Over the years, I've been fortunate enough to have had a decent amount of opportunities to travel, be it for work or holidays (even more since I started working for HHWT! ☺️). And as a Malaysian who married a Singaporean, I've become pretty familiar with shuffling between KLIA2 and Changi Airport when travelling from Singapore to KL and back.
All this to say, I think I've seen a fair number of airports. And my favourite airport, out of all of them, is easily Changi.
Credit: @changiairport on Instagram
As a disclaimer, I can assure you that I'm not being paid to say this ? And I haven't visited every airport in the world either, by a large margin. But there's a reason why Changi Airport keeps winning best airport awards left right and centre, and when I moved here, I became familiar enough with the airport to understand why. And so I present to you, my humble perspective on why Changi Airport is my favourite airport of all time.
I feel like the core of what makes or break one's experience of an airport lies in two major components: the ease in which we get through the functional aspects of flying (immigration, security checks, boarding and deplaning) and the amenities available while we wait (food options, toilets, WiFi, seating areas). If an airport is able to do well in those two areas, I'm sold! Anything else that comes after that is just icing on the cake that elevates the experience. But if there's anything I've come to learn, is that it's actually pretty hard to get those two done well ? But Changi easily knocks those two out of the park and then some, with the following characteristics.
1. A layout that makes sense
One of the things I've come to notice first about airports is its layout. In all honesty, this habit was borne after I first started travelling through KLIA2. If you're familiar with KLIA2, you'll know that it's spread across a huge footprint of land that requires walking quite a distance to get to or from your gate (especially if you get a gate across the Skybridge!). Plus it has somewhat perplexing paths that require going up or down one or two floors (either by rampways or escalators) to get there. It made me wonder about the utilisation of space in airports and what it takes to design an airport that caters to passenger flows in the most efficient way.
I think Changi does it pretty darn well, keeping in balance the functions of the airport and passenger comfort. The layout of all the terminals are pretty easy to navigate and are a tolerable distance to walk, with walkalators available (and also buggies for those who have mobility issues).
2. Immigration and security checks that are run efficiently
How many times has your airport experience been marred by a long wait to get through immigration? Similar to traffic jams, I feel like waiting in line at immigration is one of those mundane, unavoidable activities that progressively gets more exasperating the longer you have to wait.
As far as security and immigration are concerned, I've found Changi to have some of the quickest-moving lines, thanks to a large number of counters available plus airport staff on-hand to do crowd-control. I don't discount the fact that the ease of getting through immigration is contributed by the fact I'm from an ASEAN country (i.e. it's a more straightforward process to get through immigration at Singapore than going through, say, immigration in the US). But overall, it's a pretty fuss-free experience, even more so for Singapore citizens and residents.
Credit: @changiairport on Instagram
So you've gotten to the airport. You've checked-in, gotten through immigration and security, and have some time to kill while you wait to board your flight. Now what? This is when the airport facilities really come into play.
For me, the bare minimum really just involves having restrooms available and having somewhere to sit and wait. For large airports in capital cities, I would also expect free WiFi. To say Changi goes above and beyond wouldn't be an understatement. Seating spaces are aplenty, and if you're transiting or need to catch a quick nap before your flight, there are free-to-use rest areas equipped with loungers for a quick snooze.
There is free WiFI (that's really fast and reliable!) for 3 hours, or 24 if you download the iChangi app and access it from there. You'll need a local or roaming number to get an access code to log in to the WiFi, but even if you don't it's ok! You can get a password from one of the WiFi password kiosks spread out over the airport. Toilets are spacious, come with a good number of cubicles, and are well-maintained at all times, with touchscreens available for you to leave feedback by the entrance. Baby rooms are available at both public and transit areas for every terminal, with at least 3 rooms in the transit area.
As a Muslim traveller, it's also good to know that all four terminals at Changi have a prayer room in the transit area (click here to see their exact locations). Halal food is also easily accessible (click here to read our guide to halal food available at the airport!), so I've never had a problem grabbing a meal before or after a flight.
Beyond the available of these important facilities, another thing that cements Changi's spot as my favourite airport lies in the small details that I've come to notice and appreciate over time. For example, there are plenty of water dispensers available, which is really handy for filling up water bottles and avoiding having to buy bottled water. The drop-off points at the terminals don't have raised curbs, so you don't have to lift your bags up over them to get into the airport. ATM machines are available near the money-changers. All signages are clear and easy to understand. Traffic management is on-point such that I've never seen overly-congested drop-off or pick-up points at the airport. All these tiny details things add up to a pleasant experience and point to an airport that's planned thoughtfully and with passenger comfort in mind.
Credit: @changiairport on Instagram
Changi airport rocks the garden concept to a tee. No matter which terminal you go to, you'll see it accented with greenery, floral elements, trees, and landscaping, with gardens and water features tucked here and there. What might surprise you is the fact that all this lush greenery is real ? Changi actually has an in-house team of horticulturists that tend to all the plants. Can we take a moment to give props to these dedicated people who nurture these plants (in an indoor environment within an infrastructure facility, no less!) that help make the airport so beautiful?
5. Terminal 4
Terminal 4, or T4, is Changi's newest terminal. In all honesty, I feel like I could have written this article talking about T4 alone ? Going back and forth between KL and Singapore has meant a lot of AirAsia flights which fly out from T4, so it's the terminal I think I'm most familiar with, and the one I like the most too! Sure, out of all the terminals, T4 is the farthest, in the sense that that's no direct connection or train linking it to the other three (you have to take shuttle buses), but it certainly makes up for it in other ways.
