Even if you have ample time, don’t delay with finding your boarding area
As my dad and I arrived at Dublin Airport before dawn for the first leg of our travels to Armenia this past weekend, we found our way through the security checkpoint at Terminal 2 without any delays. In fact, we made it through so early that our gate hadn’t even been announced, so we found a seat upstairs at the food hall and shared an Irish breakfast. When the screen in the main waiting area finally updated with our departure information, the gate number appeared to be just down one of the hallways. Figuring we had more than enough time, we walked along without haste — only to find a bus, not an airplane, awaiting us. Although the departure gate had only been announced a few minutes earlier, the bus was already beginning to board.
It turns out that our departure gate wasn’t actually where we assumed it was — or where its gate number suggested. That number did correspond to a gate, but instead of a boarding area inside Terminal 2, it ended up being a pick-up point with a shuttle running to an entirely separate building: Dublin Airport’s South Gates. Like an island of a waiting area (opened 18 months before our travels, and accessible only by bus after clearing security), this subsidiary terminal — or terminal extension — was bustling with crowds awaiting their Aer Lingus flights spread across five gates. Before long, our plane to Brussels began boarding.
My dad and I didn’t miss our flight, and we weren’t even stressed, but the experience got me thinking of past mishaps and some stunningly obvious advice: first things first, go to your gate.
Testing how far you can walk at an airport
If you’re scratching your head why you’d need to do this at single-terminal airports like in Grand Rapids, Michigan or Providence, Rhode Island, that’s fair. But with so many flights now connecting through major hub cities, you’re likely to encounter expansive concourses and terminal transfers along the way. And even in smaller airports, you’ll have some peace of mind.
For instance, a USA Today column from Harriet Baskas identified the longest walks between gates at major U.S. airports. Denver clocks in at more than six-tenths of a mile. Las Vegas sees its “worst-case scenario” measuring more than three-quarters of a mile. It’s the same with San Francisco. And the numbers only climb: Chicago’s O’Hare runs up to a mile, Philadelphia hits 1.34 miles, and Dallas-Fort Worth nudges up to 1.45 miles. But in Atlanta it’s possible to cover a full two miles (!) between gates. They don’t just seem like they might be far apart; they are far apart. Get ready to run!
Of course there can be moving walkways and intra-terminal transportation, but sometimes you also have to change terminals altogether or, if flying internationally, even re-clear security. That’s all part of this equation: if you scope out your gate before browsing the airport shops or sitting down for a bite to eat, you’ll be better able to clear any of those hurdles, identify alternative dining options that are more convenient, or at least make an informed decision about how to use your time.
Past and present memories of making avoidable mistakes
My sister Tara and I learned this lesson the hard way many years back, when were on a trip with my parents that involved a connection in either Houston or Dallas. I can’t remember where we were going or when this happened, but we appeared to have plenty of time during our layover, so stopped for lunch at a food court. I do remember eating enchiladas and all of us sitting as a family chatting leisurely over our meals. Next thing I can recall though is all four of us sprinting desperately and finally reaching our gate, scarcely able to breath, after almost all of the other passengers had already taken their seats. (Not sure everyone would agree, but I’d prefer to sprint with an enchilada in my belly any day over sprinting without an enchilada in my belly.)
But even all of these years later, it’s easy to make similar mistakes. Just a couple of weeks ago, as we left Boston for Dublin, Cathlin and I made what felt like a well-informed choice to eat at a restaurant before security. This meant we had even longer with my mom who could only accompany us as far as the main hall since she wasn’t traveling, and we had plenty of time — or so we thought. Security identified a typographic error on one of our boarding passes that left me dashing back to the check-in counter for the ticket to be corrected and reissued. We hoped to have time to hit the restrooms, fill our wattle bottle, let Eliza walk around, and manage other basics, but we reached the departure gate as the airline agent announced our boarding number.
Even if you enjoy running, there are better places to do so than the departures hall of airports. I wish I could say I learned this lesson after a few harrowing experiences, but Cathlin and I can report having a few more mad dashes that raise our blood pressures unnecessarily and that are much harder to manage when you’re traveling with a baby — and, relatedly, extra baggage.
So, here’s my recommendation
No matter how familiar you are with the airport you’re at, or how much time you have there before your flight or during your stopover, make a point of at least one person in your party making a pilgrimage to your boarding gate. Take a look at your watch or the time on your phone and see how long it takes. If you luck out and it takes no more than a few minutes, then you’ve wasted little time and may have even gotten a little exercise. If you’re surprised to find, however, that you have to board internal transportation, switch terminals, or even re-clear security, you’ll be glad you didn’t dilly-dally just to get a coffee or grab a bite to eat. This is especially true with making connections to international flights, which seem to be more likely to involve greater distances and additional security checks.
Of course, departure gates can change before boarding. And all too often you may find yourself switching to a different flight due to a delay or cancellation, but allow these to be exceptions rather than the rules.
One more breathless recounting of a breathless moment at an airport
One of the best (and worst) travel memories I have of Cathlin and I involving an airport was waiting for an Air Canada flight from Boston to Toronto where we were due to connect (allowing hours to spare) for our overnight flight to Athens, where we had a separate ticket on another airline to Santorini for our friends’ wedding. A mechanical malfunction on our first flight put our entire trip in jeopardy. If we missed any one of our flights, we would most likely end up missing the wedding.
While also waiting in line at the counter at the gate itself, I called the airline and somehow got us switched to a SAS flight from Boston to Copenhagen instead, except we had almost no time to spare. We had to rush outside, catch a shuttle bus to another terminal, navigate check-in and then a ticket processing issue with the check-in agent, get sent back by security to manage the check-in process yet another time, finally clear security, and then run, run, and run, again breathlessly, to an almost unbelievably distant point of the airport terminal, only to board our fallback flight a matter of moments before the gate closed. What relief we felt. I only wish we could have had time for an enchilada, but maybe next time — or at another airport.