In Transit

How I keep myself entertained during long airport layovers

August 16, 2017

I love airport layovers. The idea of having a twelve-hour layover on a new airport thrills me more than my laboriously planned vacation itself. In my book, airport stops should be a minimum of six hours; four hours is fairly acceptable. Anything below that is nothing more than having an international bathroom break before you go sprinting again to switch planes.

To be all fair, I also used to hate airport layovers. Who would want to be trapped in an airport for ungodly long hours while your sanity withers away with every tick of the clock? But having to fly between Manila and Jeddah several times a year for six years, I have learned to find a way to entertain myself during those long airport layovers instead of venting my pent-up frustrations on random airport personnel.

During my early years of traveling, my usual layover escape route always involved endless mind games with an airline personnel in the hopes of securing a complimentary hotel accomodation. However, as years passed by, I realized I’m missing out more when I’m trying to go out than staying at the airport. So I stopped going that route and started appreciating the multi-cultural microcosm happening inside the airport.

The ten thousand people you meet at the airport

An airport is the smallest melting pot of all the world’s traveling population. With thousands of people going in and out, you are sure to meet someone with a very interesting story to tell.

While waiting for the boarding call at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, I sat beside a family from Sweden who was currently on a ’round the world tour. The father was an architect, while the mother was a journalist currently on her maternity leave. Traveling with them was their two-year-old son who would run all over the place and only return to her mother for breastfeeding. Seeing their growing child and knowing that they still have another year to travel really surprised me. How would I know that Swedish companies allow up to three years maternity leave had I not met them? Although, according to the mother, she was not receiving 100% of her salary but still, who would say no to that arrangement?

A guy chillin at the airport

A guy chillin at Dubai International Airport

But you could still get a glimpse of a nation’s culture and ways of life even if talking to strangers is not your thing. You will be amazed to see how people conduct themselves in public even by just observing them from afar.

Once when I was on an eleven-hour layover at Dubai International Airport, I was comfortably sitting on an inclined chair near the boarding gates while waiting for my flight to Jeddah. A guy, probably in his mid-twenties and have eyes suggestive of his Oriental descent, was sitting on the floor with his headset on and was oblivious to the people walking in front of him.

Suddenly, in the middle of his self-imposed bliss, the guy was interrupted by a Middle Eastern guy about his same age. He was asking to borrow his phone charger; to which he obliged. A few minutes later, another Middle Eastern guy came to ask for the charger from the other Middle Eastern guy. Soon they were conversing in what one would easily mistake as an exchange of expletives but, having been in the Middle East for awhile, I knew they were not actually arguing. Perhaps startled by the sudden loud exchange of words, the Oriental guy put out another charger just to appease the two.

Marvel at an airport’s architecture and unique features

Changi Airport may boast of their flower gardens but nothing beats the Jungle Boardwalk of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. A garden you say? KLIA has an entire forest at their disposal.

A forest inside an airport, KLIA Jungle Boardwalk

A forest inside an airport, KLIA Jungle Boardwalk

But even without comparing it to KLIA, I found Changi Airport quite disappointing.

Days before my first scheduled layover in that airport, I took time perusing their website and planning what to do, where to stay and what to eat while I was there. An orchid and sunflower garden, a cinema, a pool, and everything beautiful plastered all over their website got me so hyped. I was so excited for my seven-hour layover only to be disappointed upon my arrival to see that the airport was too cramped and very poorly lit.

Having been to several airports in the past, I realized the reason why I find the Changi Airport too cramped is because they don’t have enough windows. Windows allow more light to come in and create an illusion that makes a room look more spacious.

Airports may often be built with a western vibe but you can’t ignore those tiny details that are unique to a country’s culture. And you can’t begin to appreciate them when all you do is sulk about the long wait. Busy yourself exploring the airport and scrutinize the architectural marvel in front of you.

Taste a foreign culture through food sampling

From the distinct ingredients to the method of food preparation, the simplest dish can reveal so much about the local culture. Even the manner the food is served and eaten reflects so much about a country’s history.

In South-East Asia, my current favorite airport when it comes to delicious food is the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. I would usually go for a bowl of Nyonya Laksa at Old Malaya Kopitiam as it allows me to taste a local Malaysian dish without getting past the immigration.

