Airports are usually the low-point of any holiday, with queues, bad food, clinical strip lighting and, now, reams of documentation to contend with. Even the award-winning supersize airports with their shopping malls and waterfalls can feel like an ordeal rather than an enjoyable experience. However, around the world is a scattering of tiny airports that are a pleasure to travel through, with inspiring mountain or beach locations, attractive design and even decent restaurants. From runways made of sand or ice to beautiful teak wood terminals filled with tropical plants, we round up our favourite diminutive airports in the world.
Luang Prabang International Airport, Laos
For an increasingly popular tourist destination, the sleepy temple town of Luang Prabang has maintained a very small but rather charming airport. And if you are travelling to little landlocked Laos, given its patchy infrastructure and potholed roads, you’ll likely pass through this airport, although there’s always the option of a two-day slow boat down the Mekong from Thailand.
On a visit in 2012, I remember watching the cabin crew personally roll our suitcases from the plane and place them onto the single rickety luggage belt. An ultimately pointless but endearing exercise. The airport has been upgraded since then, but remains pleasingly petite. You can also get a decent pre-flight bowl of spicy noodle soup from the on-site restaurant – a much better option than the fast food joints that usually dominate. And better yet, it's only a 15-minute tuk tuk ride to the centre of town.
Barra Airport, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Situated on dazzling white sands at the northern tip of the island of Barra, in the far-flung Outer Hebrides, this may be one of the world's most picturesque airports. It’s also unique in using a tidal beach as its runway, with departures dictated by the ebb and flow of the sea. Despite its only destination being Glasgow, the airport, which opened back in 1936, welcomed 15,000 passengers a year before the pandemic saw numbers plummet. Barra airport is only open Monday to Friday (the runway reverts to a public beach on the weekends) and Loganair usually operates two services a day to Scotland’s largest city, with a flight time of one hour 10 minutes. Stop by the sweet little café for hot drinks and homemade cakes.
Paro International Airport, Bhutan
The approach to the main airport in the mountainous Kingdom of Bhutan is truly spectacular, offering views of Everest and other snow-capped Himalayan peaks. As the runway is extremely short and experiences significant gusts of winds through the surrounding valley, there are only around 20 specially qualified pilots in the world who are allowed to land there. Moreover, the airport operates solely in daylight hours as incoming planes come within feet of hillside homes. Despite this, it has a surprising number of international destinations, including Bangkok, Dubai, Delhi and Singapore. The single terminal was built in 1999 and is decorated in traditional Bhutanese style, with wooden pillars and Buddhist murals.
Samui International Airport, Koh Samui, Thailand
Unlike some parts of the popular tourist island it's situated on, Koh Samui airport is wonderfully unspoilt and draws inspiration from traditional Thai architecture. The airport’s low-rise buildings are a series of teak pavilions with thatched roofs and open sides, which evoke a tropical resort rather than a place to catch a flight. There’s an indoor/outdoor feel throughout, with plenty of plants in the entrance hall and manicured gardens filled with bougainvillea. It may seem rather ironic for an airport, but Samui has won a series of environmental awards for its sustainable design. Arrive early to tuck into a pad thai in one of the restaurants or a traditional massage before your flight.
Svalbard Airport, Svalbard, Norway
Located on an icy archipelago in the Arctic Sea, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard is the northernmost airport in the world that operates scheduled flights. Quite unbelievably, the runway is constructed on a layer of permafrost, with a special design to ensure it doesn’t defrost during the summer months. Flights from Oslo and Tromsø ferry around 150,000 tourists a year, keen to explore this snowy, untouched region. Inside, the terminal is decorated in suitably Arctic style, with a stuffed Polar bear holding court in the baggage reclaim area.
Gustaf III Airport, St Barts, Caribbean
Similarly to Bhutan’s Paro Airport, only specially certified pilots are allowed to fly into the main airport on beautiful St Barts. Furthermore, they must be operating small planes carrying under 20 passengers. This is largely due to its tiny 2,232ft runway and precarious position between two mountains. Tourists are known to gather to watch the light aircraft make this impressive landing. Besides the pretty but perilous location, the airport itself is a decent place to wait for a plane, with a popular on-site restaurant serving fresh local fish. Flights come in from neighbouring Caribbean islands including Antigua, Sint Maarten and Saba, which is widely acknowledged as having the smallest airport in the world, with a runway only slightly longer than the average-sized plane.