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What Makes a Great Airport? It’s the Little Things

Most airports tend to blur together in my mind into a haze of fluorescent food courts, gray walls and dull-eyed passengers — but every now and then I walk into one that actually makes me want to stay a while. On my last trip, it was Vancouver International. Airy, modern and impeccably clean, its terminals offered a few perks I wasn’t expecting — like recycling bins for bottles and paper, and armrests with cupholders on many of the seats in the gate areas. (I wondered why all the seats didn’t have them until I saw a woman stretched out for a nap across three of the cupholder-less chairs. Aha — smart planning.)

Even Vancouver’s bathrooms were a step above the airport norm. The spacious stalls offered plenty of floor space to maneuver a carry-on or two, and there were multiple hooks on the wall for purses, shopping bags and other paraphernalia. I once had a laptop bag crash down onto the bathroom tiles at the Philadelphia airport when I tried to hang both it and a coat on the only available hook — so you can bet I appreciated the extra wiggle room.

And don’t forget the free Wi-Fi. (Yes, Vancouver has that too.) When we recently asked our Twitter followers which amenities a great airport absolutely must have, that was the top response. “FREE Wi-Fi is a MUST!!” opined @BlkChickOnTour. “To charge for it is just plain greedy.” (See our Airport Internet Tips for more on this topic.)

Another techie traveler weighed in with her own, somewhat related preference: “Outlets! [My] pet peeve is finding [the] only outlets in [the] terminal snagged by people watching movies on [their] computer,” said @CAMillsap. While I didn’t see any in Vancouver, many other airports (such as Philadelphia International and Toronto Pearson) have added special charging stations to help travelers keep laptops, cell phones and other gadgets juiced up when they’re on the go — without having to huddle on the floor beside an inconveniently located wall outlet.

But good design and modern amenities can only take an airport so far. “The perks are the people!” said @johnmill79. “Give me good, clean customer service.” On this one, Canada wins again. I couldn’t believe how friendly the airport security folks were in Toronto, and even the customs person was almost — almost — cordial.

What do you find most essential for a great airport?

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