6 Quick Tips For Navigating An Airport In Another Country

Tight layover in Beijing? You got this.
person checking the arrivals/departures screen

There’s always something kind of intimidating about venturing to a place where you don’t speak the language. You’re going to have to rely on your extremely limited vocabulary, pantomiming skills and the kindness of many strangers in order to navigate your way through the confusion. Often, this makes for an experience that’s both frustrating and uniquely charming, but you can’t be in a rush to get somewhere important if you’re going to reap the benefits. You can save the trial and error for when you’ve safely settled into your accommodations. When you’ve got a flight to catch? You can defer to these quick and dirty airport tips to help you navigate any airport — even the ones that lack signage in your native language.

Though the good news is that just about all major international airports are pretty intuitive to navigate, you’ll still want to budget in some allowance for being disoriented and jet-lagged as you try to make it to your connecting flight that’s leaving from another terminal. Here are a few quick airport tips for a smooth landing.

6 Helpful International Airport Tips

1. Give yourself extra time.

This is a basic measure you can take that will save you loads of stress and headache in the long run. Though some people would argue that you should always give yourself more time than you need at the airport, this rings especially true if you’re flying into an airport where you’ll be linguistically disadvantaged. Budget extra time for confusion, asking for directions, your jet lag, and searching for WiFi so you can Google things.

2. Do your homework ahead of time.

This could mean things like reading your airline’s instructions in your own language before you leave — you know, banned items; security procedures. These things are pretty standard all over the world, but it never hurts to take that extra step. You could also screenshot a picture of what the word “arrivals,” “baggage” or “passport control” looks like in the local language.

3. Learn a handful of basic phrases.

Even if you don’t speak a lick of the local language, learning how to at least say “hello” will help make your interactions with passport control that much more graceful. It also wouldn’t hurt to learn other important basic survival phrases like “please” and “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” “Where is the bathroom,” and “do you speak English?”. This is one way to prepare yourself for some of the interactions you’ll invariably have as you ask for help or directions. Here are more tips for how to talk to someone when you don’t speak their language.

4. Just follow the crowd.

Most major international airports are pretty intuitive to navigate — you’ll know where to head after you get off the plane because there’s often only one direction to go, and everyone else is going with you. When in doubt, you could probably just follow the crowd and get to passport control and baggage claim just fine without looking at a single piece of signage.

5. Look for universal symbols.

Airports are international hubs of transport, and they’ve mostly already been designed with the needs of the foreign traveler in mind. That’s why most signage will be written in more than one language, and usually with little pictures just about anyone will understand. Check out this ISO guide to the graphical symbols you’ll encounter.

6. Google it.

Though automatic translation apps like Google Translate leave much to be desired (and have been known to mislead users into some very embarrassing language gaffes), they’re pretty useful when you’re in a jam and need to quickly look up a simple word or phrase. Of course, this means you’ll be at the mercy of WiFi, but most airports have free public networks. You can also use the Google Translate app to take pictures of a sign and have it automatically translated for you.

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