The Definitive Guide to Sleeping in Airports

A difficult skill to master, yet incredibly useful when traveling on a tight budget

It’s 3:27 AM, and I’m posted up on a deceivingly uncomfortable bench in Helsinki Airport, procrastinating the one thing my body truly needs: sleep. When I initially booked my ticket from Hong Kong to Prague I opted for an 18-hour layover, anticipating a desire to see the Finnish capital. A lot has changed since the day I booked the ticket, however, primarily in regard to my budget. With $430 in the bank and eight days remaining in my trip, the math was not difficult. Going into town and booking a hostel was simply an incompatible plan with my finances, so what does one do when their time in the airport is gifted such longevity? In my case, I’d probably write a Medium article called “The Definitive Guide to Sleeping in Airports.” But if you’d rather catch some shut-eye than write articles at 3 in the morning, here is some of the advice I’ve gathered from sleeping in airports across three continents.

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Helsinki Airport, 4:39 AM. When sleeping fails, get some work done!

It’s going to be cold.

Airports are heated and cooled under the assumption that most of the time, they will be filled with people. Large buildings such as airports, malls, and sporting arenas can save big on energy bills by utilizing the body heat of thousands of people. As soon as the last flight departs, you will quickly notice a change in temperature. There have been times when I’ve fallen asleep before the airport fully closes, only to be awoken by my own shivering soon after. Be sure to remove your warm clothing from checked luggage before departing, as you never know whether or not you will have access to it on your layover. Even if you have to collect baggage on the transfer it is better to be safe than sorry; airlines lose baggage all the time. If you can find a heating vent, you’re going to want to claim that location as soon as possible.

It’s going to be loud.

Many airports grind to a halt after midnight, with the only activity thereafter being restrained to maintenance and janitorial services. If you’re transiting through a massive hub, however, it is possible that flights will continue to operate through the night. Take a look at the departure board and get a sense of which gates are the busiest — if you’re crafty you may be able to identify an entire wing of the airport that is unused over night.

Always prepare by bringing ear plugs. If you’re the kind of person willing to sleep in the airport, I assume you are also frequenting backpacker hostels. Staying in a 16-bed dorm was all it took for me to make a personal rule to always carry ear plugs. While the ear plugs cancel out unwanted noise, they also muffle your alarm and the sound of important announcements. To combat this, create a vibration alarm on your phone and keep it in your pocket. If you’re a heavy sleeper and at risk of sleeping through an alarm, sleep as close to your departure gate as possible. When they’ve finished boarding the plane and start paging your name over the loudspeakers, gate agents are likely to put the pieces together and wake you up.

It’s going to be safe, for the most part

Now this depends entirely on the airport you are in, as every city has a reputation in regards to the propensity of theft. You’re going to need to use your common sense on this one. Never sleep in the airport of a country known for corruption amongst officials, for example, as they may scam you into paying for your own protection. Once, after falling asleep in Ho Chi Minh City, my phone was taken out of my pocket. When I awoke an hour later and felt it missing, I started searching the area frantically. Helpless, I approached a nearby security officer and explained what had happened. He reached out with my phone in one hand, requesting money with the other. I was lucky a small payment of 40,000VND ($1.75) was enough, but it could have just as easily ended poorly.

Even in the safest of cities, it is important to take precautions to safeguard your belongings. A padlock on your zipper goes a long way in deterring theft, and all you have to do is attach the lock to your belt buckle to ensure it’s not going anywhere. Ensure that your passport, phone, and wallet are all on your person or locked up, so that anybody who tries to take them will wake you up in the process. Finally, ensure that your spot is in close proximity to cameras or security personnel.

Take full advantage of the airport’s amenities

Many airports (particularly those in Scandinavia) are benevolent to sleeping travelers. Some offer temperature controlled resting rooms, providing a perfect place to doze off.

Lounge access is worth its weight in gold on long layovers. Check with your airline or your credit card provider, as both may have partnership arrangements with one or more lounges in the airport. My American Express card, for example, gave me access to Helsinki’s new Plaza Premium Lounge (although I had to convince the immigration official to let me into the non-Schengen departure area). Lounges have everything you could ever hope for, from free food and drink to a place to shower. Many airports also have lounges with a pay-to-enter scheme, which, depending on your budget, may be well worth the price.

If lounge access is out of the question, it may still be possible to have a shower! Many airports provide shower stalls, and a simple google search will reveal directions on where to find them. You’ll need your own toiletries and towel, so once again be sure to grab those items before checking your bags through to their final destination.

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Getting into a lounge is always my number one priority when sleeping in an airport. Check with your credit card company and frequent flier program, as they may offer perks.

Take full advantage of your airline’s amenities

Depending on your airline, you may be entitled to a hotel room and transfer during your layover. Certain airlines promote programs such as these to encourage potential customers to look past the downsides of having such a long connection. I recommend searching the airline’s policy before booking a ticket, as you may have to book it through a separate channel. Airlines like Qatar Airways even offer tourist experiences in Doha to make up for long connections!

You may get nothing, especially if you’re traveling on a budget airline; however, it is worth checking.

As long as you know what you’re getting into, sleeping in an airport can even be a pleasant and interesting experience! When you wake up to the sounds of your flight boarding you will be grateful you didn’t have to go through the hassle of finding your way to the airport, clearing security, and waiting an hour. Plus, you’ll be left with a few extra bucks in your pocket for a nice breakfast and coffee.

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Waking up happy and disheveled in Melbourne Airport

Written by

Journalist, entrepreneur and student - Boston College, University of Otago. Buddhist. Expert adventurer and consultant for conducting business in Asia.

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