Asian transits

The other day my sister asked me to assist her boyfriend in finding a flight between Amsterdam and Australia. Now that's too far for a direct flight, so he will need to stop at least once during his trip. Some travellers view this as a painful waste of time, but B and I have come to enjoy stopovers as opportunities to enjoy yet another country and culture on our holiday. So, how do you go about making the most of your transit? Let's use the boyfriend's trip as an example and explore some of his options.

If you check the internet you can find quite a few flights between Amsterdam and Sydney or Brisbane, his two possible destinations. From those two state capitals he then wants to fly to Rockhampton, a regional city in Central Queensland. Many of the flights from Europe involve a short-haul trip between Amsterdam and another hub city. For example, to fly to Australia with Qantas he must first catch a small flight to Heathrow, then change to another flight to Australia via Bangkok or Singapore. We've done short transfers like that a few times and they can add complexities to your trip. Our example of Heathrow can be a painful place to transfer planes and twice during short transits our luggage has taken a while to catch up with us (Heathrow - Charles de Gaulle and Amsterdam - Frankfurt), so let's neglect such flights for now.

A number of airlines offer one stop flights to Australia from Amsterdam, either by themselves or in codeshare with another airline. I looked at the flights via Asia as these are the shortest and the options I am most familiar with. The transit options that I considered were:

  • Seoul, Korea
  • Tokyo/Narita, Japan
  • Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  • Singapore
  • Hong Kong

Others, such as Chinese cities and Bangkok in Thailand may exist but I consider that a Chinese transit could become difficult for a novice traveller and I'm not familiar at all with Bangkok's new airport.

Flight times

I looked up a variety of airlines that fly between Amsterdam, the above cities and Australia with the purpose of minimising total flight times (the default setting). Some flew overnight from Amsterdam to the transit point, then straight to Australia arriving in the evening. Others had up to two consecutive overnight flights to arrive in Australia in the morning.

The benefit of arriving in Australia early in the day is that it makes it possible to fly to Rockhampton the same day. Flights to regional cities are often few and far between. However I regard consecutive night flights as a highly uncomfortable option if you can't sleep on planes, especially if you have a long layover in between. It can knock the stuffing out of you and even spoil the beginning of your holiday.

Being a poor sleeper, I enjoy daylight flights with a night arrival at your destination. You can then go straight to your hotel room and unwind for a while.

Transit times

If your transit time between flights is four hours or less you have little option but to stay within the airport confines. Just exiting and re-entering through security will waste enough of your time that you will have very little to do anything else. Plus, most international airports are far enough away from the city that ground transport will also be a major factor.

A couple of hours transit is barely enough time to go to the bathroom and freshen up before boarding the next flight. For longer periods you have to hope that the "airside" (post security) facilities of the airport are interesting enough to keep you amused. Some airports only have brand filled duty-free shops and the odd cafe airside. Others have much more, with Singapore's Changi airport the leader in this regard, with shopping, entertainment and internet access.

Some airports, including Singapore's Changi and Japan's Narita offer city tours for longer stay transit passengers. This is a good way to get out and experience something of the country that you are passing through. A guided bus tour means also that there should be no language problems or other stresses while doing so. You may also like to explore by yourself.

Overnight or not?

If you really want to enjoy a stopover the best option is probably to spend at least one night in that country. This ensures that you should get at least one decent night's rest in between your flights and are much more receptive to the local culture.

We had the chance to compare the differences between an overnight and a daytime stay during our trip between Sydney and Amsterdam via Seoul. The flight to Seoul from Sydney was a daylight flight. After an exhausting flight (I was badly airsick) we caught the bus to a hotel in Seoul's Dongdaemun district. After freshening up in the hotel room we explored the local night markets until 2am, giving us the opportunity to enjoy the busy local culture. The next day we were refreshed and ready for our next flight to Europe.

On the way home we had two consecutive overnight flights with a day in Seoul. Again we caught a bus into Seoul ciy, but we were both exhausted and spent the day bleary eyed and just wanting to sleep. It was not anywhere near as much fun as on our first visit.

Even if all you do is stay in an airport hotel you will probably feel a lot better than you would continuing on with your flight. The downside is that it's an added expense and it will probably necessitate a couple of trips through immigration and security.

