Best airports for a long layover

Story highlights

Enjoy locally sourced food at San Francisco's airport

Amsterdam boasts the world's first airport library with material in 29 languages

Dubai has the world's largest duty-free shop at 58,000 square feet

CNN  — 

Hours of boredom, cramped seating and stale sandwiches – layovers are well known to be anything but fun.

And layovers have gotten significantly longer because airlines fly bigger planes and have reduced the number of flights, according to Rick Perdue, head of the department of hospitality and tourism management at Virginia Tech.

Here’s the good news: In response to this woeful trend, a handful of well-managed airports around the world are taking their services and amenities up a serious notch.

Perdue points to advances in security processing such as the Global Entry program, which makes it much easier to navigate security without the need to take off your coat, remove your computer from its sleeve or slip off your shoes. Other improvements include shopping areas packed with haute boutiques, hotels located within the security zone and varied, high-quality restaurant options, especially abroad.

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But for Perdue, the one amenity that really matters is far less tangible: silence. Or at least something in the ballpark of peace and quiet. Many European and Asian hubs—such as Singapore’s Changi International Airport and Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea—do an especially good job of reducing ambient noise, which contributes to stress and can permeate even the most exclusive clubs.

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Changi, for example, has movie theaters, a butterfly garden, a 40-foot slide, a rooftop pool and other fun distractions, but also provides designated quiet zones where public announcements aren’t piped in. To make sure you don’t miss your flight, you can sign up for cell phone calls with airline updates.

Closer to home, San Francisco International Airport receives accolades for well-rounded offerings such as a SFMOMA Museum Store, a distinguished airport museum, a branch of the city’s Steinhart Aquarium and seasonally sourced local grub (be sure to order a glass of California Cabernet at Vino Volo in Terminal 2).

Dubai International Airport ups the ante with the kind of unapologetic extravagance the city is known for, this time in the form of the world’s largest duty-free shop at 58,000 square feet, open-air gardens and shopping stands where you can purchase actual gold bars. (No, there’s no chocolate inside.)

Airports where the architecture soars

Outrageous design elements like these certainly grab headlines, but at the end of the day—or the wee hours of the morning, depending on your layover—the formula that matters is simple, explains road warrior and India-born travel agent Pallavi Shah of Our Personal Guest: “Easy connections, Wi-Fi that works, great meal options, clean carpets that don’t make a mockery of your wheeled luggage, comfortable seating and hotel rooms deliver the best layover experience. A lounge attendant who will actually make sure you don’t sleep through your flight call? That’s a rare but special touch.”

Heathrow Airport, London

Created with business travelers in mind, Terminal 5’s Heathrow Boutique offers complimentary personal shoppers to help plan your travel wardrobe or select a gift. Thomas Pink, for example, will iron your new suit and put it in a flight-ready package. The terminal also houses an 11,000-square-foot Harrods and, for the culture-minded, a gallery showcasing sculptures by emerging British artists.

Of the 105 restaurants, we recommend making advance reservations at Gordon Ramsay’s sleek Plane Food to relax with a pint while watching busy chefs whip up roasted cod with herb gnocchi and wild mushrooms in the glass-enclosed kitchen. Year 2014 will bring in even more ways to kill time: The Queen’s Terminal (2) debuts next June with 52 shops and 17 restaurants. Tip: If you’ve got to spend the night, check into the Sofitel London Heathrow (from $147). It’s connected to T5 via a walkway and has a spa, 24/7 fitness center and 45 meeting rooms.

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Schiphol Amsterdam Airport

With nearly 100 years in the same location—it’s the only airport able to make that claim—this one-terminal hub has a long record of pleasing passengers. It’s got the world’s only museum to be annexed in an airport, the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (free), which showcases paintings by Dutch masters such as Jan Steen and Ferdinand Bol. You can also settle into an armchair at the world’s first airport library, stocked with print and e-tomes available in 29 languages.

Business travelers appreciate the free Wi-Fi, multiple spas (where you can opt to have Garra rufa fish nibble on your feet) and showers at Departure Lounge 3’s Mercure hotel. Unwind with a glass of champagne at Bubbles Seafood & Wine Bar (Departure Lounge 1), or get some peace and quiet at the totally device-free Silence Centre. Tip: A five-star Hilton Hotel will open here in 2015; in the meantime, stay at the Sheraton, which can be accessed via the airport’s arrival and departure halls.

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Munich Airport

Whether you’re spending time in Germany or simply passing through its Bavarian capital, you can sample some of the country’s best brews at Airbräu. The airport’s traditional tavern houses a beer garden shaded by chestnut trees (open October–May) and an onsite brewery and has live music.

Other options: Stretch your legs in the über-modern Terminal 2, take a nap in the hub’s individual sleeping pods equipped with iPhone and USB ports (T2 levels 4 and 5; about $20 per hour), or, if your itinerary includes an overnight, check into the Kempinski Hotel Airport, which is one minute from Terminal 2 and a five-minute walk from Terminal 1. Here, execs en route can take advantage of offices and meeting rooms at the Municon Conference Center and a comfortable VIP wing.

To make things smoother for the up to 11 million more passengers a year, the airport will open an $862 million satellite location, Terminal 2, in 2015. Tip: If you’ve got a three-hour-plus layover, consider taking a 20-minute taxi ride to the renowned Bavarian State Brewery Weihenstephan for a pint, bratwurst and views over the quaint town of Freising.

