Guangzhou - CAN

Photo by byeangel via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by byeangel via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

The "Pearl" of southern China's air travel network

After the Qing Dynasty's defeat in the Opium Wars of the 1830s-1840s, the small town in the Pearl River Delta known to Westerners as "Canton" became a Treaty Port for the British. Around the same time, the French were working up from today's Vietnam into Guangdong Province, and these two colonial powers turned Canton into a logistics and warehousing hub for their commercial and military interests. In modern Guangzhou, you can still visit the European enclave of Shamian Island with its unique architecture and quiet atmosphere; families who've adopted children from China know it well as all foreign adoptions are processed through there.

After World War II, Guangzhou became a natural center for manufacturing and distribution; once trade was opened to the West in the 1980s, the city's growth ballooned as Guangdong Province became "the workshop to the world." The Canton Fair, a truly massive industrial tradeshow, runs twice a year in April and October, using up nearly all the hotel rooms, restaurants, and transport the city can offer (so tourism effectively stops at those times.) FedEx's third-largest hub is now Guangzhou, and massive oceangoing container ships dock just downriver from sleepy Shamian Island.

The city's old airport near Baiyun Mountain (meaning "white cloud"; how appropriate) was far too cramped to handle growing traffic and completely hemmed in by the city and mountain. In 2004 the new Baiyun International Airport opened about 28 km north of downtown in what was then quiet farming countryside. If you ride in from the airport by highway today, of course the stretch is nearly filled with warehouses, factories, and housing, but the airport planners left plenty of space at the new airport for expansion - which is happening right now.

Guangzhou is the 2nd-busiest airport in the People's Republic, and may well grow into one of the world's top ten before decade's end. For family travelers, here are some things you need to know:

Logos and trademarks are property of their respective airlines/alliances.

Logos and trademarks are property of their respective airlines/alliances.

Service overview

For direct Trans-Pacific flights, at present the only carrier flying nonstop out of Guangzhou is China Southern (airline code CZ), that nation's largest airline, and member of the Skyteam alliance. They have two daily nonstops to both Los Angeles and New York JFK, daily nonstops to Vancouver, 5 flights per week to Toronto, and daily service to San Francisco (4 days a week are nonstop; the other 3 the flight stops in Wuhan on the way.) The Vancouver flight continues on to Mexico City three times per week starting in April 2017.

China Southern has code-share agreements with Skyteam partner Delta through LAX and JFK to cover many cities in the US, Canada, and Mexico.  CZ also code-shares with Virgin America out of SFO and LAX for additional flight choices to major US cities (it is unclear whether these connections will continue as Virgin America is merged with Alaska Airlines, as Alaska cooperates with CZ's competitors Hainan Airlines and Cathay Pacific). In Canada, CZ codeshares with WestJet through Vancouver.

Connections from North America out beyond China on CZ to Southeast Asia and Australia have been aggressively priced, so it's possible you may have an international-to-international connection through CAN.

Most international travelers flying into Guangzhou are making an Asian connection enroute - most often through Seoul-Incheon (Korean Air or Asiana), Beijing (Air China or Hainan Airlines), or Shanghai-Pudong (China Eastern).

If you've made it to this airport, however, by far either you are visiting South China or are connecting to another part of the People's Republic. China Southern has its major domestic hub at CAN, flying to over 90 cities, and Shenzhen Airlines (Star Alliance) also has a big focus-city operation here. The other major carriers, Air China (Star Alliance), China Eastern / Shanghai Airlines (Skyteam), Xiamen Airlines (Skyteam), and Hainan Airlines (not part of an alliance), also cover numerous destinations. Finally, China has dozens more third-level carriers that tend to specialize in one region only (such as Sichuan Airlines, Chongqing Airlines, China Express Airlines) - some of these are really subsidiaries of the bigger carriers and others are really independent.

Photo by byeangel via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by byeangel via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

So there is substantial competition from Guangzhou for nonstop service to every 1st- and 2nd-tier city, and nearly all the 3rd-tier cities inside China. As a family traveler, this is what you want to see because domestic-to-domestic connections on any airline in China are not up to Western reliability, especially for non-native Mandarin speakers...

The budget-flying trend has also spawned several very-low-cost carriers like Spring Airlines; these are akin to Spirit or Ryanair and are very oriented to the Chinese home market, with every service at an added cost and no support toward North American family travelers. 

International Arrivals

Passengers arriving from overseas are directed onto the 2nd floor, and follow a long, grey corridor (moving sidewalks are available) to the Immigration counters for passport check. As the norm for Asia, this step goes surprisingly quickly - waiting time of 5 - 15 minutes. From there, you'll go down to the ground floor and the baggage claim area. 

Photo by 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Hand your Customs form in at the desk on the way out, and you'll be in the arrivals & ground transportation area.

If you are transferring to a domestic flight, you'll head upstairs into the massive main terminal area. Look for the "transfer" counters for your connecting airline to drop your bags and get boarding passes - then go through security and head to your gate. Thankfully, English signage is used throughout the terminal.

Photo by Keiichi Yasu via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Keiichi Yasu via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

International Departures

The airline check-in and baggage drop counters for foreign flights are all in the southeast part of the main terminal, with entry to the international gates immediately to the east.

