I’ve spent many a night sleeping in airports, but the one that most stands out in my mind is the night that kicked off my backpacking trip across Southeast Asia.
Sam and I had just flown from Seoul to Kuala Lumpur and we arrived at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (which was a zoo!) at around 10 p.m. Because it was so late in the day and the cross-country buses had already stopped running, we decided to spend the night at the airport and wait until 5 in the morning to catch a ride down to Malacca.
The question was: Where to sleep?
Countless travellers had already set up camp for the night and space was tight. There were people who had come prepared with thin foam mattresses while others were sprawled out on blankets, some were resting their heads on a friend’s shoulder while others were using their bulky carry-ons as pillows. I ogled at those experienced backpackers who looked so comfy with their yoga mats and neck pillows, and wished I’d also come more prepared…
We eventually found a quiet spot next to some other travellers in a corner of the terminal, and I curled up on the cold ceramic floor for the night. It was one of those sleeps where I kept waking up every 20 minutes because my hip and shoulder bones were digging into the ground, so I would have to roll over to the other side every few minutes while the fluorescent overhead lights blinded me.
I can’t say it was the best night’s sleep, but that was just one of the many nights sleeping in airports that taught me how to prepare for a good night’s rest.
Tips for sleeping in airports:
Set your alarm
First things first, you need to set your alarm. My internal body clock gets confused when I hop time zones so I can never trust myself to wake up in time to catch a flight.
I once lay down at the airport in Abu Dhabi while I waited for my flight to Brisbane to board, and well, I nearly didn’t make it!
Thankfully I was woken up by a woman who was getting on a flight departing for Nigeria, and that’s when I realized that not only had I completely zonked out for several hours, but my departure gate had also changed. A sprinting race ensued and I managed to make it to my gate just a few minutes before they started boarding. Whewww!
Lesson learned: Set an alarm because you can’t always trust yourself or your travel buddy to wake up in time.
Scope out the area
A really cool website to check out is SleepingInAirports.net; like the name suggests, this website is all about finding the best spots to catch some zzz’s in airports around the world.
If you’re flying through Singapore Changi, Seoul Incheon or Hong Kong, you’ve already won the lottery, but if you’re flying through some not so fancy airports, this website will help you track down a good sleeping spot (if there is one).
If you can’t go through to the gates because your flight doesn’t leave for several hours (and that’s quite likely if you’re spending the night at the airport!), another idea is to look for a spot in the arrivals area. The departures area tends to be a bit more meagre in terms of sleeping options since it’s often quite crowded, but most people in arrivals are there to meet family or grab a taxi and continue onwards to their final destination, so that usually means plenty of seating and potential nap areas.
Lesson learned: If you can’t find empty seats in the departures area, scope the arrivals section instead.
Keep your belongings safe
Some might think this is overkill, but while I was backpacking in Southeast Asia I travelled with both a metal safety mesh for my backpack and a travel lock. The main reason for this is that I was travelling on a budget and I wanted to be able to pack my valuables while I was out of the guesthouse for the day, but in the end it also came quite handy in airports.
Whenever I had a long layover and I wanted to catch a bit of sleep, I would put the mesh cover over my backpack and lock it somewhere safe right next to me, and then I would use the padlock to secure any other smaller bags I happened to be carrying.
I got a lot of use out of these two items, so I think they make good gifts for travellers who are setting off on a backpacking trip.
Lesson learned: Secure your belongings so you can sleep with peace of mind.
Wear a comfortable travel outfit
I’m all about comfort when I travel and that’s why you’ll usually catch me flying in leggings or slouchy pants, a t-shirt, a hoodie, and running shoes.
This right here is my go-to travel outfit; I can stretch, cross my knees, and feel flexible in it, which means it’s almost as good as wearing pyjamas, minus the disapproving glares.
I also purposely wear layers in case it’s too cold inside the airport.
Lesson learned: Wear something you’ll feel comfortable in, and dress in layers in case it gets warm or cold.
Get cozy for the night
If you want to get a good night’s sleep (and be comfortable in flight!), I would suggest travelling with a few token items.
First up, a neck pillow so you don’t wake up with a kink in your neck.
Next, a scarf or pashmina that can easily double up as a blanket.
And if you’re going ultra-budget on your trip and you know you’ll be spending many a night sleeping in airports, then you might even want to think about a light yoga mat. I’ve personally never travelled with one myself, but I’ve encountered many travellers who swear by them, so it’s something to consider.
If you’re a light sleeper, you may also want to add an eye mask to your list.
Lesson learned: Carry a few essentials like a neck pillow, scarf, and eye mask for a more comfortable sleeping experience.
Know when to splurge
Lastly, know when it’s best to just pay for a bed!
For example, when I flew from Toronto to Johannesburg last year, I knew I would be catching 3 back to back flights, which included one airport change in New York City during rush hour, followed by a really long layover in Abu Dhabi.
While sleeping in airports along the way was an option, I knew I would a very grumpy traveller if I didn’t get some proper rest, so I bit the bullet and paid for a hotel. I ended up finding a cheap hotel inside the airport (score!) while browsing on Booking.com and it was worth every penny.
In some airports sleeping pods are another great option to consider. These are ideal for travellers who want to catch some shut eye on a layover that isn’t quite long enough to warrant paying for a hotel room.
