How to Survive (and Thrive) in Airports
Yes, you can enjoy even the longest of layovers.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 7:29 AM
We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs.
As someone who flys twice a month on average, I spend a fair amount of time in airports. And while I’m by no means a stressed-out traveler, quite the opposite, in fact, that doesn’t mean I delight in all aspects of the trip. So, I’m always looking for ways to improve my overall experience.
You’ve definitely heard the expression “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” But in the case of airports, I could make a convincing argument to the contrary. Getting there two hours early, waiting in the security line, sitting in a cue on the tarmac…it sort of feels like, well, a giant time suck. Not to mention things like long layovers and flight delays are a major inconvenience.
That’s certainly not to say that I abhor going to the airport, only that I would prefer something a bit more seamless—devoid of traffic, always prompt, etc. Yes, I realize that’s totally unrealistic. Even trains aren’t that easy these days. (Don’t get me started on Amtrak.) But I digress.
The point of this piece is to uncover the secrets to make the period in between landing and take off—regardless of whether you have a lengthy layover or are dealing with a delayed departure—more pleasant.
So, I talked to travel professionals and even threw my own tried-and-true tips into the mix, to ensure that you have the most pleasant airport experience possible.
Dress in Layers
Your mom always said dress in layers, and she was right. When it comes to the airport, the temperature isn’t always consistent. When you’re going through security—lifting heavy bags and removing shoes, if you don’t have pre-check—it can seem quite warm. But by the time you settle in at the gate, the blasting air conditioning makes it feel downright arctic. Conversely, if you’re relegated to one of the seats in front of the window, and it’s a particularly hot and sunny day, it’s like sweat city. The net-net is that it’s a good idea to layer.
Wear Comfy Shoes..and Socks
Along the same lines is comfy footwear. I’m always amazed when I see women strutting around the airport in heels. More power to ‘em, but that can’t be comfortable. Practically speaking, this isn’t the day to break in new shoes or test out some hot fashion trend. It’s about comfort.
There’s also a lively debate amongst travelers regarding sandals. I totally get if you’re coming from a warm Caribbean destination, you might be rocking Havaianas. But that’s probably not the most ideal choice for trekking through the airport, where frenzied passengers are likely to run over your toes. Also, the plane itself can be chilly and you’ll want to keep your feet cozy. So my reco (which experts backup) is either to wear closed toe shoes or if you can’t resist savoring a few last moments in flip-flops, at least bring a pair of warm socks to wear during the flight.
Gain Lounge Access
Airport lounges typically deliver a much more pleasurable experience than sitting by the gate. Case in point: You’ll often find elevated eats and booze—all complimentary. Add to that more comfortable chairs, cleaner bathrooms (some even have showers) and you’ve got a pretty good place to spend a couple of hours.
There are a few ways to gain entry to these VIP areas. One is to invest in Priority Pass (an included perk of the American Express Platinum Card) that gets you into tons of lounges around the globe.
Most carriers have dedicated lounges. The way to access these spaces is by being a frequent flier with status or having certain credit cards in your wallet. (Note: Amex Platinum users also have access to Delta clubs, provided that you’re flying on the airline on that particular day. All you have to do is present your boarding pass and credit card to enjoy the perks. If you’re traveling with a companion, you can pay $50 to get them in too.)
“For the rest of us, I love LoungeBuddy. The app lets you browse all the lounges in your departure or layover airport as well as compare day-pass prices, amenities, and photos. And you don’t need any kind of status or ticket type to qualify,” explains Christie Hudson, senior communications manager at Expedia.
Invest in a Reusable Water Bottle
Flying is a notoriously dehydrating. Since TSA confiscates liquids, your option is to pay $5 for a bottle of water at one of the convenience shops or wait until you’re on the plane to get a cup of H20. Unless you have a reusable vessel. You won’t have a problem at security (as long as it’s empty) and you can refill for free at fountains. (“At the Helsinki Airport, there are hot water faucets available too,” reveals Mirja Uosukainen, an in-flight service specialist at Finnair.) Not only will this help you stay hydrated, but it’ll save money and is eco-conscious.
You’re bound to get hungry during a long day of travel. And while people say “calories don’t count on vacation,” that’s not actually true. Sure, you could just load up on Auntie Anne’s pretzels or whatever grab-and-go sandwiches are within reach, that’s not the best for your wallet or waistline. Know you’re going to have a layover? Prepare something that’s okay out of the fridge for a few hours such as a veggie wrap. Alternately, you can pick up food on your way to the airport. Nuts and roasted chickpeas are a high-protein snack. If that doesn’t sound like an ideal solution or you’re crunched for time, another tip is to look up the restaurants in your terminal in advance in order to create a solid game plan. That way you can make an informed decision rather than just stopping at the first restaurant you see.
