All Airports Are Not Created Equal

by Nancy Bestor

When our family travels, we are almost always “blessed” with layovers lasting several hours at connecting airports. It may have to do with the fact that our hometown airport—Medford, Oregon—is very small, and thus our outgoing flights don’t always mesh with ideal travel schedules. Whatever the reason, I’ve spent countless hours wandering around airports, people watching, browsing bookstores and luxury gift shops (who buys a $10,000 watch at an airport anyway?), and basically trying to while away the hours until my next flight. Thus, I’ve discovered that while some airports—San Francisco, I’m talking to you—offer just the basics like food, drink and shopping, others have put quite a bit of thought into this travel dilemma, and offer lots of fun ways to relax and pass the time.

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One of my favorites is the row of rocking chairs in the Seattle/Tacoma airport. There’s something wonderfully relaxing about being able to rock a chair while gazing out the window at planes silently taking off and landing. I realize the only difference here is a chair that rocks as opposed to a chair that is stationary, but it is far better than it may seem at first glance. Bravo Seattle.

On a recent trip we spent several hours in the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. Among other things, Taoyuan features a Mind Garden, with library books, relaxing bean-bag chairs, and a free cell phone charging station, where you can plug in your phone inside of a very cool locked charging station. This airport also features a live bamboo garden, with coin operated massage chairs tucked behind, a free x-box gaming station, and a Hello Kitty Lounge. You had me at the Hello Kitty Lounge Taiwan.

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The first time our family traveled through Narita Airport in Tokyo, I remember being impressed by the free kids gaming room among other things. Now this airport features the Nine Hours Capsule Hotel, if you need to catch a few winks. And I thought the kids gaming center was cool.

After sampling some of the great amenities at classier airports, I’m fairly irritated by those who still charge for wireless internet—New York airports offer 30 minutes free—then charge by the hour thereafter. I’m also irritated when the old school airport chairs have armrests between every seat so you can’t stretch out for a nap if you have an extra long or even an overnight layover.

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If you’re not going to offer me a rocking chair or a Hello Kitty Lounge, I feel like the least you can do is give me a comfortable chair while I wait for my next flight.

To Duty Free or Not to Duty Free

by Nancy Bestor

dutyfreeI can’t be the only traveler who leaves another country with foreign currency in her pocket and decides to “get rid of it” by spending it in a duty free shop at the airport. I’ve bought Toblerone chocolate time and again (come on, it really is delicious), Bushmills Irish Whiskey, and Absolut Vodka to name just a few items. What does it say about me that the duty free items I’ve chosen are chocolate and alcohol? I have been tempted by much more, including makeup, watches, and sunglasses.  The way I look at it, I’m both spending the last of my foreign currency AND saving money right? Not necessarily.

I went to my handy resource, the Encyclopedia Brittanica, ahem, the Internet, to see if duty free really is a money saver. Duty free is exactly what it implies, the purchase of goods without duty, or local import tax. Take Bushmills Irish Whiskey for example. If you want to buy this in, say, Paris, purchasing it in a duty free airport shop would save you the duty that France puts on this imported item, and that French stores add to the purchase price. This tax can be anywhere from 5-25%. But is it really cheaper than the same bottle bought in the United States? In an article on budgettravel.com, reporter David Farley found that prices vary by city, and although some things (alcohol and cigarettes) can be cheaper at duty free than in the United States or other countries, other things (perfume, handbags, makeup, etc.) are generally more expensive.  Electronic items are rarely found in duty free shops, because the largest duty free customers are Japanese, and they have plenty of cheap electronics in their own country.

Gordon's ginFrommers says that the best duty free purchases are those that you’ve researched ahead of time, and determined really are cheaper in a duty free shop.  But where’s the fun in that? If you can’t pass up duty free shopping Frommer recommends buying liquor and wine from their country of origin that are also hard to find in the United States.

Does this mean I’ll stop buying chocolate and alcohol at duty free shops? Probably not, but at least I’ll know its because I’m bored and might as well spend the last of my cash on something rather than because I’m getting a great deal. I know, I know, I could just save my foreign currency until I visit that country again, but Toblerone chocolate is so much tastier when it’s purchased at a duty free shop, isn’t it?