TRAVEL / Airport 92: A user's guide: As charter traffic reaches its seasonal peak, delays and bureaucracy test the air traveller's endurance. Here, authors of the Rough Guides travel book series assess the user-friendliness of popular holiday airports

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HEATHROW

This is the airport as a gateway to Hell. Four terminals, only one of them seemingly designed with the passenger in mind, swallow up the greatest number of international airline passengers in the world, most of whom have already suffered the purgatorial hour-long slog of beggars, drunks and ill-positioned luggage on the Piccadilly line.

First hurdle is the shops. If you want any cash left over for your hols, don't have lunch at Heathrow. Last year BAA spent millions on an ad campaign to persuade us that prices in Heathrow's shops were no higher than the high street; so things are obviously bad.

Next problem is reaching your plane. Heathrow has some of the furthest-flung departure gates around. Never mind the motorised walkways, traipsing out to the distant reaches of Terminal 3 is a serious hike. If you're flying with BA or KLM and end up in the designer comforts of Terminal 4, the one part of Heathrow that comes close to user-friendliness, consider yourself lucky.

On the plus side, some improvements are being made: Heathrow is no longer 'Thiefrow', notorious for the amount of luggage stolen in handling. And the promised rail express link, that will remove the stop-go horrors of the Tube journey, should be completed by 1997.

Jack Holland

GATWICK

Gatwick is relatively problem-free compared with big brother Heathrow: easier to get to (half an hour by train from Victoria), easier to get through and easier on the nerves, with far less of a cattle-market atmosphere - except when a package-holiday company goes bust or the Spanish air traffic controllers go on strike.

Gatwick has two comparatively spruce terminals. The Victoria train link drops you at the south terminal; to reach the north one you ride along in a monorail coach, which adds to the funfair atmosphere. The north is the better laid-out of the two terminals. The cafes and shops of 'The Avenue' give it the familiar, if a little depressing, feel of a suburban shopping mall, with the obligatory Body Shop and Burtons. The south terminal has similar things to offer in 'Gatwick Village', but with a confusing layout (have a go at playing 'let's find the cashpoints'). Here also are two features that make Gatwick a lot easier if you're travelling with kids - a 24-hour BSkyB television lounge, and a kids' bouncy play area.

Tip: remember that credit card purchases invariably work out cheaper than any others. The rate is always better as the exchange is from one bank to another, in bulk.

Jack Holland

NEW YORK, JFK

UNITED STATES

Getting into the US through its principal East Coast airport is a much smoother operation than it was a few years ago. Even if you're last off a full jumbo it rarely takes more than half an hour to get through immigration, baggage reclaim and customs, and often a lot less.

Whatever time you arrive, changing money and getting into town aren't a problem: 24- hour banking facilities are everywhere, and there's a constant shuttle of Carey Coaches into Manhattan. Beware of anyone who approaches you with offers of a cab: he or she is almost certain to be unlicensed and therefore uninsured - and may even have designs on your wallet and luggage.

Safety inside the airport is maintained by the presence of armed cops, though a steadily increasing number of tired and tipsy arrivals are relieved of their handbags and wallets each year. Not that there's any reason to flash cash around: there's little in the airport shops you can't buy more cheaply in town, and most of them are filled with tacky souvenirs. Even the prestige brands in the duty-free shops can be bought more cheaply in New York itself.

JFK's facilities are pretty good. There's the usual American concern for decent food and drink, toilets are ubiquitous and clean, you never look far for a phone or a luggage trolley, and signposting is clear and comprehensive.

Tip: when departing from New York, remember that the British Airways terminal is last stop for the Carey Coaches - and you need to add an extra 15 minutes to the estimated journey time.

Jack Holland

ALICANTE

SPAIN

The burnt-out plane wreck to the right as you land doesn't inspire confidence. But Alicante is a relatively efficient and straightforward airport despite its dreary, worn-out decor and dim lighting. Everything is on ground level. There's no passport check beyond a cursory glance to make sure you have one. The baggage collection area has plenty of trolleys ready and waiting and it's air-conditioned, but you'll wait a while for luggage as there's only ever one person loading the belt. Should you need it, there's a bureau de change (flat rate, no commission) in the baggage hall. At customs, there's rarely even a check.

Departures start at one of 20 check-in desks - no lost luggage problems as each check-in has its own bay and truck ensuring bags go on the right plane. It can be a problem to find a trolley, however. All the usual facilities are available, including credit-card cash dispensers. Don't go through to the departures area if your plane's delayed, as there's plenty of seating outside on the first floor.

