Terminal Report: Overnight Transit at Hong Kong International Airport (22-23 January 2020)

It’s not easy for someone who loves travel to embrace the “new normal” that we all must now endure. Having said that, it’s important to remain thankful to the good Lord for present blessings, future hopes, and past joys, amongst which are the memories of my last overseas holiday before the end of the world as I knew it. As I quietly nurse the fond hope of resuming my adventures at the appropriate time, I’ll continue to flip through my treasure-book of happy episodes from that and other past journeys – including the exhausting (but quite fun!) experience of an overnight transit through one of the world’s major transportation hubs.

Welcome to Hong Kong International Airport (HKG).

Note: The information and pictures presented here are drawn from my own experience of transiting through Hong Kong International Airport on 22-23 January 2020. Details may change at any moment and without prior notice. In addition, please be aware that the procedural changes and travel restrictions introduced during the ongoing global health emergency are not reflected here; see the “IMPORTANT!” note below.

For the sake of brevity, I’ve employed IATA airline/airport codes in place of full names (e.g., “CX” instead of “Cathay Pacific”; “HKG” instead of “Hong Kong International Airport”).

IMPORTANT! This report does NOT reflect the significant changes to airport operations brought about in response to the ongoing global health emergency. For example, as of this writing, it’s not even possible to transit through HKG (although a gradual resumption of transit services is scheduled from 1st June 2020). Whilst many of these changes are temporary, some might eventually become a permanent part of the HKG experience as we all transition into a “new normal”. Over and above the usual cautionary note about possible changes to schedules, facilities, etc., it is vitally important to keep abreast of current developments by referring to HKG’s website and other official sources.

Part 1: Flying into HKG

My inbound flight was Cathay Pacific CX 934, departing from Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL). Despite a delayed take-off, our aeroplane arrived at 23:07 HKG time, 22nd January 2020 – just two minutes behind the published schedule.

Transit formalities were smooth and painless, especially since I was already holding an onward boarding pass to my final destination: Incheon International Airport (ICN) near the South Korean capital, Seoul. This meant undergoing the abbreviated procedure described on HKG’s official website.

From the gate, I simply followed the “Transfer” signs until I reached one of HKG’s dedicated transit zones.

A staff member checked my onward boarding pass before allowing me through to the security screening lanes.

After making my way through the gauntlet of body and luggage scans, I mounted an escalator that brought me up to the departures hall of HKG’s main terminal. At that point, I simply became another departing passenger waiting for his flight. 🙂

Note that if I didn’t have my onward boarding pass, I would have had to seek out the transfer desk for my airline and secure a boarding pass for the next flight before undergoing security screening. Read more about it on the airport’s official website.

Part 2: Waiting in HKG’s departures hall

It’s a widely known fact, but it bears repeating: HKG is HUGE. Plenty to see, eat, do, and buy. I won’t go into the details here, but the official website is there to help if you’d like to learn more about what’s on offer.

Now I know I’ve just written “plenty to see, eat, do, and buy”, but there are some rather large caveats attached – mainly to do with arrival time. Although HKG’s terminal is open round the clock, many of the tenants do not stay open for 24 hours straight. This is especially true during the slack early morning hours – variable window but very very roughly from 01:30-05:30 – when even home-grown giant CX doesn’t operate any flights. No flights, no passengers (apart from transiting folk like me), no customers … no point in staying open. Simple economics.

Unfortunately, that also affects CX’s flagship lounges in HKG, as we’ll see shortly.

Part 3: A very very short lounge visit

CX is a busy bee, despatching and receiving flights between HKG and airports all over the world … but they do wind down (briefly) in the mornings as described earlier. To match this window of quiet time, three of their four HKG lounges close at half past midnight, reopening only from 05:30.

The one exception is The Wing, which stays open until last departure – the precise time of which varies depending on the day’s schedule and operational requirements. Even then, you’re probably looking at no more than an extra hour or so beyond its sister facilities, so there’s no avoiding that early morning block in which no CX lounges at all are available.

Having arrived at The Wing just before midnight, I didn’t have much time to enjoy the facilities…

…so I simply made straight for my favourite part.

