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The “Your Layover Guide” series features airports and destinations around the world where you’re likely to be stuck between flights, offering tips on navigating and spending time in the airport, as well as suggesting things to do if you have time to explore the nearby city. TPG Contributor Muhammad Lila guides us through Abu Dhabi International Airport, where a multi-billion dollar expansion is currently underway.
The good news: With a new fleet of A380s and several new destinations for 2016, Abu Dhabi is set to rival Dubai and Doha as the major transit hub in the Middle East. The not-so-good news: While the massive construction of the new in-field terminal is underway, the current Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) — while offering business travelers most key amenities — still feels cramped during peak times.
When you taxi into AUH, you can see the future being built in front of your eyes. The new, 700,000-square-meter Midfield terminal is expected to be finished in the summer of 2017. It will have enough space to hold three soccer fields plus 28,000 square metres of shopping space. And in a design-first approach, the airport will add a 8,400-square-meter indoor park, with plants and desert landscapes. The airport, currently being built in between two sets of runways (hence its name, “Midfield”) is expected to shorten transit times between terminals, and accommodate Etihad’s growing fleet of A380s.
At the Airport (For Now)
The present version of AUH is about 20 miles outside of Abu Dhabi city, on what is technically an island. It’s the second largest airport in the UAE, dominated by Etihad Airways but serving a total of 53 airlines flying to 85 destinations. It has three terminals, with Terminal 3 devoted exclusively to Etihad. It’s a 15-minute indoor walk between the terminals, but beware: Some stretches don’t have people-movers to whisk you along.
Terminal 3 features a dedicated section for all business- and first-class passengers, along with Etihad Guest Gold members — and it’s one of the best things about the entire airport. Porters will come to your curbside vehicle, load your luggage on to a trolley and wheel it to the check-in agent (note that some may expect a tip). There are chairs available so you can sit across the agent as they check you in. It’s a seamless process, and with a dedicated security queue, I’ve made it from curbside to the duty free shopping area in less than five minutes.
Not surprisingly, AUH gives you plenty of opportunities to spend your dirhams. For example, outposts of Burberry, Ferragamo and Bulgari can be found at both Terminal 1 and 3; Coach, Hermes and Hugo Boss are at Terminal 3; and Givenchy is found at Terminal 1. After customs, you’ll find a Boots Pharmacy in Terminal 3, and UAE-made souvenirs shop The Souk on the upper level of Terminal 1.
There aren’t many dining options at AUH, but chances are, you won’t go hungry. You’ll have the largest variety of options before you go through customs. In Terminal 1, you can grab a bakery treat and a coffee at Culto Café, or you could linger over a sandwich and espresso at Illy Espressamente at the Arrivals Hall. If you have time for a full meal, head to the Skypark Plaza for traditional Iranian cuisine at Hatam. In Terminal 3, try different breads from around the Middle East and beyond in a wide variety of sandwiches at Panopolis; just follow the aroma of baking bread, and you’re sure to find it.
The acclaimed Etihad Pearl and Diamond lounges in Terminal 3 have been closed for renovations for more than a year, and the opening date has already been postponed a few times. When the lounges eventually re-open, they’re expected to be a dedicated space for passengers flying Etihad’s new fleet of A380s.
Premium travelers instead have to make the trek to Terminal 1 to use the combined Pearl and Diamond lounge. It features the standard fare, including an extensive hot and cold buffet, bar and charging stations. Plus, it’s one of the few transit lounges to offer free massages through the Six Senses Spa; they’re only 15 minutes long, but they’re fantastic. (You can see their current spa menu here.) Note that if you’re an Etihad Gold member flying in economy, you won’t have access to this lounge — you’ll have to use the Al Reem Lounge located between Terminals 1 and 3.
In an effort to lure more US-bound travelers, the airport has built a US Customs Preclearance facility — one of only a handful outside the United States. All the customs staff are all employed by US Customs and Border Protection, but their salaries are paid by the Abu Dhabi government. Passengers departing to US destinations go to gates 58-61, where they go through the entire customs process as though they were arriving in the United States. The extra process is designed to save you time when you land in the US, since you walk off the plane just like domestic passengers would.
