How Changi turned the airport into a holiday highlight
Changi Airport boasts the world's highest indoor waterfall.
It’s immediately clear when you fly into Singapore that airports fall into one of two groups these days – those you want to spend time in, and those you don’t.
It wasn’t so long ago that an airport was nothing more than a temporary holding pen, something you had to just get on with, as opposed to an enjoyable part of the trip.
Over time, that’s changed. At some of the world’s best airports, you might be treated to meditation zones, areas for exercise, natural vegetation, cinemas and an array of shopping experiences.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are airports that don’t have the resources to offer all the bells and whistles – and that’s fine. But also hovering towards that end are those whose performance is less understandable.
Sydney, for example, limped in at number 49 of the world’s best airports, despite its cash injections. Likewise, anyone who’s ever transferred through LAX or Toronto Pearson will almost certainly try to avoid doing so again.
But does it really make a difference? We spent a few hours in Changi Airport – voted world number one – to find out.
Changi’s ‘multi-dimensional tourist destination’, known as Jewel, connects to all four airport terminals, and is open to the public.
Getting around Changi Airport
There are plenty of airports where navigating can be done by guesswork and instinct, but with four terminals plus a ‘multi-dimensional tourist destination’ called Jewel, this is not one of them. Instead, it helps to treat Changi as its own destination, and gather your resources in advance. Start by downloading the airport’s app before you travel, or you could easily spend your first hour (or more) wandering aimlessly. Maps on the app will help you figure out where you are, where you need to get to, and what you can do in between, using the free Sky Train and shuttle buses that link all four terminals and Jewel.
If you need to offload some luggage while you explore, certain airlines allow early check-in up to 24 hours before your flight. If you’re flying with one that doesn’t, there are also baggage storage areas.
Planning your Visit
While it’s possible to just turn up at Changi and see what takes your fancy, a little forward planning will help make the most out of it.
Start by considering how much time you have. To do it justice, they recommend at least five hours to explore. In most airports, that would be unbearable. Here, with all the options, you’re far more likely to be overwhelmed than bored.
Hit up the app, and scroll through the possibilities. If you feel jump-starting your circulation with some indoor rock climbing, go for it. Prefer something more restful, with a spa treatment or a swim in the rooftop pool? No problem. There’s also the HSBC Rain Vortex, which at 40 metres is the world’s highest indoor waterfall, nestled in the Shiseido Forest Valley, populated with thousands of trees and plants. And so much more.
The HSBC Rain Vortex located within Changi Airport’s Jewel is a sight to behold at all hours or the day or night.
Parents will breathe a sigh of relief at the family-friendly options. Our pick is the massive slide that descends 12 metres – or four storeys – which is free, if you become a Changi Rewards Member. Or for more daring fun, there’s the Mirror Maze, Bouncing Nets and Hedge Maze – which can all be booked and paid for online.
The point is, there are so many options – and some need to be booked in advance – so it makes sense to do some research.
If all else fails, there’s a free walking tour that takes in the airport’s highlights over the course of two and a half hours.
The options for those travelling with kids are impressive.
Mistakes to avoid
There are a few things to bear in mind when planning your Changi adventure.
Firstly, how much are you willing to spend? As with any holiday destination, certain activities and spaces are free, but plenty aren’t. And we all know foreign currency can seem like Monopoly money in the heat of the moment. Check the exchange rate before you arrive, and set yourself a budget. This isn’t a purely altruistic endeavour, after all. Jewel, in particular, is open to the public – not just people travelling from the airport – and is a big money-making machine.
If you’re planning some shopping, be aware that the majority of stores are closed between 10pm and 10am. Out in the real world that would make perfect sense, but we’d love to see more open overnight, given the number of travellers transitting at all hours.
Which brings us to our final point: remember to factor in how tired or jet lagged you’re likely to be. If this is a layover, don’t expect too much of yourself.
It’s perfectly fine to not to make Changi Airport a highlight of your trip, and instead just find a quiet place to relax ahead of your flight. Because even though it’s undeniably beautiful and full of exciting things to do, it’s essentially still just a temporary holding pen. Do whatever works for you.