Nyonya Laksa is the signature dish of the Nyonyas or the female descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malayan archipelago between the 15th and 17th centuries. History has it that during the Ming Dynasty, the Emperor of China betrothed her daughter to the Sultan of Malacca as a form of strategic ties between the two regions. The couple settled in the Malayan Peninsula and eventually, the royal entourage wed the locals and formed the first permanent settlement and the first generation of mixed Chinese-Malay race. During the settlement, the Nyonyas developed their unique cuisine which combines the Chinese traditional cooking and the local Malay ingredients.

Old Malaya Kopitiam is located near the Jungle Boardwalk along gates C11 to C17.

Ice-cold Beer
Nyonya Laksa

During my airport layovers in any of the Gulf countries, however, I don’t usually do the food sampling. I practically live in the Middle East and what food I can sample at the airport, I can eat anytime I want at home. Saudi Arabia has zero tolerance for alcohol so whenever I’d go out of the country, I splurge on beer and spirits. I would usually hang out at the Skybar in Terminal 1 of Abu Dhabi International Airport whenever I have the chance. Drinking alcohol within the boundary of the Gulf region provides a certain kind of kick. This is also the reason why I would always ask for a can of beer or a glass of red wine whenever available on board while flying to and from the region.

Other paid and FREE services and facilities to help you make the most of your airport layovers

Pardon my emphasis on the word FREE but who doesn’t want FREE stuff and services, right?

  • Use the FREE shower facilities to freshen up – While other airports have pay-per-use lounges with baths, others offer complimentary shower facilities you could use for free. Dubai International Airport and Abu Dhabi International Airport both have free shower facilities. Click on the links for complete details or check your airport websites if they offer the same for free.
  • Avail of FREE meal vouchers – Airlines issue meal vouchers if your airport layovers go over five hours. Proceed to corresponding flight transfer desk and present your previous and current boarding passes to claim your voucher. The free voucher may only afford you a sandwich from a deli shop, a bowl of noodles, or a regular burger set meal at McDonald’s but most food concessionaires allow you to upgrade your meal at an additional cost.
  • Watch FREE movies – At present, I am only aware of the following airports with free movie facilities: Changi Airport (Singapore), Hong Kong International Airport, Vilnius Airport (Lithuania), Portland International Airport (Oregon), Vaclav Havel Airport (Prague). Click on the links for complete details or check your airport websites for the same.
  • Take advantage of the PAID baggage storage services – Explore the airport more conveniently by storing your bags at luggage storage facilities. Dubai International Airport will look after your bags for 12 hours for AED20 to AED25 depending on the size of your bag. Changi Airport charges USD4 to USD12 per 24 hours. Most airports offer this service, visit the airport website for complete details.

Bonus Info: You can have your blanket and use it, too

While passengers are allowed to take home copies of in-flight magazines, they are not allowed to take everything else outside the plane. If you’ve been itching to bag that fluffy piece of an in-flight blanket but is afraid to be reprimanded, if not penalized, there’s a “legal” workaround to do that. During your long airport layover, proceed to any airline service desk and declare your need to take a nap. The airline staff will provide you a sealed blanket if you would ask. The option to either unpack it for use or stash it in your backpack is now up to you. Or, as the sub-heading suggests, use the blanket and keep it, too.

I have amassed a collection of blankets from different airlines using this tactic; it actually works.


Time has a mischievous ability to purposely slow down when you’re arduously waiting for it. It plays mischief by making you feel the wait a thousand times longer. Ignore it and you’ll realize how you never have enough.

And without going through that traveler versus tourist debate, this is how I keep myself entertained during long airport layovers.

Have you had long airport layovers in the past? How did you deal with the long wait? If you have other ideas to help make airport layovers more bearable, please share them in the comment section below.

Airport Layovers

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  • Reply
    August 18, 2017 at 4:54 PM

    The best long layovers are with China Eastern Airlines. They will put you up at a hotel for connecting flights that take more than 6 hours. If it’s long enough, u can go to the city and all!!!

    • Reply
      Noel Cabacungan
      August 19, 2017 at 7:12 AM

      Hi Jeremey! Thanks for the feedback. Qatar Airways does the same, however, the last time I was billeted in a hotel outside the airport, my passport was kept by the hotel reception for safekeeping.

