Now that the economy seems to be back on track and more people are once again taking their annual vacations, odds are somebody you know has visited Iceland over the last few years. Dig past the almost never ending political rants on Facebook and you’ll probably find several posts from people who have taken the Arctic plunge and visited this small, volcanic island in the middle of the north Atlantic. Of course, for this blog, I will not bore you with our Icelandic adventures but instead turn my focus to the point of contact for most of the world who want to explore this mysteriously European gem for themselves: Keflavik International Airport (KEF).
KEF, which is also goes by Reykjavik-Keflavik Airport, is the largest airport in Iceland and the country’s main hub for international transportation. Its claim to Reykjavik must be for name recognition only since the airport itself is nearly 45 minutes away from the capital city. This distance does not pose a problem for visitors as the country has made sure that there are an abundance of transportation options available to and from Reykjavik or any of the surrounding areas. Even the famous Blue Lagoon has shuttle options available almost around the clock so that the maximum amount of tourist can take advantage of the country’s most famous landmark. Rental cars are also readily available for those who wish to skip the public options and go out on their own. Speaking from personal experience, driving in Iceland is a very pleasurable experience; although unless you have extraordinary language abilities, opt for the pre-programmed GPS unit to help quickly access the best Iceland has to offer.
With its beginnings as a U.S. military base during WWII, KEF sits on about 10 square miles, with four runways in total (although they usually only operate on two). KEF has one two-storied passenger terminal named after Leifur Eiriksson the country’s symbolic founder (that’s Leif Erikson for you American readers). It consists of 35 gates with plans to expand extensively over the next several years. In 2015, almost 5 million passengers traveled through KEF which has been growing steadily since Iceland started emphasizing tourism as a major industry following the global financial collapse. KEF is almost exclusively used for international flights with the closet domestic airport located on the southern end of Reykjavik.
One of the most impressive aspects of KEF is the modernization found throughout the airport both from the building’s architectural design to its many services upon your initial entrance. For example, Icelandair’s flight check-in procedures are fully automated. By using self-directed kiosks, you can print out your boarding pass, retrieve you checked luggage tags and even weigh and send your luggage on its way all without ever needing to talk with an actual human. Once you print your luggage tags, you place them on the handles and move them to a conveyor belt that whisks it away to its designated flight. Because of Iceland’s international reach, all of these machines accommodate every language imaginable so even non-English or non-Icelandic speaking passengers can easily make it through the process (Icelanders are very well versed in English due to their proximity to the United Kingdom).
The modern design extends throughout the terminal with tall ceilings consisting of tilted glass panels in the main hub. The wide corridors are fashioned with dark, metal-paneled walls that meet light hardwood floors creating an interesting contrast with an almost industrial like feel. The seating was limited around the actual gate areas but plenty could be found just down the hall. Brightly colored signs greet both arriving and departing passengers and are conveniently located enough to where you always seem to know which direction to head. Power stations are located everywhere and accommodate many different international plug-in types. This along with the airports free WIFI makes it a very tech-rich place which was very convenient for first-time international traveler like us. There was even a children’s play area which may be more attractive to families instead of their kids just hanging around watching an iPad.
It’s a hard call on whether or not I’m going to give KEF my seal of approval in regards to the restrooms (or water closets as they are referred to in Iceland). First and foremost, no dividers between the urinals. Of course, this is usually my unforgivable sin but the restrooms did include a plentiful amount of fully stocked stalls meaning they had ceiling to floor doors, toilets and sinks all in one impressively sized room. The main sinks included the Dyson double-duty water dispenser/hand-dryer which I usually don’t care for but in this setting it was nice (Dyson, by the way, has a lock on all of Europe’s restrooms). The restrooms were clean and well-lit and could accommodate many travelers at once. We only found one set after we made it through security which we found quite odd. It was located away from many of the gates and down a flight of stairs. I’m sure there were more somewhere but we didn’t have time to explore around.
Of course, not everything about KEF was to be desired. Consider yourself lucky if your flight lands at a gate with an actual jet bridge. I imagine that I’ve been spoiled by American airports but it’s still a big enough deal for me to mention. This is especially relevant on a cold, rainy afternoon when getting wet before a six-hour flight is not exactly my preferred way to start a journey. Take the frustration of waiting on someone to cram their plus-sized carryon into the overhead bin and times that by 1,000 when you’re doing it in the freezing rain. This will turn you into a disgruntled passenger really quick.
Also, the KEF staff did not seem to be very interested in keeping things organized. On both of our flights, instead of boarding by row or group like we usually experience, just calling out that the flight was preparing to board sent everyone into a free-for-all. Of course, everyone stayed civil (at least by my standards) but that seemed to completely lengthen the amount of time it took to fill up the plane. I would think that the organizational methods used by the same airline at other airports (in our case, O’Hare and Gatwick) would translate to KEF but I was wrong. You got in line regardless of where you were sitting and hoped for the best.
I should mention that even in the most chaotic areas of an airport (the ticketing area, security, right at the gate) the employees at KEF were amazingly calm and collected. Although I’m sure it’s frowned upon by the umbrella organization that makes up the Icelandic border control, the agent at customs could have cared less about who was wandering into their country. They did the normal checks of our passports but that was about it. I guess this could be looked at as a con (from a national security standpoint), but as a passenger, I was good to go.
All being said, KEF is a great facility and an embodiment of the direction Iceland is heading in the future. I can only imagine that every time I fly through this airport, the differences will be dramatic as they continue to become a first-rate international tourist destination. For those of you who want a truly unique experience, give Iceland a try and I doubt you will be disappointed.