Are You The Perfect Airport Sleeper?

Anticipation by Robert S. Donovan - Flickr

I wandered this way and that. People were lying in corners, sprawled on the floor. Some looked almost peaceful – others with arms flung over their eyes, or huddled foetally, any exposed faces scrunched into grimaces or rictuses of discomfort. Distant noise of machinery, but here…silence.

I padded along quietly, carrying my wheeled suitcase, careful not to make my boots squeak on Fiumicino Airport‘s shiny flooring, turned a corner – and there, neatly prone against one wall, was the Perfect Airport Sleeper.

She was swaddled in a half-unzipped sleeping bag. Under her head was an inflatable pillow sewn into the top of a handbag, the opening side tucked under her neck. On her right side was her suitcase (padlocked), with bungee cords snaking from it into the top-half of her sleeping bag zipper – presumably attached to an arm or wrist. Under her sleeping bag, one of those super-lightweight inflatable matresses that are quickly replacing camping rollmats. She had the faint smile of the truly, deliciously content.

Let’s say I’m a  burglar. (Some airports have them). Where’s my way in? I can’t pull her suitcase away because I’d drag her along with it. I can’t get at her hand-valuables because I’d need to reach under her neck. And I can’t really do anything because she’s picked a spot that’s in full view of three other groups of people.

(To hell with it. I’ll try someone else).

Whoever that lady is, I’m grateful. She’s helped open up a whole new world of affordable (read: free) accommodation when I’m travelling.

Same dream? by Rene Ehrhardt - Flickr

Of course, you have to do your research. Some airport staff will send you on your way (which is always why you need an affordable back-up plan). Other places will pressure you for proof of your legitimacy – ie. they’ll want to know when you’re flying and why you’re crazy enough to willingly sleep on the floor.

Here’s a good round-up of the basics, courtesy of Donna McSherry’s Guide To Sleeping In Airports.

And here’s what sleeping in Fiumicino taught me.

  • Fashion yourself a bag-pillow. A small valuables bag with a fabric sleeve sewn onto the side, into which you stuff an inflatable pillow. The bag should only open at the top, and this should be tucked under your head as you sleep. Daysacks usually come with double zips for left & right access – if you’re using one of these, secure the zips together in the centre with a tie or a small padlock…and find some way of clipping your sleeping bag onto the same padlock. This sucker stays put.
  • Take a lightweight inflatable mattress, such as a Thermarest. Ever gone camping and suffered lumpy ground under your sleeping bag? Airport floors are 40 billion times worse. No, really. And if you’re lying directly on the ground, you’re going to have your body heat sucked right out your back or your side, leaving you muscle-cramped and chilled to the bone when you wake. (Yes, even through a good sleeping bag. Airport floors are heat-vampires of the thirstiest variety). Yet you avoid all that misery if there’s a layer of warm air between you and the floor. Make one.

Sleeping by feline_dacat- Flickr

  • All your luggage ends at you. First, make sure everything is locked up tight. No way for anyone to get in without making a commotion. Next, attach your luggage to yourself, whether bungee cords attached to a leg-strap, or a flexible bike-lock hooked to your belt (which is trickier if you’re prone to shifting about while you sleep). Depending on the nature of the cord connecting you to your luggage, you have a choice: in the open or hidden away? With a bike-lock steel cord you’re safe to snake it out in full view, announcing to any disreputables that they haven’t a hope of scarpering with your kit without taking you along for the ride. If you’re worried you might have a fabric cord snipped with a knife, have your suitcase right next to you and hide the excess cord down by your side.
  • Get earplugs. I’d recommend these for reading or dozing – but not for full sleep. It’s worth risking a disturbed sleep for hearing any sounds that suggest someone’s tinkering with your stuff. (This might not work for everyone – I’m good at sleeping in noisy places – buses, trains etc.). Awake, the most useful aspect of earplugs is the way they allow you to hear your thoughts again, letting you damp down the travel-induced chaos in your brain and focus on one thing only – a book, an mp3’d album, a travel journal. Secure your belongings, get comfortable and disappear into a saner inner world. My recommendation for all your earplug needs is Snorestore (in particular, Mack’s Ear Seals).

