Here’s how to get some sleep if you’re stuck at the airport
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“I’m sorry, but the next flight out isn’t until tomorrow morning.”
This sentence isn’t usually a fun one to hear. Whether you’ve been delayed or canceled due to weather conditions, or had to wait for a later flight for any other reason, your options are limited. If you’re still in your home town, you can go home for the night and come back in the morning. But if you aren’t home, you’ll either have to book a nearby hotel or sleep in the airport itself.
How to get a last-minute hotel room near the airport
There are a number of ways to spend the night in an airport in a “civilized” fashion, as my mother would call it (in other words, not on the floor). Most airports have great hotels nearby that offer free shuttle service, which helps cut down on additional costs. Especially if you’re traveling with a companion or your whole family, I highly suggest booking a room where possible, just because a good night’s rest makes even the worst delay feel more bearable.
You can often book last-minute rooms at a discounted rate through apps like HotelTonight or via Hotels.com. I usually use the map functionality to search for the closest one that fits my needs, then double-check to make sure the hotel offers shuttle service.
Some airports even boast hotels that are directly connected to one of the airport terminals, meaning you never have to leave airport territory. Some are so great travelers deliberately book stopovers when planning travel routes specifically so they can stay there. The iconic TWA hotel at New York’s JFK is a great example that’s prominently featured on our list of the 10 best airport hotels in the U.S. and Canada, while the Grand Hyatt SFO on the West Coast exceeded expectations for TPG’s Summer Hull over a recent holiday trip. (See our six favorite international airport hotels here.)
Keep in mind that the right travel insurance, such as credit card trip protection or an independent travel insurance plan, could get you a free night’s hotel stay. OK, that’s not 100% accurate; you will still need to swipe your credit card upon check-in, but your insurer will reimburse you for the cost later on if your delay is eligible for coverage.
Another scenario where you may not have to pay for a hotel room is if the delay is the airline’s fault. If you’ve received a voucher from your airline, make sure you read the fine print carefully; many times, vouchers can only be used with a specific hotel that has an agreement in place with the airline.
How to sleep in the airport like a pro
But let’s say you decide to stay put in the airport overnight instead of dealing with the hassle of getting a hotel room. Who would do that, you ask? Well — I would, for one, especially if I’m traveling solo. I’ve slept in airports around the world at least two dozen times, sometimes even by deliberate choice.
Back when I was in college, sleeping in the airport for long layovers was an easy way to cut down on additional expenses so I could stay on budget. Other times, I’ve worked an event until midnight, then booked myself on the first flight out the next morning at 5 a.m. By the time I broke down all of my equipment and packed up to leave the venue, it didn’t make sense, either from a time or financial perspective, to make a separate trek to a hotel, check in, shower up, nap for an hour or two just to trundle back to the airport by 3:45 a.m.
Whatever the reason you find yourself passing the night in an airport terminal, here are some tricks I’ve learned along the way to make your experience more comfortable.
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Look for a 24-hour lounge
Whether you have access through your elite status or your credit card, airport lounges can be an overnight traveler’s best friend, especially once you factor in the cost (and quality) of food in addition to lodging expenses.
Many of the best Priority Pass lounges in the world are open 24/7, which makes catching a cat nap very easy. Keep in mind that some lounges frown upon people napping; many also have time limits on how long you can stay, so factor this into consideration when planning out your night.
Some lounges offer designated quiet zones and reclining seats; I got a great nap during a layover in Frankfurt which really helped me combat jet lag. Others, such as the Plaza Lounge in Taipei, even offer nap rooms you can rent by the hour.
And of course, being able to shower off that airport grime is a great way to reset.
Seek out a sleep pod
AirPods: They aren’t just for your ears. This European company has a trendy name and concept backing its airport nap pods, but already has competition from a few other better-known brands such as Minute Suites, Yotel and GoSleep.
Minute Suite rooms are available on Priority Pass as of the time of this post, which means that the first hour of nap time is complimentary for Priority Pass holders, then $28 per hour after that. From personal experience, however, there may be a wait time involved for booking a Minute Suite, especially if you’re stuck at the airport due to weather-related concerns (which means a higher likelihood of fellow stranded travelers vying for the same limited amenities in the airport).
Come prepared to camp out
You should always hope for the best, but it helps to plan for the worst. Here’s what you’ll find in my travel backpack no matter where I go, precisely in case I get stranded somewhere:
- noise-canceling earbuds and/or foam earplugs
- an eye mask that blocks out all ambient light
- a spare set of clean socks and underwear
- a sweatshirt or similar soft, warm layering piece
- a water bottle
- a granola bar (really)
All of these items are helpful at the best of times, but absolutely invaluable for airport overnighters. Stores in many airports shut down at 9 p.m., and it’s nice to have a snack on hand for those late-night/early morning munchies, especially if you flew in from another destination and haven’t eaten in hours. Hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes would also be nice to keep on hand.
