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Surviving (and Sometimes Avoiding) an Overnight U.S. Airport Stay


After one million frequent flier miles, it had to happen. You know… the overnight stay at the grand hotel airport (of your choice). You had high hopes you would avoid it. You shuffled with the huddle masses from gate to gate, it got late, and after multiple delays and hopes – ultimately dashed by the airline gate staff – you are delayed to the morning. After calling your travel agent (or dialing yourself until your fingers are numb) there is nothing available hotel-wise for 30 miles. And you must be back at the airport in 5 hours. Yep, you’re stranded. Visions of the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles dance in your head.

In the Exhibit and Event Industry, travel is common and widespread. I fell victim to a connecting flight in Atlanta. My flight out of Greenville, South Carolina, was delayed and the weather delays throughout the southeast just kept coming. A severe chain of relentless southern storms grounded me and thousands of others.

How to Survive It

Best to roll with the punches and not grow too uptight about the situation. You will survive, but you do have to lower your Hilton/Marriott expectations. I also found that a travel agent can often help you get through the mess by being able to find lodging. This was the first trip for me where they had “struck out.”

  1. Pack right – I usually pack for the worst. You just never know how you will be treated by the airlines, their baggage handlers or the weather. On most trips, I pack in a backpack and carry-on roller bag, so everything goes with me; I check nothing. That came in handy this trip.
  2. The Essentials – You will need to make sure when you first land and before final cancellation you have secured food and water. I was lucky and the airline (Delta) provided a light meal, but it wasn’t Sardi’s. When the final cancellation came, most places were closed, though a few remained open to serve the flood of stranded travelers.
  3. Find a Clean Bathroom and Get Comfy (it’s going to be a long night) – When the final announcement was made, I searched out the cleanest bathroom I could find. I removed my contact lenses, put on my glasses, brushed my teeth, and loosened my belt a notch. So even if you must check your luggage, you keep critical things with you; a portable toothbrush, your contact solution and case/glasses, and any medications or vitamins you might need.
  4. Stake Out Your Space/Protect Your Stuff – This is important. There will be spaces in most areas where there are chairs with no arms…. you can stretch out comfortably. Warning: these go fast, so you need to act quickly! I sleep comfortably sitting up, so I chose a chair against a wall, so I could lean back. I usually travel with a neck pillow on flights and this came in incredibly handy at my portable hovel. My roller bag and backpack were great leg props. Not only did they make my night more comfortable, they were also protected from theft.
  5. Relax as Best You Can – Tomorrow will bring its own challenges, so get some rest! You have determined to make the best of it, so do so. It’s oddly fun to suffer through non-life-threatening events with fellow travelers. And it also makes for some extra special people watching. Everyone is in the same soup, and I found most travelers and employees relatively friendly and helpful. Your sleep will probably be sporadic, but as the evening gets deeper, things quiet down a bit. Come early morning, the world will come back alive, slowly. Set your phone so as not to miss the new boarding time.

How to Minimize the Risk of an Overnight Airport Stay

  1. Avoid connecting flights, fly direct.
  2. Try to avoid the worst airports for delays (view list here from Forbes Magazine).
  3. If you are involved in a region-wide storm, you might want to “call it quits” in your origin city and book into a local hotel and attack the day tomorrow.
  4. Try to schedule your flight in the morning or early afternoon. The heat of the day can produce strong storms in the summer months.

Safe traveling! And take it, like life, one exciting moment at a time.