First time flyer – Find the right airport, get to the correct terminal

terminal buildings at Domodedovo airport Moscow, at night

Image credit: Andrey Belenko, January 2010

The first stage in taking a flight, particularly for the first time, is to get to the right airport and the correct terminal.  Many airports are so large these days that even being at the right airport but the wrong terminal may cost you your flight because it can take so long to get to the right place.  And if you arrive at the wrong airport you will likely stand no chance of getting to the correct one before your flight leaves.

Our advice is to ensure well ahead of time that you know exactly which airport your flight departs from, and the terminal that you need to get to.  You should find this out for all of the airports that you will visit on your journey.

Different cities, different problems

Finding the right airport in New York can be quite daunting for a first-time traveller.  The Big Apple is served by: JFK airport, LaGuardia, Newark,  Westchester and Long Island airport.  JFK alone has 7 terminals.

At the other end of the scale, in some cities it is pretty easy.  For instance Cape Town has a single airport serving commercial flights.  After the massive rebuild there, there is now a single combined terminal, with international and domestic arrivals and departures all within the same concourse.  There are still challenges though as the rush hour traffic can add an extra hour’s travel from the Cape Town central business district to the airport.  In the Cape’s wet winter it can get a lot worse.

Modern airports are big.  Beijing Capital International Airport, the main airport serving the Chinese capital, has three terminals and is truly gigantic – one part of terminal three is separated from another by two kilometres!  And worse yet, it is not the only airport: Beijing Nanyaun Airport serves domestic and regional flights operated by China United Airlines.

Moscow has three airports: Domodedovo, Sheremetyevo and Vnukovo (which is for domestic flights).  Sheremetyevo has two groups of terminals (totalling six in all) that are a 20 minute bus ride away from each other.  In common with most large cities, Moscow traffic is bad and you need to allow at least an hour extra to get to the airport.  You can also get to Domodedovo by train, a journey that takes two hours.

The apron-side shuttle bus at Dubai airport takes 30 minutes to travel from terminal 2 to terminal 3.

In Paris there is the Charles de Gaulle airport.  There is also Paris Roissy airport.  These are two different names for the same airport!  To complete the confusion, it was originally known as Aéroport de Paris Nord.  The other main Parisian airport is Orly.

Transit passengers

Do not think that because you are transiting that this will not affect you.  It may!  In some cases you will even need to obtain a visa for the country you are transiting in.  For example, at Heathrow airport, only BA fly out of terminal 5.  So if you arrive on BA but depart on another airline, you will need to go through customs and catch the tube to another terminal, in order to continue your flight.

On one of my China trips I had to go through customs, leave the airport and catch a bus on the freeway to get to the right terminal of Being Capital International for my regional flight!

Even if you do not change flight number, you may still end up in the terminal if there is a refuelling stop.  (Refuelling stops are not always indicated on the itinerary.)  I do not know of any transit passengers (with the same flight number) who have had to move to another terminal to resume the flight, but very often the gate you enter by is not the same one as the exit one.

Size of terminals – finding the gate

With airport terminals so large, even when you have the right airport and terminal, you may still be faced with a Herculean task to get to the right gate.  Emirates have exclusive use of terminal 3 in Dubai.  So if you are travelling on Emirates you may think you are going to be fine.  If you are flying to London, then you probably are – you will usually depart from one of the 24 “A” gate numbers, which are in the main building.  But if you are flying to maybe Dusseldorf then it is another matter.  You are going to have to walk rather far.  After you have walked the full length of the main terminal you will turn right and then keep walking.  There are another 50 “C” gates!  Here’s the ugly little secret – Concourse C is actually part of the old terminal 1.  You have walked all the way to the next terminal.  The area around the “C” gates looks old and out of date.

In Dubai a brisk walk from terminal 3 to the far end of terminal 1 takes 45 minutes!

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