Facing a Layover on an Upcoming Trip? Here’s How to Kill Time at the Airport

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INSIDER SECRET: Lounge access can make or break a layover. Luckily, there are a number of credit cards that offer lounge access for free.

If you’re one of the millions who plan on flying this summer, you’ll probably be spending an extended period of time in airports. Airports are one of the primary reasons some travelers dread flying. For travelers not hip to the airport scene, there’s no worse time in an airport than the busy summer travel season.

Layovers during the summer are inevitable. One common misconception is that you can’t enjoy your time in an airport.

Not all layovers are the same, so you’ll need to plan your layover from the moment you step off your arriving flight to when your next flight begins to board. The most important thing is that you make your connecting flight.

Here’s how to make the most of your next layover this summer. (Photo by Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock.com)

Planning Your Layover

Short Layovers (30+ Minutes to 2 Hours)

The layovers I dislike the most are short layovers. Unless my layover gives me just enough time to get to my connecting flight, I know that the extent to which I can enjoy a layover is influenced by the little time between my two flights. Although 45 minutes is too short to go to a lounge in another concourse, spending two hours in a bland airport lounge or at a restaurant is just too long.  Here are a few tips to make the most of these short layovers.

Grab a Bite to Eat

Short layovers are great if you’re hungry. They give you enough time to refuel and catch your breath between flights.

Not enough travelers plan their layovers. They usually stop at the first restaurant they see. This isn’t a great idea because you might be missing some really great food just a few gates away.

Airports are doing a much better job of bringing local food and drink to passenger terminals. For example, you can get a Whattaburger at Dallas-Forth Worth Airport, local BBQ at Austin Airport, and Shake Shack at New York’s LaGuardia.

Before arriving for your layover, check the airport’s website for a map of the terminal. Many airlines have incorporated interactive maps of terminals into their mobile applications. You can use these maps to view restaurants and bars near your gate. American Airlines’ app even allows you to preorder food.

Airports are doing a great job adding unique local restaurants. (Photo by park1688/Shutterstock)

Visit a Lounge for Free with Select Credit Cards

I don’t recommend buying a day pass or membership to an airport lounge to kill two hours. But if you’ve got a credit card that offers lounge access either through the card’s own lounges or membership program like Priority Pass, you can stop by a lounge for free.

Make sure to use apps like LoungeBuddy or Priority Pass’ mobile app to map out the closest lounges. On short layovers, you’ll want to have a plan of attack to avoid missing your next flight. If your layover is under an hour, it’s best to stay near your gate. If you’ve got two hours to kill, you might be able to visit other terminals with better lounges.

With only a few hours between flights, I like to spend my time in lounges grabbing a snack and a drink or two, charging my devices, and freshening up. Though some lounges offer sit-down meals, showers or spas, it’s best to pass on these amenities as you may end up missing your flight.

Get Your Steps

If you’re trying to save money or are trying to stay in shape on the road, there’s no better way to pass the time than to walk around an airport. It might seem boring, but if you’re arriving at an airport for the first time, you will be surprised at some of the interesting things you might come across in an airport.

Make sure to chart your walk to avoid turning your walk into a sprint back to the gate to catch your flight. Some airports provide travelers with info like distance walked or recommend routes. I’m always surprised at how much exercise I manage to get in during a short layover.

AvGeek Out

If you’re an AvGeek (aviation geek) like myself, an hour in an airport is nothing. Find a quiet spot near your gate, find an outlet to charge your devices, and simply kick back and gaze out the window. At major airports, you’ll catch a glimpse of some of the world’s major airlines and massive jumbo jets.

Airports that offer the best views of unique airlines and aircraft include Los Angeles Airport (LAX), Miami Airport (MIA), London-Heathrow, and Sydney Airport.

The Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX is my favorite terminal to watch planes come and go. (Image by Philip Pilosian/Shutterstock.com)

Extended Layovers (2+ Hours to 6 Hours)

I don’t mind a cool four-hour layover at most airports. During extended layovers, I feel more comfortable setting up shop around a terminal or in a lounge. I don’t feel as rushed as I do during short layovers. Extended layovers give you a little bit more flexibility.

Stake Your Claim

If you don’t have access to a lounge, the best thing to do is make your own. Find a quiet spot in the airport, kick back and relax. It might seem obvious, but there’s a certain art to the practice of finding that quiet spot in a busy airport.

A major mistake many travelers make during long layovers is sticking to the gates near their next flight. With hours to kill, you have the time to travel to other terminals or concourses.

If you’re at a major international airport, the airport’s international departures area or terminal is often the best place to go for a quiet spot. International departures, especially in the US, are concentrated in the evening hours. During the middle of the day and morning, an airport’s international terminal is often quiet.

If you’re at a small airport, without an international terminal or concourse, consult the nearest departures board. Airlines will often schedule flights out of certain gates to make connections easier and to concentrate operations. Determine which gates are probably not being used and make your way to that area. You’ll find that perfect spot and have all of those coveted power outlets all to yourself.

Visit a Lounge and Enjoy All the Amenities

Now that you’ve got enough time to get settled in, there’s no better way to pass the time than a visit to an airport lounge.

On extended layovers, feel free to enjoy all of the amenities a lounge has to offer. You might be surprised to find out that a lounge offers tasty, made-to-order food or features spa services. In the US, if you hold The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum® Card from American Express card, make sure to check out the Centurion Lounges. Some Centurion Lounges offer free wine tasting or free spa treatments.

