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.
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, Aeromexico, 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.
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 2017, Los Angeles enjoys 5 daily departures to Seoul; San Francisco has four, and New York has three; up to 29 nonstops per day overall.
Delta and Korean Air finally signed a joint-venture agreement in 2017, and pending government approvals, will dramatically expand their code-share arrangements. Already the carriers have added a second daily flight to the Incheon-Atlanta route. This may also lead to additional cities in North America getting nonstop service to Korea (watch this space!)
American Airlines (of the oneworld alliance) runs Dallas/Ft.Worth - Seoul nonstops.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.