And yes, I do have a favourite part because this wasn’t my first time at The Wing. Click here to read more about my previous visit. (Incidentally, the lounge doesn’t seem to have changed much between those two visits, despite the several years in between.)

The part in question was the Noodle Bar: a restaurant-like setting where lounge guests order off a (short) menu and, minutes later, happily tuck into the freshly-prepared noodle dish of their choice.

There’s also a small buffet of beverages and prepared food items to supplement what’s available from the kitchen.

My own midnight snack was a small portion of noodles in peanut sauce, with a steamed chicken bun on the side. I also wolfed down some vegetable dumplings (not shown here) harvested from the ready-made buffet.

Shame I couldn’t linger, but with closing time not far off, I decided to leave right after my meal and look for a place to spend the night. Since I was planning another lounge visit in the morning and my invitation had already been taken, I made sure to get my onward boarding pass stamped for “Lounge Re-Entry” before leaving.

Part 4: Camping out for the night

You’ve got two options for sleeping in a proper bed at HKG. There’s the Regal Airport Hotel, which is directly connected to the terminal – but it’s landside so staying there means having to pass through immigration and customs. (Of course, that also means having to pass through immigration again, plus security, to board your onward flight.) I’m sure that works for some people, but I couldn’t be bothered to add bureaucracy to the existing stresses of a long transit.

Option two is airside, in the form of the Plaza Premium Lounge near Gate 35. Note that there are several Plaza Premiums at HKG; I am referring very specifically to the one near Gate 35 as it’s the only one (to my knowledge) that has fully private sleeping spaces. I almost booked a night myself, but decided against it as rooms could only be reserved in a package that includes a stay in the wider lounge (bundled with a shower and meal). All I wanted was a place to sleep, since I would get all the other perks anyway once the CX lounges opened again at 05:30; thus the full price of the package didn’t offer good value.

Now here’s the thing. This wasn’t my first time at HKG and I was aware of a cost-effective (read: free-of-charge) alternative to both of the above. There are actually several alternatives that won’t cost you a penny (see here and here for example), and that’s not even counting the last-resort options of stretching out on benches or crashing on the floor.

The solution foremost in my mind was a bank of recliners facing the tarmac in a quiet corner of the terminal.

There are similar napping corners elsewhere in the terminal, but I saw no vacancies in those I passed. Fortunately, there was one – and ONLY one – seat still unoccupied here.

Say hello to my refuge for the night.

Right, time to make this habitable.

A wipe-down with moist towelettes. (Note to self: under the “new normal”, do an even deeper clean with alcohol-based sanitiser.) Bag wedged into the small gap between the chair and the planter, padlocks on the zippers, metal cable to secure it to the seat frame. Camping blanket for extra comfort; no need for my inflatable pillow since there’s a padded headrest. Okay, all set.

Pleasant dreams. Let’s talk again in the morning. 🙂

Part 5: A (very) early morning stroll

I didn’t get much sleep (maybe three hours all told), but it was better than nothing.

Back on my feet, I shuffled around on a tour of the eerily quiet terminal during the last hour or so before CX’s lounges opened for business.

Part 6: A proper lounge visit (finally!)

I won’t go into detail here, as the experience will be covered by a separate Lounge Report. I’ll add a link once that post is complete.

In brief: at opening time, 05:30 in the morning, I was literally the first person through the gate at CX’s The Bridge lounge, where I showered and tucked into a hearty breakfast whilst waiting for my onward flight.

Part 7: Waiting to board

Refreshed and rested, I reemerged into the wider terminal and walked to my assigned gate at a leisurely pace.

I’ve made the mistake of giving HKG’s architectural merits short shrift in the past, dismissing the structure as cold and plain and bereft of appeal. Then again, until the present experience, I haven’t had the chance to spend a whole night at the airport. My past transits took far less time to complete, leaving almost no opportunity for a proper interaction with the terminal building. Now, having seen this facility in a different light – literally – and having explored many of its innumerable nooks and crannies, I’m prepared to admit that it has finally grown on me.

There’s still the tale of my outbound flight to tell, along with a full report of my intervening lounge experience (and, in due course, the two flights that funnelled me back through HKG on my return journey).

But for the moment, let this suffice. 🙂

Cheerio.

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