How to spend your next long airport layover
Use card perks and these tips to maximize those few hours in between flights
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Airport layovers – especially long or unplanned ones – can be the bane of many travelers.
But thanks to a few handy credit card perks and a little airport know-how, some frequent flyers actually look forward to a few extra hours in the airport.
Members of the Society of American Travel Writers and other travelers who’ve circled the globe dozens of times shared their best tips on how to make the best of a long layover, whether you want to relax, work or go sightseeing.
Oh, the things you can do during a long airport layover
- Relax and recharge at a lounge. Check in advance what lounge benefits your cards may offer.
- Take a nap, in style. Many airports offer sleeping rooms or by-the-hour in-terminal hotels.
- Work out or indulge your senses. From watching a movie to practicing yoga, options abound.
- Go off-site. Look for sightseeing options catered to long-layover travelers – and follow our tips.
- Unexpected layover? Your card benefits can help ease the pain of a trip cancellation or delay.
Relax and recharge at an airport lounge
If you happen to be flying first-class or have a credit card that grants you access to certain airport lounges, travel experts agree this is hands-down the best way to spend your layover hours.
Take a look at which airports in the U.S. have the most lounges to choose from in our map below.
But not all lounges are created equal. At bare minimum, lounges offer a quieter space to plug in electronics and grab a simple snack. Some offer a basic continental breakfast or light lunch, plus a few house wines or domestic draft beers for free.
The best lounges have showers, sleep rooms, gourmet meals, complimentary cocktails and even massage services. The website Sleeping in Airports has a good roundup.
Everyone has their favorite lounge.
- San Diego-based travel writer David Swanson says he’ll spend an extra hour in Hong Kong just to hang out at The Wing first-class lounge operated by Cathay Pacific. “Lovely snacks and bubbles, a restaurant with an excellent full-service menu, as well as a deli, and 15-minute foot massages,” he says.
- “If you are lucky enough to fly Virgin Atlantic business, you will not want to leave the airport,” says San Francisco-based travel writer Ruth Carlson. “Their lounge in London has a Jacuzzi, a hair salon, mani-pedis, a shoeshine, a pool table, a garden, etc.”
Best U.S. airport for lounge access: Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). With 21 lounges (including one of the eight Centurion Lounges in the U.S.), Dallas-Fort Worth is a perfect place to relax in luxury while you wait for your next flight.
Tips to maximize your visit to an airport lounge
- Check in advance if your credit card grants you access to airport lounges, and plan ahead to find out which gates they are located at in relation to where you’ll be arriving.
- Some lounges also have a day rate (and occasionally you might be able to score a discount on a deal site such as Groupon or LivingSocial). If you’ll be spending a longer-than-average layover and your card doesn’t offer access, it might be worth springing for a day pass.
- Can you bring a friend or your children with you? Check the terms of your lounge access through your credit card before you travel so you can be prepared.
- Does the lounge offer complimentary drinks or food? Can you sign up in advance for a massage? These bits of information can save you money (instead of stopping by the airport bookstore and buying a pricy bottle of water, for example).
Tip: Some cards are affiliated with one particular airline and its designated lounges – such as Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, which offers unlimited entry to American Airlines’ Admiral Club lounges. Other cards, including Chase Sapphire Reserve and The Platinum Card® from American Express, participate in global programs such as Priority Pass, which grants access to various types of lounges.
Take a nap, in style
“At Munich Airport, the best invention ever is the Nap Cab,” says Meryl Pearlstein, a travel publicist for MDP Publicity in New York. “It’s a standalone bright green room, and you pay by the hour to get your own bedroom or office space. There are controls for lighting and music and you can work, sleep, whatever you’d like.”
If you want to stretch out a bit more, consider booking some time at a hotel located at your terminal. Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, a favorite among several travel writers, “has a couple in-terminal hotels that rent rooms in four-hour blocks,” says travel writer Hilary Nangle of Waldoboro, Maine.
If your credit card offers points for hotel stays – all the more reason to cash those in, or add a few more to your account.
Best U.S. airport for napping in style: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL). With not one, but two Minute Suites locations, ATL is our top pick for catching some Zzz’s between flights. These locations also offers relaxation and workspace retreats as a nice alternative for those who don’t have lounge access.
Work out, indulge your senses
Several airports across the globe offer similar amenities to what you might find in a lounge – for example, day spas with massage and nail services, bars and restaurants.
During your layover, you might be able to:
- Watch a movie.
Make the most of a long layover by catching a film. Portland International’s Hollywood Theater is a free “microcinema” that offers short films by local filmmakers. Minneapolis/St. Paul also offers a free screening room. There are also theaters at Singapore’s Changi Airport and Hong Kong International.
- Practice yoga while waiting for your next flight.
San Francisco International, Dallas/Fort Worth International, Chicago O’Hare and Midway, Burlington International, and London Gatwick airports have dedicated spaces for stretching and meditating.
- Take in a live concert.
More than a dozen airports, including Austin Bergstrom International, Nashville International and Pittsburgh International, host live music, dancing and other performances at various scheduled times.
- Go ice skating.
At Denver International Airport during the winter months, travelers can rent a pair of ice skates for free and test out their triple salchow (or not) on the 34-by-60-foot rink.
- Unwind from airport stress by petting a therapy animal.
