Top tips for passing time at the airport

dimly lit airport subway

Being stranded at an airport is like being stuck on a city’s front doorstep. A doorstep that’s normally full of uninspiring fast food, uncomfortable chairs and awkward body searches. But before you curl up on the welcome mat and wait it out, Intrepid’s Adam Slater has come up with some handy tips for surviving the ultimate travel purgatory – the airport layover…

Tip 1 – Repack your bags
OK, this suggestion might seem rather hellish at first, but hear us out. We’re not saying you need to scatter your dirty underwear all over the boarding gate lounge, but a quick repack can make the next leg of your journey just a little bit more manageable. Heading for a change in climate? Time to take out that warm jacket for when you arrive. Where are your headphones? Could you find them in a dark aircraft cabin when the baby in front of you starts screaming? What about your passport? You’re going to need to be able to find that when, after said baby has kept you up all night, you suddenly find yourself in a foreign passport control. We might sound like your mother here, but an efficient packing strategy can stop you being ‘that guy’ who accidently threw his boarding pass in the bin with his packet of corn-chips.

Tip 2 – Get out
For whatever reason, some travellers seem to adopt the airport as a kind of temporary prison. “I once did 22 hours in Dubai”, they say… as if it were a badge of honour to have spent the best part of a day staring at the roof of the terminal. This is a strange thing to brag about, especially when you consider that Dubai international airport is about a 10 MINUTE cab ride from downtown Dubai. So while they sat there eating Mcdonald’s alone in a food court, they could have been… eating something much more exotic at a much BIGGER food court. But the fun doesn’t stop there – as long as immigration rules permit or you can grab a quick tourist visa, your options are endless. I once had a friend who, when faced with a 3-hour layover in Detroit, went straight out the front door, got in a cab and asked the driver to take him to his favourite restaurant. They drove around the corner to a local diner and ate a Coney Island Hotdog while chatting about the recent housing foreclosure crisis. He still claims that he learned more about the U.S.A in half an hour than he did in his entire trip.

Tip 3 – Take a walk
If your layover isn’t quite long enough to go gallivanting around a city, don’t despair. There’s still plenty of exploring to do in the airport itself. If you’re in a country that’s a little bit exotic, head to the domestic terminal. That’s where you are more likely to find the stalls selling weird and wonderful food. For a start, try and see what the locals are eating. If you’re in Vietnam, eat some Pho. Stuck in Mexico City? You can bet your pesos that there will be a taco stand around somewhere. I’m also a massive fan of the trains that go between terminals. The one in Kuala Lumpur is pretty awesome. It might only kill 15 minutes or so, but it definitely beats staring at the departure gate. If all else fails, try walking really fast on a long travelator and pretending you’re a cyborg. It’s the closest you can get to feeling like Usain Bolt, or that liquid Terminator who chases after Arnie’s car in Terminator 2.

Tip 4 Buy a newspaper
If you can get your hands on a newspaper written in English, buy it. Even if it’s not in English, buy it anyway and look at the pictures. Newspapers are goldmines for wasting time. Most have crosswords, which are a godsend for those with nothing to do but sit and think. If you’ve followed tip one, your pen should be in an easy to reach pocket. And if you don’t have a pen, we’re willing to bet a nearby staff member or passenger will. If you manage to finish the crossword, we can highly recommend getting a few cheap laughs by drawing moustaches on all the pictures.

Tip 5 Write something
All great novels are born from some kind of adversity. War & Peace, Jane Eyre, To Kill A Mockingbird – all about people experiencing testing circumstances. So why not add your tale of airport woe to the literary canon! What about reviving the ancient art of postcard writing? Is there a computer nearby? You could start a blog detailing your airport movements. Maybe you’ve even got some tips of your own to add in the comment section below. We’d love to hear them!

* photo by Inge Turelinckx – Intrepid Photography Competition

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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10 comments

I had a lot of time in my connection flight in Frankfurt airport. It was about 9 hours. I couldn’t get out, but I had a lot of place to walk…So I think a better thing you can to do in airport in a free time – it’s to write a blog post :-)))

any ideas for 6 hours at night in Lima ? or similar in Los Angeles ?thanks for the many other good ideas for other places. think I’ll invest in an e-reader..

Have picnicked outside Moscow’s International airport on the lawn and on another flight to Morocco, have taken the train into Rome for a few hours R & R to have a welcoming campari and pizza with my husband who famously said “Let the holiday begin!”

Had a 5 hour layover in Osaka Airport once. My friends & I each hired a bathroom for an hour (longer was possible) & it was great to lie in the bath after a 14 hour flight. The dressing room section contained toiletries & gave me a chance to reorganise my bag

I have Scrabble on my iPad. So do our friends. It’s brilliant to play two games at the same time with four people. Has whiled away many airport hours.

Helene Blouin / Reply

I had a layover at Schiphol airport, in Amsterdam, and took advantage two free amenities in the terminal: the lounge chairs on which you can sleep, on the upper level, and the hall with exhibits from the Rijksmuseum.

Recently (last week) had a few hour layover in Houston, thought I would get closer to my departure area, got there with even more time to spare, so a little window shopping that took me to a wine and food bar. Why not try and to my astonishment the wine list was awesome and the food was at a level that airports are not known for. Being stuck this time was actually enjoyable. Madrid’s Barajas was also an exceptional food and shopping experience too. Wish I had a longer layover to explore.

Best airport to kill time in: Seoul. Super modern airport with a “learn about Korea” area. Women in traditional dress teach you how to do a traditional Korean fan painting, and how to play Korean flute (and even gave me a plastic version to practice on), among other traditional crafts. Then grab some delicious bibimbap for lunch!

Julie Steinbach / Reply

Beijing also has a fine transit hotel facility right in the airport – rent a room/bed/shower for 4, 6 or 8 hours. What a difference that made on a l2-hour layover between Novosibirsk and Los Angeles.

My wife and I always have a pack of playing cards with us. We can then in the smallest of places start a game of crib. Instead of a crib board we write down our scores and can stop at ant time.
Obviously other card games could be played to suit. It is amazing how quickly an hour can pass.

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