Remember the Tom Hanks movie The Terminal? When it came out, I was completely charmed! But that was before I actually lived the story. As it turns out, the experience is wayyy less charming when you’re the one camping out in lonely corners and spending 24 hours at Changi Airport.
It was a Sunday, and my sister and I thought we were so smart, choosing a 1am flight and getting an extra day in Singapore. After all, our other option was leaving at 10am, which would have been an entire day lost from our vacation. It would have cut our much-deserved getaway from four days to three. Come on! We wanted to make the most of our visit and stay in Singapore as long as possible. Besides, the Philippines is less than four hours away — how bad could it be?
Famous last words!
How we got there
On our last day in Singapore, we left the hotel in the afternoon and got to Changi Airport before 6pm. At the time, we were thinking we’d grab dinner at the airport, explore and shop a bit, and maybe even catch a movie before our 1am flight. And we did! By 10pm, we were exhausted and ready to relax in the boarding area to catch our plane.
Well, it didn’t quite happen that way. Check-in took forever; we were in line for two hours. By midnight, we rushed to the boarding area only to hang around exhausted for another few hours while watching engineers tinker with our plane right outside the window. Finally, we boarded the plane at 4am — and were asked to get off an hour later much to our consternation.
Sorry, your flight has been cancelled due to technical issues. Your flight to the Philippines will be later in the day at 6pm.
How to survive 24 hours at the airport
Honestly, Changi Airport is one of the best airports in the world to get stuck in for an entire day. (It’s worlds away from our trusty NAIA, that’s for sure.) In Changi, you’ll enjoy access to great food, even better recreation, and cosy lounges where you can get some peace and quiet. Bathrooms are pristine, free WiFi is available, and the Jewel’s Rain Vortex is glorious — I must have used up an hour of our 24-hour airport adventure just staring at the 40-metre waterfall in awe.
Even so, getting stuck in the airport gets pretty old, especially since we were there in the dead of night. Here, let me share a few of the things I learned from my crazy flight cancellation — just in case it happens to you, too!
1. Skip the panic and plan your next move
It’s easy to give in to panic, frustration, and anger when plans go awry, but spare yourself the headache and just start planning your next steps instead. The airline will typically take some time finalising arrangements for everyone, especially on international flights. So, it’s best to explore your own options while waiting.
Take the initiative and look for alternate flights to your destination (or back home). Sometimes, airlines redirect passengers to the next flight available, which can mean racing fellow travellers for seats or spending hours on the customer service line. If you’re in a rush, you can get a full refund on your existing flight and book a last-minute flight on another airline leaving soon. Be ready to splurge extra pesos for this, but it may be the best move for anyone on a connecting flight. If you’re headed to Manila, catching a flight to Clark is another option.
In our case, we opted to wait it out. Our airline substituted our original flight with one that came 17 hours later. As compensation, all passengers enjoyed complimentary hotel accommodations and meals — plus a free flight on the airline for future travels.
I admit we didn’t take advantage of the freebies available, even if that meant we stayed 24 hours at the airport. My sister and I weren’t keen on the stress of shuttling out of the hotel and back again with hundreds of other people. Besides, we both had work to do; it was a Monday, after all. Either way, it’s best to know your options to find the one that best works for you.
2. Bring an extra change of clothes (including underwear and socks)
If light packing is a priority, bringing a full set of clothes in your carry-on bag may feel like overkill. But you’ll thank me if you’re stranded at an airport, and you’re on your 16th hour of wearing the cosy sweats perfect for the plane you thought you’d be riding. In Jewel, you’ll have plenty of retail shops to buy a new outfit. However, you may not be so fortunate in other airports, so it’s best to be prepared.
Luckily, I had an extra outfit stuffed in my carry-on. Unluckily, it was a dress and wasn’t very suitable for the impressive air-conditioning of Changi Airport. I get easily cold. But after more than 12 hours in the airport — some of it spent sprawled on the floor in the boarding area — the need to feel clean overpowered the desire to stay warm. (Plus, I downed several cups of hot coffee to help me power through the cold.)
3. Pack all the essentials in your carry-on
Even if you’re just getting on a one- or two-hour domestic flight, ensure that all of your important items are in your carry-on bag. Besides extra clothes, that means medication, a water bottle, chargers, identification, and other necessary documents. Extra face masks in these COVID times are also good to have. A fully-charged phone goes without saying, but pack a power bank, too. After all, 24 hours at Changi Airport is a long time and charging stations get taken up quickly. At smaller provincial airports in the Philippines, it may be tough even just finding a socket to plug your charger into.
4. Make sure you have a debit or credit card
We did such a great job budgeting our trip that we were nearly out of Singapore dollars by the time we got to the airport. Good for our wallets, but not exactly the best situation when you’re spending an extra day in the country unexpectedly.
Luckily, Singapore is one of the most cashless-savvy countries in the world. Almost every purchase we made at the airport was bought with a tap of a credit card — so we didn’t have to scrimp on our meals to survive 24 hours at Changi Airport. If you don’t have a debit or credit card on hand, at least make sure you have extra cash, even if it’s in Philippine peso. You can exchange it for the appropriate currency at the airport, anyway.
5. Explore airport recreation
Dressed up and bags packed with nowhere to go? You might as well make the most of the amenities while stranded at the airport. We were fortunate to be stuck at Singapore Changi Airport, one of the best in the world that’s a tourist destination in its own right. The terminals are world-class with food, shops, and lounges. And of course, the Jewel Changi Airport. (You can shuttle between the terminals and Jewel by riding the Skytrain.)
The mall-slash-theme-park is home to the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, the stunning HSBC Rain Vortex that lights up in the evening. It also features countless fun attractions: Canopy Park, Canopy Bridge, Changi Experience Studio, Hedge Maze, and more. There are so many that even 24 hours at Changi Airport may not be enough to experience everything.
We know, we know — we should’ve tried them all! But we were tired, with meetings and things to write during the day. The night before our flight got cancelled, we did catch a movie at the Shaw Theatre in Jewel, which had the latest film showings. Thor was on our must-watch list anyway! If you’re not willing to spend money, there are free movie theatres in Terminals 2 and 3. Best of all, they’re open 24/7. Movie marathon, anyone?
6. Find a quiet place to work, relax, or sleep
In the late hours of the night and early morning, even the bustling Changi Airport slows down a little. Shops and restaurants close up for a few hours, and most people around are pretty tired, anyway. Travellers eager to catch a wink can retreat to Snooze Lounges on Terminals 1 and 3. Massage chairs are available if you need some pampering after lugging around giant backpacks.
We left the departure area where most of the lounges are located, so we jumped from one spot to another around the Jewel. In the afternoon when the action was picking up again at the mall, we headed to the Viewing Gallery in Terminal 1. The isolated space is a great spot to gaze at the aircraft and ground operations on the tarmac — and it’s relatively quiet, too.
If you’re on a domestic flight, it may be more relaxing to leave the cramped airport. Find a nearby cafe where you can sit back, relax, and work if you need to.
There you go, some of my tips on surviving flight cancellations and long delays. It may seem like I was complaining — and there were times when I definitely did — but ultimately, staying 24 hours at Changi Airport only made our Singapore trip much more memorable. Looking back, it wasn’t so bad after all. Not that I’m hoping for another similar experience though — once was definitely enough!
Featured image credit: Celia Nachura. This article was originally published on TripZilla.