You'll go through five layers of security between being dropped off at the terminal and sitting in your seat on the airplane:

  1. A random baggage search before you hand your suitcases over to the airline. Our guide said, “they look for travelers who don’t look like they’ll cause too much trouble,” so naturally we were ‘invited’ to be pulled over into the screening area.  This seems to be where the new screeners get their training, so be really patient. (Our bottle of Purell Hand Sanitizer was confiscated, because it “has alcohol.”) This took a good ten minutes, and only then could we get into the line for the airline counter.

  2. The usual boarding pass check as you head out to the concourse, which goes quickly enough.

  3. The passport control counters, which are horribly understaffed. Expect a half-hour wait, with nowhere to park yourself or especially your children.

  4. X-ray and magnetometer screening, with more staff eager to pull apart your carry-on bags. Another 15-20 minutes. Thankfully there is a moving sidewalk between the X-ray station and the “A” gates, but you may need to hustle.

  5. You might think you’re done, but for the international departures they set up another carry-on baggage inspection (oh yes, by hand) on the jetbridge as you try to board your aircraft.

Click on this image to open the interactive airport map (Baiyunport / Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport authority)

Click on this image to open the interactive airport map (Baiyunport / Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport authority)

Navigating the Airport

CAN has a unique layout that works well for travelers heading from or to Guangzhou, but can give headaches for those trying to make connections - sort of a modern take on Los Angeles' LAX or Houston Bush Intercontinental; there are two "wings" with three "feathers" each coming off a central terminal building. "A" gates are on the east side; "B" gates are on the west side. The southeast-most concourse handles international flights; the other five concourses handle domestic traffic. 

Moving sidewalks stretch along each of the concourses, as well as along the lengthwise "wings" and also in the connecting passageway between the east and west sides. Because these gates are designed to handle jumbo jets, there is a lot of walking involved to travel between concourses.

The international concourse is isolated from the rest of the complex, but on the domestic side, once you're through security you can access all five of the concourses.

Shops, food, and services are spread along the "wings" and also out onto the concourses, on the gate level (3rd floor). Unless your flight is parked away from the terminal - in which case you'll go down to a waiting room on the ground level, where you will catch a bus to take you to your airplane.

When deplaning, you'll be let out on the 2nd floor, however, which is ... rather sterile, and really just a passageway to shunt you to baggage claim. If you are making a domestic-to-domestic connection at CAN (as long as your bags were checked through to your destination and you have boarding passes issued for your connection - this is *not* always the case for domestic flights in China), you'll need to look for where your connecting gate is - stay on Level 2 if you need to get to the other side of the airport; find an escalator or lift to get back up to Level 3 if your gate is on the same side.

Confusing? Well, just wait until the next round of construction is finished around 2020; they're going to clone this entire complex and stick it on the northern end of this one. One can only hope that they will put all the China Southern gates on the same side at that point to make connections a little simpler...

Photo by Keiichi Yasu via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Keiichi Yasu via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems

Well, the kids will get plenty of exercise from all the walking. There aren't any play areas set up, however, and the gate areas will get crowded before flights. Depending on your flight time, you *might* find an open gate nearby, but don't bet on it.

If you and your kids like to watch airplanes, this is a great airport to do it in; there are dozens of airlines from all over the world to see and activity all through the day. Likewise, if you can make people-watching into a learning and story-telling activity, the kinds of passengers you'll see at CAN are going to be a fascinating mix.

Restrooms

Overcrowded and under-serviced, with no space in the stalls for your bags or a toddler in tow. Expect long lines and little-to-no space for changing diapers, because Chinese kids are potty-trained at a much younger age than Western kids. Expect to see people smoking (they're not supposed to.) Western-style toilets are standard, but "squatty potties" are also available.

Not the worst we've experienced in China... just that they could be a lot better. "Family restrooms" were not a consideration when this airport was designed, for a number of social reasons - it may take another generation before the demand is there...

Photo by Keiichi Yasu via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Keiichi Yasu via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Food and Shopping

There are numerous shops and cafes along the domestic and international concourses, including McDonald's, KFC, and Starbucks. By far, however, the majority of retail and food outlets are Chinese brands, selling in Mandarin (and usually Cantonese) for the local population. Which is not to say that you won't be able to buy magazines, toys, or coffee: it's the same as shopping at O'Hare or Cancun...

For kids, there are multiple (mini) outlets of a local toy store across the complex, selling locally-produced toys mainly intended as gifts to be given at the other end of the trip (think big sets), not so much small items to be used for play at the airport and on the flight.

Remember that for international departures from Chinese airports, they interpret the "no liquids over 100 ml through security" rule to include anything that you buy in the secure area. Which means the water bottle you bought at the gift shop will be confiscated on the jetway. So don't buy any drinks in the airport that you won't be consuming before you get on the aircraft.

Photo by Keiichi Yasu via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Keiichi Yasu via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Connectivity

WiFi is advertised as free throughout the terminal; however, (1), you'll need to scan your passport at a kiosk to get an access code, and that process doesn't always work, and (2) these services are within China's Great Firewall - meaning you will not be able to connect with Western social media like Facebook or Twitter, will not be able to access Google or your webmail hosting, and won't be able to get to US/Canadian news sites. While you'll probably be able to get to your airline's website, performance and download times may be substantially degraded. If you've picked up a Chinese SIM card for your mobile phone, you can connect via the wireless carrier's service, but with the same browser restrictions.

