Airport Survival Guide – Making the Most of Delays

Written by Kate Goldstone

If you adore spending time hanging around the airport waiting for your flight, you’re a very rare bird indeed. Most people dread delays because it means they have to hang around in a sterile, overly-bright, echoing, noisy and uncomfortable space for hours and hours, where the only entertainment is shopping, eating or drinking.

Tired passengers stranded at the airport

Stranded at the airport – from

The thing is, when you’re in an airport you’re trapped on the premises. There’s no outdoor space to escape to, no fresh air. Most airports are in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by big, busy roads. If you have children with you it’s even more of a challenge to stay sane when your flights are delayed. It’s even a challenge under ordinary circumstances because there’s almost always ages to wait.

It’d be lovely if flying was as simple as getting on a bus or train, where you just turn up and go – but these days, with ever-increasing security measures and overcrowded skies, air travel is about as far from straightforward as it gets. So how do you make the best of the experience, transforming it from a potential nightmare into something bearable or better?

Here’s our airport survival guide.

How to Survive Airports Without Losing Your Mind

Most people tolerate airports. Unless you’re a plane spotter they don’t tend to be places people fall in love with, visit just for fun or can’t wait to return to! But one thing is certain – they’re remarkably well equipped. So much so that now and again people actually live in airports, sometimes for years on end.

Take the unfortunate Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who was exiled from his home country, Iran, then had his passport stolen in Paris en route to Britain. Refused entry into the GB, he lived at Paris’ Charles de Gulle airport for more than seventeen years. Or Sanjay Shah, who tried to get into the UK on a British Overseas citizen passport but was refused. He’d already handed over his Kenyan passport and spent more than 400 days at Nairbobi airport protesting his case, eventually winning full British citizenship.

Then there’s Edward Snowden, either a hero or villain depending on your viewpoint, who spent a very scary 39 days holed up at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, hiding from the US security forces before being granted temporary asylum in Russia. And the Brit Gary Peter Austin who was stuck, broke, at an airport in the Philippines for 23 days, having missed his flight home.

No doubt they all discovered there’s everything you need for basic survival on an airport premises: water, food and drink, ways to keep clean, toilets, shops, bars and even places to sleep. There’s no way their experiences were fun… but they illustrate just how well-equipped airports are. Which means you should be able to survive a few hours’ wait without going crazy.

In-Airport Entertainment Takes Off

Airport managers are aware their premises are not always the most fun places to be. In fact many airports are so conscious of it that they’re making amends. Live music, art, ceramics and sculpture exhibitions, ice rinks and IMAX cinemas, rooftop swimming pools, Jacuzzis and water slides are just some of the facilities being put in place to lighten the airport experience.

Sleeping on the floor at the airport

Finding a place to sleep at the airport – from

If you’re lucky you’ll pass through an airport offering a spa or sauna, ice rink, casino, miniature golf or even lots of lovely green stuff, including stunning gardens like Sydney Airport’s 30m vertical garden stuffed with more than 8,000 beautiful plants. But what if you’re going via a bog standard, ordinary airport and you have a few long, dull hours to kill?

DIY Airport Entertainment

You could easily spend a small fortune while you’re waiting on sky high-priced drinks, snacks and shopping. Or you could be a bit more self-reliant and go equipped. Here are just some of the things you can do to make the wait bearable without spending all your holiday money before you get off the ground.

  • The simplest of all? Take a book, or your Kindle
  • Most airports provide free WiFi so feel free to take your gadgets along. The wonderful world of the interweb can keep you entertained for hours whatever your age or taste – just make sure the batteries are fully charged and take your charger
  • Take a picnic lunch, find a quiet spot and relax
  • Play I Spy, Charades or cards
  • Take a miniature travel chess set with you. You can always play draughts with it if you don’t play chess
  • The Telegraph has produced a suite of airport survival guides for a handful of specific UK airports, which you’ll find here
  • Make up stories about the interesting people you see
  • Take the old fashioned route – get the kids to draw pictures of the aeroplanes or write about the experience in a holiday scrapbook – an ordinary hardback book of plain or lined paper is perfect
  • Book into an airport lounge and chill, far away from the madding crowd
  • Go for a walk and stretch your legs – major airports are absolutely massive and there’s lots to see

Turn up Just in Time

You could minimise the stress and hassle by leaving just enough time instead of getting there hours early. Most airlines recommend you turn up at least 90 minutes before your flight takes of. But many seasoned experts make a point of arriving in time for boarding instead.