Zurich Airport

It’s easy to navigate this busy European airport, thanks in part to an extensive renovation (think two rooftop terraces, a kids zone and more) that wrapped up in 2011 and the ongoing reconstruction of Terminal 2. All of the little things add up: There are 16 locker-style cell phone charging stations, rooms for sleeping and showering, plenty of shops and restaurants and even bikes and in-line skates for rent.

One especially fun touch is the Skymetro rail between Terminals A and E, which pipes in the bucolic sounds of the Alps. Tip: Indulge your yen for fine chocolate at the Sprüngli Café.

Changi International Airport Singapore

Singapore’s hub channels a childlike sense of play with a butterfly garden, free movie theaters, a 40-foot slide and a Balinese-themed rooftop pool in the airport’s flagship Terminal 1. Art lovers will also appreciate the Kinetic Rain sculpture made up of 1,216 bronze “droplets” that take different shapes. In Terminal 2, you can also look forward to an entertainment area (think Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and more).

But serious business services are far from neglected. By the numbers, there are 200 iPad-wielding agents; 550 free Internet terminals, plus airport-wide free Wi-Fi; 856 free USB ports and power sockets; multiple business centers; a Bloomberg lounge in T2 and the Departure Transit lounge; two hotels (the 320-room Crowne Plaza off T3 and the more functional, by-the-hour Ambassador Transit Hotel); and the VIP JetQuay CIP Terminal, which offers personal check-in and a ride to your gate.

As if that weren’t enough, a fourth terminal is scheduled to open in 2017. Tip: If you have a five-hour or longer layover, sign up for one of the airport’s free, two-hour city tours, which are conducted in English (sign up in T2 and T3).

Hong Kong International Airport

Located on the man-made island of Hong Kong Harbour, this two-terminal airport packs a serious punch. All of the work-related facilities and services one could demand are here, but it’s really the extras that keep play-hard types happy during long layovers. Namely, the outdoor nine-hole regulation golf course, the world’s first airport IMAX theater and the iSports simulator for car racing and basketball.

Outposts of Michelin-starred and other restaurants such as Hung’s Delicacies, Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop and Thai Chiu are worth a visit when hunger strikes. For the ultimate in relaxation, pony up the $50-plus fee for a pass to one of two super-sleek Traveler’s Lounges, outfitted with a bar and showers. Tip: The Regal Airport Hotel, connected to T1, has been named World’s Best Airport Hotel two years running by Skytrax.

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Incheon Airport, Seoul

Incheon is a consistent favorite among travelers, and it’s little wonder why. Two movie theaters playing Korean and Hollywood hits, an ice skating rink and an 18-hole putting course are just a few of the ways travelers keep entertained; if you’re looking for a more peaceful hideaway, camp out in one of the airport’s seven gardens.

Over at the impressive culture center, you can also make Korean paper crafts and watch traditional music and dance performances. More standard amenities are on offer, too: massages, dry cleaning, free showers, free Wi-Fi throughout and complimentary use of laptops. Tip: The airport is directly connected to Seoul’s subway system, so it takes less than a half hour to get downtown.

San Francisco International Airport

This hometown hero has serious bragging rights. Culture-minded travelers flock to the SFMOMA Museum Store for standard-setting souvenirs and to the Airport Museum, which stages varied exhibits such as “Inspired Design: Shaker Furniture” and “United We Stand: Female Flight Attendant Uniforms of United Airlines.” You can also spot sea creatures from around the world at a branch of the Steinhart Aquarium.

But one of the airport’s best draws is the food and drink. Grab a pint of craft beer (such as the Anchor Steam) at Terminal 3’s Anchor Brewing Company, or sip Napa wines at Terminal 2’s Vino Volo, which also serves tasty small plates. Tip: The new 150-square-foot yoga room in T2 caters to those in need of a jet-lag-blasting downward-facing dog.

Vancouver International Airport

Bright and airy, the Canadian hub counters the stress of getting from point A to B by thoughtfully channeling the serene surrounding region. Works by native artists such as Bill Reid’s sculpted Jade Canoe and Joe David’s traditional 11-foot-high Clayoquot Welcome Figures bedeck the halls, while tiles in the Graham Clarke Atrium symbolize the rivers of British Columbia.

The Vancouver Aquarium (Domestic Terminal, Level 3) has major exhibits, too: There’s a 30,000-gallon tank teeming with more than 5,000 sea creatures such as sea stars and giant kelp, and another devoted to jellyfish. A special Gateway Valet provides oil changes, car washes and other services to travelers. There’s also the Automated Passport Control—a program the airport is helping Chicago O’Hare implement this month—rounds out the business-friendly amenities.

Tip: Park yourself at the Jetside Bar of the Fairmont hotel, located above the U.S. Departures Terminal, to sip Okanagan Valley wine or a honey-infused lager specially made for the property by the Whistler Brewing Company.

Dubai International Airport

Dubai’s signature extravagance is on display at the Middle East’s largest airport, which is only expanding: Concourse A, built for the superjumbo, debuted in January 2013, and Concourse D is being constructed with a capacity for 18 million passengers. The goal? Accommodate a whopping 90 million passengers by 2018.

In the meantime, the airport still wows with the world’s largest duty-free shop at 58,000 square feet, open-air gardens, the G-Force gym (open 24/7, with a pool and showers), the Al Majlis VIP service—which can usher you through check-in, Immigration and Customs—and shopping stands where you can purchase gold bars. Yes, you heard us right: gold bars.

Tip: The Dubai International Hotel is accessible from Concourses A, B and C. Don’t pass through Immigration and Customs as you’ll be denied access to the hotel until three hours prior to your flight’s departure.

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