Once upon a time, airports didn’t offer much beyond gift shops, coffee counters and newsstands. But in recent years, some airports have upped their game with a variety of amenities you may not expect. Here are six ways to make the most of your next layover—and even have some fun!
1. Plan for play time
Traveling with kids? Almost every large airport has a children’s play area, but some take fun to the next level.
At Chicago O’Hare International, for example, the Kids on the Fly playground in Terminal 2 (near Gate F1) was designed by the Children’s Museum of Chicago and features a cargo plane fueling station, air traffic control tower and helicopter cockpit. A fire-safety education area is located in Terminal 5 (near Gate M12), and a 45-foot-tall Brachiosaurus skeleton, donated by the Field Museum, towers over travelers in Terminal 1 (B concourse).
San Francisco International has a free, 11,500-square-foot aviation museum in the International Terminal (Main Hall), and 3 Kids’ Spots, in Terminal 2 (boarding area D, near Gates 54A and 58B) and Terminal 3 (boarding level F, near Gate 87A, and boarding area E, near Gate 62).
Other airports let adults in on the fun. Palm Beach International has a putting green (in the main terminal on the second floor), and McCarran International in Las Vegas and Reno-Tahoe International reel in travelers with hundreds of slot machines.
2. Get a workout
Gyms are available at some airports, notably those with on-site hotels, such as in the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Hotel or the Westin Detroit Metropolitan Airport Hotel. But even if there isn’t one on-site, a hotel with workout facilities or an actual athletic club may be only a 5- to 15-minute cab ride away. Check out AirportGyms.com to find state-by-state information on distances and fees.
Walking paths are available in Dallas/Fort Worth International (the LiveWell Walking Path, in Terminal D, measures 0.7 mile) and Minneapolis-St. Paul International (1.4 miles, in the Lindbergh Terminal). If you’ve ever had connecting flights in separate terminals, however, you know you can log some miles in most airports just getting to your gate.
3. Listen to the music
If your travels take you through cities known for thriving music scenes, you may have a chance to enjoy a show even if you never leave the airport. Local live music plays on 4 stages at Nashville International, which also includes exhibits related to the history of Music City. In Texas, Austin-Bergstrom International offers 6 live music venues, with performances scheduled Monday through Friday.
4. Recharge your batteries
A restful, relaxing layover may sound like an oxymoron, but some airports provide just that with amenities such as rocking chairs (Charlotte-Douglas International), yoga rooms (San Francisco, Chicago, and Dallas/Fort Worth), meditation rooms (Albuquerque International and Raleigh-Durham International) and gardens (Chicago and Honolulu International). DFW also has Minute Suites, which include daybeds, office workstations and showers.
A few airports now offer pet therapy programs that bring a calming canine presence to what some find a stressful experience. In Charlotte, for example, 4-legged members of the CLT Canine Crew wearing “Pet Me” dog vests greet passengers. Participants are volunteers, and visits are only a few times a month.
Of course, literal recharging is also important, especially if you’re flying with electronic devices. PC World ranks Dallas/Fort Worth, New York’s John F. Kennedy International, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International and Detroit Metropolitan as the best airports for tech travelers, and notes that San Francisco has an average of 13.6 power outlets per gate.
5. Bring your appetite
Airport food has improved considerably in recent years. While you’ll still find plenty of familiar fast-food signs, you’ll also see fine restaurants serving regional specialties. This means deep-dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs at O’Hare, fresh seafood in San Francisco and Seattle-Tacoma International, authentic tamales in Phoenix/Sky Harbor International, and barbecue in Memphis International, Austin and Charlotte.
6. Get out of the airport
One of the best ways to cope with a long layover is to get out of the airport entirely—just make sure you have enough time before you head off. How much time you need depends on where you’re flying, so do your research. As a general rule of thumb, you should allow at least two hours to get back through security once you return to the airport.
Airports known for having quick transportation service to nearby city centers include Boston, San Diego International, Miami International, Mineta San Jose International and Ronald Reagan Washington National in DC.