6 tips on how to sleep at the airport
“I’m sorry, but the next flight out isn’t until tomorrow morning.”
This sentence isn’t usually a fun one to hear when your flight has been canceled due to weather conditions or some other reason. In this scenario, your options are limited. If you’re still in your hometown, you can go home for the night and come back in the morning. If you're not close to home, you’ll either have to head to a nearby hotel or, if those are sold out — which often happens during a major weather event — sleep in the airport itself.
Related: These are the cheapest and priciest airports in the U.S.
Some people prefer to stay in the airport instead of heading to a hotel, hoping that there might be last-minute availability. Others simply don't want to go through the effort of heading to a hotel late at night only to return a few hours later for an early morning flight.
If you find yourself spending the night in an airport terminal, here are some tricks to make your experience more comfortable.
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Access 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. This is especially true 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 (or more) very easy. Keep in mind that some lounges frown upon people sleeping there, and many also have time limits on how long you can stay, so factor this into consideration when planning out your night.
Still, some lounges offer designated quiet zones and reclining seats. I took a great nap during a layover in Frankfurt which really helped me combat jet lag. At the Plaza Lounge in Taipei, there are even nap rooms you can rent by the hour.
Plus, of course, getting the chance to shower off that airport grime is a great way to reset.
Rent a sleep pod
AirPods: This isn't just the name of something for your ears. This European company has a trendy name and concept backing its airport nap pods. Other nap pod brands, such as Minute Suites and GoSleep, share a similar concept.
Minute Suite rooms are available through the Priority Pass airport lounge program (as of the time of this post), which means that the first hour of nap time is complimentary for Priority Pass holders. After that, it's $48 per hour. There's also an eight-hour option for $175, which could be a solid alternative to booking a hotel for an extended nap. From personal experience, however, there may be a wait time involved for booking a Minute Suite if you’re stuck at the airport due to weather-related concerns because there's a higher likelihood that fellow stranded travelers will be vying for the same limited airport amenities.
Travel with sleep accessories
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.
- Eye mask that blocks out all ambient light.
- Spare set of clean socks and underwear.
- Sweatshirt or similar soft, warm layering piece.
- Water bottle.
- Granola bar.
All of these items are helpful at the best of times and 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 in your bag.
You’ll feel more ready to sleep if you can change into something comfy, such as sweatpants, instead of the jeans you were 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. In fact, I’ve definitely been guilty of flying home to Taiwan in my PJs before.
Nowadays, leggings and joggers are perfectly acceptable plane wear, at least in coach class. I also carry a sleek little pillow with me which unzips into a blanket (one of my favorite Christmas gifts ever). Airports can get really chilly at night, and it sucks to wake up because you’re feeling cold.
Get cozy on a couch, chair or floor
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 possible and make sure I’m not in anyone’s way.
If you can, find 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, but you still might 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, at least protect your face and head with a clean T-shirt or something similar. You’ll have to do laundry when you get to your destination anyway, and 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 putting 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.
You’ll be sleeping under a bank of fluorescent bulbs, but you can still make it as comfortable as possible. Try to keep to your bedtime rituals and find a bathroom where you can wash up and brush your teeth. Make sure you refill your water bottle on the way, so you can stay hydrated without getting up throughout 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.
Keep your luggage 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 backpack 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. 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, so sorry.)
Remember to set an alarm
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 a 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. When I’m using earplugs, I turn on my vibrate functionality and hold the phone in my hand as I sleep.
Prefer a hotel? Here's how to get a last-minute room near the airport
If all of that sounds too overwhelming and you just want to find a hotel room near the airport instead, here are a few strategies TPG editors deploy.
First, if the airline offers you a free room, take it — but skip the van full of other passengers and arrange your own transportation to the hotel to beat the crowds.
If you’ve received a voucher from your airline, do 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.
If your airline doesn't offer you a room, use an app such as HotelTonight to search for last-minute room availability. Use the map functionality to search for the closest property that fits your needs, and also check to see if the hotel offers shuttle service from the terminal.
Related: What you can ask from an airline after a delayed or canceled flight
Don't forget to check hotels that are directly connected to the airport, so you can forgo additional ground transportation. Some of these properties are so good, we'd stay at them even if we weren't stuck at the airport. The iconic TWA hotel at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) is a great example that’s featured on our list of the 10 best airport hotels in the U.S. and Canada. In San Francisco, the Grand Hyatt SFO exceeded expectations for TPG’s Summer Hull over a holiday trip. (See our 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. You will still need to swipe your credit card when you check in, but your insurer will reimburse you for the cost later on if your delay is eligible for coverage.
Being forced to stay the night in an airport thanks to inclement weather or flight cancelation is not ideal, but there are some ways you can make it more bearable. This is one guide I hope you never have to use (unless you want to). And if you do end up bailing out for a hotel, use our tips above to beat the crowds and help secure a room.
Additional reporting by Melissa Klurman.