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The Best Tips for Sleeping in Airports

If you must sleep in an airport, here are the ways to do it.

I recently flew into San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on a flight that landed around midnight, and once on the ground, I checked both my Uber and Lyft apps for a ride into the city. The costs were astronomical. Prices were surging, with the two rideshare services hovering around $100 for the 13-mile drive to my apartment. Since the Bay Area’s rapid transit system connecting SFO to downtown had already shut down for the night, and it felt too late to call anyone, I did what’s become a running joke among my friends and travel colleagues: I looked for a comfortable place in the terminal to sleep, and snoozed away until early morning.

I’m not alone in sleeping at airports. In both the U.S. and abroad, it’s common to see airline passengers stretched out on the floor and across chairs, hoodies, or jackets, covering their heads for extra privacy. Some strategically use their carry-on luggage as a pillow, while others have their belongings piled by their side. There are many reasons they might be snoozing in such a public place: a canceled and/or delayed flight, an endlessly long layover, or like me, surging transportation costs to/from the airport when all you need is a catnap ASAP.

Bedding down in airport terminals is so common that there are even websites devoted to it, such as Sleeping in Airports, which helps readers suss out the best places to rest up within various airports and offers tips on how to sleep comfortably (and safely!). Founder Donna McSherry launched the site in 1996 at the tail end of a backpacking trip through Europe.

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“When you’re spending your nights at hostels, you don’t want to waste money on an airport hotel,” says McSherry. “So I figured okay, I’m just gonna sleep in the airport the night before my morning flight home.” Her penchant for making the most out of airport sleeping took off from there.

Airports Offerings Ways to Snooze Comfortably

In the years since McSherry first spent the night in a Dublin airport, many airports around the globe have started providing bonafide ways for passengers to get a few hours of sleep between long-hauls, though on a traveler-to-bed (or even lounge chair) ratio, what’s available remains extremely limited. That’s because airports, as a whole, are intended for people coming and going but not staying.

“Part of how we’re looking at business at SFO is that we’re trying to offer same-day service,” says Doug Yakel, a San Francisco International Airport public information officer. “We’re expecting that our airlines will run things smoothly so that overnighting in a terminal isn’t a necessity.”

Unfortunately, it’s not always realistic, so some airports are providing passengers who plan ahead with a choice. Take Mexico City’s Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez, which has IZzzleep capsule hotels in two different terminals. Passengers can rent an upper or lower “sleeping pod” with its own bed, flat-screen TV, lighting, and enough space to store small personal items (lockers are available for larger luggage) for a full afternoon or night. While bathrooms are shared, the pods themselves are actually quite spacious and cozy. On the night that I stayed there in 2021, travelers kept their noise to a minimum, and it was the best sleep I’ve ever gotten in an airport by far (prices currently start at $48/night).

There are also places like Singapore’s Changi Airport, which offers rest areas for various budgets, from reclining lounge chairs at free-to-use “snooze lounges” to sleep cabins and nap rooms within some fee-based airline lounges. The airport also boasts a trio of transit hotels with flexible hourly booking. You don’t even have to clear immigration to use them. Back in the States, heavy-eyed passengers head to the third-floor mezzanine level of Denver International Airport’s Concourse A, a spacious set-up of massage-style recliners, cushioned benches with wide ottomans, and even long flat chairs for lounging.

Major transit hubs such as Germany’s Frankfurt Airport, Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, and Dubai International Airport in the UAE are also realizing the importance of offering what McSherry calls, “Hourly ways for people to catch some shut-eye without having to sleep on a bench.” These include compact and soundproof NapCaps (Frankfurt), larger Minute Suites (Charlotte), and Dubai’s Sleep ‘n Fly, which provide a range of pods and cabins suitable for everyone from a solo traveler to an entire family. Prices, as well as reviews, run the gamut but start as low as $20 per hour for the Frankfurt option.

For travelers preferring a place that’s private and comfortable without having to leave airport premises and don’t mind the cost, there are high-end hotels like the Fairmont Vancouver Airport, which offers soundproofed rooms complete with floor-to-ceiling windows for watching the planes come and go and even a plane spotting guide to identify them. The rooms at SFO’s new transit Grand Hyatt have similar features, and both offer rates for day-use-only as well as overnights.

Making the Best of It

Still, as a freelance writer, my budget errs on the side of caution, and I’ve learned that when looking for a terminal where I can sleep, some airports are more allowing than others. In fact, in 2018, London’s Stansted Airport banned snoozing onsite altogether, a rule that’s said to be enforced regularly.

“The bottom line is that it comes down to security,” says Yakel. “It’s no secret that air travel can be stressful…and a real goal in all of our terminal design is creating an atmosphere that is comfortable and relaxing. However, the main reason we don’t necessarily encourage sleeping in airports is that one of the requirements of passengers is for them to retain control over their accessible property at all times. The idea of somebody being fast asleep in a terminal runs the risk of not fulfilling that obligation.”

Having a “partner-in-crime” who stays awake while you rest is one way to help satisfy your end of this airport bargain, or you can lock your belongings away in a storage facility. That is, if you can find one–SFO’s Airport Travel Agency has rentable lockers, but it’s only open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

When sleeping in an airport’s public space is unavoidable—whether it’s because your evening flight had mechanical issues and the next one out isn’t until morning, or you’re too exhausted to make coherent choices—McSherry says there’s one thing always to remember: never settle for the first spot.

“Scope out the right place,” she says. “You might think, ‘Oh, that looks comfy,’ and then a couple of hours later, it’s the loudest place ever.” Consider what time nearby shops and restaurants will open and what areas might be noisier than others. “And look for security cameras,” she says, “because you don’t want to be so secluded that security can’t see you should there be problems.”

Travelers also tend to sleep in groups for safety, so don’t be surprised if you take your siesta solo and wake with a pod of fellow snoozers around you. Eye shades, earplugs, an inflatable and/or neck pillow, and a thin blanket—all those things that come in handy on long flights—can help make your experience much more pleasant, and if you have a sleeping bag, by all means, use it! Not only will it help with comfort, but it’s a perfect place to store your valuables–which I often wrap around me and/or sleep across.

Perhaps my favorite tip comes straight from the Sleeping in Airports’ website: “If you are traveling solo, take a pen and some Post-it notes. Write a ‘Wake me at 5 a.m.’ note and stick a few on yourself and the seats around you—it works. People will wake you.”

But while sleeping in airports can be money-saving and convenient, even regular airport sleepers like McSherry have their limits.

“The one place where I thought, no, I’m not sleeping here, was at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport during a winter storm,” says McSherry. Although airport officials had provided cots for the stranded passengers, the entire place was loud and cold, and McSherry didn’t want to bed down without a sleeping bag. “It just looked pretty grim,” she says. “And so I decided, ‘No, I’m staying in a hotel.’”