I’ve spent somewhere around 200 hours of my life—about eight full days—inside airports. This is not because I am a glamorous jet-setter (I’ve never seen the inside of an airport lounge), but because I enjoy traveling and the cheaper I can do it the longer I can keep going. In order to make early morning flights I’ve spent the night at Heathrow, Newark, Milwaukee, Casablanca, and a handful of other airports. I’ve had looong layovers in Toronto, Seoul, D.C., Frankfurt, and New York that gave me plenty of time to go into the city, but I’ve always opted to save my funds for the trip instead.
Those 200 hours have contained wretched moments (sleeping on a baggage cart, the only non-tiled flat surface I could find in freezing Newark airport, is at the top of that list), and sublime ones (getting an e-mail acceptance to grad school in the Hong Kong airport wins there), but I would describe most of them as pleasant, even pleasurable.
In my everyday life I could be characterized as tightly wound. I don’t relax easily—I’m always fretting over something that is yet to be or thinking of something that should have been done already: a list to be made, a project to start or complete, a friend to check in with, a household item to restock. In the days before a trip preparation weighs on my mind. I’m always reminding myself not to forget this or that, re-considering my pack list, re-checking the departure time. But at some point I have to cross my fingers, check that I have my ID, and head out the door.
Calm starts to wash over me as soon as I enter the terminal. Once I check in and get through security I exhale and open my eyes wide. If I’ve forgotten anything it doesn’t matter now—I’ll deal with it when I can—and perhaps have an adventure trying to find underwear in Houston or deodorant in Bangkok. On the other side of another airport there will be things to do, but for now there is nothing to do and nothing to worry about.
This forced surrender is the thing I love most about airports. You’re trapped, but trapped in a weird mall/portal/way-station that provides plenty to look at and learn from. You’re in-between, in a place of transience, of liminality, and so is everyone else. All you can do is relax and enjoy your sojourn in this cave of glass and steel.
It’s rare that I meet someone who shares my feelings, but every so often I successfully infect someone with my odd airport enthusiasm. With that in mind, I present here my tips and tricks for enjoying the airport. I hope you find something to make your holiday travels just a little easier.
TIME IN THE AIRPORT = < 1 hour (easy)
Most people would consider a layover of this length ideal – not so short you worry about delays, not so long you get bored. For me, this isn’t nearly enough time to enjoy an airport. My first priority is always to prepare for my coming flight, making sure I’m well-hydrated and carrying adequate provisions. If I have failed to pack sufficient snacks I may spend some time evaluating all the options made possible by our global industrial food system. There’s almost always a local favorite featured alongside the snack-food heavy-hitters. In New Orleans you can get pork rinds, in San Francisco superfoods. My favorite snack is still a ice cream cone from McDonald’s. Even at airport-inflated prices it’s only like $1.29 and there’s something deliciously libertine about licking an ice cream cone while walking around a stale and sterile space.
I always have something to read on the plane but while still in the terminal I enjoy loitering at airport newsstands—one of the last places where print media still thrives. When was the last time you browsed a physical copy of Seventeen? Have you ever leafed through the National Review or Hot Rod? A good newsstand will have a mind-boggling collection of special interest magazines – from architecture to survivalism to bird watching to American history. Niche publications are a fascinating window into minds and lives very unfamiliar, and it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to cultivate a little understanding and empathy for your fellows when you’re about to be sharing air with them for a few hours. This is not to say I don’t think catching up on news about the wee future King of England or carefully studying eight amazing sex tricks that will destroy your man’s penis are not worthy uses of your time.
TIME IN THE AIRPORT = 1-3 hours (intermediate):
This is my sweet spot, especially between two long flights.
I always start by getting the lay of the land—figuring out which terminal is most interesting and what the food and drink options are. As soon as I get off the plane and refill my water bottle I start exploring. If I’m not already in the international terminal I try to get there, for there one can find the fluorescent wonderland that is the duty free store. This is of course useful if you are traveling internationally and want to bring some cheap booze to your friends, but it also provides extensive opportunities for sampling. I once gave myself a full makeover at an airport MAC counter and I always take advantage of the fancy lotions and potions to rehydrate my plane-parched skin.
