Arriving at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International airport is seldom much fun. It's a poorly laid out place that's prone to making passengers walk a really long way when they first land and if you arrive at a bad time, the lines in passport control and the delays in the baggage hall can be shocking. It was about six years since I'd last been through Mumbai and my previous experiences had been really poor and had left some mental scars. On one occasion despite having business class tickets, my colleagues and I had to spend nearly an hour and a half in the line for passport control and barely managed to catch our plane.
It's fair to say we landed in Mumbai for our recent holiday with some trepidation but I was surprised to find that in the time since I was last in Mumbai the airport has been much improved. The walks are still long but the place looks to be in better condition than in the past. The toilets are now a lot less scary and (rather sadly) the airport doesn't smell of incense any more.
Passport control did indeed have a long line but it was being managed very well and we were through in about 15 minutes. The baggage hall was brightly lit and the signage was good and our bags were through in about 30 minutes. We had arrived at 1 o'clock in the morning and things had progressed pretty well.
It's worth knowing that anyone who has come to meet you will have to wait outside. Also if you haven't lined up a hotel pick up or don't have friends to come and get you, the pre-paid taxi stands are inside the airport and close to the exit. ALWAYS use these counters if you need onward transportation and haven't prebooked. They are safer, cheaper and much less stressful than trying to negotiate a drive with a tout outside the airport exit. The cars are also in better condition and the drivers are better trained. When using a pre-paid service, the dispatcher will often identify your car for you with a four digit number which will be the numbers at the end of the car's registration plate.
Stepping out of the airport, family, friends and drivers are corralled behind barriers. If you've pre-booked someone to come and get you, take your time and check out all the welcoming boards. Make sure your name is on a board with the hotel's name (ideally) printed on it or on paper with the official header. Hotels have warned us in the past that it's not wise to just go with someone who has your name as they may have just copied it off someone else's board and could take you to an entirely different hotel (perhaps telling you that the one you booked is closed for repairs, burned down or was closed by the authorities). Not a great start to your trip!
We returned to the international hotel the following day for a flight to Kochi with Air India Express. Yes, that's a domestic flight but for some unknown reason they use the international terminal. The flight was due to leave at 5 o'clock in the afternoon and our paperwork advised turning up 3 hours beforehand. We decided that was crazy and rolled up about 2 hours ahead of the departure time to find an almost empty airport.
Make sure you have your paperwork to hand as you'll need to show a ticket, e-ticket or boarding pass in order to get into the airport. It's best to have your passport ready too. The security guy who checked our paperwork seemed quite excited when he spotted we were flying to his home town and wanted to know how did we know about the place, had we been before and where were we going to be visiting.
International airports in India tend to be either insanely busy or half asleep and fortunately a Saturday afternoon falls into the sleepy category. Don't make any assumptions about things being quiet late at night or in the early hours of the morning as those are the times when the largest numbers of international flights land or depart. Generally speaking though, day time flights are fewer in numbers and the airport experience is much easier.
We checked our bags, received our boarding passes and headed for the departures area. We showed our boarding passes and got redirected to the domestic flights area right next to the international area and by-passed the passport check and headed straight to security.
Men and women go into separate lines for the security check although sometimes those two lines converge again at the x-ray machine if they are only using one machine. That was the case on this occasion. I put my bag on the belt and turned back to go through the ladies frisking channel whilst my husband passed through the main channel. Women get frisked in private, standing on a box in an enclosed area. Men get checked out in full view. Once you've been checked your boarding pass is stamped and you collect your bag which - if all's gone well - will also have received a security stamp. Unless - like my husband's, it's got stuck.
I have a photo from Mysore Palace from many years ago which shows that it does actually take nearly a dozen Indians to change a light bulb. We learned that it takes almost as many security staff to try to work out how to untangle a back-pack strap from their luggage belt. One of the straps got caught in the underside of the belt and resulted in every single member of security staff gathering around to try to work out how to free it. We kept telling them they could feel free to cut it if they had to but one determined lady in uniform kept trying and all the men stood around making unhelpful suggestions.
Once through security there's a fair range of duty free shops offering all the usual booze and cigarettes, perfume and potions as well as souvenirs, clothing and some quite good bookshops. Coffee bars are scattered around and there is a small food court selling tasty but mostly over-priced food. You'll also find outlets offering back massage, reflexology and other handy destressing options for weary travellers. Last time I'd been in Mumbai airport there had been almost nothing to distract the traveller from their wait.
It's now possible to get free wi-fi internet access in the airport and it was simple enough that even I figured it out. The only thing to be aware of is that you will need to text a local number to activate the service - so don't pack your phone in your hold luggage like I did for our first flight from Mumbai.
Toilets at the airport are sparkling and there's a marked absence of ladies loitering with intent to part you from your last few rupees. Since I don't carry money on holiday this was quite a relief as I live in fear of being pursued through the airport by an irate toilet attendant.
A new terminal is being built at Mumbai which should hopefully upgrade the airport to the 21st century convenience seen in other Indian cities such as New Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore. I suspect - but I'm not 100% certain - that the new terminal will be set up with transport connections to the city which are currently not present. However, in the meantime the current facilities are already much better than I remembered and I'd be happy to recommend flying through Mumbai's airport.