Several nonprofit organizations across the country allow volunteers to bring in therapy dogs for a quick snuggle between flights. Check out Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford International, Wisconsin’s Dane County Regional and Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International airports.
- Get some steps in on your pedometer.
Many seasoned travelers love simply taking a long walk, going for laps from terminal to terminal.
- Experience interactive art exhibits.
Many airports in the U.S. and abroad install stunning art exhibits for travelers to enjoy.
Best U.S. airport to enjoy amenities: San Francisco International Airport (SFO). SFO offers museum-sponsored art exhibits, assorted spas and meditation rooms, 20 lounges, and even a designated children’s area with interactive exhibits and crawling equipment.
If your layover happens to be a particularly long one (or you’ve been unexpectedly delayed for several hours), consider getting off airport grounds and for some fresh air and sightseeing.
You’ll have to weigh the length of your layover, how much time it will take to get off the plane, through the airport, to the city and back, and then your return airport re-entry procedures, says Ali Garland, a travel blogger at Travel Made Simple, who wrote a blog post about weighing the pros and cons of leaving the airport.
“Airports that are close to the city center and have good public transport make good options for leaving the airport during a layover,” she says. “And if you need a visa in order to leave the airport, you really have to weigh the cost and hassle of the visa to decide if it’s worthwhile.”
Also, realize that going through customs and immigration will take additional time – which can be unpredictable. “It’s always good to give yourself extra time in case of traffic, lines when you return to the airport or some other unforeseen mishap, because you don’t want to miss your connection,” she says.
However, if you have enough time, some municipalities and airlines even offer local sightseeing programs for travelers facing long layovers.
Unique sightseeing opportunities during a long layover
Here are some unique options for airports both stateside and international:
- Run with reindeer.
Travel writer Emilie Harting of Philadelphia suggests this for layovers of at least two and a half hours in Fairbanks, Alaska. The farm is located about 20 minutes from Fairbanks International Airport, accessible by privately arranged shuttle. After your walk in the woods with your new antlered friends, you’ll enjoy cookies and drinks.
- Taste wine.
The city of Grapevine, Texas, offers a $5-per-person shuttle service to and from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for travelers who have a couple of hours to shop or do some wine tasting in the charming downtown.
- Shop big-time.
The Mall of America is just a five-minute drive from Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport and offers an amusement park, in addition to all the shopping.
- Visit a religious site. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers a free shuttle tour of Temple Square in Salt Lake City for travelers who have a layover of more than two hours.
- Admire big metallic birds.
If you have a layover at Dulles International Airport, Minneapolis travel blogger and photographer Gary Arndt offers this recommendation: “Get on the bus and visit the Udvar-Hazy Center, a wing of the National Air and Space Museum. Here you’ll find one of the original space shuttles, the Concorde, an SR-71 Blackbird and the Enola Gay.”
- Experience an ancient city.
Turkish Air offers free tours of Istanbul – including admission and meals – for passengers with a layover longer than six hours, says Nangle.
- Visit a volcanic earth-made spa. If you happen to be traveling through Iceland, travel writer Annette Thompson of Pensacola, Florida, recommends reserving a tour of the Blue Lagoon or Reykjavik from the airport.
Best U.S. airport for going off-site: Miami International Airport (MIA). Whether you want to relax for the afternoon at South Beach or explore one of Miami’s trendy neighborhoods, MIA is the perfect airport for longer layovers where you want to leave the airport for a few hours. Only eight miles away from the city, it’s one of the shortest airport commutes in the country.
Tips for leaving the airport during a long layover
- Do the math to decide whether getting off airport grounds is worth your time to go sightseeing – and overestimate the amount of time it will take to go back through security, customs, etc.
- Regardless of whether you intend to leave the airport, check for any visa restrictions regarding layovers if you are connecting in a foreign country.
- Research whether there are tour operators, either through the local convention and visitors’ bureau or the airline, for air travelers.
- Stay as close as you can to the airport – and if you’re staying overnight, check to see that the hotel offers an airport shuttle that can transport you to the airport in plenty of time for your next flight.
- Bring some cash in the local currency with you before leaving the airport – in some countries cards are not as widely accepted as they are in the U.S.
Whether you decide to stay at the airport or venture outside, planning ahead and a little help from your cards can turn a long airport layover into a memorable travel experience.
Unexpected layover? Leverage your credit card perks
Your credit cards can come to the rescue in the event of an unplanned layover.
- If your next flight is delayed or canceled, check in with your credit card’s concierge services (if applicable) for assistance with booking a new flight. You might get faster service than waiting in a long line of delayed and angry travelers. Call the number on the back of your card and you’ll get connected to a dedicated agent who can assist you.
- Lost luggage or trip cancellations. Many travel and rewards cards provide coverage for unexpected trip cancellations and/or trip interruption. The coverage is usually available to you, a traveling companion or immediate family member as long as you pay with that card.
- Use baggage delay protection, in some cases up to $100 per day, to replace toiletries and clothing in the event of long delay, says Natasha Rachel Smith, a personal finance and travel expert at TopCashback.com.
Tip: Some airports, including Seattle Sea-Tac International Airport (SEA), offer rewards for airport shopping, dining, and parking. Through the Thanks Again Network, you can earn bonus points and miles on Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, United, US Airways, and Hilton or 2 percent cash back on other everyday purchases at the airport and at home.
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