Expat Essentials

Expat Essentials: The good, the bad and the ugly about Europe’s airports, pt. 1

THE HARRODS STORE AT HEATHROW

(Editor’s note: Terry Boyd and Ivana Avramovic contributed to this post. This is the first installment in a series. These observations contain our personal opinions.)

There are few things more anxiety-inducing for travelers than flying into an airport in a city where we don’t know our way around. Especially if it’s in a foreign country where we don’t speak the lingo. Yet here we are, expats … strangers living in strange lands. We know every trip isn’t going to be stellar, but we think we can help with some practical information and answer some obvious questions:

“So, how do I get from the airport to the center of the city? Do I take a taxi, or do I take the train? What does the airport have when it comes to food and drink? I need gifts for my wife and kids … is there retail? I need a gift for me … is there duty-free bourbon?”

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SINAGE AT HEATHROW … NOTICE, NO BOARDING TIMES!

Airports are morphing into entertainment centers and retail increasingly pays for maintenance and expansion of facilities that are increasingly owned by for-profit, publicly traded companies, not city airport authorities.

Heathrow is owned by BAA Ltd., which owns six other UK airports and is itself owned by Madrid-based Ferrovial Group. BAA Ltd. just reported raking in a cool 2.7 billion pounds (yes, billion) from Heathrow for 2015, or about $3.9 billion! The pre-tax profit was 223 million pounds. Increasingly, these for-profit airports are competing with each other for optimal passenger traffic … and revenues.

I’ve flown into some great airports (Doha, St. Maarten, Istanbul and Munich) and some dreadful airports (the old Miami airport, San Juan, Frankfurt, Sana’a, Yemen, the old Izmir airport and Baku, Azerbaijan.) But what makes a great airport? A lot of things … from amenities such as duty free to comfort to logical organization to travel integration. Though it’s quite subjective in the end.

If you look at online reviews for, say, Berlin Tegel, they run from five stars to zero stars. One traveler might love Berlin Tegel for the reason another traveler hates it.

I love Istanbul Ataturk Airport. Turkish Airlines’ First Class Lounge is what I picture when I imagine what heaven must be like … hushed, luxurious and with limitless snacks, coffee and juices. Our in-house travel expert Ivana Avramovic isn’t crazy about it because Ataturk doesn’t have officials who speak English, German, French and other international languages.

In the final analysis, you really just want to get to where you’re going, and on that level, even an outdated airport such as Frankfurt wins, because it has direct flights to nearly every major destination on the planet. (Which begs the question, “Why can’t Frankfurt Airport offer free Wi-Fi like other European airports?!)

We put our collective heads together at Dispatches, and here’s our initial list that’s meant to bring you up to speed before you get on the plane.

HEATHROW AIRPORT, London

Heathrow is the busiest airport in Europe, with connections to 80 long-haul destinations, the only hub airport in Great Britain. But it’s large enough that it doesn’t feel as busy as Chicago or even Charlotte. Like Chicago, it’s also confusing to negotiate … likely by design, an anti-terrorism measure. Ivana notes this adds to the cost of doing business and complicates meetings, because you never know how long it’ll take you to get out of the airport after you land. You don’t know how long you’ll have to stand in the long lines for non-EU nationals going through border control.

Passengers in transit from the States to another country should remember the regulations for carry-on items are much tougher here at Heathrow. The very nice control officer who checked my carry-on bag last week after it went through a scanner confiscated nearly-empty tubes of hair gel and skin creme, but let me keep a nearly full bottle of cologne. I asked her why they let me keep them in Chicago, she smiled and said, “We do things a bit differently, don’t we?” Okay ….

I assumed Heathrow is crawling with undercover security, but I never saw anyone carrying a weapon. Oddly, I felt more secure there than at Amsterdam, where I saw uniformed police toting carbine versions of the G-3 assault rifle.

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NEED A QUICK GIFT? HEATHROW IS THERE FOR YOU … DETAIL FROM THE HARRODS STORE.

Once you get into the Heathrow terminal area, life is sweet if you, like me, are a shopper and a coffee lover. Yes, my fellow Americans, there is a Starbucks, along with a dozen other English vendors and restaurants. There are soooo many restaurants we don’t have at U.S. airports such as the Caviar House Oyster Bar and Fortnum & Mason Champagne Bar.

There are few malls in Dubai rivaling the mix of ultra-luxury retail Heathrow has including Etro, Zegna, Bottega Veneta, Armani, Bulgari, Burberry, Dior, Dunhill, a big Harrod’s store, Hermès for those $30,000 Birkin Bag impulse buys, Prada and Rolex. It’s insane. A great place to spend your kids’ inheritance.