Immigration and security
One of my favourite things by far about T4 is the fact that getting through immigration and security is a breeze. For one thing, immigration is fully automated (for everyone, not just Singaporean citizens and registered travellers!). So long as you're above 6 years old and had your thumbprint taken at immigration when you arrived in Singapore, you're good to go. All you'll need is a quick scan of your passport and boarding pass to get through. Plus, if you go through the automated immigration gates, you can also board your flights through the automated gantries at your gate, by just scanning your boarding pass.
Secondly, there is only one layer of security checks to get to. I feel like that's worth repeating: there's only ONE layer of security checks! It comes right after the immigration gates, and it runs on some fancy technology (Google tells me it's called Computed Tomography, though I have no idea what that means), but for me, it basically boils down to the fact that I don't have to take out my laptops or tablet from out of my bags when going through ? You don't have to take off your watch either! You'll just have to take out any liquids you're carrying. The ease of the whole process means that assuming I'm not checking-in baggage, I can get through from being dropped off at the airport through to my gate in 15 minutes.
T4's layout is such that departing passengers are separated from arriving passengers (unlike the other terminals where you walk through the common transit area to get to or from the gates. I like this because it means that a) the respective areas are less crowded, and b) it shortens the time spent in the airport, especially for those landing at T4. Upon arrival, it's a short and direct path straight to immigration and then through to luggage carousels and the exit. And sure, for those who land it means less available shops or duty-free to browse through after landing, but that's a good thing for my wallet, so I can live with that ?
Comfortable and spacious seating areas at the gates
Give that there's only one security check, this means that there's no need to separately cordon off each departure gate area. So a lot of the gates at T4 are laid out next to each other as one big, open-plan corridor which I love! It's spacious and there are lots of seats available, helpfully scattered with power outlets for those who need to charge gadgets while they wait. Plus, the high ceilings and the greenery (trees! real live trees!) make it a visually pleasing space to wait in.
There's one pet peeve I have when it comes to boarding planes. I hate when passengers crowd at the gate even when it's not time for their designated seating zone to board yet. So you know when a plane begins boarding and they start with the front seats first (or those with special requirements), before proceeding with the other seats? There will always be groups of people who choose to crowd at the entrance (thus blocking other people's entry to the gate) while waiting for their zone to be called. The wide spaces of T4 don't prevent that, but they do give me more room to manoeuvre around these passengers if I'm boarding first.
6. The extra stuff
I feel like there are enough written and Youtube reviews of Changi Airport out there that have highlighted all the amazing, out-of-the-ordinary attractions offered at the airport, so I'll stick to some of my favourite ones.
Credit: @miss_isr on Instagram
I mentioned the greenery that's found in the airport, but Changi also goes one step further with their specialty gardens. For example, did you know there's a butterfly garden in Terminal 3? Home to over 1,000 butterflies, it's a place to take a quiet moment while waiting for your flight. In T1, you'll find a cactus garden , while at T2, there's the sunflower garden for a pop of cheer with the bright yellow flowers, as well as an orchid garden dedicated to the national flower.
Credit: @changiaiport on Instagram
Entertainment and games
Not only does the airport have game areas that often come equipped with consoles like the PS4, Xbox360 and arcade games (there's one in T2 and T4!), they even have movie theatres at T2 and T3 that are open 24 hours, screening blockbuster favourites (see the schedule of movies here).
Credit: @changiairport on Instagram
This one is a personal favourite of mine. If you're at a stage of operational efficiency such that you can focus on things that are simply beautiful for the sake of enriching a space, I'm all for it. I love how the airport takes time and money to really invest in art installations in all mediums. We're not talking about paintings plonked about randomly, we're talking some really stunning pieces, be it in sculptures, digital displays, or kinetic (i.e. moving) installations. Some of Changi's most stunning installations include Kinetic Rain at T1 and A Million Times at T2, but you'll also find plenty of other art pieces scattered throughout the airport (like the Les Oiseaux at T4 picture above).
Everyone has probably heard about Jewel by now and have seen enough of these waterfall photos to last a good while. But this list wouldn't be complete without mentioning it!
I had the opportunity to visit Jewel during its media preview when it first opened and remember being gobsmacked by seeing what was there. And even though I've gotten used to the idea, I recently visited Jewel again and was blown away once more. If only because there's a waterfall. In a lush forest. In an AIRPORT. Talk about engineering and architectural ingenuity.
But it's not just the waterfall though. Jewel has a pretty amazing array of offerings, from canopy gardens, to play areas, walking trails, retail offerings, and so much more. We've written a guide for Muslim travellers about all that Jewel has to offer - make time to visit it when you're in town!
P.S. My colleague Faruq took the amazing picture above of the Rain Vortex waterfall at Jewel (using an iPhone, in case you were wondering!) and wrote an article about taking pictures at Jewel that you should definitely check out.
8. A point of national pride
I'm including this as a final point, and it's just a personal observation, so don't that my word for it. But I've come to notice that the airport holds a pretty unique position here in Singapore. It doesn't merely function as a port of entry, but also serves as a community hub in and of itself. There also seems to be a sense of national pride invested in the airport. For one thing, the government spares no expense to develop and position Changi as a showcase of Singapore to the world (fun fact: did you know that Jewel cost SGD1.7 billion to build? ?). But more than that, people here seem genuinely proud of it - those who work there seem to take pride in their work and in maintaining good service, while those who don't are just proud to have a good airport. At the very least, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't agree that Changi provides a smooth and pleasant airport experience.
So. Best airport in the world? Well, I can't say for sure until I do visit every airport in the world. But for now, it firmly remains, in my opinion, my favourite airport.
Please note that this article reflects the personal opinion of the writer and is not a representative view for Have Halal, Will Travel.