It is a rare occasion that the visitor flies into the Tbilisi airport at a reasonable hour. Most flights inexplicably come in at around two or three in the morning, and many people have many theories on this odd occurrence and strategy. Most of us just assume it has something to do with when the flights are cheapest leaving Europe, and others believe it’s got to do with some sort of conspiracy around TAV, the Turkish airport operator that basically owns the Tbilisi airport due to various development deals (I assume the former, as flights into Kutaisi also follow this moonlighting pattern). Whatever it may be, consider yourself blessed if you land while the sun is up and you don’t have to purchase an extra night at a hotel just to catch up on your sleep.
Depending on the mood of the ruling regime, you might be greeted by the passport control with a small bottle of wine (or you might not, so don’t expect any such treats). For Europeans and Americans, this is all a pretty easy process, just show up and smile, offer a “gamarjoba” (“hello” in Georgian) and they’ll wave you right through with barely a glance at your papers. My wife, a Georgian herself, often takes two or three times longer than I do. But then, most of the passport controllers are women, and they do tend to have a thing for tall handsome men like myself. If you’re not tall and handsome, or if you’re coming from a country full of otherwise brown people, make sure your papers are in super order (but let’s be honest, you probably know that already). If you’re Russian, just say “Zdravstvoite” and they’ll still try to please you, never mind your country actively supports two illegal breakaway regimes carving off a fifth of Georgia. But do keep that reality in mind while traveling around. Nobody considers you saviors here, in the full Russian sense of the word, you are "occupants". And don't be offended, I'd give the same bit of advice to any American traveling to Farah in Afghanistan.
You go down the escalator and then get to wait around a baggage claim. There are only a few, so you don’t have to worry about running around finding the right one, but as there are about twenty flights coming in at the same time at two in the morning, there is often an awkward amount of people waiting around on the same claim. The claim works usually pretty well, but often hits some snags. This is your first step into a country that relies nearly entirely on improvisation over planning, so if you run into a delay at this point, don’t worry about it. Just shake it off and smile. Welcome to Georgia.
waiting for friends and family to arrive
The lobby is a useful place. It used to be crowded with taxi drivers, but the government recently scared them off and forced them to give newcomers a bit of breathing room, so now they wait outside. This is your chance to pick up a SIM card (assuming your phone is unlocked… this is your best option for communication in Georgia, telecom fees and mobile internet fees are dirt cheap, so it's best to just swap your SIMs, then you can talk to your fam back home on Viber or WhatsApp).
The Tbilisi arrivals terminal
Don’t bother with any of the money changers there. If you need some cash, I advise either pulling it out at an ATM or just doing the smallest of what you need. That of course, depends on the next step of the process.
The Tbilisi airport is much like any airport in the world: A taxi mafia sits outside, waiting for the inconspicuous tourist to step out and look for an easy way into the city. They take the Trump approach and offer “great deals”, even the “best deals!”, and at only a mere 150 lari who can disagree?
Don’t listen to this nonsense.
Once upon a time, there was a sign posted in the lobby that said rides should only cost 25 GEL. I would point at that sign when negotiating with drivers as they were yelling at me for 50 or even 100 GEL. After a while, I noticed that someone had torn down the sign; it appeared to have been a violent intervention as well.
That is to say, 25 GEL is still the normative standard. Drivers may complain that they have sons, daughters, grandmothers, rabbits, or whatever to feed and they need all your money to pay for their second cousin's colon cancer treatment in Germany and so on. Maybe it’s true. Also maybe they shouldn’t be sitting at the airport waiting to give rides, competing against those who will drive for less.
Here are the best practices:
Use Bolt or Yandex. Before your trip, download these to your smartphone. There is free wifi in the airport, so they’re quite easy to use, even easier if you bought a SIM chip or have a functional travel plan for your mobile. For both services, it’s a set 20 or 25 GEL fee (depending on surge) into the city.
Use mass transit. There’s a 24-hour bus that goes to Freedom Square, up Rustaveli and eventually to the main train station. It’s 50 tetri (0.5 lari) to ride, but it does take a really long time (nearly an hour to Freedom Square and maybe over an hour and a half during rush hour). You can pay either the machine on board with coins (no change) or if you have a contactless Visa/Mastercard, then you can use that. There’s also a train, but they only run the trains twice a day, strategically timed for when there are no flights. Well done Tbilisi government!
Negotiate. But don’t bother with those guys standing next to the door. They even try to convince my Georgian wife that 100 GEL is the standard. Instead, go down to the Departures door and wait for a taxi driver dropping someone off. Those guys, who are not members of the taxi mafia, will often take people into town for 15 GEL. This is perhaps the best deal, but for the newcomers perhaps the most difficult to manage.
Don’t even speak to the taxi mafia guys. Those guys are all swindlers, and will even change the price once you arrive at your hotel/destination. Trust none of them. Don’t even think about using them “because it’s easy”. It won’t be easy in the end, and you’ll start off your trip to this wonderful country with a horrifically sour taste in your mouth.
Once you arrive at your hotel/guesthouse/airBNB, enjoy your trip. Don’t let any of that nonsense spoil your time. And don’t think they’re targeting you because your foreign, brown, black, green, female, or whatever. Those guys are ass clowns to everyone, foreigners and Georgians alike.
Tbilisi city government, if you’re reading this, you should understand there are two very easy ways to much improve a tourist’s experience to Tbilisi, and get them having a pleasant time from the get-go.
Create a voucher system. Indoors, have a government/airport controlled booth selling travel vouchers for 25 or 30 GEL (or whatever standard price you decide on). This voucher then can be used for airport taxis (both ways). Airport taxis must accept the vouchers, and get reimbursed according to their vouchers.
RUN THE TRAINS AT THE BLOODY TIME OF THE PLANES ARRIVING. A five year old could figure this one out. An adult Georgian working at Tbilisi city hall apparently can’t. You guys literally have it all in place. Just do it. Eventually, when there’s money, I would also upgrade the Samgori train station, and run a line from Mtskheta – Didube – Station’s Square – Samgori – Airport, and have that in motion once an hour every day 24 hours a day. This would not only benefit hotels and such in Mtskheta, Station's Square, and Didube, but also make the whole transit process easier for tourists and would be massively beneficial for local Tbiliselis, and also for any Western Georgians going to the airport. Also imagine how much traffic stress that the airport causes that can be remedied (also include park and rides and long term parking facilities at all those stations!).
It's now time to head back home and hopefully you've had a wonderful time and not too many hangovers. Getting to their airport is probably even easier than getting out of it. I'd recommend giving yourself thirty minutes to get there and an hour and a half there (people of course recommend two hours there, but it's a small airport and every time I get there early they haven't even opened the baggage check desks). The Tbilisi airport doesn't seem to have early check-in, so in most cases I wouldn't even bother with that. But do be prepared for a line, and by "line" I mean the Georgian definition of "massive amount of people elbowing each other".
You can get there by taxi. That fee should be around 25 GEL. If someone offers you something more expensive, don't take it. Instead use Bolt or Yandex. There's also the #37 bus (50 tetri) from Station's Square that hits Rustaveli and Baratishvili (near Freedom Square) every hour or so.
You'll check in, then ride the escalators up to security, then passport control, and then you can wait around in the lobby and sip on ten dollar coffee or twenty-five dollar glasses of two dollar wine. Enjoy!