I liked getting to airports early even before the last decade, when my neurosis became a necessity. My wife, on the other hand, considers time spent in an airport wasted, lost, anathema. And neither rain nor sleet nor Homeland Security is going to change her mind.
Generally speaking, when we fly together, we compromise and do it her way. So two years ago, we had a leisurely breakfast at a B&B before racing the 58 miles from Lucca to Florence and then down the A1 to Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport to catch an early-afternoon flight to New York.
Rush hour outside Florence didn’t help matters. Neither did the roadwork or the jam-up between Rome and Fiumicino, a town I knew only by name because da Vinci was there. We pulled into the rental-car return 20 minutes before our scheduled departure. We raced to the check-in desk and learned our plane was still at the gate. Success! But then the Italian immigration officers strolled past en route to lunch, and no amount of pleading was going to stop them.
Back at the counter, my wife got us rebooked while I dug a Michelin guide out of our suitcase. An hour later, we had boarding passes for the first flight out in the morning, a room at the Hilton Rome Airport hotel, and a reservation for an early dinner at Bastianelli dal 1929, which both the Michelin and the airline clerk assured us was the best restaurant in Fiumicino.
We had a swim in the hotel’s indoor pool and took a cab into town, where we walked along the canal, built by the Emperor Claudius, through which the Tiber drains into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Then we had the best scampi alla griglia of our trip and went to bed early. As we fell asleep we agreed that, handed travel lemons, we’d managed to make lemonade: we’d been held up a day and night at the airport, but we’d found a pleasant hotel, discovered a new town, and eaten like kings.
Laying over doesn’t have to mean laying about on hard plastic chairs, shopping at duty-free stores full of the same old scarves, bottles, and belts, or reading yet another Ludlum thriller. These days, airports come with amenities—they and the towns near them have a lot going for them.
Consider the town of Narita, for example, home of Tokyo’s main international airport, two hours outside the city. Travelers waylaid there can discover a lovely temple surrounded by a park with a waterfall that flows into three ponds; and, in season, plum and cherry trees in full bloom; and streets lined with traditional shops and an open-air food market. At Schiphol, Amsterdam’s airport, you can while away a couple of hours, depending on your tastes, at a meditation center, a casino, or a tiny branch of the Rijksmuseum, where exhibits are changed frequently—the first of its kind in an airport in the world. LAX now has a Pink’s Hot Dogs stand and will soon have Skewers, by the celebrity chef Masaharu Morimoto. The airport in Austin, Texas, mounts live concerts. Taoyuan, in Taipei, has a Hello Kitty–themed gate. Ted Stevens Airport, in Anchorage, has a collection of taxidermied animals that includes a 460-pound halibut. And at Reykjavík’s Keflavik International, you can take a 20-minute bus ride to the Blue Lagoon geothermal wonderland.
The distance between travel tedium and makeshift masterpiece, in other words, can be closed with nothing more than an open mind, a willingness to explore. An Internet connection helps, too. Certainly, the lesson of Fiumicino helped us this summer when we found ourselves with an unexpected five-hour layover at Charles de Gaulle, in Paris. Years ago, in a similar situation at Heathrow, I’d checked my luggage and taken the train into London for lunch and a stop at my favorite bookstore, Hatchards, on Piccadilly. But this time, it was August, half of Paris was shut for les grandes vacances, and it was raining. We would stay put, but I did want to eat. So despite my wife’s mockery—“There’s no decent food at de Gaulle!”—I got on the Web and discovered that, actually, there is. Not that you’d know it from the signage at the airport, which makes scarce mention of the Brasserie Flo in Terminal 2F—owned by the same group that runs Paris’s Bofinger, Terminus Nord, and La Coupole. We walked through three terminals in Aérogare 2, stopping to check our bags en route, and finally, there it was, tucked in a corner just steps from the airport Sheraton. Two hours later, after a lunch of frisée aux lardons, steak tartare, and a good rosé, we rolled back through those terminals feeling not at all as if we’d wasted a day.
Back at Rome airport after our “lost-and-found” half-day in Fiumicino, my wife and I were happy and relaxed as we checked in for our flight and headed for the departure lounge, where passengers destined for several northeastern American cities were all mashed together. It was only after the announcement that our new flight home was slightly delayed that we discovered just how lucky we’d been.
Our fellow passengers were more than usually disgruntled. It turned out that the flight we’d “missed” had never taken off; rather, it had sat on the runway for hours only to be canceled. By the time passengers disembarked, there were only a few seats left on the morning flight to New York, and there were no rooms at the Hilton. So families that had spent the night in less convenient accommodations—and eaten hotel rations—were headed to Boston and Philadelphia instead of New York.
To my wife, of course, this was just more proof that getting to the airport early gets you nowhere.
Michael Gross is a T+L contributing editor.