Camping out at Singapore Changi Airport

I’ll use this week’s no-GYM theme to go with something completely different:

I’ve travelled between the US and India something like 20 times in the past few years. From the Bay Area, it’s roughly equidistant to go via Europe or via Asia. I often have other stops to make elsewhere in Asia, but one reason I like to go westbound is because of the facilities at the Singapore Changi Airport. (Another reason is that I find the Frankfurt airport vaguely creepy, but that’s another story.)

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I typically fly on United from San Francisco, connecting in either Tokyo or Hong Kong, and arriving in Singapore at midnight. There’s a connecting flight to Bangalore at around 7:30am, which leaves just enough time for a few hours sleep, a workout in the gym, breakfast and e-mail at the business lounge, and picking up any last minute items at one of the many stores.

The Singapore airport has two transit hotels, a swimming pool, and two gyms on the terminal airside, meaning that you don’t have to go through security. This is a bigger win these days than a few years ago. I’ve also gone into town to stay at a “real” hotel, but while I’m on business travel I hardly do more than sleep, run, and wash at any hotel, and it hardly seems worth it.

The Ambassador Transit Hotel is bare bones, but offers much better sleeping conditions than any airplane bed, flat recliner or not. It can be difficult to book a reservation ahead of time, but there are a number of “economy” rooms, which are rarely fully booked, and even when they are, I have been able to get a room within an hour or so of waiting around at the desk. The regular rooms have between 1 and 4 beds, a small desk, television, and bathroom. The economy rooms are smaller, some do not have a television, do not have a separate bathroom, but are adjacent to the gym, where there are a number of shower rooms.

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Interestingly, the rooms have indicators pointing to Mecca, for the convenience of their Islamic clientele. There is also a small children’s play area on the ground floor, but I’ve never seen any families at the transit hotel. It usually seems to be business travellers, and people are just trying to sleep. International flights are coming and going around the clock, so the hotel books blocks of six hours at a time, which can be extended by the hour. It’s about US$35 for a room.

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Use of the terminal 1 transit hotel gym, showers, and swimming pool are included in the room charge, but can also be purchased separately. The transit hotel gym has a fairly new Precor treadmill (was finally replaced this spring), a stationary cycle, and a few weight machines, and a rack of dumbbells. The shared gym showers are much nicer than the ones in the rooms. They’re equipped with glass doors and soap dispensers, while the ones in the rooms have just a curtain, with a drain in the floor (so the whole bathroom floor gets wet), and little packets of soap (which are hard to open).

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The swimming pool is on the roof of the building, and is accessible through the Terminal 1 gym. The pool doesn’t open until something like 9am, so I’ve only used it on a couple of occasions when my outgoing flight was delayed.

The Terminal 2 transit hotel doesn’t have a gym, but the separately operated Plaza premium lounge and gym nearby is much nicer than the Terminal 1 gym. The desk can also supply you with exercise clothes, although you still need to bring your own running shoes. Their gym has several nice treadmills, along with a newer weight machine, hand weights, and mats for yoga. They also have showers, nap rooms, oxygen therapy, and a lounge with snacks.

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The view from the treadmill at Terminal 2 is more interesting, as you can watch all the people coming and going at the food court across the concourse. (They are also watching you, of course, while they munch on their noodles and french fries, and wondering at the fact that you were there when they arrived, and still there when they left…) In contrast, the view from the terminal 1 treadmill looks out onto part of the runway.

Terminal 2 is newer in general, and has all the Singapore Airlines gates. United and others are mostly on Terminal 1, which is older, but has been updated somewhat over the past few years.

Singapore is also the best place in the world to be stranded by a missed flight connection. It has cheap and reliable phone service, free wireless networking, and the equivalent of a midsized shopping mall along the concourses. Even without the transit hotels, you could quite easily live in the airport and get a lot of work done for days or weeks, sort of like Tom Hanks in The Passenger, except with credit cards and communications services.

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A number of airlines contract their business lounge service to the SATS premier lounge. This causes some confusion sometimes, as SATS is a unit of Singapore Airlines, but there are two separate (and much nicer) lounges for travellers flying SQ. If you’re on United and have access to an international lounge, you will be able to use the SATS lounge for free. It has a supply of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, chairs, and mostly pretty bad food. I usually bring my own food for travelling, and skip their snacks except for some nuts and chips. There are a couple of PCs for internet access (free), along with a large television and several telephones. I’ve never succeeded in getting the lounge phones to work for me, although I don’t have any trouble with the ones out on the concourse.

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The telecom rates to the US from Singapore on the pay phones are comparable to my US domestic cell phone service. Some of the phones have card stripe readers which accept normal credit cards, such as American Express, Visa, or Mastercard, while others take only cards from local phone companies. A 5 minute call to the US ends up costing around US $3.


Some other notes:

  • There is also a small shower in the bathroom at the SATS lounge. I’ve never used it, as I always shower at the transit hotel. There’s also a new “Rainforest” lounge in Terminal 1, which looks pretty nice, and has showers, massage, aromatherapy, and some treadmills, but I haven’t had occasion to use it.
  • Elsewhere in the airport, there are “quiet areas” where you can sleep, power points for recharging phones and computers, a theater for free movies, many electronics shops (good for buying connectors and cables before heading into India), a cactus garden, a free bus tour of Singapore, and lots of free wireless. Just be sure you’re running a VPN or something.
  • During the SARS crisis, each gate at SIN had a thermal imaging scanner to quickly screen passengers that were running a temperature, which kept incoming traffic moving along. SQ was also distributing kits of information and a disposable thermometer to their passengers. Hopefully we won’t see the return of the process with an avian flu outbreak, but they’ve had practice now.
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  • There are armed patrols of Singapore troops all over the airport. It can be a little surprising to walk off your flight to be greeted by people with submachine guns, especially if they’re juxtaposed with some of the wacky entertainment (singing, dancing, variety) that turns up on the stage in the middle of the concourse bar area.
  • The airport has a tram system running between T1 and T2. It takes around 20-25 minutes to walk at a normal pace, but if you run you can make it in 10, even with hand luggage. I’ve been the last person allowed to make my connecting flight out of Singapore more than once…
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