Friday, December 19, 2008

How to Sleep at an Airport

NOTE: This article has been rewritten and re-released in Homeless by Choice: How to Sleep In An Airport
Go there instead! (Article below retained only for archive purposes.)

Two days ago, the Las Vegas airport was shut down by snow, and my cross-country flight was diverted to Phoenix. I have been living at the Phoenix airport since then, and I may have to stay here three more nights before I can finally get to Las Vegas. That's the risk of flying standby during the Christmas rush.

I feel a lot like Tom Hanks in the movie, The Terminal, who is trapped in limbo at JFK airport because his passport is no longer recognized.

But what most travelers would regard as a nightmare I see as a pleasure. You see, I have perfected the skills of airport survival and can live as comfortably here as anywhere else. As airports go, Phoenix is a workable one. The passenger concourses are open all night, and there's free wifi in the air. There are also no fixed armrests on the seating, which is an important element if you plan to spend the night.

It turns out the most important difference between pleasure and pain in a long airport stay is being able to comfortably sleep. I have slept in many airports around the world and have worked out the rules by trial and error. The requirements for sleep are pretty simple. You don't need a feather bed, but you do need warmth, padding and safety. Here are a few tips I have put together for your convenience...

1) Some airport terminals stay open all night (PHX, LAS, PHL) while others don't (CLT, BOS and most small-city airports). When a terminal stays open, you can remain in the secure area and sleep wherever you are comfortable. No one is likely to bother you. If your flight has been canceled or delayed and you genuinely have no choice, the airport authorities won't evict you, but you can also pretend that your flight is delayed and stay there by choice. In my experience, once you are inside security, no one will ask.
In the many times I have slept in airports, they only people who have woken me up were employees offering me pillows and blankets.
2) WARMTH is the most critical element to comfortable sleep. Room temperature of 78 degrees is comfortable when you are awake but can be painfully cold when you are trying to sleep. Even if you are flying in the summer, you should always travel in long pants and a warm sweatshirt, sweater or jacket. I also travel with a woolen cap and a light blanket (like one might steal from the plane). I find that I can sleep comfortably when I have several layers of clothing, my winter cap, and two light airline blankets.

3) Some airports have seating with fixed armrests between each seat (CLT), and some have no armrests (PHX). Obviously it is much easier to sleep when there are no armrests and you can stretch out across several seats. You sleep best when there is some padding under you and you can raise your legs to the same level as your head. Even in airports when there are fixed armrests, you can usually find some seating without them (LAS, PHL): Try going to a different concourse (A, B, C, etc.). If you find only seating with armrests, you might have to sleep on the floor but you can also try sleeping in a fetal position curled around the armrest. (It sounds bizarre, but if you are limber enough, it may work out and be more comfortable than the floor.)

4) It is nice to be able to block out light and sound. You can block out light with a sleep mask (available at drug stores or at Wal-Mart for $3) or by pulling your cap down over your eyes. Sound can be blocked with foam earplugs. Without them, you'll be blasted by automated security announcements ("Never leave your bags unattended....") and the CNN newsroom playing on the screen above you.

5) If you choose to leave the secure area, be sure you have a boarding pass to get back inside. (If you have been bumped from one flight to another, you can probably get a fresh boarding pass from a gate agent before you leave the secure area.)
Note: Most airlines won't issue boarding passes at the airport until four hours before boarding time, but they may issue them up to 12 hours before when you do it on-line. You can factor this into your plans. When entering security, TSA may require your boarding pass to be current (not for yesterday or tomorrow), but you'll have to try it to find out.
6) Airport food can be frightfully expensive, so I always bring dried food from home. (Dried pork chops are a favorite: Cook them in the oven -- but then leave them there for several hours at the lowest setting to make them dry and portable. You can do the same with any other meat or fish.) Liquid drinks and canned goods aren't allowed through TSA security, but you CAN bring an empty water bottle and any powdered drink mix. Fruit also passes security, as do most prepared meals.

7) Don't forget your toothbrush! Always bring it in your carry-on bag, not in your checked luggage. Everything essential to your journey should always be in your carry-on, because there's a roughly 1 in 200 chance that your checked bags won't arrive when you do. (But don't worry, they will show up eventually.)

8) A travel pillow is nice (like one you might steal from the plane), but if you don't have one, you can create a makeshift one from available clothing.

9) You don't have to worry much about safety. A secure airport terminal is one of the safest places on earth. Everyone there had to pass through security and is stable enough to at least afford an airline ticket. All employees had to pass through government background checks and wouldn't be there if they had any significant criminal record. Your carry-on bag and other belonging can be stored under your sleeping bench, in such a way that someone would have to wake you if rummaging through them, but the risk of this happening is low.

These rules are handy if you are truly delayed and have to sleep in the airport, but you can also think of other possible uses. Let's say you arrive at a city late at night and don't want to pay for a hotel. If the terminal is open all night, you can just remain there after you get off the plane. (You can even ask the gate agent if the terminal will remain open.)

There are worse islands to be shipwrecked on.

Also see my Red-Eye Survival Guide for in-flight sleeping tips.

Here is an example of typical airline seating with armrests. In a pinch, I can sleep fairly comfortably on these by wrapping myself around the armrest in the fetal position. It is more comfortable than it seems. The majority of the world's population sleeps in worse conditions.

See the revised article at Homeless by Choice for updates.