Airports

Singapore Changi

http://www.changiairport.com/

Singapore's Changi Airport is frequently voted the world's best by travellers. It has excellent facilities for all types of transiting passengers, including free day beds for a quick snooze, movies, free internet access including desks with power and ethernet.  There are even free city tours for passengers spending five hours or more in Singapore.

Trains (MRT), taxis and buses between Changi and the city are cheap and there are few culture shocks for westerners, it's the humidity that will surprise. English is widely spoken and the city is clean and safe. Singapore offers an easy introduction to the delicious regional cuisine and it is highly recommended that you try some!

Where Singapore loses out is for longer stopovers. Due to it's small size there are limited sightseeing opportunities in my opinion. However, there is always Malaysia next door!

Kuala Lumpur

http://www.klia.com.my/

It's been eight years since we visited Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and I believe much has changed since then. There is now a train into the city from the airport and better public transport in the country's main city. The airport is spacious and modern. 

Kuala Lumpur is probably one of the more "difficult" stops for travellers wishing to spend time within the country. The infrastructure isn't quite up to the same standards as the other countries, although English is fairly widely spoken. Visitors will be rewarded with the wonderful local cuisine and some fantastic architecture.

Tokyo Narita

http://www.narita-airport.jp/en/

Narita Airport is somewhere where it is worth passing out through immigration rather than spending time using its limited airside facilities. It's also very far from Tokyo itself, taking up to one and a half hours to travel between their airport and city by expensive express train. If you only have a day or an overnight with early departure it may be a better idea to take a look at Narita city. A trip to a temple garden can be a great way to mentally refresh yourself after a long flight.

We've never actually visited Narita, despite passing through the airport many times. Instead we go straight on the Narita Express to Shinjuku in Tokyo. This is the place to visit if you are short on time in Japan but still want to experience it. Shinjuku is most alive at night with canyons of neon. It's also convenient for some beautiful day trips to Hakone, Kamakura and Kawagoe. Highly recommended if you are stopping over for a few days.

Seoul Incheon

http://www.airport.or.kr/eng/airport/

Seoul's Incheon airport is big and airy and apparently easy to transit in. When we were there the buses to the city took about 90 minutes. I believe that the railway is now open, which should make things a little easier. Though lacking in big tourist attractions, I quite enjoyed taking the bus around Seoul and if you have a few hours to spare this might be a pleasant activity. Transit tours are available from the airport.

If you have a night in Seoul you may like to follow what we did, which is to spend a night in Dongdaemun (East Gate). There are clothes markets here which come alive during the night until the wee hours of the morning. While the shopping itself isn't great, the atmosphere is fun and safe. We stayed in the Best Western Dongdaemun, close to all the action and overlooking one of the two remaining city wall gates.

Hong Kong

http://www.hongkongairport.com/

Hong Kong was the last airport we transited in and we found it to be an easy exercise. Airside had some reasonably interesting shops and I recall that decent wireless internet access was offered too, though I didn't try it. It's a pity that the Airport Express is a little expensive as Hong Kong could make quite a fun little stopover with good markets, the peak tram and cable car to the big buddha on Lantau (provide it's safely running). It would be possible to do quite a bit in one day. With a longer stopover there are plenty of walking trails and islands to visit and even the potential for a quick trip into China. Transport is easy, especially with the Octopus smart card, and English is widely spoken. Pick up the Hong Kong Walks brochure from the tourist office at the airport. The walks are a great way to see a lot in a short time.

Decisions

With all that information, what is the best course of action? It all depends! You need to balance stopover time with the time available at your destination. Which route you take can also depend on the available airfares. Don't forget to take into account stopover costs such as transport, accommodation and local activities. Stopovers may add extra expense to your tickets with landing and departure taxes.

If you decide you want a stopover where you can get out and explore the country, my advice is to spend at least a night there. Where you choose really depends on your tastes. Singapore is a safe bet, but if you want to spend a few days then Hong Kong has more to see and lacks Singapore blandness. A few nights in Shinjuku will be an exciting (but costly if you like their fashion or technology!) highlight of your trip. Seoul is probably somewhere you never expected to go, but if you only have a night then Dongdaemun can make it worthwhile. Finally, a meal in the hawker stalls of Kuala Lumpur will reward your tastebuds while your eyes feast on the stunning highrise buildings. Why would you ever waste those opportunities?