Charging points are few and far between; best to charge up before getting to the airport.

CAN is at the northern end of Guangzhou Metro's Line 3 (the Orange line); service to downtown takes about 50 minutes, and connections to all parts of the city can be made via multiple stations on their now-extensive subway network.

China's much-promoted high-speed rail network does not go to Baiyun Airport, which is a missed opportunity; and the Metro from the airport does not directly hook to the HSR train stations either, so an in-town connection is required. 

Also see:

Our Pinterest page on Guangzhou/Shenzhen

Our Pinterest page on China Southern Airlines

Hong Kong - HKG

Crossroads of the world, front door to all China.

Since the 1950’s, Hong Kong has been the West’s primary gateway to Mainland China. Strong financial and manufacturing sectors, well-developed ground-transport structure, transparent legal and regulatory systems, and liberal access to foreign carriers has ensured this city’s strong flight links.

For US and Canadian travelers, Hong Kong’s position at the ocean end of the Pearl River Delta with fast access to Guangzhou, Shenzhen,  - and no 3rd country visa issues - has made it a comfortable transit point. With plenty of kid-friendly attractions (such as a Disneyland,) familiar foods and hotel chains, and many English-speaking residents, it is ideally-positioned to help travelers re-integrate to the West before heading home.

Of course, Hong Kong is itself one of the great cities in the world - its food, culture, and natural environment are unique and exciting. The city was a British colony, so English signage and literature can be found everywhere; you'll have no problem shopping, seeing the sights, or using mass transit.

Logos and trademarks are property of their respective airlines.

Logos and trademarks are property of their respective airlines.

Service Overview

Heading out from Hong Kong, hometown carrier Cathay Pacific (airline code CX) (oneworld alliance) reaches most of the major connecting points in North America with multiple flights each day. For instance, in Winter-Spring 2016, New York has 4 daily flights to JFK and 1 to Newark, Los Angeles 4 times per day, Vancouver and San Francisco twice daily. They also fly into Chicago, Boston, and Toronto. CX is a partner with American Airlines, who just launched their own Dallas/Ft. Worth - Hong Kong nonstop.

Across the Pacific, United (Star Alliance) flies nonstop daily to their hubs in San Francisco, Chicago, and Newark. Singapore Airlines (Star Alliance) gets a daily nonstop to San Francisco, too. Delta (SkyTeam alliance) has nonstops to its Detroit and Seattle hubs, and also flies to its Tokyo hub. Air Canada (Star Alliance) jets nonstop daily to both Vancouver and Toronto. Korean Air (SkyTeam) and Asiana (Star Alliance) offer many seats through Seoul-Incheon and convenient connections to numerous cities in North America. Japan Airlines (oneworld) and All Nippon Airways (Star Alliance) both route through Tokyo.

Service into China

Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) now enjoys nonstop service to many inland cities, especially in the south, including Changsha, Nanning, Hefei, Chongqing, Xi’an, Kunming, and Chengdu.  Local carriers Dragonair (a oneworld alliance partner and subsidiary of Cathay Pacific) and Hong Kong Airlines (division of Hainan Airlines), plus all the mainland carriers such as China Southern and China Eastern (both in the SkyTeam alliance), and Air China and Shenzhen Airlines (both Star Alliance) all compete on these cross-border services. 

As most of these flights leave Hong Kong during daylight hours - and most overseas flights arrive in the evening - you’ll probably have to spend a night here if entering China this way.

Close-in Pearl River Delta city Guangzhou itself is linked to HKIA with only a few flights, but there are hourly express trains, numerous coach services, and even high-speed ferries connecting the two cities. Shenzhen is a massive city literally on the border with Hong Kong, so only buses, trains, and ferry services are needed. High-speed rail is being laid to connect Hong Kong with other key areas in Guangdong, Guangxi, and Fujian provinces - once running, they'll offer transit times on par with flying.

Customs Arrival

Leaving your aircraft, you’ll take a ramp from the gate down to the arrivals level. From there you’ll follow the moving sidewalk to a very large Customs hall. Dozens of passport-check desks help keep the lines short - usually less than a 5-minute wait.  The baggage claim hall lies just a few steps past the passport desks; picking up your luggage is easy and waiting times are usually short - some reviewers have said their bags were on the carrousel by the time they got there; we waited about 10 minutes on our recent trip.

From the baggage claim area you’ll work through a hallway where there are currency-exchange desks and out into the massive “meet & greet hall”. There are restaurants and shops here, hotel information desks, and passageways to the bus gates and Airport Express / MTR train station.

International Connections

If Hong Kong is simply a connecting point to another destination, instead of heading in to the passport desks, follow the signage for the departures level, and go through a security screen before heading to your gate. HKIA does not make you go through Customs for connecting flights.

Click on this graphic to open a PDF of the airport facilities (Airport Authority Hong Kong)

Click on this graphic to open a PDF of the airport facilities (Airport Authority Hong Kong)

Navigating the Airport

When leaving Hong Kong, you'll note that check-in counters are spread across two buildings: Terminal 1 and Terminal 2, which lie on either side of the main roadway and train station.  Terminal 1 is where most of the major international carriers’ counters are located; Terminal 2 tends to serve the low-cost airlines and carriers from Southeast Asia. Each terminal has its own immigration and security checkpoints, but both terminals feed into the same gate complex.

