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Flight cancellations and delays

Can I sleep on the airport floor? Survival strategies for very long delays

Christopher Elliott
Special to ӣƵ

The airport floor is probably the last place you want to sleep. But it's sometimes the only place for passengers like John Paul Engel.

Engel has faced long delays and nowhere to go on several occasions, including this summer in Miami. 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," said Engel, a consultant from Sioux City, Iowa. "Just in case."

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Many airline passengers may soon share Engel's problem. The Transportation Security Administration expects this holiday season . That means a record number of air travelers may find themselves stuck in a terminal overnight. 

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.

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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; 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 . (Passengers can check what each airline offers on the .)

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 you don't have to contact the ground. Also, talk to your fellow passengers stuck overnight to make the best of a difficult situation.

"Be polite to the airport and airline staff, and be kind to others," she said. 

That's because passengers are less understanding when it comes to sleeping on the airport floor. A 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 it was inappropriate).

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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 comment sections are 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 recently flying back home from Paris when her flight was delayed. "No one knew how long it would be," said Mahoney, who works for a medical evacuation services company. She paid for a 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 added.

So, are you allowed to sleep on the floor of an airport? The answer is a qualified yes.

Here's what to pack in your overnight bag

The trick to surviving a long delay is having everything you need. If there's a long delay, your airline may be unable to access your checked bag. Joe Bassett, a , 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," said Wilburn, who runs a franchising company in Jenks, Oklahoma. "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," said Anton Radchenko, CEO of , 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 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 said.

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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 adviser. 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.

is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded , a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes, a travel newsletter, and the , a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you can  or email him at chris@elliott.org.

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