I travel a lot, but not internationally. For work, I travel the U.S. a great deal, and have spent my fair share of time in domestic airports. Everything from the dinky airports in Shreveport, LA and Charleston, SC to the monstrosities that are Hartsfield and DFW. So, I really didn't know what to expect when I was booked to fly Korean Air through Seoul in order to get to Vladivodstok. I must HIGHLY recommend both--Korean Air rules, and the Seoul airport is awesome.
First, the Airline.
I vaguely remember flying to London with my mother in 1978. We flew Braniff (R.I.P.), economy class. It's back when people smoked on planes. I remember that being disgusting and making me vaguely airsick the whole way. But I also remember the flight attendants being very "put together" and lovely. I remember that we got vellum-printed menus that showed what we'd be eating. And that the meals were served on actual plates with real silverware and individual little salt and pepper shakers. This was all incredibly elegant and impressive to a nine-year-old me. Now on domestic flights, you're lucky if the flight attendant makes eye contact with you as she's chunking a tiny bag of pretzels your way. Things have definitely changed.
But traveling on Korean Air was like taking a step back in time. Almost all of the flight attendants were lovely young Korean women, wearing these perfectly pressed and put together uniforms with neckerchiefs, for Christ's sake. They all had their black hair pulled back into neat buns and looked as fresh and pretty at the end of the 13 hour flight as they had at take off. Although I was in economy, and the plane was packed, I didn't feel crowded. The food was good, and ample. And it was served on actual plates with real silverware. They passed around plenty of mineral water, orange juice and hot green tea to keep us all hydrated, and gave out hot steaming towels a couple of times during the journey to help us freshen up. The bathrooms were kept clean the entire flight (which is saying something), and they all spoke very good English. They showed two movies during the flight, and the flight itself was on time and smooth. It was as pleasant of an experience that a 13+ hour plane ride can possibly be. There are four classes on Korean Air: First Class (where you're provided with a bamboo mat upon which to rest your tired feet), Prestige Class, "Morning Calm," and Economy. For being at the bottom of the bucket, it was pretty damn nice. Oh, and did I mention that beer, wine and alcohol are free on Korean Air? 'Cause they are.
Now, the Airport.
Seoul Incheon is custom made for long distance flyers. It is beautiful, clean and incredibly user friendly--even for non-Koreans. They give you "instructions" before you get off the plane and enter the airport, that tells you what you need to do and where you need to go, so it's pretty idiot proof, even if you're utterly exhausted and fatigued. And they take dollars in the airport--no need to exchange money. There is a "transit" hotel right in the terminal with clean, small rooms where you can get some private, uninterrupted sleep during your 10 hour layover. Or there are "Transit Lounges" all over the airport. Which ones you have access to depends on which of the four classes you're flying in (for instance, I only had access to the Economy class Transit Lounges, but still...) It's a quiet area with big, comfy chairs and stools that you can pull together and make a bed for yourself. And everyone there is sleeping, so it's cool. There are showers, and a massage and aromatherapy studio, a video game room, TONS of shops--both Duty Free and normal--and many, many restaurants featuring a wide variety of cuisines. The bathrooms are large and spotless. They have pictures of the bathroom attendants hanging in the bathroom, as if if the room's not clean, that person will be shamed. And get this: in each stall in the ladies room, there is something called an Etiquette Bell (pictured above). And it's not a bell at all. Instead, if you feel an embarrassing noise coming on, you push the button on this thing, and it makes a "whooooooooooooshing" sound of a loud waterfall to mask your explosive diarrhea or mega-fart. Amazing. I think the Etiquette Bell says it all, really.
I had a pretty lengthy layover at Incheon on my way to Vladivodstok--something like four hours. On the way back, by the time I'd gone through passport control and gotten my boarding pass, it was time to board my flight. I was actually a little disappointed because I didn't get to spend more time in the airport. Can you imagine?
And if Seoul Incheon is the "Four Seasons" of airports, the Vladivodstok airport can only be described as the Appalachian outhouse of airports. Fucking disgusting. But that's another story for another time...