Since all flights leaving HKIA are international, you’ll go through two checkpoints: the first for passport control, and then a conventional security scan (no body scanners here, just the old-fashioned magnetic detectors.) Don’t be alarmed to see heavily-armed police roaming the check-in and security zone - although this may be the only place in peaceful Hong Kong you see a military presence. 

HKIA is a massive operation, but centered on a simple Y-shaped main concourse. Moving sidewalks run right down the middle, and there is also an underground tram running from below the terminal security checkpoint to the center of the “Y” and then on to a remote concourse, called the "Skypier".

Each gate on the main and remote concourses is designed to handle jumbo jets, with plenty of seating. This makes the spacing between gates quite large - much further than you would think by looking at a map. Even using the moving sidewalks, figure a 20-minute hike from the security checkpoint out to one of the ends of the “Y”.

There are a few gates snuggled up against the terminal building which are dedicated to Cathay Pacific. Delta flights usually dock in the middle of the straight stretch; United is typically located out on the southwest leg of the “Y”.  Gate assignments will vary, however, so pay attention to the staff at check-in and the big departure monitors.

Shorter-haul flights into mainland China often depart from the newer “North Satellite Concourse” which is connected to the main building by bus from near the central security checkpoint.

When boarding your flight, have your passports ready as there will be one more document cross-check on the jetway. They will also be searching your carry-on bags, and will confiscate any liquids bigger than 3 oz/100 mL, regardless of if they were purchased in the gate area or not.  Very frustrating...so finish your coffee before boarding, and plan on keeping formula as powder until you can get hot water when airborne.

Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems

Hong Kong loves kids, and HKIA is no exception. If you have time, in the pre-security area of Terminal 2, top level, there are several attractions for older kids and grown-ups:

  • Aviation Discovery Centre and Sky Deck
  • PlayStation(R) Gateway (free games!)
  • 4-D Extreme Screen Cinema

The shops in Terminal 2 include several of interest to children, including an Exploration Store, Play ‘n Go, and a Disney Store.

Post-security, there’s another Disney Store in the East Hall shopping and restaurant complex (the area just after you get through security).

In the gate area, there are TV lounges near gates 1, 15, 40, and 60 and a large children’s playspace by gate 25 (more tuned for toddlers, though - no slides or climbing equipment.)

The wide-open concourse and big gate areas give plenty of room for youngsters to move around and burn off energy. The vast windows provide an awesome view of aircraft, the harbor, and Lantau Island (try to find the cable cars stretching over the mountain up to the Ngong Ping monastery!)

HKIA has placed artwork and cultural materials throughout the gate areas and much of it is fascinating to kids. The giant silver egg just before the escalators to the gate level compels children to touch it!

In the “hidden gems” category are the “resting lounges” near gates 61, 41-43, and 32-34. These are quiet garden spots with padded lounge chairs, great for stretching out and perhaps even taking a little nap.

If your flight leaves early in the morning, another “gem” is having the entire gate complex essentially all to yourself - a rare treat in this crowded city, and something you won’t get on a cramped airplane for the next 10 to 20 hours.

Restrooms

Family restrooms are generously spread throughout the terminals and gate areas, are spacious and well-equipped. Some even have seating inside.

Regular restrooms are functional and well-maintained, with adequate stall space but not much room for stowing your bag or coat. They can accomodate a 747-load of passengers quickly, however.

Pay attention to toilet seats - they are cleaned aggressively with strong chemicals. Make sure seats are dry to avoid irritation!

Of special note are the restrooms in the “meet and greet” public area in Terminal 1. There are “family stalls” in both the men’s and women’s facilities which are extra-large, have changing tables, and handsomely decorated with Hong Kong scenes.

Squat toilets can be found in the public areas of the terminal buildings; however, all the toilets in the gate area are Western-variety. 

Photo by 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Food and Shopping

HKIA might as well be called a shopping mall with parking for airplanes. In the gate areas alone there are over 90 shops and about two dozen restaurants, plus dozens more stores and eateries in the two terminals pre-security.

Granted, many of the shops are of the Hermes / Burberry / Coach / Prada luxury tier, with plenty of jewelry, cosmetics, and shoe options at the expensive end. However, there are also a number of newsstands, convenience stores, and general gift shops as well, plus the kids’ specialty stores as described earlier.

Food choices are incredible, and you could easily spend a full day at HKIA simply trying everything. In the East Hall there is a McDonald’s and Popeye’s Chicken; Starbucks near gates 21 and 44, and an illy espresso stand near gate 30. And then there are noodle shops, sushi stands, traditional Chinese cafes, congee houses, seafood and caviar restaurants, bakeries and sweet shops...

A singular frustration with the dining and shopping are the opening hours - stores generally don’t open until 7:00 am at the earliest - many not opening until 8:00. The McDonald’s and Starbucks are 24-hour operations, but even the magazine stands don’t open until 7 - which means many early-morning departing passengers don’t have a chance to get breakfast or pick up reading material and last-minute supplies.

Connectivity

Wi-fi is free and strong throughout the terminal. There are also several cafes and restaurants with Internet stations, and electrical charging areas can be found at numerous points.

