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The Long, Long Layover: How to Sleep Like a Baby at the Airport

sleeping at the airport
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The situation: Your flight was canceled. Or there were snakes on it. Or you lost track of time at the airport bar and missed your connection — the last of the day to your destination. Nearby hotels are unexpectedly sold out or just too damn expensive.

Whatever the reason, you’re staring down the prospect of overnighting in the airport. It’s never pretty, but it is possible to catch a few hours of quality shut-eye  in the terminal. Here are a few pro tips for sleeping at the airport.

Be Prepared

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Unless there’s an obvious crisis (e.g., a hurricane or bomb cyclone) that’s left throngs of travelers stranded, airport security may inquire about your reason for sleeping there. As long as you clearly explain your situation and can provide proof in the way of an outbound ticket the following day, they’re likely to leave you alone. Just be calm and polite, and recognize that they’re under no obligation to let you sleep there.

Establish Your Bedroll

travel gadgets
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Take stock of your bedding inventory. If you’re the sort of hotshot who travels with a pillow, a blanket, and feety pajamas, you’re already in good shape. If not, you likely need to find some. Here’s where your airline’s special service agents can prove invaluable. Find the nearest desk and plead your case to see what you can score. If you’re gracious enough, you can at least secure a pillow and blanket, maybe even earplugs and an eye mask if needed. All are likely to be the disposable (read: crappy) — the kind comped to international travelers in flight, but beggars can’t be choosers, right? Alternatively, if it’s not too late or you’re stuck in an airport with 24-hour services, there should be a handful of stores where you can buy all of the above. With the right prodding, the best case scenario is that the airlines can even provide you with a cot.

Set Up Basecamp

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Some airports are inherently quieter than others. Some, like New York’s JFK, are as quiet as a bowling alley in an echo chamber. Finding a peaceful spot can be tricky. Again, asking gate agents and even airport security personnel for recommendations is wise. They’ve likely tried to catch a few minutes of shut-eye on an especially long shift, so they’ll know better than anyone.

In general, gates at the end of the terminal see less foot traffic. Some airport gate signs report the next inbound flight. Pick a gate where the next flight isn’t due until, say, mid-morning to ensure you won’t be jolted awake in an hour by a hundred people deplaning a few feet from your head.

If you’re feeling especially adventurous, rent a car for the night. Seriously, in some major airports, it’s possible to rent a car for the day for less than USD $20. Then, just leave it in the lot and setup camp inside. You’ll have a clean, safe, lockable place to crash with padded seats. If you’re willing to really splash out, the rear of an SUV with the seats folded down can feel almost like home. Almost.

Lock It Down

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For safety and theft reasons, it’s ideal to sleep near other travelers. Just ensure that they are actually other travelers and not just random people sleeping in the airport. The latter happens in countries outside the U.S. more than you might think.

<>If it’s comfortable enough to do so, clip your luggage or backpack to your person (a belt loop works) to deter thieves from walking off with your valuables while you snooze. Even better, if you can get there before they close, leave your bags at the left luggage office overnight.

Look to Tech

Meidong E6ANC Bluetooth Headphones
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If they’re comfortable enough for you to wear while sleeping, noise-canceling headphones are clutch for airport overnighting. Bose and Sennheiser still offer some of the best products in this space, but you needn’t drop $200 or more on brand name cans. These headphones from Meidong (previously highlighted as part of our under-$50 holiday gift guide for travelers) will do the trick.

With or without noise-canceling headphones, a white noise smartphone app can be a great distraction from all the unwanted airport noise. White Noise Lite — available for both Android and iOS — is a great, free choice. It offers a large catalog of white noise options, including heavy rain, crashing ocean waves, blowing wind, and, curiously enough, the sounds of air travel.

Don’t Starve

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Keep in mind that airport stores and food outlets may close by 9 pm or earlier (usually around the time of the last flight out for the day). This isn’t an issue in larger airports like Chicago or Atlanta. However, smaller satellite airports like Providence, Rhode Island, essentially shut down after dark. Once you realize you will, in fact, be overnighting at the airport, find the nearest convenience store or restaurant to fuel up or stock up ahead of your stay.

Once you finally board, our travel playlist might coming in handy:

Mike Richard
Mike Richard has traveled the world since 2008. He's kayaked in Antarctica, tracked endangered African wild dogs in South…
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