How to survive a long airport layover

A few sensible tips for easing the pain of an unwanted extended airport stay

Americans are flying more than ever. Summer 2016 is on track to set records for the number of folks who take to the skies, which means all of those people will also be spending time in airports around the world. Much of that time will be spent on layovers between flights. For some, those layovers will be long. Very long. A layover of five hours or more can make the hapless traveler feel like Tom Hanks' character in 2004's The Terminal, trapped in a purgatory of fluorescent lighting and fast food. Here are a few tips to help ease the pain.

1. Ask yourself: Is the long layover worth it?

Being budget savvy is good. But saving a couple hundred bucks at the cost of a full day of your vacation and possibly your sanity might not be in your best interest. If you can afford to avoid a layover, you should seriously consider it.

2. Make the most of it

If you do end up with an unavoidably long layover, you might want to consider actually making it longer. That way you can leave the airport and explore nearby attractions. Many airports have museums and other points of interest within range of public transportation. Just be sure to leave your carry-on in a safe locker or luggage storage facility and get back with two or more hours to re-clear security and retrieve your items.

3. Do your homework

If you don't have enough time to leave, research the airport where you'll be whiling away the hours. Google "long layover at X" and see if any of your fellow travelers have shared their experiences online. Not every airport has a movie theater, a butterfly garden, or a swimming pool, but most larger ones will have extensive shopping and dining opportunities. A few even have small private rooms where you can sleep and change. Some even offer full spa services!

You may also want to consider individual airlines' private lounges. You may not be a member, but there are ways to gain access to these quiet, comfortable dens with big chairs and free snacks. Just be aware that lounges — and most other airport amenities — often close at night, so you'll want to make alternative overnight arrangements.

4. Pack accordingly

What you put in your carry-on will make all the difference to your comfort during your stay in the airport, as will your travel clothes. Don't be that slob in sweats, but don't wear your trim work suit and shiny leather brogues, either. Choose loose, comfortable layers in soft fabrics that feel good on your skin. Jackets and shawls can double as pillows or blankets when needed. Find comfortable shoes you can both walk in and slip on and off easily. Don't forget to pack:

  • Cash (small bills as well as large ones; you never know when your card may not work or be accepted)
  • Meds
  • A change of underwear and socks
  • Toothbrush and travel-sized tube of toothpaste
  • A travel packet of baby or facial wipes
  • Hand sanitizer (3 oz. or less)
  • Moisturizer (3 oz. or less)
  • Lip balm
  • Empty water bottle to fill once you're past security
  • Snacks
  • Any electronic devices you might want and charging adapters for all
  • Earbuds or headphones
  • Books, cards, a journal, puzzle games (you'd be surprised how much time you can happily spend with these old-fashioned past-times)
  • If you wear them, extra contact lenses (it is worth investing in a box of disposables when you travel)

Load your smartphone or laptop with any movies or other media you may want to enjoy during your layover. Wi-Fi is available in many airports, but it's not always a given.

Now, once you're there:

5. Scope it out

Where are the charging stations and/or electrical outlets? Does there seem to be a great deal of demand, and should you hang out and grab some battery juice while you can?

Where are the largest and most convenient bathrooms, where you can both do your business and freshen up as needed?

Where are there large banks of seating where you might make yourself comfortable and even grab some sleep if you need to? (Note: If you plan to sleep in a public space, be aware you will want to keep your personal possessions attached to your body; theft happens everywhere.)

Where are the lockers and/or luggage storage stations where you can leave your larger items, should you want to sleep or go exploring?

Where is the airport chapel? These places of quiet reflection can be a balm to many a weary traveling soul. Just be respectful of the sacred space and everyone in it.

Where can you get some exercise? Look for long concourses, where you can walk or even jog, and large open areas where you can stretch, get some squats and push-ups in, or do yoga. Exercise isn't just a good way to kill time; it will also keep your body in better shape to enjoy your travels.

6. Make friends

Don't be afraid to introduce yourself to airport employees staffing the service desks, restaurants, and cleaning crews. No one knows this space better than they do, yet the transitory expectations of most travelers don't allow them to get to know these often kind and knowledgeable folks. Spending some time talking with airport employees could open doors to unexpected experiences and new friendships. Go ahead and introduce yourself, mention you've got a long layover, and ask for their advice.

Finally, don't forget your fellow travelers. Airports — places where cultures converge and the range of human experience is expressed — are wonderful places to people watch. And who knows what could happen? I met my husband on a long layover in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I'd been dreading that one. Now I look upon it as one of the best memories of my life.


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