Rail links from HKIA come in the form of the Airport Express, with high-speed service to Kowloon and Central, and the conventional MTR subway, with which you can connect to most of the territory’s rail network through several intermediate stations. There are also several companies providing double-decker bus service to various hotels and neighborhoods around the city, and depending on your destination, can actually be faster than the MTR.

Also see:

Our Pinterest page on Hong Kong

Seoul Incheon - ICN

Image via John Martinez Pavliga on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image via John Martinez Pavliga on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Easy for families to use; broad reach to all parts of East Asia.

Seoul’s original international airport, Gimpo, had served the city well up through the 1980s, but after the Olympics in 1988, it became clear that the country’s economic expansion was going to overwhelm that facility. An ambitious development plan was put into action to convert islands about 45 miles from downtown into an offshore mega-airport that would be able to operate 24 hours a day without bothering neighborhoods, handle flights without worrying about pesky mountains, and be able to expand as needed.

In 2001 the new international airport, Incheon, opened, and Gimpo was turned into a domestic-only facility (although some services to places like Tokyo-Haneda Airport and Shanghai-Hongqiao Airport have since been re-introduced.)

Despite the currency shock, SARS crisis, 9/11, recurring antagonism from North Korea, and global recession of the 2000s, the South Korean economy has continued to grow strongly, and Incheon Airport has been expanded already, with yet another growth plan approved and underway. 

Image via Cameron Henderson on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image via Cameron Henderson on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

ICN is home to two major international carriers, Korean Air and Asiana. Korean Air is a founding member of the SkyTeam alliance (Delta, Air France / KLM, China Southern, China Eastern, Aeroflot, and more) and Asiana belongs to the Star Alliance (United, Lufthansa, ANA, Air China, Air Canada, and more.) 

For traveling families, Incheon is an attractive stopover point, both inbound and outbound. And South Korea itself has become a popular destination, from Seoul's shopping and pop culture, to Busan's seaside charm, to Jeju's semi-tropical laid-back island vibe. High-speed rail now blankets the mainland cities, and English signage and speakers are becoming more common.

Logos are trademarks of their respective airlines. Consult carriers for specific schedules.

Logos are trademarks of their respective airlines. Consult carriers for specific schedules.

Asiana (in red) and Korean Air (in blue) combined offer outstanding access to interior China; most of these cities can be reached with same-day connections from North America.

Asiana (in red) and Korean Air (in blue) combined offer outstanding access to interior China; most of these cities can be reached with same-day connections from North America.

Service Overview

Seoul has positioned itself as the leading connection hub between North America and East Asia with its 24-hour operation and lower costs than Tokyo or Osaka, liberal traffic rights to encourage more airlines to start service, and aggressive expansion by both Korean Air and Asiana. In fact, it is often easier to connect to many Japanese cities through ICN than via Narita.

Currently 14 airports in North America are served nonstop from ICN; the SkyTeam and Star Alliance partners each coordinate schedules for maximum connecting opportunities in Korea as well as in North America. As of Winter-Spring 2016, Los Angeles enjoys 5 daily departures to Seoul; San Francisco has four, and New York has three; up to 29 nonstops per day overall.

American Airlines (of the oneworld alliance) has started Dallas/Ft.Worth - Seoul nonstops with its own equipment, and also code-shares on the Korean Air flight from DFW.

Hawaiian Air (not part of an alliance) has a daily nonstop from Honolulu.

Korean Air's low-cost subsidiary Jin Air has started nonstops to Honolulu to cater to the Korean vacation market; it is likely that budget carriers will reach North America soon (although with reduced legroom and baggage allowance); the overall impact should be to bring family-travel fares down.

Eastern Australia and New Zealand and the key cities in Europe also see frequent service from Korean Air; Asiana covers fewer destinations in these places but is expecting to keep adding cities. 

Click on image to open transfer map information (Incheon Int'l Airport Corporation)

Click on image to open transfer map information (Incheon Int'l Airport Corporation)

Customs Arrival and Transfer Process

Much like Tokyo-Narita or many European airports, passengers transferring between flights and not leaving the airport do not have to go through Customs. After disembarking from your arriving aircraft, you’ll descend to Level 2 for a security check. Follow the “transfer” signs back up to Level 3 and the departure gates, or take the shuttle train if you have to change buildings.

If you are stopping over or staying in Korea, instead of the security check you’ll pass through a quarantine scan (thermal imaging to see if you our your kids have a fever) and then proceed to passport control. Baggage claim and the declarations counter are on the ground floor; bus stops are just beyond. Across the airport access road is the massive ground transport center including the train station.

Reviews from travelers praise Incheon for speedy Customs and baggage retrieval - 15 to 30 minutes most commonly quoted for the entire process.

Image via Angelo Juan Ramos on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image via Angelo Juan Ramos on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Navigating the Airport

ICN is a massive operation but has been designed to allow passengers to connect between flights quickly. In the main building - shaped like a semicircle with two piers extending outward - Korean Air and Asiana each take half of the gates; one pier and half the semicircle for each, making the average walk between flights only around 10 minutes. (Moving sidewalks are located along all main corridors.)

