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The Cranky Camper’s Guide to Air Travel… sort of

Sami and her animal friends heading out of town

The American holiday travel season is upon us, and it’s looking to be a busy one. According to NPR and other news outlets, travel in the United States has been steadily on the upswing as people are feeling more confident thanks to the Covid19 vaccines, and as I saw firsthand over the summer, folks are ready to hit the road or the air after being holed up for so long. So with all that, I’ll share my marginally useful holiday travel guide- 2021 edition.

I love to travel, and do so at least a few times a year both for fun and for business, but I would hardly be considered a ‘world traveler.’ I have visited a handful of countries, and have been stopped at both the Canadian and Mexican borders. Funny enough, my parents were there for both stops, but that is a story- or rather two stories- for a different time. But seriously, most of my travels tend to be within the United States, where we opt to visit national parks and monuments with the kids, usually while on interstate road trips. That said, with Emily now residing in the Czech Republic, we seem to have more of a reason to head to the international terminal of our local airport and hop on a plane at LAX.

I’m no stranger to the Tom Bradley International Terminal at our closest airport, which is indeed Los Angeles International. In my youth, I used to fly to the Philippines to visit my grandmother and other family on my mom’s side. However, up until three months ago, when Emily and I traveled to Prague for the first time, it had been about twenty years since I flew out of there last. When we traveled to London, we flew out from the Delta terminal. To my memory, while there have been some updates to the international terminal, it was just as boring in August as it was twenty years ago.

But while the food offerings were slim especially in the morning- thank goodness for Starbucks- there are a number of inexpensive flights going out of Los Angeles both domestic and international, which makes LAX our usual airport of choice, despite its awful traffic and lack of airport activities. And we’re not alone in this assessment. Los Angeles International was the third busiest airport in the world in 2019, and while it and many other airports globally took a huge hit during the pandemic shutdowns, it is still very busy as travel restrictions ease up, with an average of over 80000 passengers going through the airport a day. So while LAX is not my favorite airport, it is the one that I fly out of the most since moving to California many years ago.

So those are my blunt opinions on LAX- the good, the bad, and the boring. Here’s how a few other airports stack up in the Cranky Camper rating scale.

Istanbul Airport (IST)

The vibrant city of Istanbul, Turkey at night

Emily and I flew to Prague with a stop in Istanbul, and at time of publishing, the family is once again headed to Istanbul on a stopover to Prague. We will be celebrating Emily’s birthday along with Thanksgiving in Prague, and the best airfare was available via Turkish Airlines once again.

On the way to Prague, we had only about a four hour layover in Istanbul- not enough time to do much more than grab a bite to eat and take a short nap. On the way back though, I had an eleven-hour overnight layover. If not for the fact that it was overnight, this could have been enough time to go on a short layover tour, as is popular for transit passengers. But with state of the world back at the end of August, along with the fact that I was traveling solo at night, I decided that it would be best to just stay in the airport.

At the end of a long night, I was rather exhausted. I don’t sleep well when traveling, and while there were areas within the terminals that were designed for napping, with so many other weary travelers, it was hard to snag a spot. I also chose not to pay any money for an hourly sleep pod or the IGA lounge, which runs about 60 euro. Instead, I went between exploring the airport, playing Pokemon GO, and taking a short nap on one of the loungers in terminal D. Let’s just say that my Pokédex has many Pokémon hailing from Arnavutköy.

While not catching Pokémon, I did do some shopping in the “Old Bazaar” shop. Before I left home, Sami requested that I bring home plenty of Turkish delight, and so I had to pick up a value pack for her with the popular flavors. I also found some cute ceramic bowls that at 2.50 euro made great souvenirs for a few of my family members. I have one sitting on my small desk at work, and it makes a nice paperclip holder. For those with more expensive tastes, there are stores selling high end designer brands such as Alexander McQueen, Givenchy, and Chloe, among others.

What I thought was really cool is that there is an airport museum showcasing works from 29 museums around the world depicting Turkish culture. There is also a free exhibit in the international departures terminal by Usturlab called ‘Pioneers of Modern Science – Islamic Science and Technology History.’ I thought that this exhibit was interesting. It highlighted the contributions of Muslim scientists and mathematicians throughout ancient history and how it impacted our modern scientific age. As I learned long ago that we have the mathematicians of the Near East to thank for algebra and other maths, I took a few photos to show my math students the next time they get annoyed at me for all their homework.

As time wore closer to an acceptable breakfast hour, I opted for some baklava and a cup of Turkish coffee, and it was perfect. Of course, by then I needed a pick-me-up before boarding my 13-hour flight back to Los Angeles after 34 hours running on about an hour of sleep. I am glad that this time, we are leaving the airport and staying in hotels each way. One tip if you choose to stay in the airport for more than a couple hours: the free WiFi is only for 40 minutes. You’ll have to pay for 24 hours of access. At the time of my first trip, the cost was 6.99 USD.

Some good baklava and decent Turkish coffee

Václav Havel Airport Prague (PRG)

Chris the Puppy at the international airport in Prague

The Václav Havel Airport Prague is an international airport in that almost all of the flights going out of Prague are from other countries. As it is relatively small, there really wasn’t much to do while at the airport. I made the mistake of heading to the airport for my return trip to Istanbul and afterward Los Angeles about three-and-a-half hours in advance. Gate information was not available more than two hours before boarding, and I couldn’t even check my bags until then. So I ended up spending the time sitting at the Starbucks and writing. Or mostly brooding after leaving Emily in Prague.

