Incheon: the world’s favourite airport

Duty Free Shops Seoul IncheonIf you are planning to pass through Seoul Incheon airport, you can consider yourself rather lucky. South Korea’s main international gateway is a world away from so many other international airports with their long queues, ageing terminals, shabby shops and grumpy staff. In stark contrast, Incheon is regularly lauded for its stunning architecture, super-efficient check-in and baggage reclaim, great shopping, free wi-fi and cheap amenities.

In duty-free terms Incheon qualifies as one of the big boys even though the airport is hardly massive in terms of passenger traffic with only about 30 million people using it a year. Nevertheless, sales topped a whopping $1.73 billion last year, making the airport the third largest for duty-free shopping after Dubai International and London Heathrow.

Opened back in 2001 on reclaimed land and located a distant 50km from the capital Seoul, Incheon suffered a bumpy start with lots of problems over its high-tech baggage system. Today, however, it is now clearly setting the standard for others to follow. In fact, last year over 8 million travellers voted it the world’s best airport in the annual Skytrax survey in which airports are evaluated according to nearly 40 different criteria such as check-in facilities, customer service and of course, duty-free shopping.

What, you may be asking, is Incheon’s secret? Simple. Whereas many other airports treat their passengers like cattle, shunting them from one congested terminal to another, Incheon wins praise for simply treating travellers like human beings. Consider the free transit lounge, for example, where transit passengers can relax in a lounge chair, surf the web, buy a snack or watch TV.Still not convinced? Well, how about the children’s play area for kids aged 3-10, the massage and shower room, the casino, the golf course and 120-bay driving range, and the fascinating ‘Traditional Experience Korea’ centre, where you can make your own traditional Korean handicraft and listen to live Korean folk music for free?

We could go on in a similar vein, but I am sure you get the picture. Time to get down to a bit basic wayfinding. Incheon’s giant curved Main Terminal is dedicated to domestic airlines such as Korean Air, while the smaller, rectangular Concourse, which opened in 2008, is used by foreign airlines. An automated passenger mover called the Starline shuttles passengers quickly and efficiently between these two facilities with services running every five minutes or so.

Now let’s move on to the duty-free shopping. Unlike most other international airports these days it is run entirely by four local retailers • AK Duty Free, Duty Free Korea, Shilla Duty Free and Lotte Duty Free. Perhaps unsurprisingly then the line up of nearly 70 shops in the Main Terminal and Concourse is very much geared to the brand-conscious Korean and Japanese travellers, who make up the majority of customers. Having said that, foreign visitors will find plenty of familiar brand names and intriguing local souvenirs.For trendy, affluent Koreans and Japanese travellers high-end leather goods and fashion accessories are clearly the in-thing. They are sold in abundance at Incheon and account for over a fifth of the airport’s total retail sales. Bally, Coach, Versace and Etro are some of the hot leather goods brands stocked currently, but with prices as high as $1,930 for a single Fendi handbag, don’t go expecting to find a bargain.

The layout of the main duty-free stores follows a similar pattern. Each shop boasts a cluster of branded fashion, beauty and accessory shop-in-shops within them. Burberry, MCM, Hermès, Celine, Prada, Paul Smith, Gucci, Cartier and LVMH’s Louis Vuitton are just a selection of the fashion houses with a presence. If you know what you are after, download the airport’s handy shopping guide and airport map at http://www.airport.kr/airport/brochure/brochureList.iia?langGubun=E&fake=1263913999099 before you travel to locate the right brand and shop.

AK Duty Free and Shilla Duty Free share the beauty concession between them and their well-stocked stores in the main terminal carry a superb range of fragrances, skincare and cosmetics. Well-known international names such as Guerlain, Clinique, Ralph Lauren, She Uemara, Yve St Laurent and La Prairie rub shoulders with many Korean brands. It’s also worth knowing that Shilla has a downtown store in Seoul, where you can order your purchases and pick them up at the airport. See the retailer’s English website at http://www.shilladfs.com/en/dutyfree/main.jsp for more details.Look for the Lotte Duty Free shops if you want to stock up on wine or spirits (their shops also sell tobacco, fashion items and souvenirs). You will discover an excellent range of deluxe blended whiskies• Ballantine’s, Royal Salute and Imperial are all popular local choices Prices are pretty good too• a bottle of Ballantine’s 21 Year Old, for example, will cost you $95•considerably cheaper than at Sydney airport, where it is $135, Tokyo Narita ($115) and even Dubai ($98.88).

If you are looking to find a typically Korean souvenir or gift, the Duty Free Korea outlets are your best bet. Korean foodstuffs seem to be a popular gift choice. Kimchi, pickled vegetables in many different varieties, is a big seller, as is seaweed and of course that old health shop favourite, ginseng. You will also find dolls and figurines in traditional costume, beautiful cups for the local firewater, soju, and paper fans.

Remember if you are on a business trip, a good bottle of Scotch whisky is much appreciated by the typical Korean businessman (but never buy alcohol for Korean women). Nicely wrapped western confectionery or small, quality pens and desk accessories are all appreciated, but don’t spend too much on a gift as your Korean colleague will feel obliged to buy you something of the same value.One last tip. Avoid buying a Korean friend or colleague gifts with either red writing or packs or four as both denote death in Korean popular culture. Who knew gift giving could be such a potential minefield?

On the dining front, Incheon boasts a decent selection of Asian and international restaurants of the sit-down and fast food variety in both the Main Terminal and Concourse. If you just want to grab a coffee, baguette or burger, there are plenty of well-known names such as McDonald’s, Starbuck’s, Dunkin Donuts, Burger King, Subway and Baskin Robbin.

There are food courts in both terminals offering a choice of Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Western dishes at pretty reasonable prices. If you want to pay more, try the Korean Traditional (Concourse, near Gate 119) or Haneul (Main Terminal, 4f) to try such delights as seaweed soup, beef bone stew and all manner of noodle dishes.If you just want to pass the time, however, try the Observation Deck on the fourth floor of the Main Terminal where you can relax and watch the planes come and go. There is a café there serving coffees, fruit juices teas and snacks, as well as a Dessert Bar doling out sweeter treats, a book shop, Internet lounge and mini-art gallery. The range of things do up there is typical of Incheon’s customer-focused approach, and yet one further reason why this airport soars head and shoulders above so many of its rivals.

Related Links and Useful Information

Airport website
http://www.airport.kr/eng/

Duty Free Retailers
Lotte Duty Free
http://en.lottedfs.com/

Duty Free Korea
http://www.dutyfreekorea.com/ (Korean)

Shilla Duty Free
http://www.shilladfs.com/en/incheon/introduction/introduction.jsp

AK Duty Free
http://www.akdfs.com/company/html/kr/aboutus.do?goTo=introduce (Korean)