BYOE (Bring Your Own Entertainment)
“I love a good podcast or to crack open a new book,” says Melissa da Silva, president of Trafalgar. “But one of my favorite ways to pass time in the airport is people-watching. You get folks from all walks of life and cultures, so it’s really interesting.”
What does Lindsay Taylor-Lauer, director of business development at Coastline Travel Advisors, a Virtuoso Agency, do when she has a few hours to kill? Uses the time to catch up on to-do list items, like writing thank you notes or calling to catch up with friends. “I also play mindless games on my iPad. My favorite is Le Vamp—a tiny vampire is on the loose in France, and you have to fling pigs at him so he can escape the villagers.”
If I may offer a suggestion: Download the New York Times Crossword app (the paid version). I recently pulled the trigger and opted for the annual subscription. It’s $39.99 a year and worth every penny!
Make the Most of the Bathroom
“For longer trips when you check bags, it’s important to put a set of clothes in your carry-on,” says Terrie Hansen, senior vice president of marketing at Virtuoso. In the event of a long or unexpected layover, clean duds can make you feel better instantly. “I’ve mastered the airport bathroom change. The key is to put the entire ensemble together in a packing cube and put it on top. No digging for each item, and you can put the dirty stuff right back in its place.” And in case your luggage doesn’t make the connection, you’ve got a fresh outfit for when you land.
A prepasted toothbrush and mouthwash are a must. In terms of skincare, Uosukainen urges bringing face mist to keep your complexion quenched. Herbivore makes a rose hibiscus spray that’s heavenly. “Our crew loves buying products, such as sheet masks, in Asia and using them at during layovers to combat the appearance of fatigue.”
Personally, I’m a big fan of Lano hand cream and this multi-tasking serum by Odacité that’s perfect for dry and irritated skin. It also works on lips, cuticles, and to smooth flyaways. Eye drops are also beneficial. Finnair even sells ‘em onboard!
Find a Spot to Snooze
“The most important things to think about are to stay sanitary and safe,” says da Silva. “Before you start asking around or scoping out a spot, my first recommendation is to check the airport’s website, because some offer quiet lounges or rent couch-like seats. Just make sure there’s nearby security or visible cameras.” You’ll definitely want a neck pillow and lightweight throw blanket for layover slumbers too.
Keep Devices Charged
While many airports have created charging stations or made outlets more readily available, there’s no guarantee that you’ll snag one of the coveted plugs. “I try and come prepared with my own portable charger and battery pack, especially for my cell phone. When I’m traveling, it’s my ultimate companion [meaning it can run out of juice fast], so having that backup is a well worth the investment,” notes Nisreene Atassi, global head of communications at Expedia.
Always ask about freebies and upgrades because every airline has different requirements and policies. “For example, if you’re flying to Dubai on Emirates and your layover is four or more hours, you’re entitled to a complimentary meal voucher,” discloses da Silva. Some carriers even offer free hotels if you meet the requisites, so don’t be afraid to chat up an agent.
Boost Your Immunity
The last thing you want leading into a vacation, or returning from one, is to feel under the weather. Industry insiders will tell you that they always travel with some vitamin C, whether it’s a lozenge or powder packets, and sanitizer. Antibacterial towelettes are genius for wiping down communal surfaces like tray tables, while a spray is a quick way to guarantee hands stay clean. “Sleep is also a great way to beat the jetlag and let your body be in full rest and germ-fighting mode,” explains to da Silva.
Don’t Be Afraid to Explore…Time Willing
Ever wondered if you have time to get out and explore between flights? Well, that depends on the city and where the airport is in relation, according to Taylor-Lauer. You have to keep in mind how long it will take you to get through customs (if applicable), exit the airport, and get to wherever you want to go, then drive back and make it through security. “I had a 12-hour layover in London, and was able to see the sights before returning to the airport. But then there are instances like construction at LaGuardia, where it could take 60 minutes just to get on the freeway and, even though I had eight hours before my next leg, it just wasn’t feasible.” So, this is really a case-by-case basis.
If you do choose to leave, keep in mind you’ll likely want to stash your stuff somewhere. “Some airports offer bag checks for extended flights. There are also VIP lounges and third-party vendors that offer the same service,” notes Hansen. That’s definitely something you’ll want to research in advance. And, no, you don’t need to tell the airline that you’re venturing off-site.
See more travel-savvy stories like this:
The Travel Beauty Hacks You Haven’t Heard Yet
Of Course Marie Kondo Has the Best Packing Tips