The restaurant here is permanently closed, all its tables set as if waiting for some big event. Next door, the sit-down coffee shop has terrible food but decent coffee. A children's play room and loos that tend to be dirty complete an uninspiring scene. Through the gates there's minimal security and no interest in passports. And once through, the shops ( pounds 1.25 for a bar of chocolate and pounds 1 for soft drinks) and snack-bar are not up to much. Duty-free, as usual, is a rip-off for anything apart from booze and tobacco.

Richard Trillo

ATHENS

GREECE

First the bad news: Athens airport is painfully inadequate for its level of air traffic. The west terminal handles mostly the Greek national carrier, Olympic Airways, while the east terminal, 1,500 metres away, is reserved for other airlines, all of which share a single runway. A serious accident is just waiting to happen. But you're going anyway, so . . .

Arrivals by Olympic are straightforward but the east terminal is in use around the clock and can be fraught with confusion. First comes immigration control: perfunctory, especially if you have an EC passport. Next, hire a trolley in the baggage reclaim area (40p). To do this you should make a bee-line for the efficient bureaux de change (good rates), but avoid being given hard-to-change 5,000-drachma notes ( pounds 15). One bank has a Visa cash machine. Customs is relaxed. Outside the barrier, past car-hire agents to the street, turn left and walk 150 metres to the buses and a No 19 trolley bus to the west airline terminal and Piraeus port (for ferries to the islands). Buy bus tickets from the drivers (who go apoplectic at the sight of a 1,000-drachma note, let alone a 5,000). Nearby is the taxi rank, with a police officer usually on duty to prevent unseemly brawling over choice of customers. After midnight, swindles are not uncommon: check the meter isn't 'broken' and is set at 200dr. The fare into town by day should be around 1,000dr ( pounds 3) and between 10pm-6am 1,500dr. Don't be taken in by any talk of airport surcharges or baggage payment: all that is included.

When departing from the east terminal, there are no places where you can change money, so get rid of surplus drachmas at the bank in the arrival lounge, two minutes' walk away. If you're flying on a scheduled flight, the departure lounge is up to acceptable international standards. The charter passengers' hall, by contrast, is a miserable barn. You're stuffed like cattle into pens and forced to sit out often interminable and unexplained delays on painful plastic seats, or more often on the ground. When long-delayed flights are eventually called, it is not uncommon for violence (usually verbal) to erupt between recumbent passengers and tired, trolley-wheeling travellers. If you can muster the energy after three or four hours' endurance, try invoking international airline rules to get a refreshment chit.

Tip: avoid Athens airport if possible.

Marc Dubin

CORFU

GREECE

Corfu is a one-plane-at-a-time airport; fairly clapped-out is an apt description. From the single runway, right by the sea, steps lead to passport control and take you to ground level. Formalities are so lax that new-issue EC passports are barely looked at. Right by immigration, there are two luggage carousels, though the bags always fall off one of them. Customs seem never to check anyone. There's a small money changing office: luggage trolleys are 200 drachma (60p). Real banks have the best rates, or use any hotel (better rates than Britain and no commission or hidden extras). If you're travelling independently, airport taxis charge around pounds 10 to cross the island to Ayios Gordhis, for example, and up to pounds 30 to the far north or south (flat rates, no meters and bargaining possible).

When departing, you'll find only a handful of check-in desks. If you're not with a group, be very sure that your bags reach the right plane (if your solitary suitcase is for Manchester and the queue at the next check-in is Gatwick- bound, guess where your bag's going to go . . .). When checking in, ask the arrival time of your plane and don't go through passport control if it's not in. The departure lounge is a point of no return with a depressing canteen. On the other hand, the pre-departure computerised canteen upstairs has good views of the runway although the food and drink are very basic and unappetising.

Announcements will keep you informed, but the only monitor working in the whole airport is the giant piece of hardware on the bar counter where the overpriced offerings are totted up. Immigration for departures is hidden behind smoked-glass screens and a camouflaged door (the only way in). Don't leave it too late: the door is often closed and the officers off duty (or resting between herds of tourists) and you can miss your flight through failing to find someone to process you.

Tip: when flying out of Cairo, take sandwiches and a litre of something to drink with you to the airport.

Richard Trillo

PRAGUE

CZECHOSLOVAKIA

Prague's reputation as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe is certainly not based on its airport. Ruzyne is built in the neo-functionalist style of the 1960s, and it shows its age in the acute lack of facilities. But the arrival formalities, which used to be draconian, are now so laid-back that it's not uncommon to land and be out of the airport in under 15 minutes. EC citizens no longer need visas and tourists are no longer required to buy local currency before going through passport control. And once through customs, you are practically out of the airport building.