In some cases, if you’re an elite frequent flyer or traveling internationally in business or first class, you might have free access to some of the world’s top airport lounges.

Airport lounges might offer shower suites, spa services, or sit-down dining. (Shoto by Sorbis/Shutterstock)

Go on a Shopping Spree

Some airports look more like malls. Though the items you’ll find in stores at airports typically come at a markup, if you’ve got some spare cash and time on your hands, a shopping spree is a great way to pass the time.

In the US, airports with great shopping scenes include LAX, Miami, Seattle-Tacoma and Philadelphia, which feature stores like Gap and Victoria’s Secret.

Inquire About an Alternative Flight

Though you might not receive the answer you’d like, ask a gate agent or customer service representative to change to an earlier flight. If you hold elite status with the airline, you might even be moved to an earlier flight at no additional cost. Even if you can’t change your flight, the trip to the customer service counter will kill some time.

Yoga, Religious Services and More

Some airports offer a variety of services to travelers. These services include barber shops, urgent-care clinics, yoga rooms, and inter-faith chapels. To find out what an airport has to offer, visit the airport’s official website or take a stroll through the terminals.

Yoga rooms are available at airports like San Francisco International Airport. (Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock)

Long Layovers (6 Hours to 12 Hours)

Though I don’t mind extended layovers, there comes a point when layovers become too long. If you’re like me, you dread these 6- to 12-hour layovers, and rightfully so. There’s only so much to do in an airport. There are a few ways to avoid airport terminal fatigue.

Day Rates at Hotels

Some hotels near airports offer discounted day rates for travelers. These rates vary, depending on what city you’re in. Some hotels charge a fraction of the normal nightly rate while others charge nearly the same price as a full night.

Most major hotel chains allow you to book day rates online. If you don’t see day rates online, it’s always a good idea to call a nearby hotel to see if they offer day rates not published online.

Airport Sleeping Suites

Many international airports feature sleeping suites or pods for use by the hour. Some lounge programs like Priority Pass will even offer the first hour free at sleeping suites like Minute Suites which are found at Dallas-Forth Worth and Atlanta Airports, among others.

These by-the-hour sleeping suites and pods are a more affordable alternative to full-service hotels. They’re also great if you don’t feel comfortable leaving the airport because you’re worried you might not make your flight.

Pay for Lounge Access

On long layovers, it might be worth it to purchase a day pass at an airport or airline lounge. Day passes can be purchased for under $30 in some cases. Airlines charge a higher price for their lounges, but offer more consistent amenities. Keep in mind that day passes are often unavailable during peak hours, so it would behoove you to carry one of the best credit cards for lounge access if you know you’ll be stuck somewhere for an extended period of time.

Venture Outside the Terminal

If you feel comfortable enough and are adventurous, ditch the airport completely. Some airports, like Las Vegas Airport, are located near the city center making for easy access. Complete a quick internet search to find the best restaurants, bars, or shopping in the city. It’s also worth it to check out public transportation to save money on pricey taxi rides or ride-sharing apps.

Explore a new city during your next layover. (Photo by STLJB/Shutterstock)

Overnight Layovers

Being stuck at an airport overnight can either be super enjoyable or the worst experience of your life. Overnight layovers depend on two things: your ability to sleep in public spaces and your budget. If you’re trying to save money and have no problem sleeping on the floor of a major airport, then an overnight layover won’t be a big deal for you. If you’re like me, usually on a budget and unable to sleep in an airport, then an overnight layover can be quite stressful. Here are a few tips:

Make the Most of It with Cots and Airline Blankets

If you’re stranded overnight at a major hub, airlines will often lend cots and blankets to passengers. These cots and blankets are usually available free of charge for a set time in the evening hours and early morning. To inquire about a cot, visit the nearest customer service counter. You might be required to provide a form of ID or proof of travel.

Go all out and ask your airline for a cot and blanket if you plan on sleeping at the airport. (Photo by Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock)

Stopover Hotels Offered by Airlines

A few airlines, mainly airlines outside of the US, will offer free or discounted hotels at or near an airport. Turkish Airlines, Emirates, Air Canada, and TAP Portugal all offer free or discounted hotels. Airlines usually only offer these rates to qualifying passengers. Be sure to read the fine print before booking a flight with an overnight layover on one of these airlines.

Get a Hotel Room

If I’m stuck overnight at an airport, I usually cave and get a hotel room. If this sounds like you, there are a few things you should know before booking your room. Airport hotels on site, near the terminal, are astronomically more expensive than off-site hotels. I always book hotels off site to save money.

Before booking, it’s important to make sure that the hotel you’re booking offers a free shuttle to and from the airport. Otherwise, you’ll also be paying for ground transportation. I often find airport hotels to be a great use of hotel points as hotels near airports are often less desirable and available for fewer points.

Head to an airport hotel to catch some ZZZs. (Photo by photo-Denver/Shutterstock)

Bottom Line

Delays and layovers are the worst. Well, at least, that’s what most have come to believe. Having spent days in airports, I’ve found that layovers are what you make of them. You could continue to lug your bags around a busy terminal with a frown on your face or you could make the most of your time.

Making the best of your next layover requires some creativity and planning. It’s important that your layover plans don’t prevent you from making your next flight. Plan ahead and make your next layover painless and maybe even enjoyable.

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