I don’t recommend overdoing the fragrance sampling if you don’t want to choke your fellow passengers, but DO try one. It took years of experimentation but I finally found a new signature scent this way (thank you Toronto duty free for introducing me to Guerlain’s good-smelling but better-named ‘Insolence’) Stores like the Body Shop provide similar opportunities for sniffing and sampling. At an airport I’ll go into any store, even and especially the sort that wouldn’t normally interest me, or the kind that traffic exclusively in regional history and/or stereotypes. Whenever I travel to the American Southwest I look forward to shops full of turquoise, wolf paintings, and dreamcatchers.
It’s also interesting to see how airports both foreign and domestic make some attempt to project a local or national image, to ‘brand’ their city or nation. I’ve appreciated the playful folksiness of the post-security “recombobulation area” in Milwaukee, the down-home comfort of the Raleigh rocking chairs, and the vision of enlightened Danish modernity in the wood floors and broad couches of Copenhagen. Several airports I would not usually associate with art have amassed large collections and hosted exhibitions as a means of enhancing their city’s civic pride and public reputation. Denver airport in particular is jam-packed with art; even the shuttle tunnels have installations. I like Sacramento airport even better. Not only does a giant rabbit dominate the terminal,
but you get to walk on the coolest carpet I’ve ever seen. If only they sold this at the gift shops.
Small, unassuming airports can have gems too. A few months ago I came across some gorgeous black and white blow-up enlargements of desert animals at the Tucson airport, texting close-up pictures without context to several friends while I waited to board.
Airports are really an ideal place to appreciate art. Unless you’re rushing to catch a plane or stressing about the contraband in your carry-on, you have plenty of time and nothing to worry about. There’s no reason to not wander around expecting to find interesting things. At the Sea-Tac airport in my hometown of Seattle there are little bronze salmon embedded in the floors of Concourse B. It took a friend drawing my attention to it to discover that one of them is carrying a briefcase – now I always look for it.
When I find these secret special things it’s as if I enter a dimension separate from all the people rushing irritably around me and I make the airport mine. Once I’ve enjoyed it to the fullest and stretched my legs I find a place to park until it’s time to board.
TIME IN THE AIRPORT = 3-6 hours (advanced):
Even I do not actively desire 6 hours in an airport, but that doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy those hours. I can pass a few enjoying magazines, shops, art, and general exploration, but beyond that I might go in a few different directions.
When I want to observe but not necessarily interact the airport is perfect. No matter how close or distant you are from your home, you’ll find plenty of people very different from you: sleek businesswomen, schoolkids, snowbirds, college kids, tech nerds, harried single parents, sports teams, plastic surgery victims, holiday-makers, Europeans, google glass wearers, and attractive people of your preferred sex(es). I like finding a comfortable vantage point from which to observe, imagine background stories, and guess at origins and destinations. This, like many of my airport games, is better if you happen to be traveling with a buddy, but it’s not necessary.
Due to their essential in-between-ness, airports are fine places for reflection, for thinking broadly and deeply about the world and your place in it. Without consciously intending to I sometimes find myself in a terminal taking stock, thinking about my changing life goals, my strengths and weaknesses, and my hopes and fears, or just deciding this will finally be the year I read Infinite Jest. It’s an even better place to look outwards, to consider human hubris and the march of history. I find myself wondering how those kids pulling at loose threads on the industrial carpeting will grow up in this world of pervasive pornographic imagery and potential economic volatility, how their harried mother is leaning in, what their father learned when he learned to ‘be a man.’
Less risky options depend on your skillset and your supplies. Sit back and make stuff with a view of the mysterious gesticulations of runway staff and planes taking flight.
You can bring a coloring book and crayons (surprisingly relaxing), yarn and a crochet hook, or that watercolor set your weird cousin gave you last Christmas. I’m a fan of collage, most of which involves lots of tedious work. On one recent layover I took my TSA-approved mini Swiss Army scissors to an in-flight magazine, cutting out letters that took minutes to glue to cardstock at home for simple, cheery postcards.
TIME IN THE AIRPORT = > 6 hours (excessive):
Find a place to sleep, a place to drink, or just an outlet where you can charge your phone and play candy crush. The airport has much to enjoy and appreciate but after a certain point the wonder cannot hold, even for me.
Top photo via inkelv1122/flickr.
Erika Kuever prefers trains to planes.