Surviving the Journey There: The Dreaded Layover

detroit airport

Detroit Metro Airport

YOU KNOW what’s awesome about flying? Getting to your destination. You know what usually sucks about flying? Layovers.

Most avid travelers and, really anyone who has ever been on a vacation as a working adult, knows how wonderful it is to escape your routine/apartment/house/life and be elsewhere. If you’ve planned even one trip that involves flying any distance over 500 miles you’ve probably discovered that a flight with a layover is way cheaper than a direct flight.

If you’re like me and an anal travel planner who is determined to get the cheapest flight ( is your best friend, you hear?), you’ll know that some airlines and airports are significantly better for layovers. I avoid Boston Logan International Airport at all costs, which usually means forgoing flying on US or American Airways. I missed two domestic flights during layovers at Boston Logan by being stuck in line at their second security screening, whose existence still makes zero sense to me. They also left my luggage in an abandoned room for the duration of my first international trip and my only argument with an employee of an establishment ever in my life happened here. My brother avoids Boston Logan, too, after he spent his layover watching mice dart across the floors and I have friends who refuse to fly into Paris and Miami because “It’s a zoo.” To each his own with that, but it’s worth asking around if you’re going to have a significant layover somewhere.

So, crappy airport experiences aside, what the heck do you do during a layover?

Get a map of the airport

Often when you connect to an airport’s wireless network, a map of the airport will come up, too. Apps like Gate Guru are especially helpful, supplying you with airport food and amenity information customized to your arrival and departure terminal, as well as airport maps and tips to help navigate unfamiliar territory, plus real-time flight information. Especially in big airports it can be easy to step off your plane, have a look down a few walkways and decide “This place is the pits.” Au contraire, there’s probably something cool waiting just around another bend. Airports like Denver International Airport even have hours of public art and exhibitions to view. Get a map and get going.


I recently spent 12 hours in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, one of more than a dozen lengthy layovers I’ve had in the last year and a half, and I was determined to make the best of it. By the time I boarded my plane at 11:55 p.m. I had enjoyed some of Pike Place’s best offerings, gotten a massage, lounged in a bar, and bought Roxane Gay’s newest title and read it in its entirety in a rocking chair in front of the runway. I actually felt productive, rested, and happy when I got on my red-eye flight back to the East Coast. I’m not saying you need to do all that, but once you’ve got a grip on what the airport has to offer, there’s a good possibility you’ll find some well-known local cuisine (If you end up in Buffalo Niagara International Airport head to Anchor Bar for wings or a Beef on Weck sandwich) or a fun drinking partner at one of what are usually many airport bars. Also, those chair massages? Kind of the best thing ever after you’ve been sitting on a plane.


People get weird about this. So do airport workers. No one loves to see you barefoot, drooling, and taking up a whole row of seating. During an overnight layover at Keflavík International Airport in Iceland I freaked myself out by reading reviews that said airport workers will poke you awake and scream “This is not your bedroom!” In my experience, they kept a watchful eye during the night, but no one seemed to mind me or the three others who stretched out across airline seats. Bottom line, if you’re going to camp-out in the airport, do it at your own risk. Airports like Vancouver International Airport and Hong Kong International Airport offer padded benches and comfy lounge chairs where travelers are invited to fully stretch out. You may see signs in some airports designating sleep areas as well and you can always check to make sure you don’t get startled awake by a security guard.

Need more than a bench? London Heathrow, London Gatwick and Amsterdam Schipol airports have YOTEL facilities. You can rent a (tiny) cabin for a minimum of four hours that comes with a bathroom and shower, a bed, a flat-screen TV, and a fold-out desk. How’s that for a layover?

Get to the Watering Hole

I mentioned this earlier, but if you really start to feel stir-crazy, find an airport bar. You’ll have 1) company 2) booze 3) food 4) entertainment. What more can you ask for? Drinks are going to be more expensive, but it’s worth the people you might meet and stories you’ll probably hear. Once, broken-hearted and defeated during a layover at JFK, a very nice businessman from Las Vegas bought me two beers and regaled me with tales of his past failed loves that led to a very happy marriage. You never know who you’ll meet and how they’ll change you. At the very least, you can try a local beer and people-watch.


Okay, you’ve had it. If your layover is long enough, leaving you plenty of time to get wherever “there” is and back, you can book it out of the airport and explore the surrounding area. Airports in cities like Chicago, New York, Washington, London, and Sydney have public transportation easily accessible from the airport. In Iceland, I hopped on an inexpensive shuttle from the airport and  spent my ten-hour layover lounging in the geothermal waters at the Blue Lagoon Spa in between trips into the sauna. Best. Layover. Ever. Whether you meet a nearby friend or go see some sites, just make sure you’re back in time to go through security again.

If all else fails, you could try making your own music video in the empty terminals. You can’t have “All By Myself” because somebody already did that.

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