Are Airports Cultural Wastelands?

Are airports to travel what franchises are to American cities?

In other words, by their very nature do airports focus on similarities between countries and regions and in the process de-emphasize the uniqueness of a place?

Are airports culturally sterile environments?

I raise this question because of a discussion taking place on the Travellerspoint forums that MustExplore initiated by asking other travelers for suggestions as to how best to experience life like the locals when exploring new areas.

In reply, BlazeAdventure offered these 10 tips:

1. Stay in hostels not 5 star hotels. You’ll meet tons of new friends, that are looking for the same immersion. It’s safe, and they may know something you dont
2. Try couchsurfing – You’ll meet some friendly locals, that will sometimes be open to showing you around
3. Take public transport whenever you can.
4. Volunteer for things like Woofing (google it and read about their program- really fun!).
5. Use skyscanner and other sites for cheap flights( I can’t list them all here, I have resources on my website, but I don’t think I can link to it here)
6. Travel off-season or shoulder season for cheaper flights and cheaper prices
7. Talk, Smile and patience with everyone. You’ll meet more friends and locals this way
8. Eat street food, and go to Public Markets
9. Try to travel overland, and not by airplane whenever possible.
10. Minimize organized tours. Part of the adventure is actually finding your own way there.

(Emphasis added).

Needless to say, I found #9 to be an interesting suggestion. Airports are designed to be similar and therefore easier to navigate, but in my experience the layout is where the similarities end. At least when we’re talking about airports in different countries.

Oh sure, you will probably find many of the same fast-food chains in airports throughout the world. But the other stores, and the different ways people behave, can make for quite an entertaining experience at the airport.

I don’t mean to criticize BlazeAdventure too much as it was exceptionally nice and helpful of him to provide the list, but I do think that when people say things like, “we want to experience life like the locals,” the implication seems to be that they want to experience how local poor people live.

Locals who travel for business aren’t any less local than other locals. Visiting airports in different countries will allow you to see how local middle-class travelers live.

Or perhaps I’m wrong.

What do you think? Do airports provide a culturally immersive experience, or are they all pretty much alike in your opinion and need to be exited and gotten far away from to really understand what local life is like?

And which airports have you found most interesting as part of your travels?

Read the thread in its entirety: First Time Travellers

McDonald’s” by Amy Jane Gustafson. CC BY-ND 2.0.


  1. I suspect that this is more about seeing more of the destination, spenspending more time, meeting amd interacting with people, and getting out of tourist-centered areas. I think you’re missing the boat here.

    Airports may or may not be sterile, but I don’t think that is the point of their list. IIt’s more about seeing and experiencing more of a place.

  2. I think what the comment meant is that travelling overland is unquestionably a better insight into local life than flying on a plane because you actually get to see local life (homes, businesses recreational activities, night life) as opposed to just viewing the topography from 30,000 ft+. To me when some one says they want to experience “life like the locals,” that means understanding how a typical person lives in the area they are visiting. Looking at people in an airport won’t provide much insight into how the typical person in the area lives or even how the passengers in the airport live. Although some airports have very nice cultural centers (ICN for example), you must get off the plane and get out of the airport to see how people live. A noted blogger once posted about a layover for several hours in a business-class lounge in Nairobi as if that somehow constituted a trip to Africa. Please.

    Your comment about how the “poor” people live somehow rubs me the wrong way. I can’t put my finger on exactly why. While I don’t hang out with a lot of “rich” folk when I travel, from what I’ve seen, they tend to live pretty much the same way all over the world, i.e., if you’ve seen one BMW, you seen them all.

    Thanks for posting the list. There are some good suggestions there.

  3. @Matt and @john – I’m sure you’re both right as to my missing the point of the comment. Appreciate both of your comments and insights.

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