Sleeping travellers by anglogean - Flickr

  • The more public, the better. I find this one really tough. My instincts scream “hide away, lurk unseen, be small be small”. But if you want to be truly safe, you have to trust in one of the golden rules of travel – namely that In General, People Are Good. So seek safety in numbers, by bedding down somewhere fully in view of as many people as you’re comfortable with. Visibility is a deterrent- so use it. (And if you end up gumming at the floor or sleep-drooling over yourself and wake up to the sound of laughter – hey, they’re strangers, you’ll never see them again. Or you could wait until they’re asleep and steal their luggage. You know, for educational purposes).
  • Water. All the airports I’ve slept in were either liberally air-conditioned or sweatboxes. Either way, you dry up. So make sure you have a topped-up water bottle before you zonk out. (Confession: at Fiumicino I spent a full hour in that mental no-man’s-land between wanting to doze off and wanting to get up and hunt for a drink, too parched for the former and too lazy for the latter. Airports really screw with your self-respect. Don’t give them the opportunity).

If you’re also an intrepid airport floor-hugger – anything to add?

Images: feline_dacat, anglogean, René Ehrhardt and Robert S. Donovan.

  • Having been forced to do this a couple of times in airports and once in a train station, I say you only do it in emergencies. Really. It takes days to get over the effects. The problem is, of course, if it is an emergency you aren’t going to be carting all that gear, but then I wasn’t going to be carting it anyway!

    • Agreed, ideally for emergencies – but also a good way to save a bit of cash, if you’re prepared to endure a bit of hardship…

      It took me a few ways to unkink my back after sleeping on Fiumicino’s floor. But then, I didn’t use a roll-up mattress (and I used one recently visiting friends, their own Thermarest – and it’s light enough to have slung under a rucksack and entirely forget about).

      So which airports and which train station?

      • I’ve been stuck in various airports worldwide, especially in my student cheapest travel days. Most recently Dulles International in Washington DC when the plane broke. Hours and hours in a closed down airport with no food or drink available. Crap experience. When I finally arrived in Rome, having missed my sensible connection, my ride had returned to Umbria, so I trained to Roma Stazione Termini. It was closed with no more trains leaving until 5:30 AM so I and a traveling Canadian decided to watch out for each other at binario 1, the only area allowed for overnights. He slept while I watched. What a deal. None of it was adventurous or fun and since I was carrying all my expat purchases, no mattresses.

  • I had a “lovely” overnight layover in Bangkok for 15 hours, between New Zealand and Spain. I had lost all sense of what time it was where I left, what time it was where I was, how long I had traveled and had yet to travel, and what time it was where I was going. So all in all, I was in one funky kind of air travel purgatory. But I was pleased to have a relatively decent sleep behind a bench in a quiet-ish part of the airport. I was one of about 3 people there when I nodded off, and one of a small army of dozers when I woke up to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. Apparently it pays to go to bed “early” at an airport!

    • 15 hours….

      Ye gods.

      And airports feel surreal at the best of times. Without having a firm grasp on time, surreality would easily turn to nightmare.

      But sounds like you got it sorted. Sleeping directly on the ground? Didn’t get cold?

      • No, I remember putting something on the ground beneath me, but I don’t remember what it was. Perhaps it was simply a pashmina….more than nothing, but far from enough!

  • I cannot get over that girl’s setup! I could never fall asleep in full view of everyone, even though its being safer should lull you to sleep I guess. I would never get even five minutes of shut-eye, knowing that everyone was envying my sleeping bag, talking about me, looking at me. No way! I put my passport, wallet, etc in my bigger bag and use it as a pillow. I sleep all tangled in my purse, which is really a decoy anyway. If they ran off with it, they’d get only my book and whatever else I stored in there that I could easily re-purchase.

