Doha International Airport is in a uniquely unpleasant situation this summer. It’s experiencing not only the annual hot-weather exodus, with some 50,000 residents flying out of Qatar last month – and thousands more planning to do so in the coming weeks – but also a massive influx of residents coming home for Ramadan.
This is making for an extra-busy travel season in Qatar, with residents reporting long lines both while leaving and upon entering the country through the DIA. Because new state-of-the-art Hamad International Airport isn’t expected to be operational until the end of the year, it looks like Doha residents will have to make do with the crowds for now.
But some action can be taken to ensure the journey isn’t too stressful. Here are some airport survival tips compiled by the Doha News team, with the help of Qatar Airways (which manages the airport) and our followers on Twitter.
Before you head to the airport:
1) Sign up for e-gate
An e-gate liberates you from passport control queues, a significant part of the travel hassle. They’re now issued as part of the “smart” ID card, which can be obtained from any government Immigration office (the main one is in Gharafa), and some companies can issue them for their employees, too.
Any Qatar resident 18 years or older can sign up for e-gate, provided they have a valid RP. The service costs QR100 a year, or QR150 for two years. Useful instructions on the process can be found here.
Note: E-gates cannot be obtained for children, so adults cannot use their e-gates when traveling with their kids.
2) Ensure that your paperwork is in order
Nobody wants to make it all the way to the airport, with bags packed and a holiday in their sights, only to find that bureaucracy has dashed all hopes of a getaway. Qatar will not allow residents with an expired RP to leave the country, so ensure that yours and all dependents’ are up-to-date. It’s also worth making sure that your passports aren’t about to expire, as some countries will not accept you if less than six months validity remains.
Finally, make sure you have an exit permit (although wives and children under 18 years old sponsored by husbands don’t need one). If you hold a multi-exit permit, it’s easy to forget to renew it, so take time to check this too. Furthermore, be aware of any visa requirements for your intended destination, like the ESTA visa for the USA, which travelers can easily overlook.
Now that you’ve done your homework, it’s time to head to the airport. Make sure to:
3) Get there early
Qatar Airways recently suggested that passengers should try to get to the airport an hour earlier than normal during the busiest travel times – 5am to 9am, 6pm to 8:30pm and 10:30pm to 1:30am. In practice, that could mean arriving four hours before departure for long-haul flights.
Although this seems slightly excessive, it does make sense to give yourself time to breathe and relax, and not panic when you join a passport control queue that’s snaking back on itself 10 times. Qatar Airways also suggest checking in online. Queues at bag drop can still be long, however, so don’t leave your arrival at the airport until the last minute.
4) Avoid parking your car
Long-term parking near the airport can be costly, and is astonishingly busy at peak times. Add to this the fact that the Arrivals terminal is now a mile or so away, requiring you to take a bus to get to your car upon your return to Doha, and you’re much better off getting a taxi (or asking a friend). It’s also much more convenient to be dropped off at the door than to lug suitcases across a hot car park. If you have a family, some limo firms provide car seats for children now – ask when booking.
Now that you’re at the airport, here are some ways to make your wait more pleasant:
5) Upgrade yourself
On Twitter, the number one suggestion for improving one’s travel experience was to fly business class, or even better, first. Although pricing costs most people out of this option, the perks of flying a premium class include shorter check-in queues, the opportunity to hang out in a lounge or luxury premium terminal (if you’re flying Qatar Airways), and a fast-track queue at immigration upon return (which proves convenient during busy times).
For those who can’t pay directly for such tickets, frequent flyer miles may do the trick. Note: The number of eligible upgrade seats on each flight is limited, so you may have to change your plans to fit around availability. Details of how to apply for an upgrade with Qatar Airways Privilege Club points can be found here.
6) Buy your way into a lounge
If you’re unable to wrangle a seat at the pointy end, the next best thing is to semi-upgrade yourself by buying access to the Oryx Lounge in the main departure terminal. At QR140 per person (or free if you have certain credit cards), the lounge offers complimentary soft drinks and snacks, newspapers and magazines, and comfy seats to wile away the time in. Qatar Airways Gold or Silver Privilege Club members have dedicated lounges available for them in the main terminal, too.
7) Let your kids play
Traveling with children can be exhausting. DIA, however, does offer a few services that help. Firstly, there is kids play area on the first floor, near the glass gates used for flights to the USA. There, parents can sit with a coffee from a nearby cafe while their children run off some energy, gold dust before a long flight. And, if you want to check your child’s stroller in, you can borrow one in departures – ask.
Other ideas: Consider buying a Trunki rolling suitcase for older children. These are great fun to ride on and a huge help in long queues. And finally, if the immigration line is long when you return to Doha, it’s worth asking the security guys to take pity on you and let you join a shorter queue. Equally, some passengers in line might take pity on you and let you move a few places – it’s always worth a try.
8) Pay to relax
If you’re traveling without little ones, there’s a seating area set aside for relaxation near Costa Coffee on the first floor. Here, you pay a fee for the use of a reclining chair, and a blanket. If you’ve arrived early and have lots of time to kill, this might be worth it.
9) Be gate-wise
Airlines want their flights to leave punctually, so to help them do this, they announce boarding significantly in advance of the departure time. This can lead to passengers spending quite a lot of time waiting in a hot departure gate packed with a full load of travelers and not enough seats. Instead of joining the crowd, consider sticking close to the gate, but hanging back a little until the queue for passport check-in has died down. This will still bring you there in good time, but reduce your (often uncomfortable) waiting time significantly.
10) Be bus-wise
Keep in mind that the buses that take you to your plane sometimes arrive at an aircraft that’s not yet ready to accept passengers, meaning that the doors remain closed for quite some time. There’s no reason to rush out the doors, since everyone already has an allocated seat on the plane. Instead, it might be less stressful to remain inside the air-conditioned bus and climb the stairs to the plane when there’s a bit more space to move.
Conversely, do try to be first off the bus when it reaches the Arrivals Hall. Being the first from your flight into the queue can significantly cut waiting times, a goal worthy of an unsporting sprint through the automatic doors, we reckon.
Once you’ve returned to Doha, consider:
11) Opt for meet-and-greet services
One can avoid the lines at immigration altogether by paying QR200 for Al Maha meet and greet services. There, a hostess will meet you in the arrivals hall and take you to the Al Maha lounge, where you can have something to drink and read the papers while your passport and visa are checked, and luggage collected.
What are your tips? Thoughts?
Credit: Photos by Lars Plowman, Richard Lee and Zsoolt