Pods can generally be rented by the hour, plus let’s face, it’ll make you feel like you’re in a Sci-Fi film.
Lesson learned: Airport hotels and sleeping pods are worth it if you want to arrive well rested.
What’s the best / worst airport you’ve ever spent the night in?
Do you have any other tips for sleeping in airports?
At Kuala Lumpur, there’s actually a great airport “hotel” called Capsule by Container Hotel located right in KLIA2, which if I recall correctly was about $18 USD for the night. You get your own private comfortable capsule with a privacy screen, chargers, wake-up call, etc. plus shower access. Sure, more expensive than sleeping on the airport floor, but after a very uncomfortable overnight at DMK the week before, it was well worth it 🙂
Thanks for the tip, Allison! I didn’t know about this one at the time (I wonder if it’s a fairly new addition?), but it sounds like a budget friendly way to catch up on sleep!
Sleeping pods are my favourite thing in the world, they used to have them out in the open at the Helsinki airport but unfortunately you now need to pay for sleeping in them. And I’ve spent many a night sleeping on that airport… Layering up, as you said, is definitely a big thing since airports are always freezing. Eyemasks are also great, I use my bandana scarf for that purpose.
Thanks for the great article!
So cool! I’ve flown in and out of Helsinki a few times but I’ve never noticed them before. I’ll have to track these down next time I’m there!
Nice post Audrey!
I haven’t really spent a night at the airport but I have spent 10 hours in one. Never again! It was in Moscow and I wrongfully thought I would be in the main international airport where I had visions of swashing about from vodka bar to vodka bar. Wroooong!
It was a small transit airport which you could finish walking in 10 minutes. I was on my way to Vietnam and the other travellers were fully prepared. Some had tents. I even spied someone who had a camping stove! And what did I have? A small travel cushion, a sandwich and a couple of newspapers from the Guardian lol!
Never spent a night in the airport fortunately (or unfortunately?). I guess that’s something to add to my bucket list!
In some airport hotels you can also rent a room pr hour. It is a bit expensive, but if you are really really tired is an option to get in a good hour or two of sleep!
I recently slept in Lima International Airport on my way to Cusco. I landed at 1 AM and my flight wasn’t leaving until 6 AM that morning, so I did everything you mentioned above, except I think I only slept for 20 minutes before giving up entirely. Sleeping on the floor really isn’t comfortable! I noticed there are chapels in South American airports (Lima, Rio, and Panama), which could be a great place to sleep as long as you’re respectable.
I did quite some airport overnights in Asia, all of them were at least okay. The bigger international airports in Bangkok, Singapore, KLIA are comfortable but stain busy and noisy overnight.
At the smaller airports like Kuching and Kota Kinabalu were everything shuts down at night it was helpful to get in touch with some of the airport staff like security or cleaning. They kept an eye out and some of them even helpt us move some seats to create a more or less comfy place to sleep and wake us up in the morning because they were afraid we would miss our flight!
I’ve only had to sleep in an airport once or twice and these are some great tips. I always carry a blow up neck pillow (takes up less space when not in use), a scarf, and an eye mask on all my flights and they can certainly come in handy if you find yourself trying to catch some zzz in an airport.
Thanks for sharing your great tips! Really useful 🙂 Appreciate it! Cheers!
Wow, these are some wonderful tips. I remember the time i spent my first night on airport in Osaka (japan) and had similar experience of waking up every 20 mins due to hip and backbone drilling into the floor 😉
I now carry a thick fleece jacket which doubles up as layering if needed. And an inflatable neck pillow.
I never travel without ear plugs and an eye mask! I’m a light sleeper and these items are critical for blocking out annoying distractions!
Yes! I need a sleep mask if I’m on a bus. I can deal with the noise, but the lights from oncoming traffic always drive me crazy.
It happens so often to spend the night at the airport, Audrey! Great tips and worth remembering!
Feels like we’ve all been there 😉 Comfy outfit is a must for long flights and long layovers!
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In some airport hotels, you can also rent a room per hour. It is a bit expensive, but if you are really really tired is an option to get in a good hour or two of sleep!
I’ve rented cars many times at airports and I’ve slept in the parking lot…it’s not the most comfortable but most of the time, it’s better than sleeping on the floor and cheaper than hotels.
I’ve been pretty lucky so far but I actually had one less than stellar experience on a London trip with my best friend in 2014.
Being total control freaks, we planned in so much extra time to get to the airport that we actually ended up being too relaxed. We had booked a bus to take us to the airport, not considering rush hour. We arrived at the airport with no time to spare and proceeded ok, until my friend got picked out of the line at security for a bomb check. Apparently, the quinoa salad she had bought at M&S coupled with her headphones looked “dangerous”. I tried to keep the doors open at the gate, but no cigar.
End of story: Even though we had planned in literally 3 extra hours, we ended up missing our flight back to Germany. The next flight was 16 hours away and we were dead tired, gross and sweaty from our frantic run to the airport and grumpy as all hell. We ended up spilling all our dirty clothes on the floor and sleeping on the piles. It was a terrible night, the airport was incredibly noisy despite the late hour and the only spot we could find was close to a door that kept opening and closing every few seconds. When we finally arrived in Germany, we wanted to kiss the floor. That was pretty bad.