There are no direct flights currently from the United States. I guess that there were flights from Newark to Prague, but those are not currently in operation. Most of the flights I saw were to other European cities, and of course, Istanbul. While at the airport, I got reprimanded by airport security for wearing a cloth mask. I actually had to purchase an N95 in order to enter the passport check area. After a long wait, I got my documents stamped and was ready to head to the gate. Fortunately with it being such a small airport, I did not have far to walk, and made it through security, which unlike at American airports, was right at the gate, with plenty of time before boarding.

Heathrow Airport (LHR)

We flew into Heathrow on a direct flight from Los Angeles when we visited England on our Great British adventure in 2019. While Heathrow is the largest airport in Great Britain and the third busiest in Europe, it was really easy to navigate. On our arrival, it was super easy to find the shuttle to the Enterprise to pick up our rental car for our first six days in the country. After returning the car to head into London, it was easy to catch the London Underground to get to our flat for the remainder of the trip. And the kids thought it was a ton of fun.

Following an exciting and educational four days in the city- not enough time by any means, but still fabulous- we took the Piccadilly line right back to the airport. Even with all our luggage, it made for a pleasant trip. The only hard part was saying good-bye to such a lovely place.

Waiting for the London Underground train to get to our rental.

After clearing security, which felt much more strict than even the TSA back home, we headed to the center shopping area to grab some food. The kids were happy to find that there was a Pret A Manger, the favorite sandwich shop of the trip. And when Sami almost left her book bag after heading for the gate, we were able to remember where she left it before boarding thanks to the mid-level luxury shops that were in the vicinity of where we are lunch. There were some really nice shops indeed.

I will say that for a traveler not used to traffic patterns in the United Kingdom, the one truly difficult thing is getting out of the airport after picking up your car. That is definitely an experience… those roundabouts.

Domestic airports

It’s been so long since I’ve flown into Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and that was in the time before smartphones and cute selfies, so I’ll leave it off my list. Here are some notes on a few of the airports we’ve flown into within the past five years or so:

Denver International Airport: Denver has a decent selection of food and is overall kind of a cute airport. It is at time of writing, the largest airport in the U.S. by area. Denver is often a stop on our domestic flights via Southwest. The one con I experienced on one of my last flights through Denver was some pretty nasty turbulence as we were coming in over the Rockies. I don’t usually get airsick, but rough turbulence while wearing a mask was not fun. I had to pull the mask away from my face while keeping it over my nose to quell the queasiness.

Fort Lauderdale International Airport: To be honest, there wasn’t much special about any of my flights to or from Ft. Lauderdale. Except for the awesome Southwest Airlines crew who greeted passengers arriving at FLL during a global pandemic. With the festive signs, Southwest swag, and grateful enthusiasm, it really made our nighttime arrival in Florida wonderful.

Nashville International Airport: I loved Nashville while on a layover to Miami. The view of Tennessee coming in was so green and pretty. And the selection of moonshine around the airport can’t be beat. Moonshine pickles, anyone?

Orlando International Airport: We flew into Orlando International for our trip to Disney World back in 2017, the trip that started this blog. I found Orlando to be super convenient, with the car rental area being right at the airport rather than having to take a separate shuttle. This made it nice to pick up and drop off the car, especially after a long day of travel from the West Coast or after a warm day at Disney Springs. There was also a good selection of dining options from fast food to sit-down, as well as Disney and Universal themed souvenir shops for some last minute shopping before boarding. Indeed, that was where Nate got his Harry Potter wand. His dad picked it up for him on his first time to Orlando for a work conference.

Quad City International Airport: I guess what makes this airport in the Quad Cities region of Illinois on the Iowa border- pretty much the middle of nowhere, U.S.A- international, is the fact that there are connecting international flights out of the ten airports it flies to. We flew into Quad City back in the summer of 2018 to spend a few days in Iowa to celebrate a good friend’s wedding. While there is almost literally nothing to do at the airport, there were a couple of positives. First both airport check-in and security were really easy to get through. Also the rental car area was right outside the airport and also super easy to get through. And thirdly, the airport staff was really friendly. Not bad for an airport connecting the middle of nowhere to the rest of the world.

San Francisco International: Is not actually in San Francisco. It’s in San Mateo County, closer to Daly City, and the best way to get to San Francisco from SFO if you’re not renting a car is the Bay Area Rapid Transit. In my college days, I used to find this trek fun. Not so much anymore, especially with the growing homeless and mental health crisis. I’m just glad that the last time I was headed to San Fran, I was picked up by a colleague.

San Francisco, not close to the airport

We’ve been through many more airports within the United States from San Diego to Chicago to Atlanta and many in between, but there’s not enough space for me to write about every experience. One thing to consider before you embark on your adventure is to check to see what the Covid19 requirements are for your destination. In order to board a plane at LAX at the end of this past summer or to continue our journey into Turkey or the Czech Republic, we had to show proof of a negative Covid test, even though we were both fully vaccinated. That has since changed as our vaccination cards are good for entry into Czechia, however we still had to get Covid tested in order to enter Turkey. Also, be sure to obtain your required forms through the actual government websites. There are many travel companies looking to turn a quick profit that look official, but really offer no benefit when it comes to submitting the proper information to the proper government ministries. That said, we wish you safe travels wherever your happy trails take you. Here’s to a blessed holiday season with family, friends, and good memories at home and abroad. Cheers!

P.S. Apologies to Quad Cities. Illinois and Iowa treated us very well on our trip, and I love the Midwest.

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