Four and a half hours in Hong Kong

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What can you do with a four and a half hour layover in Hong Kong? I don’t know what you could do, but I can complete a whirlwind tour of the city, making use of three different modes of transportation, and still getting back to my gate in time to have a relaxing dinner. Your mileage may vary. Your tolerance for risking missing your flight may be much lower than mine.

Planning

This little tour wasn’t something I just stumbled upon–I spent a fair bit of time searching and reading and learning. I came up with a number of possible ideas, and it was only the day before my trip that  I settled on this route. But there are a few prerequisites that all had to fall into place to make it possible:

  • The Hong Kong airport is a model of organization and efficiency. I read in many “what can I do with a layover” articles that HKG was not to be feared for long lines or chaos. Yes, circumstances can change day by day. But reading in multiple sources that HKG was easy to traverse gave me hope that this was even possible. In contrast, EVERYONE says that you should be at the the Aruba airport 3 hours prior to departure because of the lines to enter lines.
  • The Airport Express train line is easy to figure out and stops at two key destinations: Kowloon and Hong Kong Central. Plus it runs every 10 minutes.
  • Immigration into Hong Kong is reported to be very easy. Western travelers should have no problems.
  • I’m in good health. My knees sometimes play havoc with me, but of late they were feeling good, so I felt up for the amount of walking I would be doing.
  • I didn’t have to mess with my checked bag. Although I would be switching airlines in Hong Kong, I didn’t have to collect my checked bag. Therefore I didn’t have to store it, or worse, take it with me.

With those issues laid to rest, here is the plan I laid out:

  • 1:30PM Arrival HKG
  • 2:15PM Board Airport Express line to Kowloon Station (Departs every 10 minutes)
  • 2:45PM Arrive Kowloon Station. Use Exit C. This gives me 75 minutes in Sky 100.
  • IF I can depart Kowloon station by 3:30:
    • 3:30 Taxi to Star Ferry Pier Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry departs every 6-8 minutes
    • 3:40 Ferry to Hong Kong
    • 3:50 Walk to Hong Kong Station
  • 4:00PM Board Airport Express line at Kowloon or Hong Kong Station to HKG (departs every 10 minutes)
  • 4:30PM Arrive HKG
  • 6:00PM Flight departs

The first thing to notice is that I had options. If the sky was overcast, I could skip Sky 100. If the lines for Sky 100 were too long, I could skip the ferry ride. And of course, if I my flight didn’t arrive in time, I could just turn around.

Here’s how it actually went…

1:35PM flight arrives HKG. I was seated in Business Class, so it was pretty easy to get off the plane, and start making my way out. The signs were easy to follow, first for immigration, and then for “city”. There was maybe a 5-10 minute wait for immigration, but the lines felt like they were moving briskly and there were a lot of inspectors. My immigration inspector said not a single word to me. For customs, I walked out the “Nothing to declare” doors without breaking stride.

Next came the ticket station for Airport Express. I reviewed my intended plan with the young woman at the counter (get off at one station, get back on at another) and she made sure I had the right ticket and handed it to me with a smile. If I were to do this again, I would probably wait until I could get the ticket after I got cash, but that is a minor quibble.

On my way out of the airport, I stopped at an ATM and withdrew Hong Kong dollars. I had read that most taxis didn’t take credit, and that cash is still king for most transactions, so I wanted to be prepared. The smallest withdrawal I could make was HK$500 ($62) which was way more than I needed, but I figured better to have it than not.

2:15PM Sitting on the Airport Express train. Exactly as planned. The train departed, was smooth, clean, and quite nice.

The walk from Kowloon Station to the entry for Sky 100 was longer than I might have thought–my path was through a mall, and up several levels. But the signs were plentiful, and the crowds were easy to pass through. I purchased my ticket for Sky 100 and rode the elevator to the top, with no waiting. I was in the observation deck by 2:50PM.

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Despite having spent HK$168 ($21), I stayed on the observation deck for only 10 minutes. There certainly was more to see from the deck, but I knew now that I had a fair bit of walking to get to a taxi.

In fact, I didn’t really know where I was going to get to a taxi. I made my way back through the mall, heading toward Kowloon station and the parking deck, hoping that something would be obvious along the way. And it was–a set of doors to my right led to a parking circle to a hotel, and there were taxis all around. I walked up, and a taxi was hailed for me. Once in the taxi, the driver said not a word to me. I hoped that my “Star Ferry Pier” was enough to get me where I was going.

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Based on my Google Fu, I planned on the taxi taking 10ish minutes, and costing HK$60-100 ($8-12). I watched the meter, and watched the approaching harbor, but really had not much clue what would happen to me. When the taxi driver stopped, the meter was just shy of HK$40, and we were in the middle of the street, with buses and taxis all around. “This is it”. I couldn’t even see the harbor because of the buses. I gave the driver HK$60–he had wasted no time in getting me there–and made my way to the sidewalk.

At this point, I was a little disoriented. Yes, there was the water. Yes, Hong Kong island was in easy view. Yes, people were everywhere. But there were no obvious signs to the ferry. Mostly there were lots of signs of political protest, and women offering services that I declined to inquire about.

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I wandered the quay for 3-4 minutes, and then spotted what I was sure to be the ferry coming in to dock. I made my way that direction, found a machine to buy my fare token (it was a staggering HK$3.40, or $0.40 for the premium weekend fare), and was seated on the boat at 3:26PM–14 minutes ahead of schedule.

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The ferry ride was quick, and afforded a nice harbor view of the city. Upon exiting the ferry, I was able to follow signs for “Central MTR” which was the station I wanted. I was on the train, ready to head back to the airport at 3:45PM.

I’m really not sure it could have been faster or easier to get through security. There were no lines anywhere, and I had made it all the way to my gate by 4:30PM, easily 30 minutes ahead of my hoped-for schedule.

The airport is clean and modern, but it was crowded and chaotic. I couldn’t find a place to sit to eat my dinner, and there were no seats open at the gate. This is all a normal part of traveling, especially through busy airports, but it made me all the more happy that I hadn’t been sitting around in the airport for the whole layover.

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