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 continues to grow strongly, and as a result, Incheon Airport added a remote concourse in 2008, and the eagerly-anticipated second terminal which opened in January 2018, just before that year's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
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 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 (and their respective low-cost subsidiaries). 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 2017-18, 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
While Incheon Airport now has two separate terminals, the arrival and transfer process is quite similar for each building.
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.
Arriving at Terminal 1 or the remote concourse, you’ll then go immediately through a security screening. Follow the “transfer” signs back up to Level 3 and the departure gates, or head downstairs to take the shuttle train if you have to change buildings.
Arriving at Terminal 2, if you are connecting to another flight in the same building, you’ll go through security on Level 2 and then head upstairs. If your next flight is on the remote concourse or in Terminal 1, you’ll bypass security and instead head downstairs to the shuttle train. You’ll go through security once you get to the other building.
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
With the opening of Terminal 2, ICN is nearly doubling its capacity, and opening the door for both the SkyTeam airline alliance (in particular Korean Air, Delta, Air France-KLM) and the Star Alliance (particularly Asiana, United, Air Canada, ANA-All Nippon, and Air China) to both build globe-spanning hub operations.
Now each of these alliances has its own giant terminal:
- Asiana and many Star Alliance flights now control Terminal 1
- Korean Air, its Transpacific joint-venture partner Delta, and Air France-KLM now control Terminal 2
- Oneworld (American, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines) and unaffiliated carriers, plus a few Star and SkyTeam flights, are left to the remote concourse
Within Terminal 1, or within Terminal 2, moving sidewalks and an efficient layout make the average walk between connecting flights only 10-15 minutes.
The remote concourse is located between the terminals and an underground shuttle tram connects them all. It runs every 5 minutes, and takes just 2 minutes to travel between Terminal 1 and the concourse; about 4 minutes from the concourse to Terminal 2.
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 fourteen different large play areas for kids, including slides and places to climb. In Terminal 1 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. And in Terminal 2 they are close to gates 231, 242, 246, 254, 257, and 268.
There are ten dedicated nurseries with private quiet areas and bottle-warming equipment in the secure zone; these are next to the play areas on the remote concourse; on the fourth floor and also near gates 25 and 30 on the third floor of Terminal 1; and near gates 231, 243, 257, and 268 in Terminal 2. (There are also nursing areas in the land-side areas of each terminal.)
Two movie / TV-watching lounges are set up on either end of the fourth floor in Terminal 1. There are also free large lounge areas set up on Terminal 1’s fourth floor (called the “Rest & Relax Zone”) where you can stretch out in comfy reclining chairs for a nap or airplane-watching.
Terminal 2 incorporates similar areas as well as a large indoor garden, an “observatory” for watching the runways and airplanes, and a “Great Hall” for music and theatrical performances.
“Experience Traditional Korea” is a unique and really fun feature for families; located near gates 24 and 31 in Terminal 1, and also with two locations in Terminal 2, these centers help 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 Terminal 1.
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 has locations in both Terminal 1 and Terminal 2. Each sits above the main building and is available in 6-hour blocks (even just 4-hour blocks for the Terminal 2 location). Standard double or twin rooms, plus deluxe / suite rooms are available. These hotels are 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 Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 (with a third location in the center of Terminal 2’s fourth floor), and one is found on the fourth floor of the remote concourse; they are open 7 am - 9 pm.
Food and Shopping
Shopping choices in the secure area - 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 remote concourse and along the terminal-side portion of both Terminals 1 and 2.
Food choices are much more diverse and exciting - and spread evenly across the gate areas. Big food courts are located on the east and west sides of the main building in Terminals 1 and 2, 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 both terminals and the remote concourse; in addition, there are two free Internet lounges on the concourse (near gates 111 and 124), four in the main building of Terminal 1 (two on the fourth floor, one near gate 24, and one near gate 30), and two in Terminal 2 (fourth floor, on the east and west sides of the duty-free shopping area).
A commuter rail line connects both Incheon terminals with the domestic airport Gimpo, and continues to downtown Seoul (with stops in several other neighborhoods as well.) You also have the option of the KTX express train running nonstop from Incheon (both terminals) to downtown (Geomam and Seoul Station). 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, and even outlying cities. These presently use Terminal 1 as their hub, but there is a free shuttle bus connecting the terminals that runs every 5 minutes.
In addition to the Walkerhill Airport Transit Hotel, there are several other family-friendly chain properties nearby with free shuttles from Terminal 1:
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