The toilets are both free and clean - far from typical for Czechoslovakia. The snack bar and restaurant are located on the top floor of the building, and have both gone upmarket (table-cloths, no more draught Czech beer, MTV and no smoking in the restaurant). There are plenty of international phones by the exits, and you can buy the necessary telecarty from the news kiosk. Currency exchange is open 24 hours, and offers some of the best rates in Prague (it's still technically illegal to import or export Czechoslovak currency, though this may change in the near future).

Though taxis can be thin on the ground, especially at night, a ride to almost anywhere in the city costs less than pounds 10, and you rarely have to queue. The Czechoslovak airline, CSA, runs a very cheap shuttle bus (every 15-20 minutes) to their offices in the centre.

Rob Humphreys

ST PETERSBURG

RUSSIA

The neon sign above the building still says Leningrad, one year after the city's name change. This gives an idea of how swiftly things at the international airport - in particular the queue to get through customs - are moving. While the rest of the city may be built on a grand scale, the airport is disappointingly small. Inside, however, the aesthetics improve. As visitors move through the formalities at a Soviet- style pace, they can at least distract themselves with ceiling frescoes of parachutists and aeroplanes and the stucco map of the old Soviet Union on the wall. Baggage collection is excruciatingly slow, with just one small, temperamental conveyor belt for all arrivals.

You must fill in a hard currency declaration form, which will be inspected on leaving - though if the two don't tally, it doesn't seem to matter much. Once you've passed through customs, there's not a great deal to detain you - the dire cafe upstairs is eminently missable. Most visitors will be met by ground agents or an Intourist bus; taxi drivers will inevitably ask for dollars, and haggling is necessary. (Intourist taxis charge pounds 22.)

Somewhat perversely, the departures terminal next door has been modernised, though the check-in queues are as bad as ever. The expensive and glitzy duty-free shops are run by an Irish-Russian joint venture: the Boris Yeltsin lighters are a must.

Rob Humphreys

GOA

INDIA

The plane (only charters fly into Goa) completely dwarfs the Nissen hut of an arrivals building. The quaintness of the scene was enhanced on our arrival by a lady in a pink sari watering the garden. Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed at the airport as the whole area is a military zone. Standard Indian bureaucratic thoroughness makes passport control desperately slow. If you're travelling with someone else, split up once you're through, one person to get the luggage and the other to change money (rupees can't be brought into the country).

Bags and suitcases arrive in a big heap and you sort through to find yours. Customs consists of a couple of men hanging around: they rarely show any interest in tourists. The final hurdle is taxis. A swarm of drivers pester you all around, looking for anyone who's not being met by the Sunshine Tours brigade. Bargain hard (aim for pounds 3.50), and insist on going only as far as the ferry (the bridge fell in the river years ago), then pick up another taxi on the other side - it makes for a quicker and cheaper journey. It's a wonderful, 30-minute ride through jungle and palms, Bounty-advert country, along the coastline.

Departures are from a slightly more business-like airport building, but with the familiar garlands of queues. The free trolleys are usually hidden, and you'll probably end up paying someone to locate one for you. If you want to change rupees back, make sure you have all your receipts. It's an approximate science due to the lack of smaller denominations, but it's hard to spend any spare rupees except on cheap and delicious cashew nuts. Check-in and passport queues barely move as everything is performed as if in treacle. But real complications are minimal, as everyone is invariably getting on the same plane.

Charlotte More Gordon

BANGKOK

THAILAND

Barely 10 years old, Bangkok's busy, 24-hour airport is surprisingly congenial and well signposted. Many flights arrive at night, however, and immigration is always absolutely packed. Delays at passport control are exacerbated by the fact that 15-day visas are given on demand (there's therefore little advantage, time-wise, in obtaining your short-stay visa in advance). By the time you get to the baggage hall, luggage is waiting. Customs, surprisingly perhaps in view of drug trade connnections, is straightforward.

If you're continuing your journey in Thailand by air, take the free shuttle bus to the domestic terminal one kilometre away. Otherwise, getting into town is a gruesome 25km haul on roads that are always busy, even late at night. Many of the unlicensed taxis, whose drivers and touts hang around the airport, are notoriously dodgy: there have been several robberies and worse.

Instead, when you've done with all the formalities, visit the 'airport taxi' desk, which is organised and reassuring (200-300 baht - pounds 4 to pounds 5 - to the central hotel area). Alternatively, buses run 24 hours a day, but are much less frequent at night (the air-conditioned ones stop running at 8.30pm).

Departures: if you're staying in a guest- house (budget hotel), organise a minivan ride to the airport (80 baht, about pounds 2). At check-in, you pay your 200 baht departure tax. Restaurants are very expensive, but there are two slightly cheaper options: a small snack-bar serving sandwiches, local whisky and beer; or semi-itinerant food vendors.