    • Mikeachim

      Sleeping-bag envy? Photo or we don’t believe a word, lady. ;)

      Sleeping tangled in bag straps is another good method. Nice one. If they can’t work out how to untangle you, they’re even less likely to try…

  • The thin inflatable mattress is the best advice ever! I had to kip under a bench in a ferry port in Holyhead, Wales which is completely open to the elements except for a roof and a few walls, and all I had was my thin bedroll to battle off the freezing cold. I was lucky enough to be traveling with a friend so he sat on the bench keeping watch while I got some sleep.

    • Wales, eh? And in the open air? *wince* I’m presuming this was during the summer, as you survived the experience?

      I’ve slept on a few concrete floors and benches….and I’ll never do it again without a little mattress. Even one of those yoga-mat-like bedrolls so popular a few decades ago just don’t cut it. After a while they squish down and you’re touching the ground again…

  • OMG, haha, wish I could do it, but there is just no way.

    • Mikeachim

      How so? What puts you off the most?

  • Abby and Andi –

    So you’re not interested in my amazing new travel adventure “365 days Behind Perspex”, where myself and a band of intrepid airport-hoppers never venture into the open air once, not once, in a whole year, spending our waking hours roaming airport lounges scavenging in corners for food, sleeping on the floor, eating cold beans out of tins, performing our ablutions in the communal bathrooms, and occasionally leaping on a plane to visit a different airport to experience airport homelessness elsewhere (as long as we don’t have to cross tarmac – so, interconnecting umbilical bridges only)?

    It’ll be raw. It’ll be fun. Are you with me?

    *silence*

    Come on. Waddayasay, guys? Guys?

    *a tumbleweed bounces across Fevered Mutterings. The wind howls*

    • Jimbo

      And a voice on the wind shrieks (in a West Country accent)… ‘wasn’t that a Tom Hanks film?’
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Terminal

      • Mikeachim

        You’re not wrong.

        Except in the film, he had no choice. And similarly so with Mehran Karim Nasseri, the man the film was based on….

        And on that subject – it’s curious that a man allegedly paid $250,000 by Spielberg for the rights to his story is now living “in a Paris shelter”, according to Wikipedia….

  • Oh I can’t sleep in airports if I’m by myself. Too paranoid. I don’t even like to get too involved in a book! Great advice though :)

    • Mikeachim

      That’s always a worry of mine. I get lost in books. All too plausible a thought to look up and find my suitcase has been whipped.

      With that in mind….I reckon propping your book on your luggage is always wise. :)

  • Liv

    I’ve done it before. Not because I wanted to. Sleep came; I went. Sleeping on top of all of my things to deter rogues and bandits. Lumpy objects sticking into my spine, under my neck. Ouch. Why didn’t they wake me? I must not be royalty, I guess.

    • Mikeachim

      Thinking like a bandit: anyone sleeping on top of lumpy objects like that can probably take a lot of punishment. Not messing with her, me.

      Also, that’s not a proper test of royalty. You need a tiny dried pea at the bottom of the bag you’re slumped over. It only works with peas. This is what Hans C.A. got wrong about it all: it’s not that princesses are used to 100% comfort, it’s that they’re allergic to peas. Even a single pea hidden under the floorboards can kill a royal person given enough time, extensive testing have shown. This is why, for example, you don’t see royal people at fish & chip shops.

  • I have slept in many airports and if there’s carpeting I can sleep easily. Once I slept in the Ryanair airport outside London which didn’t have carpet, the floor was cold but clean so I threw one head on my dayback and my legs over my backpack.

    • Mikeachim

      They probably used the carpet to line the aisles of their aircraft. That’s how RyanAir keep their fares low. ;)

      You were in London, eh? When was that?