How did Heathrow rank on the most recent Airport Service Quality Awards, which were just released March 3? Very well! London Heathrow is ranked No. 1 in the Best Airports by Size and Region: Europe, a new category added for the 2015 survey.

Of course, Heathrow has free Wi-Fi.

So can you get into London quickly and inexpensively? I didn’t because I was going on to the Netherlands. But Ivana says no problem. Here are all your options, which include trains and shuttles.

For even more details about getting into and out of London from Heathrow, click here for Ivana’s very complete post.

The small but important details

As at all British airports, they don’t post the exact gate number – only the terminal – for your flight until the plane is boarding. Is it a security thing, or is it just because Heathrow – like all British airports – is over capacity? We don’t know. All we know is, when you don’t travel through Heathrow regularly, you might not know where you’re supposed to board till the last minute. Yikes!

Signage is good-to-very good. And this is really important … the bathrooms in the international terminal  have stalls large enough to place your luggage inside so you don’t leave it unattended. Bathrooms were newly refurbished with all the mod-cons, including those groovy round hamam sinks everyone loves and slate floors. Very nice. And they were immaculate, with cleaning staff suites connected to the bathrooms.

SCHIPHOL AIRPORT, Amsterdam

Schiphol Airport (don’t even try to pronounce “Schiphol” unless you’re a native Dutch speaker) is big. Really big. It feels like you land in Belgium, then taxi to Schiphol, which is about 20 kilometers southwest of central Amsterdam. Once you get into the Schiphol terminal, it’s time for a long walk to the baggage pickup in the arrival terminal. The airport seems to be perpetually under construction. It was under construction last summer. It was under construction last week.

Okay, you got your bags. You’re going to walk out into a large arrival/departure plaza full of fun restaurants and stores, including a giant Belgian chocolate shop. Weird. It’s under roof, but open, so wear a jacket. From here, you can take a bus, train or a taxi into the city.

We advise taking the train, because it’s only about 5 euros versus about 50 euros for a taxi, and the express runs straight into Amsterdam Centraal station more often than the shuttle buses– every 10 minutes or so versus 30. But at morning and evening rush hours, intercity trains can be extremely crowded. It makes more sense to take the bus.

IMG_0014Here’s the tricky part – to take the train into Amsterdam, you go to Platform 3, where the sign reads, “Amsterfort Vathorst.” There is no mention of Amsterdam Centraal Station. Same for the train itself. But it does go to Amsterdam Centraal. (Don’t make a mistake and get off at the other Amsterdam stations such as Amstel or Science Park unless you mean to.) A footnote: I had no success recently buying at train ticket with a credit card from the plaza kiosks. But there are plenty of ticket windows where they take cash, and the attendants are very helpful.

Amsterdam has free Wi-Fi.

The small but crucial details: The Schiphol signage is okay. The bathrooms are okay. The shops are okay. It’s pretty much okay. A recent post on Mashable makes Schiphol sound way cool, with art and park-like areas. We didn’t see that part of the airport, because we were flying in, not out. And to be honest, we’ve never seen the airport underneath all the scaffolding. But the Mashable post says the ongoing renovation project will add luxury brands such as Rolex, Johnny Walker, Gucci, Hermès and Gucci. Some day, insh’allah. One great thing about Schiphol, and about Holland in general, for English-speaking expats is, everyone here speaks better English than you do.

VIENNA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

We asked Ivana, who lives in Vienna and travels a lot to London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and other cities on business, to rank her city’s airport, which is not a mega-hub like Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Heathrow. “I think it’s a great airport. This connectivity with the airport … that’s a big plus in my eye. And the affordability is so amazing!”

0xE2C3FC37C36ECA1523A18DE65B14A272Vienna Airport’s website has a feature we particularly like … an API that shows actual travel times by car to the airport.

This is also cool … at Vienna International,  you can pre-book taxis. You get a flat rate so you not only know what you’re paying, you avoid paying the fee for the taxi’s return trip. Which might come as a surprise, but is legal and required for taxi drivers.

That gives you a fixed cost – and a lower price – and there’s someone waiting for you.

The train from the airport to the spanking new Vienna Central Station runs at most every 15 minutes and is 4.4o euros each way.

Or you can take the CAT  – the City Airport train – says Ivana. You go with only one stop, and you have internet on the train. … all for 12 euros.

The little stuff that really matters:

There are trains running from Vienna to the airport whether you are going really early or really late. Security checks are usually 3 to 10 minutes, Ivana says. “I’ve flown at various times, and that part has been very smooth. You don’t have to budget a lot of extra time.” Vienna also has free Wi-Fi.

We’ll have the inside dope next time on Stockholm, Copenhagen and airports in Scandinavia. Also, look for our detailed post about Vienna.

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