of Singapore, and other things to fill your time while you’re waiting for a plane.
6. BYO power.
Increasingly airports are introducing power outlets for passengers to recharge their phones and plug in laptops, but there are never enough. Yahoo Travel suggests solving this by bringing your own power strip – ‘letting others charge their devices on your power strip is a great way to make friends.’ I think this is a great idea, with a couple of caveats: a. If you travel with handluggage only (see tip 2 above!), a power strip or power board might take up a lot of your baggage allowance – they’re pretty heavy! And, b. If you travel internationally, your home power strip might not have the right sockets for the people in the airport you’re visiting. If you are travelling overseas, look for a power converter that has multiple USB ports. (I favour a compact universal converter which can be transformed to plug into any socket, and to be plugged into by any plug). If you’re currently in transit and all of the sockets are taken, see if you can use your power converter to share a single socket with multiple devices.
7. Play Airport Bingo!
Long stretches of time waiting in the airport are ideal for reading. Why not download a copy of Number Eight Crispy Chicken and see how an immigration minister who has made a career out of detaining migrants copes when he finds himself detained? You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and hopefully, your own situation will look brighter by comparison!