You’ll also feel more ready to sleep if you can change into something comfy, such as sweatpants instead of the jeans you may be wearing. Don’t worry; the only people who are around to judge you are the ones who are also in the airport at this late hour. Some people dress up nicely for the airport, and I respect that very much. I am not one of them; on longer trips, I’ll choose comfort over classiness on most [travel] days. In fact, I’ve definitely been guilty of flying home to Taiwan in my PJs before, armed with my own fluffy pillow.
Nowadays, leggings and joggers are perfectly acceptable plane wear, at least in coach class; and I carry this sleek little pillow with me which unzips into a blanket — one of my favorite Christmas gifts ever, by the way. Airports can get really chilly at night, and it sucks to wake up because you’re feeling cold.
Make yourself comfortable for the night
In worst-case scenarios, you’re going to have make yourself a little nest, either on an airport bench or on the floor itself. I usually mosey on over to my departure gate and set up camp there, just to make it easier on myself when I wake up. I try to find the darkest, quietest corner I can and make sure I’m not in anyone’s way.
If you can, look for a padded couch or seat that doesn’t have any armrest dividers on it; you’ll feel the most comfortable, especially if you’re a side sleeper like I am. Your next-best option may be a carpeted floor if you prefer to lie flat when you sleep, or you may still prefer a bench to the ground if you’re worried about germs.
My mom taught me to always carry at least one change of clothing in my carry-on bag, which converts nicely into a pillow in a pinch. To make my “bed” for the night, I usually dig into my luggage to find something to use as a makeshift sheet between me and the floor. A beach towel is pretty awesome, if you’ve just come back from vacation and have one handy.
If you can’t find anything large enough, protect your face and head, at least, with a clean T-shirt or something similar as a pillowcase of sorts. You’ll have to do laundry when you get to your destination anyway; you’re better off getting germs on your clothes than on your bare skin.
If it’s wintertime and you have a coat handy, put it on and zip it up; you can even roll up the hood into a little pillow to support your neck. You’ll have a bit of padding between you and the ground, and it will keep you cozy enough to fall asleep. I also like taking off my shoes and swapping on a clean pair of fuzzy socks. Just remember to maintain standards of etiquette however you can. You’re still in a public space, so keep your personal belongings neatly stowed in a corner out of sight as much as possible.
Keep to your bedtime rituals
You’ll be sleeping under a bank of fluorescent bulbs tonight, but you can still make it as comfortable as possible. Find a bathroom to wash up and brush your teeth, and make sure you refill your water bottle on the way out so you can stay hydrated without having to get up through the night. An eye mask and ear plugs are invaluable for tuning out the harsh airport environment, but you can make do with a T-shirt over your eyes and headphones if you have them.
Don’t forget to stay safe
Airports theoretically should be relatively safe at night, but I still take no chances: I keep my cash and passport inside an internal pocket of my backpack, and use that as a pillow. That way, I’ll wake up if anyone tries to steal my stuff while I’m asleep. For larger items or carry-on suitcases, I’ll often loop my arm through the handle or make sure some part of my body is either touching them, so I’ll wake up if I feel movement nearby. If I’m sleeping on a bench, I’ll often slide my carry-on suitcase underneath so that someone who wants to get to it will have to lean down and make more effort. And if I’m charging up my laptop or phone as I sleep, I like to set up camp either right by the outlet or close enough to notice if anyone tries any funny business.
If you’re traveling with very young children but don’t have a car seat or stroller handy to keep them restrained, it can be helpful to corral them into a corner, then position yourself in such a way that they have to clamber over you if they want to get out. (If you’re stranded overnight in an airport with a toddler, I am so sorry.)
Wake up on time
After all that effort, you’ll definitely want to make sure you don’t miss your next flight out. I usually set myself multiple alarms set for about 30 minutes before boarding time, just to give myself enough buffer time in case I need to go through security again, print out a new boarding pass, talk to a gate agent or even just grab coffee and brush my teeth. If I’m using headphones to block out ambient sound, I plug them into my phone so I’ll hear the alarm go off. And when I’m using earplugs, I turn on my vibrate functionality, and hold the phone in my hand as I sleep.
This is one guide I hope you never have to use (unless you want to). But if you ever do find it handy, I’d love to hear about it! Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me all about your airport overnighter experience. You never know; you just might end up in a TPG story.
Featured photo by Getty Images.
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