Ask Gadling – What can I do on a layover for free?

Today’s Ask Gadling question comes from Linda in Indianapolis.

“What can you do in airports for free? I have a five-hour layover in Seattle next month, and a shorter one in Detroit on the way back. It seems like every time I have a layover, especially when I’m by myself, I end up spending about $50 on food and beverages because there’s nothing else to do. Is there anything that’s free?”

Gadling: Linda, I feel your pain. Airports, movie theaters and ballparks all rob you blind because they know they’ve got you captive. Now that few (if any) airlines provide meals on domestic flights, you’re even more likely to be suckered into buying a $10 sandwich that’s worth about 50 cents. You’ve gotta eat, right? And, if you’re anything like me, a bloody mary or beer is a standard way to pass the time, and they’re not cheap, either. There is very little to do for free in the airport, so you have to bring or make your own fun. Here are some ways to do that:

Treat the layover like part of the flight.

No kissing of the ground, no snacks. This really only works if you have a short layover, or you could get really hungry, but when you’ve got under two hours to kill, just park yourself in a chair and pretend you’re still on the plane. Read your book or Kindle, chill out with your iPod and enjoy the lack of turbulence.

Shop for future reference.

Do you keep a wishlist of any kind? Creating one or adding to it is a great way to kill time at most airports. Go try on clothes, look at new gadgets and browse the book selection. Keep a record of what you like (and your size in the clothes), then find it all cheaper on the internet when you get home — or just add it to your What I Want For My Birthday list. See? Layovers can be productive.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

Play games with the travelers.

There’s nothing like playing games with people who don’t realize it. Make up a game for yourself like counting mullets or bright orange accessories, or try to guess who in the waiting area is flying first class (and see who jumps up when pre-boarding is announced). If a whole slew of travelers walks by, try to guess where their plane came from, and then go look. These games are better with friends, but if you keep track of your “scores,” you can play against yourself at various airports.

Treat it like an afternoon at home.

Imagine you were just going to sit at home for five hours. What would you do? Watch TV? Well, you may not get channel control in the airport, but there are TVs with news and weather running, and you can always download some TV shows to your computer, phone or iPod. Would you work? Draw a picture? Would you feast on carrot sticks? Preparation is key; bring yourself a snack, a magazine and anything else you’d pay double for at the airport.

Brush your teeth.

Five minutes down.

Remember that layovers are a normal thing and everyone else is waiting, too.

I know part of the reason I end up at the bar is that I feel sorry for myself. “Poor me. I have to sit in the airport and wait again. I deserve a chardonnay and a cheeseburger.” If I think about it, that’s pretty lame. Everyone has layovers sometimes, it’s just how it goes. If I think: “I am not a special snowflake, I am one of a bazillion travelers waiting in the airport.” — the notion helps me resist the urge to pamper myself with impromptu manicures, massages and $12 margaritas. Strike up a conversation with someone else who looked bored (but do remember that reading does not equal bored, nor does sleeping, eating or working).

Got more than four hours? Get out of the airport.

Awhile back, we did a series of Layover articles on Gadling. You can search Gadling for “Layover” and the name of the city you’ll be stranded in, and if we covered it, there will be an article about how to best spend some time there, both in and out of the airport. Not all the activities are free, but if you’re spending money to see the city, doesn’t that feel better? Here are Detroit and Seattle.

[Photo credit: Annie Scott]