Unlike many around me, my teenage diary was never filled with rebellious confessions to land me in hot water with the parental justice system. No chemicals were consumed, no cigarettes lit and Mum and Dad were never called upon for any truancy-related conversations. I had my pubertal meltdowns from time to time, as most do, but my reasonably uncomplicated adolescent track record will not be inspiring Hollywood movies anytime soon.
And that trend continued even after I left home. Let’s talk travel for a moment (as that is what we do best on here.) I was never a student who hitchhiked rides to get from A – B. I wouldn’t have had the courage to fly anywhere without travel insurance and I always had accommodation booked in advance (regardless of how grotty it might have been.)
It was for these reasons why I never imagined, all these years on and now with a bit more wisdom, income and travel experience to my armoury, that I would find myself sleeping on an airport floor – immediately adjacent to a smoking room – in the middle of the night.
Allow me to rewind and elaborate.
The Calm Before The Storm
Our visit to Japan last month started off with a 3 hour layover in Seoul, South Korea. The long-haul segment of the journey had far exceeded our expectations. Given that I hadn’t yet recovered from a nasty flu-like illness that
afflicted floored me in the preceding fortnight, I was grateful for the five hours of undisturbed sleep I managed on board (and extremely grateful for the Paracetamol that worked wonders at helping me manage.)
The layover was anything but an inconvenience, as it gave us a bit of time to explore Incheon Airport, consistently ranked as one of the best airports in the world, featuring live musical performances, craft classes, complimentary massage chairs, a spa, sleeping areas, shower services for transit passengers – they even had horticultural gardens!
When we did take off from Seoul, we were welcomed with sunset’s rosy glow. I have been lucky to see a few sunsets from the airplane this year but this one took the biscuit.
Now obviously I am a little biased but for a man whose every fibre is spun from the utmost laid back cloth, when it comes to travel plans, Pumpkin executes with a flawless precision. He had worked out all the options for transfers – the bus, the train, the cab. He factored in changes, stops, costs, conveniences, booking processes and timings. The best option for us was to take the bus that goes directly from Narita International Airport to the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, where we were staying, as the bus coincidentally happened to stop directly at our hotel. The train and taxi options were our contingency options (or so we thought.)
Our flight was due to land at around 9 pm and Pumpkin had even looked up the average time it takes passengers from disembarkation to exiting the airport but even he could not have prepared for the unanticipated turn of events.
Prior to landing, the pilot announced that we had reached but were circling for some time as there was a “queue” of aircraft. I am no Sherlock but this was a revealing hint and one that escaped us both.
When we finally entered the terminal at Narita Airport, we released simultaneous disgruntled sighs. The sight facing us was a mass of exhausted passengers congregating in front of, behind and on all sides of the escalator. I have been to at least a dozen outdoor music festivals in my time and the parallels were frustratingly clear.
A Four Hour Wait For Immigration at Narita Airport
The crowd was so dense that we were unable to see past it to try and assess the situation. All we could do was shuffle forward a few steps every twenty minutes, in tandem with those around us, empathising with all the sullen faces and puffy eyes.
When we finally reached the front of that queue, nearly an hour after landing, we realised it had merely been the tip of the iceberg.
Apparently, we hadn’t even been in the immigration area up until this point! Within the immigration space, the queue weaved back and forth in a concertina-like undulating fashion. The heat generated from hundreds of people confined within a small space was stifling and we cursed ourselves for not carrying water. Never and I mean NEVER underestimate just how useful a boarding pass can be for a makeshift fan in times of perspiration.
The brave and the needy exited the queue for toilet breaks but re-entering it looked like one of life’s less pleasurable activities. And whilst some lethargic children were draped across their parents’ comforting shoulders, others were too tired to remain vertical and had been placed to nap on coveted floor space away from the queues.
We were completely baffled as to what the underlying problem was. Nowhere in our research had we read of this occurring routinely and Japan is known for its efficiency of operation right? Why were there so many passengers and so few immigration officials?
The Wi-fi was out of the question since about three hundred thousand people were trying to use it so a dose of cheeky eavesdropping helped us to piece together the protracted immigration jigsaw. Several voices around us were frantically contacting their airlines. It emerged they had not been due to land in Tokyo. Their flights had been diverted to Tokyo due to bad weather conditions in other parts of Japan. They had missed their connections. They had no accommodation in Tokyo. They cursed in frustration.
And it wasn’t one flight that had been diverted into Tokyo. It was several, which was why we had been circling so long and why there were so many people waiting in one go.
No one was exempt from the chaos. The prince and the pauper mingled intimately in this (non) fairytale with first, business and economy passengers all in the same predicament and even the cabin crew and pilots, stuck in their own queues, found themselves almost as stagnant.
When we finally cleared immigration, we had queued for nearly 4 hours. The time we had spent at Narita International Airport after landing had been nearly double the duration of the Seoul to Tokyo flight but we were out now and it was a euphoric feeling of freedom, more appropriate for those reaching base camp at Everest than arrivals at an airport.