Non-Korean carriers like Delta, Air China, United, and China Southern have been located on the remote concourse which is reached by underground shuttle train. The shuttle station is located in the main building right in the middle, and likewise arrives at the midpoint of the remote concourse. The train takes about 2 minutes and runs every 5 minutes. 

Image via John Martinez Pavliga on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image via John Martinez Pavliga on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Because of the airport’s efficient layout, automation, and staff training, connection times between international flights of just 45 minutes are possible; in practice, most same-day connections are scheduled for about 75 - 90 minutes.

Gate areas are all configured to handle jumbo jets and feature large seating areas.

Image via Tzuhsun Hsu on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image via Tzuhsun Hsu on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems

Incheon has clearly been built with traveling families’ needs in mind! The airport boasts an astounding eight different large play areas for kids, including slides and places to climb. In the main building these are located near gates 9, 14, 41, 45 and on either end of the fourth floor. On the remote concourse they can be found near gates 111 and 121.

Image via Tzuhsun Hsu on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image via Tzuhsun Hsu on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

There are six dedicated nurseries with private quiet areas and bottle-warming equipment; these are next to the play areas on the remote concourse and on the fourth floor of the main building, with the last two near gates 25 and 30 on the gate level of the main building.

Two movie / TV-watching lounges are set up on either end of the fourth floor in the main building. There are also free large lounge areas set up on the fourth floor (called the “Rest & Relax Zone”) where you can stretch out in comfy reclining chairs for a nap or airplane-watching.

Image via John Martinez Pavliga on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image via John Martinez Pavliga on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

“Experience Traditional Korea” is a unique and really fun feature for families; located near gates 24 and 31 in the main building these centershelp introduce many of Korea’s art, craft, and entertainment traditions. Stages are set up for performances, and guides in traditional clothing will help you create your own paper or woodcraft artwork to take home!

On the fourth floor of the remote concourse, the Cultural Museum of Korea features curated artworks from many centuries; there are also small exhibition halls of traditional crafts on either end of the fourth floor in the main building.

Should your connection give you several hours between flights, Incheon Airport runs several different FREE "transit tours" ranging from 1 hour to 5 hours - delivered in English, with transportation provided - visiting the local community, temples, and even downtown Seoul!

If your connection requires an overnight or extended-daytime layover, the Walkerhill Airport Transit Hotel sits above the main building and is available in 6-hour blocks. Standard double or twin rooms, plus deluxe / suite rooms are available. This hotel is entirely within the secure zone so you do not have to go through any additional scanning to use it.

Restrooms

Numerous toilet facilities are spread throughout the gate and lounge areas; all are equipped for handicapped access and baby-changing. While none are labeled “family restrooms,” the handicapped stalls are easily large enough to manage your child and luggage.

Free shower facilities are also available, if you have time and want to freshen up after a long flight. Two of these facilities are located on either end of the fourth floor in the main building, and one is found on the fourth floor of the remote concourse; they are open 7 am - 9 pm.

Image via John Martinez Pavliga on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image via John Martinez Pavliga on Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Food and Shopping

At last count, there were 70 retail shops and 70 food vendors in the secure area of ICN. 

The shopping choices - like many Asian airports - are decidedly tilted toward luxury goods and brand names like Gucci, Burberry, Prada, and Swarovski; there are shops with packaged snacks, magazines, and toys but these are all incorporated in the duty-free stores run by one of the Korean retailers Shilla, Lotte, or KTO. Shops are clustered in the middle portion of the concourse and along the terminal-side portion of the main building.

Food choices are much more diverse and exciting - and spread evenly across the gate areas. Big food courts are located near gates 12 and 30 in the main building, and in the central part of the concourse, plus dozens of stand-alone shops scattered elsewhere.

Most of the leading international fast-food and coffee-shop chains are represented, plus Korea’s leading chains and numerous independent cafes. Italian, French, sushi, and Chinese cuisines are well-represented and of course traditional Korean options.

Connectivity

Free WiFi is available throughout the terminal and remote concourse; in addition, there are two free Internet lounges on the concourse (near gates 111 and 124) and four in the main building (two on the fourth floor, one near gate 24, and one near gate 30).

A commuter rail line connects Incheon with the domestic airport Gimpo, and continues to downtown Seoul (with stops in several other neighborhoods as well.) There is also an express train which runs nonstop from Incheon to downtown. These lines connect to a great portion of the Seoul Metro as well as the country’s growing high-speed rail network. Numerous shuttle buses also connect Incheon to most of the city’s hotels and key transit stations.

Also see:

Our Pinterest page on Seoul

Our Pinterest page on Korea, outside Seoul

Tokyo Narita - NRT

Photo by Kentaro IEMOTO via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Kentaro IEMOTO via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Japan's front door: efficient, and welcoming; a showcase for culture and commerce.

As your flight crosses the shoreline on approach to NRT, immediately you know something is different. The farms and houses below you are precisely arranged. The streets and highways look as if they were just installed, without potholes or patches. Everything is ... so geometric and, well, clean. The sensation continues as you land and taxi to your gate. The ground workers shuttle about in immaculate jumpsuits. No trash blowing around, no decaying concrete, no abandoned airplanes or rusting vehicles. The carts and trucks are arranged-just-so, in a way that you can intuitively sense is both practiced and engineered for precision.