  • Oh, this I have to try. I had the most disasterous time at Dublin airport last year, and this would have made the experience so much better!! My flight from Spain got in at 1am and my flight to the US was leaving at 11am. I was trying to save money, and I wasn’t foolish enough to expect to sleep the entire night, but I’ve slept fairly successfully in plenty of airports, so I didn’t expect a problem, and I settled down in Starbucks to study for a while. The couches were all taken, of course. Got a stiff back. Wandered about a bit. Tried different places, but all the seating in that cursed airport is metal, and the floors are cold, so I decided, ok, check in and snuggle down somewhere inside! Hah! No wonder the security guy laughed at me when he commented on how early I was checking in, and I explained! Just the same in there as outside. Well, I think there may have been wooden chairs or benches or something in one of the eateries. I’d draped myself as comfortably as possible over a couple of seats at the gate and then had to go to the loo, and when I got back the whole planeload (well half a load, but that’s another story) had arrived in my absence, and there was nothing for it but the cold, cold floor. It should only have been another half hour at most by then anyway……….but, no…..1pm flight was cancelled and we slopped our wet and sodden way across to the bus which took us to an overnight hotel. Can you imagine – free food, free dinner, free breakfast – and I passed on both! All I wanted to do was sleep!!

    • Mikeachim

      Ack.

      Yes, I can imagine wanting to sink into oblivion after all that.

      I present thee with the special Fevered Mutterings “Nightmare Of The Month” award. (It’s a gold statue of someone being told that their flight has been cancelled).

      I can’t understand why airports continually fit departure lounge seating with arm rests that prevent you stretching out. Presumably someone at some point decided that it would be a good way to deter one or two opportunistic illegitimate nappers, and in doing so consign thousands of genuine travellers to cricked necks, numb backsides and so on. It’s sick. Why can’t these seats at least folds back flat, so you can lay on them portrait-style, even if landscape isn’t an option because of arm-rests?

      Airports: people sleep in you. Deal with it. As in really deal with it. You don’t have to lay on 5* accommodation. Just make what’s there already vaguely bearable. That way, people will love you, not resent you. And you do want people to love you, don’t you?

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  • I’ve slept at Kuala Lumpur International a few times whilst waiting for connecting flights. Down by the departure gates of the satellite building, they have excellent seats that double up perfectly as temporary beds. Flat, no back and comfortable, a great kip was had by all!

    • Mikeachim

      I rest my case (re. my reply to islandmomma’s comment). Kuala Lumpur have got it sorted. It’s not hard. In fact, it’s probably cheaper!

      Western European airports, get on it. Thx.

  • Oh I have slept many times in airports, (spent 48h in Charles de Gaulle in Paris). I don’t feel weird pulling off my sleeping bag, hugging my backpack and sleeping the whole night. Many people do it so why not?
    I usually chose a corner instead of the chairs.

    Great read!

    • Mikeachim

      Thanks, Daniel. Very kind.

      Sorry, hold on…

      48 hours???

      Um.

      Okay, in the off-chance you pop back and read this reply – I want that story. Yes please.

  • Guilty- did it as a single traveler, with my mother, my parents and now my own family of three. Oh well. That’s the way it goes! :-)

    • Mikeachim

      Thanks, Aye. :)

      Nothing to be guilty about. It’s a great way to save a bit of cash. And the more of you there are, the safer it is (and the more stuff you can bring to make it bearable, like mattresses and the like)….

      Anywhere you’d recommend for it? And any airports you’d suggest avoiding?

  • Hi there! What a great post! I recently spent a night in Stanstead, and thought about writing a piece about it. Unfortunately I gave in to sleepiness and eventually collapsed on a tiny seat until the cleaning staff woke me up at 5.30 am. Not deliberately, but because they were talking between them about their boyfriends. It was like a very bad dream!

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your experience! I enjoyed reading it.

    Vibeke

  • Haha great! And the photos, too! :)

  • hopefully this neat invention will soon embark at airports all over http://www.travelettes.net/sleeping-at-the-airport-the-sleepbox/

  • Love the bag-pillow. Great idea. I’m usually all tied up with a tiny travel pillow, half deflated neck pillow and my luggage wrapped around ankles, knees & arms. But I’m a wicked restless sleeper (at airport, on trains, buses – all of it). And yes, I’m afraid of waking up with drool on my face, or somewhat draped around the person next to me. Okay, I have made a few awkward (and short) friendships this way. :) Thanks for the great article. ~ Loralee