Getting to the City
The air-conditioned A1 bus is an easy and extremely economical option. Running every 40 minutes, 24 hours a day for 4 AED ($1) each way, the green-and-white bus stops outside each terminal and the trip into the center city takes 45 minutes. See this page for different route options.
Getting a taxi to the city center is also an easy process. Outside Terminals 1 and 3, hop into a six-seat Mercedes Vito, or outside Terminal 2, catch a ride in a Toyota Camry; one-way fares start at 25 AED (about $7).
Etihad Diamond and Pearl travelers have access to Etihad’s Premium chauffeur service, where your driver will be holding your name on a placard, and take you in a private luxury car to anywhere in Abu Dhabi, or as far as Dubai.
If You Have Half a Day
Head to Abu Dhabi’s iconic landmark, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque — you don’t have to be a Muslim or Arab to visit. It’s open for walking tours from 9am to 10pm, except for Friday afternoons. It has the world’s largest carpet and one of the world’s largest chandeliers, and few places better symbolize the modern, blinged-out world that the UAE has become. Note that conservative dress is required.
Abu Dhabi is also home to the Emirates Palace, a lavish hotel that may have been the world’s most expensive to build; the royal family has refused to release any of its production costs. Head through the atrium and keep your eyes out for celebrities and royalty visiting from across the Gulf. The hotel’s beach is the best in all of the UAE, with nearly a mile of soft, manicured white sand, so by all means, go for a stroll here — then treat yourself to a gold bar from the vending machine on the way out.
If you’re a meat lover, head to Chamas Churrascaria & Bar inside the InterContinental Abu Dhabi. Open only for dinner, this Brazilian all-you-can-eat restaurant is a carnivore’s heaven, offering 16 different types of barbecued meat on skewers. Service is about $36 per person, plus drinks.
If You Have a Full Day
If you’re racing fan, zip over to the Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi, the world’s only hotel built over a racetrack. For one weekend in November, the Yas becomes a racing mecca as the Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix takes over. Watch the race from the comfort of the lobby, lounge or even your own hotel room. When it’s not race season, the racetrack is open on Tuesday evenings to runners, joggers and cyclists. If you need more speed, head down the road to Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, home to the world’s fastest roller coaster.
In addition, Yas Waterworld is a short, free shuttle bus away from the Viceroy. Thirty-seven acres of unabashed fun in the water, the park features more than 40 rides, and Thursday nights are dedicated exclusively to women (no men are allowed inside after 6pm).
If You Have a Night
Down an air-conditioned corridor between Terminals 1 and 3 at AUH, you’ll find the Premier Inn Abu Dhabi — an extremely convenient option if you have a late arrival or early-morning departure. Rooms start at 225 AED ($61) per night, and just be aware that you’ll need to clear customs to access the hotel.
In the area called Qaryat El Bari — which has magnificent views of the Abu Dhabi Canal, with the glowing Sheikh Zayed Mosque in the background — members of Shangri-La’s Golden Circle have two solid options.The first is the Shangri-La Hotel Qaryat El Beri, redeemable at 6,500 points for a standard room. The Traders Hotel, Abu Dhabi is only a few minutes away and offers great value at just 3,500 points per night. Both have similar views, and their beaches share the same stretch of the canal.
There are otherwise plenty of points options around town, including two at Yas Island — the Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi, which starts at 232 AED ($63) or 30,000 IHG Rewards points per night and offers free Wi-Fi to IHG Rewards members, and the Radisson Blu, which starts at 284 AED ($77) or 38,000 Club Carlson Gold Points per night and offers free Wi-Fi to all guests. You’ll find luxury at The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal (which starts at 750 AED — about $204 — or 40,000 Ritz-Carlton Rewards per night) and the high-concept tower of the Hyatt Capital Gate, where nightly rates begin at 380 AED ($103) or 12,000 Gold Passport points. For a slightly less opulent stay — but with a cool rooftop lounge — there’s the Category 2 Aloft Abu Dhabi, which starts at 325 AED ($88) or 3,000 Starpoints per night.
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There’s no telling how much longer these cards will be around and available for new applications because of the Marriott takeover, so now might just be the perfect time to apply. Apart from hotel redemptions, you can transfer Starpoints to over 30 airline partners, and now also transfer points from Starwood to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, opening up even more redemption options.