Cupcake A.T.M.s and Fire Pits: What You Love at the Airport


For many travelers, airports are places to pass through as swiftly as possible, not places to savor. The incessant drone of announcements, the frustration of being shut out of increasingly exclusive lounges, the overpriced food, the serpentine lines and the fruitless search for an electrical outlet, all can make for a hellish experience.

But every now and then an airport can offer unexpected and delightful amenities that ease travel’s pain points.

For Bill Tsutsui, 60, it was the vending machine at Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport in eastern Washington that sells canned cheese.

“You get really jaded going through airports. Oh, yawn, another yoga room,” said Mr. Tsutsui, of Ottawa, Kan. “There was something so beautiful and uncorporate and local about it.”

Mr. Tsutsui was one of more than 1,300 people who responded when we asked readers to tell us about their favorite airport amenities. Their suggestions included, yes, yoga rooms (at San Francisco International Airport, Chicago Midway International Airport, and Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, among others) but also short-story dispensers, tranquil gardens, even a swimming pool.

Here’s a list that might make your next layover actually enjoyable.

Some airports offer a dose of art, music and literature. Linda Norris, of Treadwell, N.Y., singled out Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport for its library and branch of the acclaimed national museum, both located after security on Holland Boulevard, the airport’s cultural zone. These spaces are “oases of calm” that highlight Dutch culture, she said.

“The library is never busy; it’s beautifully designed and has a variety of comfy seating,” added Ms. Norris, 68. “Sometimes I look at their books, sometimes not, but it’s a part of the airport that never feels rushed.”

Travelers can browse the library’s collection of Dutch literature translated into some 40 languages (sorry, no borrowing).

  • At Portland International Airport, in Oregon, there’s a movie theater screening short films by creators from the Pacific Northwest (located after security in Concourse C).

  • At Chicago O’Hare International Airport, a tunnel of neon lights and mirrors by the artist Michael Hayden and the architect Helmut Jahn enlivens a subterranean passageway (located after security in Terminal 1 between Concourses B and C).

  • At Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, there’s a branch of Renaissance Books, a beloved local used-book store (located in the main terminal before security).

  • At Detroit Metropolitan Airport, professional musicians perform at two baby grand pianos in the McNamara Terminal gate area (located after security near Gates A40 and A72).

Vending machines at airports typically peddle anemic-looking snacks and pricey electronics.

Mr. Tsutsui, the canned-cheese fan, said that as a frequent traveler to Japan, he’s rarely surprised by what he finds in vending machines. But he found the cheese to be “pretty remarkable,” he said.

Washington State University began experimenting with canning cheese in the 1930s, in search of packaging that would prolong the product’s shelf life. (The university says its cheese will last indefinitely if refrigerated.) The most popular variety is a white Cheddar named Cougar Gold for the university’s mascot and one of the original cheesemakers.

The machine (which had been out of order recently) is before security, right next to the Hertz rental counter, and the cheese can be checked or carried onto the plane.

  • Not a cheese fan? At various airports in Texas (Austin, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth), there are cupcake vending machines offering a bevy of flavors from popular brand Sprinkles. The cupcake A.T.M.s, as Sprinkles calls them, are restocked with fresh baked goods twice daily, a company spokeswoman said.

  • At Edmonton International Airport in Alberta, a kiosk dispenses free short stories of different reading lengths (one, three or five minutes) by local authors, printed on what look like long receipts and available in French or English. The dispenser was created by a French company, Short Édition, that specializes in brief works and is trying to encourage reading for fun (located after security on the departures level by Gate 60).

Increasingly, airport designers are incorporating outdoor spaces that let travelers breathe a little fresh air while waiting to take off.

Brent Kelley, a principal at the architecture firm Corgan, said that green spaces, such as terraces and gardens, were becoming a priority at airports.

“People are looking for that connection to the outdoors prior to spending however long they’re going to be on an aircraft,” he said. “It started primarily with the airline clubs and is becoming a favorite with airport authorities themselves.”

