How can someone who doesn't know any international language get around in huge airports, if they need to transfer?

I'm asking this because my mother-in-law wants to travel half the world to visit us, from Europe to New Zealand. She can't avoid at least two transfers in big international airports. She cannot speak any international language and is not willing to start learning English. She's afraid she will get lost, even if usually there are signs everywhere, and they always use pictograms.

The only advice she got from the travel agency is to use disability services. She could get away with that, because though she had a car accident three years ago and still hasn't completely recovered, in truth this would be abuse. She should have a phone and call us for translation.

Do you have any other suggestions?

  • Be careful with depending on "She should have a phone and call us for translation.". Many countries prohibit use of cell phones in their customs and immigration areas. Is NZ one of them? Will she have to go through a no-phone area during any transfer? – Patricia Shanahan Jan 27 '15 at 16:39

The only advice she got from the travel agency is to use disability services.

Not disability services, but you can use the meet and assist services from the airline that are provided to minors. The same service is available for elderly travelers and those needing extra assistance. This would make sure someone receives her at the gate, takes her through the terminal, and places her at the priority queue for the next flight.

The other thing you can do for her is minimize her transit points. Try to find a route that has at max one stop. You didn't mention where in Europe you would be starting from, but I would recommend Emirates; not only do they have a large multi-lingual cabin staff (they also make sure that there is staff speaking the destination language on their long distance flights) and as she would be transiting through Terminal 3 (dedicated to Emirates) it reduces the chance of getting lost at that terminal.

Some other things to consider is the stay at the transit point. For example, try to get her a meal voucher in case she needs to snack at the terminal (these are available from the airlines).

At most shops they can charge you in the local currency or a major currency; also if you pay in cash (very rare, but happens) they will reimburse you in the local currency.

All this can be daunting for someone that has a language barrier.

  • 3
    Note however that Emirates may be a problem for citizens of certain nationalities. (I don't mean to start a flamewar as I am a national of a nation that Emirates refuses to service. That said, I know that it is regarded as an excellent airline. However any recommendation of the airline should mention this important possible shop-stopper. And I did +1 this post.) – dotancohen Oct 18 '14 at 13:37
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    Emirates is the airline (not the country); and that answer is talking about entry into the UAE, which is not the case here because the traveler will be in transit. – Burhan Khalid Oct 18 '14 at 13:41
  • I see, thank you. I do remember Australian Israelis having concern when Emirates partnered with Quantas. Thank you for highlighting that there is a distinction between the airline's policies and those of it's charter nation. – dotancohen Oct 18 '14 at 13:45

There are various ways to help her get from the start to the end:

  1. Have a phone with her. Make sure it supports all of the frequencies the countries she's going through are using (most newer phones do, but some older phones don't), and a SIM card that has roaming enabled. If she can use a smartphone then also try to get a SIM card that supports data roaming as in that case she could also use tools like Google Translate services around the world, however you can also pre-download dictionaries for offline use for Google Translate, which might come in handy.

  2. Have her a paper with translations of usual sentences in (a) her own language, (b) in English, and (c) in all of the local languages of the international hubs she is going through. An example question would be:

Sorry I do not speak English. Can you point me to the gate from where my plane to XXX starts? Also can you please write down the number of the gate my plane to XXX starts?

Of course simply waiving the boarding pass to someone might be enough, but sometimes it's way better if the whole intent of the question is known. It might be also worth having some emergency questions written down, like:

I have lost my phone, and I don't know what to do. Could I call my son-in-law on number +XXYYYYYYYYY to get help?

Make sure she has enough copies of this paper with her.

  1. If possible use routes that expats from your country might use as well to get to your destination, so there is a higher chance that there will be someone else who speaks both her language and English (or an other commonly spoken one)

She will have boarding passes for the connecting flights, just wave one of them at nearly anyone in uniform and they will point which way to go.

"Big international airports" deal with this kind of thing many, many times per day. Won't surprise them one bit.

Does she read the roman alphabet? Recognize numbers 0-9? Knows the standard pictograms? She'll be fine.


I have thought about that as I wanted to organize a trip for my parents. So here are my suggestions:

  • Buy her a small phrasebook, so she'd have some phrases translated from her native language to English
  • Write some notes like "Can you please help me find my gate?", "Where do I go for … Terminal #", "Where do I find representative of … airline …" and few more.
  • Organize the flights from the nearest international airport hub, so she'd change only 2 flights to get to New Zealand (if possible). It would be a place (city, country) she feels comfortable about (depending of her native language).
  • Check airport services and try to find do they have any logistics or staff that speaks your mother's native language.
  • Ask the airlines you'd book with, do they offer special assistance and explain what is this about?
  • Make sure, she'd have enough time between flights when booking
  • Explain her that she does not need to worry and ask her to be relaxed and do not get frustrated with the crowd and the way airports are organized
  • If she get lost she'd just go to a policy or security officer, present her ticket, passport and a piece of paper that says "I do not speak english, can you please help me to go to my gate".
  • If she use any chat like Viber or Skype, you'd better get her a phone that has Internet connection. Internet is not expensive across EU, even if one is in roaming, so she'd even make a picture asking and send it to you asking you to help on something.

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