The problem here is the roads. If you’re driving to the airport you need to factor in extra time for traffic jams and delays. On the other hand, going by train means there’s much less risk of being late.

Crowds at Gatwick Airport

Crowds at Gatwick Airport – from

How late you leave it depends on how brave you are. Some seasoned commuters have got it down to a fine art and turn up at the last possible minute fresh and un-stressed. Others are far too farty to risk missing their flight and prefer to leave plenty of spare time. It’s a personality thing.

… or Turn up in Good Time

Some experts recommend getting to the airport two hours early for domestic flights and three hours early for international journeys. Others even recommend adding another 40 minutes on top just in case. It’s up to you – you might find it much more stressful to have to hang around for hours than leave it late and catch your plane by the skin of your teeth. Just choose the tactic that makes you feel the happiest and most comfortable.

The best of both worlds? Book yourself into an airport hotel so you’re actually on the premises on the morning of your flight and leave transport-related risks behind. As you’d expect airport hotels are fully soundproofed, so are often much less noisy than hotels nowhere near an airport. And a good night’s sleep works wonders if you’re feeling frayed at the edges.

Fly at Crazy Times

If crowds, hustle and bustle drive you nuts, it’s probably best to fly ridiculously early in the morning or late at night when airports are half asleep. There’s more space, less noise and it’s altogether much more mellow.

Have a Plan Just in Case Things go Pear-Shaped

It helps to make a like a boy scout. If you prepare for a delay you’ll be much less fazed when one happens because you’re physically and mentally prepared.  Your airport delay survival kit?

  • Wear comfy, loose clothes and shoes, bearing in mind airport concourses are almost always far too hot for comfort
  • Take ear plugs to shut out the constant hum of noise
  • Bring headache pills just in case
  • Pack at least one book, newspaper, magazine or internet-accessible gadget in your hand luggage so it’s easily accessible
  • Take healthy snacks and drinks to avoid poisoning yourself with endless junk food or spending a bomb in airport restaurants
  • Bring sunglasses to protect your eyes against that awful fluorescent glare
  • Pack a blow-up cushion for your backside, to make the plastic seats bearable

Let an Airport Lounge Take the Strain

One sure-fire way of escaping the crowds to enjoy peace, quiet and comfort is to book yourself into a smart airport lounge, away from all the usual chaos. After all, if you can’t avoid having to hang around you might as well hang around in relative luxury.

Heathrow Airport VIP Lounge

Heathrow Airport VIP Lounge – from

You don’t need to be an A list celeb, or even on the C list. Ordinary people are perfectly welcome. Some VIP airport lounges are so exclusive they only take fifty passengers at a time, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be one of them.

Most private airport lounges include drinks and snacks in the price, which starts from as little as £13.50. All you have to do is dress reasonably smartly – smart/casual will do just fine – and chill out. Lounges are no place for drunken behaviour, so if that’s what you like to do while waiting around at the airport, it’s best to restrict yourself to public areas!

What about the kids? Some airport lounges allow children in, but if not you’ll be told during the lounge booking process. If you take yours into a private lounge, bear in mind that people pay good money for the peace and quiet, and  make sure your little ones stay low-key and calm.

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What About Your Tips?

If you’ve got airport delays down pat and sail through without so much as a sniff, never mind a nervous breakdown, we’d love to know your tricks of the trade. How do you survive airports unscathed?




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