Flight delay dilemma: Should I sleep on the airport floor?

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By Christopher Elliott

If your flight is delayed — I mean, really delayed — should you just sleep on the airport floor?

Sure, say passengers like John Paul Engel. Several times this year, he’s faced a long delay with nowhere to go. He thinks it’s absolutely acceptable to catch a few Zs on the airport floor — although he prefers a bench or a seat. 

“I always pack extra underwear, toothbrush, and toothpaste in my carry-on, and a complete change of clothes for international flights,” says Engel, a consultant from Sioux City, Iowa. “Just in case.”

Engel’s problem may soon be your problem.

The TSA expects this holiday season to be the busiest ever. That means a record number of air travelers may find themselves stuck in a terminal overnight. Oh boy.

If you’re trapped at the airport, you might wonder: Is it OK to sit on the floor? How about sleeping? Can I use the public restrooms to shave or brush my teeth? 

Don’t worry, I have the answers.

Am I allowed to sleep on the airport floor?

So are you allowed to sleep on the floor of an airport? The answer is a qualified yes. Many airports are OK with passengers catching a few Zs in the terminal, and some will even bring a cot and blanket for displaced travelers. Other airports close for the night, and require that you leave. (The best way to find out if you can sleep there is to ask at the information booth or check the airport’s website.)

Of course, no one should have to spend the night in an airport terminal. Ever. Airlines should offer a hotel room to passengers in case of a long delay. Under their contract of carriage — the legal agreement between them and their customers — they are sometimes required to provide overnight accommodations if your flight is canceled or delayed.

But even if you can sleep on the floor, should you? Etiquette consultant Jodi RR Smith says it’s fine to sit on the floor and even sleep on the floor at an airport. She recommends dressing in layers and bringing a hat so that you don’t have to make contact with the ground. Also, talk to your fellow passengers who are also stuck overnight to make the best of a difficult situation.

“Be polite to the airport and airline staff, and be kind to others,” she says. 

That’s because passengers are less understanding when it comes to sleeping on the airport floor. A recent poll by Kayak found that 60% of travelers disapproved of sitting on the floor and 75% thought sleeping was off-limits. Brushing your teeth in a public restroom is OK (53% approved), but shaving is a no-no (76% said they thought it was inappropriate).

Here are survival strategies for a long airport delay

We could debate the issue of sleeping on an airport floor, and I suppose that’s what the comments section is for. But what happens when it’s 11 p.m. and your flight to Tokyo has been canceled? 

Look for a better place than the floor

You may not have to sleep on the floor after all. Meghan Mahoney was flying back home from Paris recently when her flight was delayed. “No one knew how long it would be,” remembers Mahoney, who works for a medical evacuation services company. She paid for a sleeping pod with a bed, desk and chair, and a noise cancellation system. “It was totally private, so I could nap in comfort or work. And since I was still at the airport, I could regularly check flight status,” she adds.

Here’s what to pack in your overnight bag

The trick to surviving a long delay is having everything you need with you. If there’s a long delay, your airline may not be able to access your checked bag. Joe Bassett, a wilderness survival instructor, always brings an ultralight backpacking mattress that compresses to the size of a small bottle. Shannon Wilburn has a short list of things she always packs in her overnight bag. It includes all of her toiletries and prescription medications (never, ever check those), as well as her headset and computer. She also carries a small blanket, pillow and charger. “I have slept on the airport floor,” says Wilburn, who runs a franchising company in Jenks, Okla. “But I absolutely try to prevent that from happening.”

Lean on your airline for help

Don’t let your airline off the hook during an extended delay. “Ask for a lounge pass and free vouchers for food and beverages,” says Anton Radchenko, CEO of AirAdvisor, a claims management company for airline passengers. “I’ve seen most passengers being negligent about their rights as a passenger and ending up waiting without taking any action.” Lounges can be excellent places to sleep. The best international airlines even have rooms where their customers can catch a few hours of sleep before their flight.

Engel, the consultant who has slept on many airport floors, says bunking down at the airport gets easier with practice. His favorite trick: Skip the bulky travel pillow and use your carry-on as a pillow. 

“If you are sleeping with your head on your carry-on, then you don’t have to worry about someone stealing it,” he says.

Elliott’s secrets for avoiding a night at the airport

Have I ever spent the night at the airport? You bet. Years ago, my evening flight from Munich to Amsterdam was delayed overnight. I didn’t feel like getting a hotel, so I tried to sleep on a metal bench. Ouch! Don’t do that.

  • Book an early flight. You’re far less likely to get stuck at an airport overnight. If you have a late afternoon flight, and it gets canceled — not so much.
  • Avoid a stopover. A nonstop flight reduces (but does not eliminate) the chance you’ll get stuck in an airport overnight.
  • Find a great travel advisor. The best ones would never leave you to sleep on the airport floor. Their reputation is at stake, although they may not be available 24/7. Here’s how to find the best travel advisor.

Remember, if you get stuck at the airport, our community of advocates is here to help you in real-time on our Facebook group.

About this story

I decided to write this story after seeing the Kayak survey results and remembering that I had spent a memorable night or two on the airport floor. Wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. I researched, wrote and fact-checked this story. Andy Smith and his team edited it and Dustin Elliott did the art. Have you ever slept on the airport floor? The comments are open.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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