      Chiangi Airport offers tours outside the airport, too, if you have timed your layover with tour schedule.

  • Reply
    Maxine Hamilton
    September 17, 2017 at 1:38 PM

    An interesting take on long layovers. Definitely a good time to meet new people and I agree, it’s a great chance to try some new food!

    • Reply
      Noel Cabacungan
      September 17, 2017 at 2:07 PM

      Yes, Maxine. And the nest part here is FOOOOD!!!

  • Reply
    ali dunnell
    September 18, 2017 at 2:17 AM

    This is such a well written and interesting article. You noticed so much about a time which no-one else seems to even think about. I particularly liked the snippets of the lives of the different people you met/ observed.

    • Reply
      Noel Cabacungan
      September 19, 2017 at 2:20 AM

      Come to think of it, airport layovers are one of the more acceptable excuses for stalking people. Hahaha. But not in a creepy way, of course.

  • Reply
    HI Travel Tales
    September 18, 2017 at 3:15 AM

    Great post and love the personal stories. Kuala Lumpar looks amazing!!! We have not experienced that airport yet. In some airports — where the layover is a loooong one — we recommend getting out of the airport for a few hours. Check out our story on what to do during a Seoul airport layover ( and also Hong Kong (that airport has transport in and out of the city dialed!!!) —

    • Reply
      Noel Cabacungan
      September 19, 2017 at 2:19 AM

      I really wanted to do that, hoing out of the airport for a day tour. Unfortunately most of my long layovers happened at night so the chance to go out hasn’t come yet.

      Your first link points to a 404 page.

      • Reply
        HI Travel Tales
        September 19, 2017 at 3:38 AM

        thank you … a silly ) snuck in there and has now been deleted. Hong Kong is alive 24/7 so next time, even if late, jump on that train and at least head in to see the waterfront views. Seoul … its alive, but the transport not so much really. 😉

  • Reply
    Andi Fisher
    September 18, 2017 at 8:09 AM

    Asian airports are the best! I could spend days there just eating the food alone. I loved reading this post and getting an inside view of how you get through airport hours!

    • Reply
      Noel Cabacungan
      September 19, 2017 at 2:21 AM

      Yes, for some reason I’d like to believe that when the gods spread spices in the world, the winds blew most of them in this region. Whoch explains the explosion of flavors in most Asian dishes.

  • Reply
    September 23, 2017 at 3:04 PM

    nice wrap up! Unfortunately, the most airports I had long layovers weren’t as comfortable as this one was.

  • Reply
    October 3, 2017 at 10:51 PM

    I try and avoid long layovers if at all possible, unless it’s actually reeeeeeeally long and you can leave the airport. Bonus country visit! Some airports are definitely better than others to keep you entertained. I know you weren’t impressed with Changi, but I loved their butterfly garden and free massage chairs, heaven!

    • Reply
      Noel Cabacungan
      October 6, 2017 at 11:17 PM

      I actually had an almost 24 hours layover as the first leg of the flight was delayed. Although it happened at night and the weather condition wasn’t so good either.

  • Reply
    October 6, 2017 at 10:25 PM

    I always thought I was the only one who loved layovers! You have certainly found way more secret tips than I have. Meal vouchers? What have I been missing out on! Thank you for sharing this, the world needs to see why airports can be interesting and fun.

    • Reply
      Noel Cabacungan
      October 6, 2017 at 11:14 PM

      And I wonder how is it like to have a layover in JFK International Airport. Tom Hanks lived there for a very long time in “The Terminal.”

      I also google just now — The film is partially inspired by the 18-year stay of Mehran Karimi Nasseri in Terminal 1 of Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, France, from 1988 to 2006.

      Very interesting!

  • Reply
    Priya Florence Shah
    March 21, 2018 at 1:17 AM

    Very interesting and useful tips. I never actually thought long layovers could be fun. But travelling with a child is a bit more difficult.

    • Reply
      Noel Cabacungan
      March 21, 2018 at 4:04 AM

      Some airports have facilities for the kids, too.

      • Reply
        Priya Florence Shah
        March 21, 2018 at 11:44 AM

        I’m sure they do. But my child is 18 and stuck to her phone, so we do manage the waiting.

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