Make Your Next Trip Extraordinary

How Not to Get Lost in the Seoul Airport

by Brook Wilkinson | March 15, 2016

Seoul’s Incheon International Airport is widely considered the second-best airport in the world (after Singapore’s Changi Airport); blog after blog sings its praises. Surely my family could while away a ten-hour layover in this epicenter of creature comforts, where the amenities, I read, would include leather recliners and free Wi-Fi—right? Well, I’m here to warn you that Incheon’s facilities might be impressive, but it falls down in one crucial area: signage. The chairs might be cushy, the shopping divine (for collectors of perfume, Toblerone, and other duty-free knick-knacks—I’ll get to that later). But to my mind, maps and signs that are easily understood by your jet-lagged, sleep-deprived customers should be every airport’s top priority. Let me explain:

I’d heard that Incheon had several play areas—perfect, I thought, for letting my four-year-old burn off some energy between flights. So upon arrival, I consulted a touch-screen map to find a play area near our gate. The map’s menu listed nearly 100 duty-free shops, but not a single kid space; when I searched for “play,” the single result was a playground on the Concourse, a corridor of gates separated from the terminal by a shuttle train. We boarded the train and made our way to the advertised play area, which consisted of a large cargo net hanging a foot or two off the ground like an enormous hammock, plus some small plastic balls to throw around. Somehow, after having read glowing reviews of this airport posted by fellow parents, I’d been expecting more. My son grew tired of the place within a few minutes, and so we went in search of a different—hopefully better—kids’ area.

Trying to retrace our steps, we saw not a single sign pointing our way back to the terminal, where our departure gate was located. When we finally made our way to the shuttle platform, a guard turned us around, explaining that the train takes passengers in only one direction. We finally found an airport employee who agreed to escort us back to the terminal, quietly chiding us the whole time for missing the signs that the shuttle ride was a one-way trip. (I suppose what makes Incheon world-class is that a guy in a suit showed us the way back to our gate; back home, a TSA officer probably would have kicked us out to the curb.)

Seoul Incheon Airport signage

Would you have known, based on the photo above, that by boarding the shuttle train you’d lose access to the entire terminal? Photo: Ryan Damm

I ask you, readers: Would you have known, based on the photo above, that by boarding the shuttle train you’d lose access to the entire terminal? I now see our mistake, but at the time—bleary-eyed after a red-eye from Saigon—I breezed past these signs, not realizing that “Concourse Only” meant we couldn’t return to the terminal.

When we finally found the Kids’ Zone on the second floor of the Terminal, I was again disappointed, this time by the wide-screen TV that was showing Jurassic Park (a PG13-rated movie) beside a climbing structure appropriate for kids under six. Way to go, Incheon: Let’s give little kids nightmares before they board a long-haul flight!

Kids area in the Terminal, Seoul Incheon Airport

The kids’ area in the Terminal at Seoul’s Incheon Airport was disappointing. Photo: Ryan Damm

As far as I can tell, Incheon is a glorified shopping mall with gates as afterthoughts, and little concern for the basic needs of travelers. In the market for a Swarovski bracelet, a Louis Vuitton suitcase (who buys luggage when they’re already on a trip, anyway), or fast-food kimchi? Incheon has you covered. A can of soda water, a bag of crackers, or a globally understood sign indicating DO NOT ENTER? In those departments, I found that Incheon was sorely lacking. Next time, I’ll be flying through Singapore.

Which airports do you think are the most kid-friendly?


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