Recently I was reading a list of the world’s best airports (yes, that’s what I do in my spare time), and I noticed that no US airport was anywhere near the top 10. In fact, the top US airport according to the definitive list of the World’s Top 100 Airports is the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Intl Airport at #30.
I have visited pretty much every major city in this country at this point (or so it seems – Thursday’s child has far to go), and I can say from experience that there are some great airports in America. But reading this list made me realize that there was much more to be expected from the airport, and even the airports that I enjoy like Chicago’s O’Hare or the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport can’t compare to the offerings around the world. My international travel has just begun (yes I’m speaking that into existence). London’s Heathrow is my first experience with a member of the top 10 in the list of world’s best airports. And bellas, I have seen the light!
Let me tell you five things I fell in love with at London’s Heathrow Airport, the kind of things that I hope US airports take into consideration when doing some very necessary overhauls (I’m looking at you LaGuardia. You’re the worst).
#1 – friendly, relaxed customer service.
So many people warned us about England when we were on our way for this trip, everyone said that they would be pickpockets everywhere and super rude British people waiting to cut curious American tourists down with their wit and posh accents. This was not our experience. At ALL. We met so many friendly, helpful, professional people all over London – from cab drivers to waitresses to store clerks, everywhere we went we encountered wonderfully helpful folks. In the airport I was truly taken by how approachable and easy going the TSA and security staff was. Instead of being stern and mean as they can be in the US, in London’s Heathrow the officials we encountered were super cool. I was told that I could keep my shoes on while going through security — these were heavy duty Diesel boots by the way! “No worries – unless your shoes trigger our security system, you have nothing to worry about,” said the officer. Doesn’t that sound like common sense?? I was delighted. Even when my additional phone charger triggered the x-ray for one of our bags, we were not made to feel scared or like something was wrong, it was more like “hang on, let’s check this out and make sure everything is okay.” A relaxed attitude and friendly customer service at this level makes flying so much less stressful.
#2 – high end duty free shopping.
In some US airports you will be hard-pressed to find something to do once you’ve gone past security. There might be a smattering of bookstores or souvenir shops, maybe a few chain stores you are familiar with. When we got past security into London’s Heathrow at the American airlines terminal, I felt like Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music. The hills are alive with places to spend money! When you depart the security terminal you enter a duty-free area that is next level. Top shelf liquors at lofty price points.
High-end cosmetics and perfume, fashion from some of the world’s most renowned labels. Chanel, Prada, Tom Ford, Clarins…It’s just like a mini mall!
It’s all better for you to browse and buy as you spend time waiting to find out where your gate will be. Oh yeah that’s another thing, they don’t tell you immediately what gate you’ll be at…just right when it is time for you to head over to it it appears on one of the many information boards in the lobby. There is also an estimated time for you to get to your gate, so if it takes you 20 minutes, you’ll know when you should head over.
#3 – really, really good food options.
I thought MIA had great food options. I thought Minneapolis-St Paul had great food options. I thought O’Hare had great food options. And then Heathrow blew it all out of the water. This is an airport with a glamorous oyster bar. There’s sushi on conveyor belts.
There were sit down restaurants that offered your choice of Italian, French or traditional pub fare. We spent so much time gawking, we didn’t grab a bite until we had to head to our gate. And even then, I was SO impressed. Pret a Manger is everything in London. And the grab and go food options are so much more sophisticated and intriguing than the USA’s. I went in expecting the typical turkey chili and prosciutto sandwiches I’d find at my nearest Pret on State Street, and instead I found falafel, duck salad, sushi, a variety of wraps and salads in daring and delicious combinations. Well played, Pret. You made our flight home so much more gourmet than it would’ve been.
#4 – Drugstores and bookstores and boutique shopping, oh my!
There have been SO many occasions where I’ve been at an airport and thought to myself – boy, I wish there was a drugstore in here so I could buy some **insert health and wellness or beauty-related essential here**” So many times when I found myself discouraged by the selection of same glossy covered paperbacks. Heathrow has resolved all of that. There’s a Boots drugstore in Heathrow. I was a tad disappointed in their selection of British cosmetics and in their selection of makeup for women of color, but still – full drugstore with plenty to purchase. And the bookstores weren’t these tiny closets of glossy covered best selling action thrillers – there was substantive literary material and e readers for sale. And I LOVE UK magazines, all packaged with cosmetics items for trying! Now THAT is how you lure readers back to print, US magazine editors.
In addition to the drugstore and bookstores, I was surprised to find myself wandering past clothing stores ranging from Zara to Miu Miu. So if you forget an outfit or an accessory, or you just want to treat yourself, Heathrow is there for you.
#5 – Harrods at Heathrow.
Oh, did you forget to buy souvenirs before headed to the airport? No worries if you’re at Heathrow. You won’t be stuck with silly trinkets that don’t suit the people you plan to gift them to – there’s a HARRODS in there. I was so beyond delighted, since during my trip I was so rushed that I didn’t get to experience the glory of actual Harrods in London. At the airport before departure, I got everything I wanted to commemorate the trip – gorgeous kitchen accessories, delicious British jams and jellies, chocolates and cookies, tea cups and coffee mugs are all there, at a variety of prices (even a few you can afford).
So clearly it’s been a week and I’m still enthralled with Heathrow. But in every experience there are also areas of improvement. What could be improved at this bustling London airport? Three things come immediately to mind.
1 – trams to airport gates. Our gate was as far away as could be – a 20 minute walk, the information board said. I was able to make it fine but I thought of Atlanta’s airport and their efficient, sensible tram system. I saw several older passengers struggling to make it to their gates, and whilst there are trolleys that can drive truly elderly, incapacitated people to their destination, it seemed a quick two or three stop tram on the exterior of the airport could help many more get there even faster.
2- more on the go options en route to the gates. SO glad I asked the cashier at Harrods about food en route to the gates – once you leave the lush lobby area with all the restaurants and stores, there is but one additional café near the gates (as far as I saw). I think a few on-the-go booths would be helpful and would reduce queues as I noticed elsewhere.
3 – this may sound silly but we had an incredibly hard time finding a garbage can near our gate. This might have a security purpose behind it but these were subtle, small and hard to find without asking.
As you can tell I had to think hard to come up with those.
My Heathrow experience made me want to fly into and out of more of the world’s top airports. Here’s hoping more international travel is in my immediate future!
Have you flown out of Heathrow, bellas? What did you love the most? What’s your favorite airport?