The staff you encounter in the terminal, from security to shopkeepers, are real people; professional but genuine. Whether you're coming to Japan to visit, or just passing through, it's clear that everyone at Narita understands their role as ambassadors for their entire country.

Logos and trademarks are property of their respective airlines.

Logos and trademarks are property of their respective airlines.

Service overview

Tokyo has been the logical and traditional landing point for flights from North America since the end of WWII; it's the first major city on the Great Circle Route and as such was the fastest way to Asia. Northwest Airlines pioneered the route up through the Yukon and Alaska, then down along the Aleutian Islands, and helped set up the Japanese air system after the war.

While today's efficient aircraft allow carriers to bypass Japan for nonstops to China, Korea, and beyond, there is still plenty of demand for travel to Japan itself - and many connecting opportunities to destinations throughout East and Southeast Asia.

Currently Tokyo-Narita is linked nonstop to 18 airports in Canada and the US 50 states, with up to 47 flights *per day*, and 9 carriers competing for passenger business. NRT is a hub location for the three big airline alliances:

  • Star Alliance, with ANA-All Nippon, United, and Air Canada
  • oneworld, with Japan Airlines and American
  • Skyteam, with Delta, China Airlines, and Korean Air

Hawaiian Air, not linked to an alliance, began service in Summer 2016.

Connections to other cities inside Japan are provided by ANA and Japan Airlines and their subsidiaries; however, there aren't many flights, and not many cities are covered - and those that are offered are usually on small aircraft. Most travelers will make the two-hour overland journey to Tokyo's "in-town" airport, Haneda, for domestic flights, or will opt for the many train services.

Beyond Japan, into East and Southeast Asia, the three airline alliances offer broad connecting options with even more partner carriers:

  • United flies to Guam and Singapore. ANA-All Nippon flies to dozens of destinations throughout the region. Their Star Alliance partners are Asiana to Korea, Air China and Shenzhen Air into the PRC, EVA Air to Taiwan, Thai Airways, and Singapore Airlines. 
  • Japan Airlines also connects dozens of cities; American does not fly onward from Japan. Oneworld partners are Cathay Pacific and its subsidiary Dragonair to Hong Kong, plus Malaysia Airlines.
  • Delta flies to Bangkok, Guam, Manila, Palau, Saipan, Shanghai, Singapore, and Taipei. Its Skyteam partners are China Eastern and China Southern to the PRC, Korean Air, China Airlines to Taiwan, Garuda Indonesia, and Vietnam Airlines.

There are also non-alliance carriers such as Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, and Hainan Airlines serving Narita which you may connect to.

Photo by Wei-Te Wong via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Wei-Te Wong via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Customs Arrival and Transfer Process

International-to-international connections at NRT are simple; everyone leaving the aircraft is directed (up one floor in Terminal 1, down one floor in Terminal 2), through a simple security checkpoint and scan, and then back out to the gate area. Depending on how many flights are unloading at the same time, this can take as little as 10 minutes - they keep the lines moving!

For entering Japan, again you'll change one floor after leaving the aircraft, but instead of going through security, instead follow the signs to go to the well-staffed Immigration counters. Lines for passport checks are rarely more than 5-10 minutes. You'll go down one more floor to baggage claim; if you have nothing to declare, hand your declaration form in at the green counter and exit to the ground-transportation area in the arrival lobby.

For leaving Japan, the passport check and security scans are also very fast; 5-15 minutes for the whole process. 

Click on this image to open the Narita Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 guide maps. (Narita Airport Authority)

Click on this image to open the Narita Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 guide maps. (Narita Airport Authority)

Navigating the Airport

Narita now has three terminals: Terminals 1 and 2 are for traditional long-haul carriers and a limited amount of domestic connecting flights: Terminal 1 is mostly for flights from the Star Alliance (United, ANA-All Nippon, Air Canada) and Skyteam (Delta, China Airlines, China Southern, China Eastern, Garuda Indonesia, Vietnam Airlines, Korean Air); while Terminal 2 is home to the oneworld alliance (American, Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific). Terminal 3 is dedicated to the low-cost budget airlines flying mostly short hops in Japan and selected Asian destinations; these flights usually don't connect with the long-haul services from North America, so we will just concentrate on Terminals 1 and 2 in this article.

On the concourse (Level 3 in both Terminals 1 and 2), you have full access to all the gate areas, restaurants, and shopping inside the security zone. This is a great opportunity to stretch your legs and get some fresh, hot food. You won’t have a lot of time to explore the place if you are connecting flights; about 80-120 minutes, but it’s enough to pick up some souvenirs and resupply your carry-on bag with bottled water and snacks. Unlike China or Hong Kong, in Japan you may definitely bring anything on board your international-bound aircraft that you have purchased inside the security zone.

Terminal 1’s layout is roughly shaped like a sideways letter “K”, with one half devoted to the SkyTeam carriers and the other to Star Alliance. Terminal 2 is made of two long parallel concourses, with a tunnel & bridge connecting them at the halfway point.

Moving sidewalks are deployed in several places, and they’re necessary for covering the longer distances between connecting gates. They also segregate passengers who are in a hurry, which makes all the hallways and shopping areas flow more smoothly.

Two points on the sidewalks:

  1. In Japan, they drive on the left side of the road. So you want to take the moving sidewalk on the left side of the hallway.