Greenville-Spartanburg Airport in South Carolina boasts that what it calls its airside garden, was one of the first in the country when it opened in 1962. It has sculptures, lawns and many seats, and is an “an incredibly welcoming place to relax while waiting for a flight with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background,” said Nancy deJong, 69, of Greer, S.C.

  • At San Francisco International Airport, there’s an outdoor terrace in International Terminal G and also an outdoor observation deck located before security in Terminal 2 that’s open to the public at select times.

  • At Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, there are lush cultural gardens inspired by the islands’ Hawaiian, Japanese and Chinese heritage — think lagoons with koi and sprawling banana trees — surrounding the Terminal 2 ticketing lobby and the airport’s E gates.

  • At Denver International Airport, there are three outdoor roof decks — one in each of the airport’s three concourses, past security — complete with fire pits and pet relief areas.

To accommodate travelers with long waits between flights, Singapore Changi Airport has three different free bus tours of the city and a walking tour of the Jewel entertainment and retail complex that take just two and a half hours; all tours are available daily.

Incheon International Airport, which serves Seoul, in South Korea, also has city tours that visit ancient palaces and even local golf courses, but these require at least a daylong layover. One tour features two of the most famed destinations in the center of Seoul: a sprawling centuries-old palace and Insa-dong, a neighborhood filled with charming craft shops and traditional homes. Another takes travelers to an observatory with views of the Demilitarized Zone.

Incheon also has dedicated areas for napping with full recliners and partitions. There are free shower facilities by various gates in Terminals 1 and 2, and travelers can do some crafting or practice taekwondo at one of the airport’s multiple cultural centers.

The new features are part of a trend in airport design to provide more of a sense of place. “We think the airport is an extension of the city,” said Terence Young, a principal at the architecture firm Gensler, who worked on Incheon’s Terminal 2. “I think for a long time airports thought they wanted to be shopping malls. We have really turned away from that.”

  • At Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, there is an indoor, heated swimming pool in the Oryx Airport Hotel open to all airport passengers during select hours for about $48. The hotel, after security in the duty free plaza by Concourses C, D and E, also has a spa, showers, a gym, a golf simulator and even squash courts.

  • At Helsinki Airport in Finland, travelers can stock up on gravlax and salty licorice at a 24-hour supermarket near arrivals.

Children’s play areas, ideal for burning off some energy before or after a flight, can make a family trip survivable. Favorites included the new indoor play spaces at La Guardia Airport’s Terminal B — miniature foam planes, control towers and even baggage claims children can climb on — and Copenhagen Airport in Denmark, which has both indoor and outdoor playgrounds with slides and a large wooden airplane.

  • At Zurich Airport, there is an area by the A gates, past security, for families to unwind, offering toys, sinks, changing tables and a quiet space to nurse children. One reader raved about the “delightful” play areas with climbing structures, rocking horses, high-quality wooden toys, puzzles, books, dolls and video games. Even better: the staff on hand to help with family needs.

Sensory rooms tailored for neurodivergent travelers can be a sanctuary. Pittsburgh International Airport’s version, with its soundproof rooms, comfortable seating and airplane cabin simulation, is “fantastic for kids with special needs,” said Blaire Malkin, 44, of Charleston, W.Va. It is by the A gates, past security.

“It made a world of difference when flying with our daughter who has autism and an intellectual disability,” Ms. Malkin said. “I wish more airports had spaces like these that keep the needs of all travelers in mind.”

  • In New Jersey, Newark Liberty International Airport’s new Terminal A recently unveiled a 1,000-square-foot sensory room, before security, at the south end of the departures level. The room, designed to look as if it has a river flowing through it, has soft and colorful carpeting, light fixtures shaped like clouds and a mural of a mountain range. There are also bubble tubes, a sensory feature with glowing beads and bubbles constantly in motion. Travelers in need of extra assistance can request a security screening in the room, as part of the Transportation Security Administration’s TSA Cares program.

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