There are very few comfortable chairs for sleeping on, but you won't find yourself in a minority if you sleep on the floor. If you're delayed or have a long wait, the most comfortable option is to take a limited-stay room at the airport hotel (maximum 3 hours, pounds 10). If you prefer to stay awake, there's also a kind of tourist lounge area with a television showing promotional stuff. Unfortunately, compared with Singapore, Bangkok's airport has a paucity of browsable shops.

Lucy Ridout

CAIRO

EGYPT

Much depends on whether you arrive at Terminal 1 (the 'old airport' used by Egypt Air, El Al, and most Arab, African and east European airlines) or Terminal 2 (the 'new airport' used by American and west European airlines). Terminal 1 has poorer facilities; beyond customs it's basically just a shed with a dingy cafeteria. Terminal 2, 3km away, is flashier, but even here most of the airline desks are closed by 8pm, and only passport control operates efficiently. If you have a video camera, resist having to pay a deposit (refundable on departure) against its resale value. The good-natured mob in arrivals is typical of Egypt, where bahdeen ('later'), bukkra ('tomorrow') and inshallah ('God willing') are the watchwords. The departure lounge is quieter and cooler if you have to pass a few hours (or, at a pinch, wait overnight). Hotel touts masquerading as 'tourist officials' accost travellers on arrival. If you need a room, ask them to telephone around on your behalf rather than accept the first place that's offered. Good downtown lodgings can cost from as little as pounds 15 for a double room.

Having booked a room, psych yourself up for negotiations with a taxi driver and the hair-raising journey into town (25 minutes to one hour, depending on the traffic). After haggling, expect to pay around 30 Egyptian pounds (roughly pounds 5) for the ride - when you get there, not before.

Tip: make sure you arrive with some Egyptian pounds for the ride into town.

Dan Richardson

BANJUL

THE GAMBIA

Of the winged creatures flying over Banjul airport, aeroplanes are the rarest. During the day hooded vultures wheel overhead; at night huge African silkmoths flap around the lights. Most charter flights arrive early afternoon. The formalities are friendly, the officials smiling, and to add to the welcome, each passenger is given an introductory booklet. After that things get a little more rugged. You have to retrieve your own luggage from the pile just outside the barbed wire, and then heave it on to tables for customs. Watch out for zealous porters eager to grab your bags; be sure to find out where they are taking them. Theft is rare, but irritations and confusion are not. Once they've picked them up, porters expect a tip (in sterling). Money-changing is at a hole-in-the-wall just past customs, or, if that's closed, from the other bureau de change by the departure lounge. There's one international phone (not working on last check). Most visitors will be met by ground agents or hotel buses. Taxi prices to various hotels (all the Gambia's resorts are within 30 minutes' drive) are marked up, but you can sometimes haggle drivers down to half-price. For the intrepid, the main road, with its passing bush taxis (40p to Banjul town), is 40 minutes' walk from the airport.

When flying out, check the departure time again, after you've re-confirmed: airport information is scanty. Your luggage is taken on to the Tarmac where you have to identify it and have it put on a table (more porters, more tips). It may be searched item by item as part of the Gambia's effort to keep its image drug-free. After this, you can sip drinks at the cafe tables until it's time to go. If you have surplus Gambian currency, it can be very hard to change back.

Tip: retain a sense of humour.

Richard Trillo

MOMBASA

KENYA

Although the shabby building swarms with the newly arrived and the soon-to-depart, the staff stay admirably cool and formalities are carried out with a minimum of fuss. Passport checks take seconds, and the currency declaration form has, mercifully, been abolished. The luggage carousels seem to work more often than not and reports of items going missing are rare. Toilets are clean and there's a snack bar (and another in the departure lounge).

Contrary to recent reports, you don't have to pay an import bond on video cameras, but they are recorded in your passport. To change money, go to the small Trade Bank booth by the exit (best rates), but count all the notes carefully (I had to go back to complain about a missing pounds 10-worth, successfully). And on no account accept it all in high denomination 500- shilling notes: except in banks and expensive hotels, nobody will be willing to give you change for one.

When flying out, remember the pounds 12 departure tax. Don't be intimidated by the customs 'helpers' into giving them all your unused Kenyan shillings, though you should avoid having a large amount to change back. You could spend them on the mangos for sale at the airport - overpriced by local standards, but still only 30p. If you're travelling independently, or find yourself in the wrong queue, repeat your destination airport to everyone you deal with.

Most importantly, before setting off for the airport, double-check the departure time with the airport itself or with the ground agent; planes occasionally leave early if everyone is thought to be present. If you are coming from a South Coast hotel, it can take a surprisingly long time to get to the airport.

Tip: change into cool clothes before arrival - essential if you're being picked up from the airport and going straight on safari.

Richard Trillo

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