On a recent vacation in Vietnam, I was dreading the flight back to New York — mainly because I wanted to spend more time hiking in the mountain villages and sipping killer iced coffee, but also because I had a five-hour layover on my 22-hour return trip.
Lucky for me, I had a fantastic economy class experience on Korean Air, and my early morning layover was scheduled for Incheon International Airport in South Korea.
Located 30 miles west of the country’s capital city of Seoul, Incheon ranks second on Business Insider’s 2015 list of the best airports in the world. However, I’d done zero research ahead of my arrival in South Korea, so I was unaware of Incheon International’s stellar ranking.
Determined to stretch my legs before the 13-hour flight to New York, I spent my layover walking around and checking out all the airport had to offer for weary travellers like myself.
I landed in South Korea after a four-hour flight from Hanoi. The overnight flight combined with the time difference between cities left me awfully drowsy.
After connecting to the airport's free WiFi, I emailed my parents to let them know I was still alive and then groggily followed these super helpful screens through a security check to the international transfer section.
At this early, quiet hour, a few signs and directories told me that things would start to come alive at 7:00 a.m, so I headed to the gate for my 10:05 a.m. flight to JFK.
Once there, I was stunned.
Where was the ratty, blue-grey carpet specked with pastry crumbs? Who had replaced the ambiguously stained, maximized-for-lower-back-pain plastic seating with these sleek, comfortable chairs? Why do these hardwood floors looks so clean and spanking new?
These charging stations were great for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they had a few different wattage and plug options, which is really helpful for international travellers. And the outlets were spaced to allow for bulky converters, because there's nothing more frustrating than a perfectly available outlet being covered by the corner of someone else's plug.
Lastly, the stations are conveniently located in the seating areas, eliminating the need to sit on the floor next to a wall outlet while your kindle charges. Being able to sit at the main gate and keep eyes on your valuables in the charging station (as well as your luggage) is key.
Airport bathrooms are a necessary evil. Get in, get out, and try to forget it ever happened. If you're lucky, you won't have to perform the ballet of 'trying not to slip on the ever-present mop water covering the entire floor.'
The Incheon experience is a completely different story. The ladies restroom in my terminal was incredibly clean and absolutely beautiful. Stall doors and walls skirted the floor to provide total privacy. The sinks and mirrors were pristine.
There was also a separate mirror and counter for grooming.
I grabbed my giant backpack from the gate, filled it with my fully charged devices, and headed toward the terminal.
Interactive directories were common throughout my walk. The airport has a lot to offer and it was really helpful to see it all laid out on these giant LED boards. The search feature -- which lets you search for restaurants, shopping, and more -- is an extra touch that really en chanced the airport experience.
7:10 a.m. -- I ducked into a Korea Traditional Cultural Experience Center to see what I could learn.
These centres are scattered around the airport's terminals. They offer authentic souvenirs, interactive activities, and a stage area designated for cultural performances.
Walking through the exhibits and learning about the country's history was much more enjoyable than wasting an hour wandering an electronics store or duty free shop.
The best part of the Korea Traditional Cultural Experience Center was its interactive arts and crafts station.
I presented my boarding pass and a woman dressed in traditional Korean garb showed me to a chair and explained the country's love of painted wood. She then gave me a wooden key chain with a design drawn on it, handed me some paints and brushes, and told me to take as long as I needed.
I spent about 40 minutes working on my keychain and chatting with other passengers. This was easily the best half-hour I've ever spent in an airport, mostly because I forgot I was in one.
All airports have shops, but Incheon is lined with high-end luxury boutiques. I passed Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Omega, Tory Burch, Tiffany & Co., and Prada in my terminal alone.
I'm familiar with travel lounges. My dad travels a lot for work and sometimes our family uses his corporate card to hang out in the nicer lounges with big comfy chairs and snacks.
But Incheon's Rest & Relax lounge is free and open to the entire airport population. With a play area for kids, recliner-filled nap area, café, and shower room, waiting in the lounge is way better than wasting away at the gate.
This chair was intense to say the least. All the buttons on the control panel were removed except one. I pressed the button and the chair tipped back into a near horizontal position with my knees slightly bent.
This massage hurt. The back rotors pounded on my shoulder blades and the leg rotors squeezed my calves to the point of discomfort. It lasted around 15 minutes, which is pretty generous for free use. There was no one else around and I definitely could have stayed longer, but I opted out of a second massage due to the pain of the first one.
However, about seven or eight minutes afterward, I felt great, not to mention better prepared to sit on a plane for 13 hours.
The facility was incredibly clean, with towels and shampoo available. If I had a longer layover or hadn't showered right before the first leg of my trip, I would have absolutely felt comfortable using this airport shower.
And that's saying something -- I was raised by a mother who brought her own sheets to hotels.
This sizeable play area includes a small ball pit and mats where kids can sit and play. While there's always an ick factor associated with play areas (thanks, McDonald's), the overall cleanliness of the airport led me to think that the kids zone would be properly cared for as well.
It looked awesome and the kids inside appeared thrilled.
You can check your bags at this desk and pick them up once you've had a nap or done some shopping. It's a nice alternative to sleeping with one eye open with your carry-on in the seat next to you.
Passengers can also rent books, blankets, and even PC tablets.
8:20 a.m. -- These reclining lounge chairs helped me log 45 minutes of uninterrupted sleep before my flight.
Nap rooms in the Rest & Relax area promise comfortable chaise lounges that fully recline. The rooms are kept nice and dark so you can get proper shut-eye.
This was a big deal for me, as I'm not one of those people who can sleep anywhere. The low lighting helped me actually fall asleep for a solid 45-minute nap.
Heading back to the gate for my 9:35 a.m. boarding time, I caught sight of the familiar neon orange and pink Dunkin' Doughnuts logo.
But this was a Korean Dunkin' Doughnuts, and the pastry options were like none I'd ever seen. I saw signs for glutinous rice sticks, honey butter New York pies (similar to a Cronut), something called an 'olive chewisty' that resembled a doughnut hole, and 'unpretty cheese fritters,' which sound like cheese fritters with low self esteem.
I waited for about 20 minutes at the gate and got in line to board around 9:40 a.m. Takeoff was on time, pretty much.
Sitting on the plane I was surprised at how much I enjoyed my layover, and I felt relaxed and ready for the journey ahead.
I was seriously impressed by Incheon International Airport. In fact, if I find myself travelling through this part of the world again, I might choose my flight based on whether it stops in South Korea.
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