  2. The sidewalks move with a little more zip than we’re used to in America. Still a safe speed, but you need to pay attention.

If you should need to transfer between Terminal 1 and 2, shuttle buses are available inside the security zone. There is no tram system to connect the far-flung terminals and gate areas.

Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems

In both terminals there are several places for toddlers to romp and burn off energy:

  • Terminal 1 features a kids’ playroom between gates 26-27. Not much there in the way of equipment, but soft furniture, toys, and space for running around. There are also “kids’ parks” near gates 41 and 51.
  • Terminal 2 offers playrooms in the central food/shopping court of the main concourse, between gates 76-77 on the main concourse, and on the satellite between gates 81-83.

There are convenient nursing rooms for a bit of quiet and privacy:

  • In Terminal 1, between gates 11-12, 21-22, 26-27, near 35, 41, 51, 52, and 57.
  • In Terminal 2, on the main concourse near gate 65, 76, and in the central food/shopping court; on the satellite near gate 92.

And in Terminal 1, there is a great little toy shop at the far end of the South Wing (gate 51-56 area) that specializes in Japanese anime, video game, and scale model items. 

If you have enough time between flights to exit the secure zone (say a 3 hour gap - you will have to clear Japanese immigration), or have time before your flight if you've been staying in Japan, the free outdoors observation deck is extraordinary. Japanese airports are generally excellent about providing the public with great views of the action, and few airports have as diverse a mix of carriers and aircraft as Narita. Both Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 have these decks - they have plenty of seating and are a great place for a picnic, or for kids to run around a bit, too.

Unique, free cultural exhibits that kids will really enjoy include the "Kabuki Experience Gallery" in Terminal 1 near gate 27, and the Nippon Origami Museum, Terminal 1 near gate 26. Both of these  galleries have plenty to look at, as well as souvenir-shopping opportunities. They're great ways to spend a half-hour.

In the “hidden gems” category, Narita has set up several out-of-the-way lounge areas with reclining seats, including the lower level beneath the gate 21-25 concourse in Terminal 1 (take the elevator down), and also beneath gates 76-77 in Terminal 2 (again, take the elevator.)

In Terminal 1, between gates 26-27, there is also a lounge area with benches, soft carpet, and indirect lighting. This area stays very calm despite the crowd moving all around it.

One can usually find unoccupied gate areas, even during the major connecting banks, by walking a few minutes - or even just around the corner.

Restrooms

The restrooms are plentiful, and about the cleanest places you’ve ever seen. Plenty of space in the stalls; if you need to bring your toddler in with you, she can walk around - they are that spacious. The big restrooms in the main concourses even have a few stalls set up as “squatty potties,” if you are daring enough to try.

Stalls, however, do not have shelving to keep bags up off the floor. There aren't "family restrooms" as we have them in North America - part of this is offset by how big the stalls are, and part of this is offset by the several nurseries which offer changing space for toddlers.

Uniquely. there are also "changing rooms" associated with most of the restrooms in the gate areas; these have fully-closable doors and hook space - as well as a toilet - so that travelers can change clothes after a long flight. You'll have to pay attention for the signs but this is also a kid-friendly feature.

Food and Shopping

Dining options are surprisingly not plentiful in the gate areas of either terminal. (Terminal 1’s pre-security food court is legendary, but you won’t be able to access it when connecting between flights.) Narita has replaced international chain restaurants and fast-food places in the secure zone with local vendors and a focus on local cuisine; not that that is necessarily a bad thing - Japanese food is tasty, fast, and no more expensive than Western food - grilled meats and noodle dishes are definitely familiar. Even Starbucks has been exiled to the pre-security zone; the only Western outlets remaining are the McDonald’s in Terminal 1, near gate 26, and a Tulley's Coffee in Terminal 2, near gate 62.

Shopping options are stacked toward the duty-free luxury goods / electronics / cosmetics / alcohol & tobacco categories; however there are also general giftshops in several places in each terminal that sell packaged foods, ice cream, and drinks along with souvenirs and media. Each terminal also features a decent-sized bookstore with a substantial selection of Western reading materials - AND - Japanese manga that your kids will already know about.

Be sure to stock up on "only-in-Japan" gifts and snacks for friends and family back home - such as the KitKat bars in many unique flavors!

Credit cards are happily accepted. Also, note signs in certain places for where US $ are accepted. You’ll get change in Japanese Yen - something more for your scrapbook! And you can use those coins in the many vending machines out by the gates for extra snacks and drinks for your onward flight...

Connectivity

Free WiFi is available across the airport! And charging points are rolled out through all the gate and walkway areas. You may also use internet kiosks scattered around the terminals (100 yen for 10 minutes) - an old-fashioned approach, but if you need to do a quick Facebook post or send an email and don't have your phone or laptop handy, it's another option.

Photo by James Abbott via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by James Abbott via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

If you’re stopping or staying in Tokyo, there is a substantial network of rail services now available to most of the city’s major rail terminals. Narita also is served by a network of frequent bus services which connect with most of the major hotels; it's about an hour into the city, plus connecting time to get to the neighborhood you want to be in.

Also see:

Our Pinterest page on Tokyo

Our Pinterest page on Yokohama

Impressions of… Tokyo – Harajuku

Impressions of… Tokyo – Meiji Jingu