Whether by choice or by circumstance, if you travel enough, odds are you’ll end up sleeping in an airport at some point or another. An unintended layover or long delay though doesn’t have to be exhausting. Furthermore it can actually be a relaxing experience if you make the best of what most airports have to offer. I’ve slept in many airports, about 3 weeks total over the last 12 months alone, using them as free hotels. Sometimes by choice for inconveniently-timed flights; at other times due to flight cancellations, extreme delays, or when flying airlines with the same name as the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet.
Over many days and nights hanging out in airports around the world, I’ve taken notes on how to make each subsequent stay more comfortable, productive, and ergonomically efficient. Lessons you can use to be the happiest stranded traveler under the glow of control tower lights.
See If You’re Getting Lucky Tonight
Not all airports are created equally so prior to getting on a flight you should first check to see if you’ll be connecting through one of the best airports to sleep in:
- Singapore Changi Airport (SIN)
- Dubai International Airport (DBX)
- Hong Kong International Airport (HKG)
- Seoul Incheon (ICN)
Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL), Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport (IST), Vancouver International Airport (YVR), and Boryspil International (KBP-Kiev) all would also make my personal list. They’re generally devoid of armrests, have free wireless, plus varied
beer food options around the clock. A quick Google search or stop by the information desk can turn up the best gates to hang around, special sleeping rooms offered, massage bars, and other goodies you may have otherwise missed.
Get Your Morning Crap Out Of The Way First
Exchanging money, picking up the gift shop souvenir you forgot to buy your mom, and anything you need to do prior to your flight is best dealt with 3 hours before you go to sleep. Light exercise causes the body to release the hormone cortisol whose relaxation-inducing effects kick in about 180 minutes after you trot from one terminal to the other. Completing your travel to-do list will help you get better sleep – taking care of two birds with one stone. If you happen to be sleeping overnight, the early evenings are when there tends to be shorter lines all around at most airports, just be sure to get to the counters you need before they close.
Finding The Best Places To Sleep In An Airport
Generally speaking, you’ve got three categories of slumbering locales in any given airport (in order of comfort): the gate/terminal area, airline lounges, and special sleeping quarters. Depending on how long you’re staying in an airport and your budget, here’s how to make the most of each one.
Gate/Terminal Area – Advantages: free, close to flight; Disadvantages: not always quiet, limited space, less comfortable benches
I’ve talked about scoping a place to sleep in the airport before and the first step (after getting any money exchanges, etc. out of the way) is to try and find a quiet corner, or at least stepping up ‘camp’ with one wall at your back. This gives any potential opportunistic thieves one less angle to approach you from.
- Check the departures monitor in the airport to find out where flights are not leaving from to narrow down the quietest areas of the airport.
You can also try sleeping on the fluffy couches many cafes have in the terminal after they’ve closed – you’ll be woken up as early as 4am – but will be comfortable during the middle of the night. Lastly, one other security precaution is to tie your luggage together, with a string or shoelace, attaching one end to your wrist or angle. Keep the string out of sight and you’ve now got a mini-temporary-home alarm system.
Airline Lounges – Advantages: complimentary food and drink, wireless, soft couches; Disadvantages: potential cost, often not ideal for shorter layovers
Many travelers don’t know that you can buy your way into most airline lounges, even if you’re not carrying a business or first class plane ticket. The cost is usually around $50-75 for stays of 4 hours or longer and you can enjoy all of the lounge amenities inside. Frequent flyers can also use some bonus miles to cover the cost or if you have elite status, perhaps already have access you didn’t know about. Inside the lounge you’ll have unlimited complimentary food with drinks (yes, and usually booze), outlets, Internet access, comfortable seats. Many lounges will also have other nice perks like free massages and showers. Prior to plopping yourself inside, ask the attendant to make a general announcement when your particular flight is ready for boarding so you’re covered in case of oversleeping.
- A lot of airports have multiple airline lounges so how do you pick the best one? Generally, you go with the national airline based in international airports (e.g. Malaysian Airlines in Kuala Lumpur); airlines in their hub cities (e.g. United in San Francisco); or any airline alliance members you want to earn frequent flyer miles on without getting more credit cards. Information desks can also give you clues or outright recommend the most luxurious lounge in a given airport.
Special Sleeping Quarters – Advantages: Privacy, convenience, beds; Disadvantages: Cost, availability, lack of food and drink
Some airports around the world also offer special sleeping rooms you can rent for a few hours. Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport has “sleeping boxes” while Tokyo’s Narita Airport sports sleeping rooms (about $20 for the first hour, $10 after that). Again, information desks or a quick Google search can let you in on any of these creative, personalized sleeping options.
Security, Snacks, And Streaming
Airports provide us travelers with the things evolution drives our species to seek – shelter, food, Internet access, and basic security. Yet the airport wild requires us to seek out these essentials. Snacks – if you’re not taking advantage of lounge food, pick up what you want to eat before shops close down. (I know how cranky you get when hungry,) If you become homicidal upon caffeine withdrawal, set your alarm 15 minutes before the nearest cafe’s opening time.
Sleep with one ear open, that is, not covered by headphones to hear any important announcements, don’t leave your electronics lying about, and as mentioned above – tether your bags. Speaking of (electronic) tethering, if you prefer to do some online browsing before bedtime, iPhone users can user 4sqwifi to find wireless passwords and every one else can check back here for our personal list. Don’t discount Ethernet connections so you can set up your own wireless hotspot to share with friends you may be traveling with. (Ethernet ports tend to be hiding out near airline gates, around check-in desks.)
Finally, if you know ahead of time you’ll be sleeping in an airport, stuff a pair of comfortable sweatpants, loose shirt, and slippers in your carry-on luggage so you can change into them. No matter how nice an airport is, it’s hard to get a good night’s rest in skinny jeans.