12 Travel Tips to Get Around an Airport in Europe

August 26, 2016

From tiny terminals to longer lines and beefed-up security, you may be in for a bit of culture shock when using European airports, especially if you’re using a lower-cost carrier.  Just as in America, Europe has its share of good, bad and ugly airports, where good (if not great) might be the Helsinki Airport in Finland, which is easy to navigate, clean and modern, with art galleries, spas, and sleeping pods. The bad might be any of the financially strapped airports of Greece, like the Santorini Thira Airport, notable for its diminutive terminals, limited food options, and bare-bones seating. Bordering on ugly could be Greece’s Rhodes Island, which has been plagued with not only endless lines and understaffing, but also bathroom problems (missing toilet seats, soap, and towels) and sparse choices in food and amenities.

No matter your destination in Europe (and how you might rate it on the good, bad or ugly meter), we’ve outlined some of the main differences you may find in European airports compared to U.S. airports, along with some tricks and tips to help you get through European airports more smoothly.

Service May be Slower in EU Airports Compared to U.S. Airports

Flying is stressful enough when you’re traveling within the United States, where airports tend to be fairly well staffed and relatively efficient at handling everything from checking in to security. However, the European counterpart of the airline you use may have fewer check-in counters (or maybe only half of the counters will be staffed), so you may have fewer resources to handle your needs. With less staff around to help you, as you might take for granted in the U.S., getting through the airport in the EU may take longer.

Security is Strict in EU Airports


Security is strict in European airports

You might be surprised by the strict levels of security used in EU airports. Security measures at airports in the EU make it very difficult, though not impossible, for someone with criminal or terrorist intent to exploit them. Typically, you’ll find not one but two security checkpoints in the airports of many EU regions. A model for secure airports in Europe is the Charles de Gaulle, which is among the strictest for screening passengers in the EU.

Airport security in Europe has, in fact, inspired the airport security model in the United States that has been in place following the events of September 11, 2001.  At that time, America finally began to catch up with Europe in security matters, with the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA and its checkpoints being born soon after the events of September 11.

Security Requirements for Packing and Boarding when Flying from EU Airports

The EU rule on liquids allows you to hold a maximum capacity of 1 liter in a see-through plastic bag. Examples of liquids include aerosols, drinks, toothpaste, cosmetic creams, and gels. Contact your airline if you’re not sure of what liquids you may pack.

If you plan to fly with a container of liquid larger than 100 mL, you must place it in checked baggage. Exceptions to the volume restriction: Medicines and baby food.

You may carry on duty-free liquids bought from any airport or airline—as long as you keep the item and its receipt sealed inside the security bag (with a red border) which will be provided at the time of purchase. You must wait until you get to your destination to open the security bag. Security officials have the right to open the bag and inspect its contents. If you have a connecting flight at another airport, tell the security officer, who can reseal your liquid containers in a new security bag.

Explosives and flammable items (e.g. fireworks, aerosol spray paint, and others) as well as toxic materials (e.g. acids) are not allowed in carry-on luggage or checked luggage. Check with your airline to find out guidelines for carry-on baggage and the number of items you’re allowed to take on board.


Heathrow Airport

With these differences between EU and American airports in mind, follow these 12 tips to reduce the stress of your experience:

1. Be Streamlined and Carry on. You’ve heard this one a million times. Try to pack light—just once–and you may be sold on why this advice appears again and again. We’ve written about traveling light before: use our guide. Traveling light will mean fewer things to worry about. Being unshackled from luggage also makes for an interesting test of your survival skills.  Best of all, you’ll be free of the dreaded routine at the luggage carousel.

2. Before you leave for the airport, visit the website of your airline or call them and confirm your reservation. This way, there will be fewer surprises at the airport.

3. Get to the airport early. You’ve heard this advice time and again—and for good reason. Airports vary immensely in how efficiently they operate.  As said earlier, depending on the airline and the location, many of the airlines in Europe feature much smaller and slowing-moving operations than their counterparts in America.

You can’t manufacture time. Don’t be overly optimistic and give yourself one measly hour to get through the airport or you may find yourself having to book another flight.  If you’re risk-averse and get easily lost in unfamiliar places, allow two and one half to three hours to navigate many of the airports in the EU. Better safe than sorry.

layout of the airport

Learn the layout of the airport

4. Learn the layout of the airport before you get there. This tip goes along with getting to the airport early. You may have learned the hard way while trying to navigate a maze of an airport like Charles de Gaulle or Frankfurt Hahn, two EU airports which are frequently named as befuddling to travelers. Being familiar with an airport’s layout ahead of time might ease the stress.

Download a map of your airport terminal onto your smartphone to study ahead of time to get a feel for the airport’s layout before you go. Of course, every airport is different, and everyone’s perceptions will vary, but you may judge some airports to be less intuitively designed than others. Some are plain illogical and poorly signed.

You’ll be able to relax a bit more knowing in advance where to go, and you’ll probably get around faster, too, since you’ll have a map of the layout.

It’s also a good idea to know how to get from the arrival gate of your destination airport to the center of the city. You might try Google Street View.

5. Wear the European costume to blend when possible, and you might get through the airport faster.  You could end up going through a complete body search in France, for instance, if they think you look a bit scruffy or if you stand out somehow. Try not to draw attention to yourself.

6. Don’t waste money on food and drinks if you can’t finish them before you board the plane.  American airports will generally allow you to bring items like bottled water onto the plane.  In the EU, you will most likely be asked to throw out beverage and food containers at the second security point.

7. Don’t be surprised if you’re hit with intrusive questions at security checkpoints. Security personnel in the EU may question you about minutiae, like who packed your bags, what time your bags were packed, where you stayed during your trip, etc. The questions you’re asked might seem overbearing, unusual, or irrelevant compared to your airport experiences in America. Wherever you are, getting visibly offended will only make things worse for you and may needlessly delay you. You can always complain to your seatmate later on about the types of questions you’re asked.

8. Arrive at checkpoints prepared. Organize your boarding pass, passport, and other papers and keep them all in one place if you can. Also, take inventory of metal objects: empty your pockets of coins, keys, and other metal items and place in the same compartment of your carry-on luggage so you won’t be fumbling at security checkpoints. Why draw negative attention to yourself?

9. Be prepared to pass through security twice in some parts of Europe.

When using most airports in the EU, you’ll be subject to the same x-rays and explosives detection as you move from the public areas of airports to the secure zones. Two security stops are a good reason to get to the airport two hours early (two and a half to three hours early if you’re risk averse or easily lost).

10. Use European ATMs, and avoid exchange booths. Sometimes you can’t avoid using an exchange booth, but just know that they’re pricey. You’ll be charged a premium at the airport exchange booths to change dollars to euros. Most every European airport will have ATMs.

11. Be prepared for the no-frills facilities of some airports. This tends to be especially true when you use a budget carrier, although not always. If you don’t arrive early, in some airports, you can expect to stand while you wait in the airport lounge. And don’t be surprised if some facilities are outdated, dirty, and uncomfortable.

12. Find out about airport food options before you go. You might decide to eat before you get to the airport since junk food might be the only provisions on offer. On the other hand, you might be perfectly content with hot dog places or McDonald’s.

Airport food

You’ll find a wide range of experiences when you fly in the EU. Take the time to research your destination, carrier, and airport facilities so you’ll have a better idea what to expect before you go. Most important: get to the airport very early (preferably with a neck pillow, noise-canceling headphones, and reading materials).  Then, sit back, watch the people, and all will be well.

Written by Katie Anton