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Travel Time

How to Sleep in an Airport Like a Road Warrior

Pro tips for the next time you get a room at Terminal 5.

By Bull Garlington

You are so exhausted. If your plane to New York doesn’t board in the next five minutes, you’re going to lay on the gate agent’s desk, take a savage nap and use the boarding passes for a pillow. Which might be fine except they just announced your plane is in Mongolia, the next flight is tomorrow at noon and the nearby hotels are booked.

You turn slowly to take in the massive, sterile, overly illuminated expanse of Terminal 5, your new bedroom.

Congratulations, You’re Going to Sleep in an Airport

I mean, there are so many questions. Where? How? Is comfort possible? Does the baggage carousel have a decent thread count? Should you crawl under the terminal chairs or mount the boarding gate desk? Will you fit in a bar booth?

Stay calm. Most airlines will accommodate you as best they can. As soon as it’s regrettably obvious that Flight BR-549 is gonna camp out in the terminal, the local aviation authority engages a decades-old Passenger Assistance Program. They send in cots, pillows and blankets so you can sleep, amenity kits so you can clean up, and coupons for whichever concessions may stay open to serve the stranded. They usually send increased security to the area where passengers are bivouacked too.

But that’s basic. You’re not basic. You’re an accomplished life hacker and you’re gonna be comfortable. Here are some pro tips and wild hacks for the next time you get stuck at Gate C-13.

Wait: Don’t Sleep at the Airport

If your layover is more than eight hours and it’s a solid, unbreakable stretch, then get out. Uber to an available hotel. If your team is with you, consider Airbnb. If you’re hip and cool, you might belong to a private club offering a room and services. However, a Motel 4 will work just fine and won’t break your budget.

Or, You Can Lay Over Lounge-Style

If you fly a lot, you should join a club. Sure, it may be $500 a year or more but the perks are worth it. Club lounges have a reputation for luxury they fight hard to keep, and many offer day passes for under $60 — which beats hanging out in Hudson’s for 10 hours. If you’re stuck overnight, a club lounge’s comfy chairs are going to your back. And maybe your sanity.

  • The Centurian Lounge requires an Amex card but they’re in seven major airports in the U.S. Their Las Vegas site is an excellent example of what a private lounge offers: fresh seasonal food, a premium bar, showers, a family room, semi-private workspaces with Wi-Fi and more. They’re open 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. so you’re very likely to find a place to take a quick nap and freshen up. A one-day pass is $50. Access gets you victuals prepped by executive chef Cédric Vongerichten, skin care products by L’Occitane, a wine list curated by Anthony Giglio and a copy of The New York Times.
  • The Club has 11 locations in the U.S. and no membership requirements, only a $40 fee for a day pass. They’re generally open from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. Mondays and until midnight Tuesday through Sunday. The amenities are nice, but showers are not one of them. For relaxing and maybe catching some surreptitious zees, they’re great. However, be aware that some airports have more than one Club lounge; Seattle’s airport, for example, has two — one of which closes at 5:30 p.m.
  • Plaza Premium is an upscale airport lounge company based in Hong Kong with services everywhere but the U.S. If you’re stuck in London run to their desk in the Queen’s Terminal and buy a $98 pass because their swank is deep. But Plaza is a la carte, so along with the pass, you’ll pay $60 GDP for a three-hour nap, or $100GDP for six. A shower will set you back $15, and two-hours in the lounge is $40. But if you’re murderously tired, that’s money well spent.

If You Must Sleep in an Airport, Do It Right

First, Prepare to Sleep in an Airport

This is critical and precarious work. Bringing your heirloom quilt, a down pillow, a sleep mask and your favorite box spring might be overdoing it. But you should bring something. Rebuild your travel kit to include emergency sleepy time amenities like an inflatable pillow and wipes. An astronaut blanket is not a bad idea — it fits easily into your kit and it works. Spare skivvies are smart. Might as well throw in a pair of spare socks. If you want to go pro, dry wash shampoo will make you feel fresher, though styling your hair in an airport is … another topic.


A perfectly packed emergency layover kit:

  • Post-it notes (Write “WAKE ME UP AT 5 A.M.!” and stick them everywhere. It’s surprisingly effective.)
  • Space blanket
  • Candy bars
  • Appropriate doses of your meds
  • Gum
  • Dental kit
  • Spare undergarments
  • Wipes
  • Inflatable pillow
  • Travel deodorant
  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • Sleep mask (great place for a Post-it)

Second, Accept How Much This Will Suck

The lounges are stacked, you don’t have a travel pillow, your Kindle is dead, and you’re dressed in a client-meeting-worthy silk three-piece. There are no options. There are no cots. There is no out. You’re going to have to suck it up and face just how bad this is going to blow.

When that happens, these are the barest-boned accommodations for sleeping in an airport.

  • Gate seats. They’re terrible, but if you find a section at your gate big enough to stretch out on, go for it. If you wear a backpack, that’s your pillow. If you have a coat, that’s your blanket.
  • Lobby couches. Plenty of airports have weird lobbies where the furniture aspires to “comfortable.” They have more or less decent fabric-covered kinda-soft furniture and some even have couches. They might be on another floor, they might be in arrivals, they might be in the food court. Ask your attendant. Ask a janitor. Ask anyone who works at the airport.
  • Rental cars. If you value absolute privacy over mild discomfort, then rent a car. If, like me, you’re shorter than a standard flight attendant, you can turn the middle bench of an SUV into a queen-size bed. Plus you have AC. Plus a sound system. Fold down all the seats and build yourself your own personalized makeshift sleeping pod. Just crash right there in the lot.

Lastly: Shopping Tidbits

The next time you’re headed out, you might want to pick up some of these road warrior accouterments:

Have you ever had to sleep in an airport? Share your horror story in the comments below. Best one wins a copy of “The Full English,” a humorous travel memoir from yours truly.

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Bull Garlington Bull Garlington

An award-winning author, columnist and public speaker, Bull Garlington is the author of the books “The Full English,” “Death by Children” and “The Beat Cop’s Guide.” He prefers South American literature, classic jazz, Partagas 1945s, a decent Laphroaig, and makes a mean chicken and andouille gumbo. His company, Creative Writer PRO, offers top-shelf content for small and medium-size businesses. Follow him @bull_garlington.

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