Flurries of weary passengers hovered in clusters. A lady with floaty, ginger locks was huddled in a corner of the floor. She struggled to conceal her exasperation, as she spoke on her mobile phone in tears. I naïvely walked towards the information desk, oblivious to the fact that I would soon be adopting the same position that she was in.
The lady at information was in good spirits, sporting the courteous and professional smile of a person who had enjoyed a drink and a seat in the preceding four hours. We shared our hotel location, queried the modes of transport. It was a quick discussion, the significance of the brevity not lost on us. There were no options so there was nothing to discuss. Simples.
The last train had long gone, the last bus following suit. Pumpkin and I decided to take a taxi, even with the rather off-putting price tag of approximately £150 GBP. How optimistic (and silly) we were to think somehow that we would be the only ones with this plan. The information desk team warned us it would be almost impossible to find a cab, proposing instead that we sleep overnight at the airport.
We thanked her but still tried our luck with a walk towards the taxi rank with an almost child-like belief that one way or another, we would rest our heads on the hotel pillow before sunrise. There were no cabs to be seen for miles but there were hundreds of passengers waiting regardless. The few taxis that had been there had been snapped up like a winning lottery ticket lying in a puddle. And with the airport being so far away from the city centre, it was unlikely anymore would be showing up. We tried Uber, again to no avail and then we resigned ourselves to our fate for the night.
Thankfully – and I truly mean that with every bone in my body – we were given sleeping bags, air mattresses, bottles of water and packets of crackers. I have never ingested so many crackers at such speed. There were ample supplies with volunteers all around handing them out without question and with no checks. I do not know whether this was just part and parcel of the Japanese efficiency I had heard so much about or whether this was a more poignant reflection of the earthquake preparations in place, as just days earlier Japan had suffered yet more earthquakes. But if you do have to sleep on an airport floor, you really cannot ask for it to be a more thoughtful arrangement than that. They even seemed happy for passengers to keep the sleeping bags for good.
I am a big believer in silver linings and there were plenty waiting to be sketched out of this little story:
- For one, it was the type of situation where you could laugh or cry (and I am fairly sure that if I was alone, it would have been the latter) but in the company of someone you get on with, we embraced the funny side and the banter kept us going.
- Secondly, Pumpkin (serious knight-in-shining-armour brownie points for this) had packed two fully-charged portable phone chargers, meaning that when we did lay our heads down, we could set our alarms, update our loved ones and engage in a little bit of social media fun just before we went off to sleep. Who says the airport floor can’t feel homely?!
- We had our luggage so we could change, we could de-odorise and keep up with dental hygiene.
- We had reached our destination, unlike those around us who were stuck in transit at the wrong airport. For us, the only real difference this had made was a few hours less sleep and a slightly different bed for the night. (not quite the skyscraper luxury hotel we had forked out for!)
- Finally – and perhaps the most important – it made for great blog content!!
We found a cosy corner of the airport to park at (seems no one wants the smoking room as their neighbour.) I struggle to even blow up balloons let alone air mattresses so after Pumpkin exercised his respiratory tract, we snuggled into our sleeping bags and finally closed our eyes at around 2am, setting our alarms for three hours later to make a beeline to the rail station to get the first train into the city. The quality of solid shuteye I experienced evidenced by the patch of dry saliva at the corner of my mouth the next morning and in truth, as embarrassed as I am to say it, I almost relished the adventure, though there are certainly more effective ways of trying recover from a bad bout of flu!
When we finally checked into the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku, where we were staying, an enormous cherry blossom centerpiece greeted us in the lobby and the spread of fragrant florals facing us confirmed that we had finally arrived and were ready to embark upon our Japanese adventure.
After a speedy check in with no queues (hallelujah!) and a totally unexpected upgrade, which could not have been more timely or gone to two more grateful travellers, we finally entered our room. You might think that we jumped straight on the bed for a decent snooze – but you’d be wrong. You might think that we immediately raided the breakfast buffet to eat our body weights – but again, you’d be wrong. So how did we recuperate?
Well…after arriving at the hotel at 7.20am, we put our gadgets aside for a turbo charge, jumped into the shower, fished out some clean clothes and headed straight back down to the hotel lobby at 8am to join a pre-booked tour. You can sleep when you die right?!
Starting like you mean to go on? Unlikely.
The suppressed teenage rebel in me thrived on the sense of adventure but once was enough to redress the balance and I was not about to have the same experience upon my inbound journey to London as I did upon arrival in Tokyo. A few months ago, I was invited to trial a chauffeur service in London for one of my airport transfers and I had been deliberating for weeks over when would be best to use it. After my door to door journey from home to the Keio Plaza in Tokyo ended up taking around 34 hours, I am sure you can see why a smooth sailing and timely transfer back home was calling out to me!
Have you ever spent the night at an airport? What was your story?
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary airport transfer with Blacklane but after 3 hours sleep on an airport floor, I can assure you I needed no persuading about the benefits of a pre-booked transfer service!