I met the Japanese cashmere company executive outside the bathhouse, at 4am, in the airport.
We were stuck in Seoul's Incheon airport for different reasons. She was waiting on standby for a flight back to Ulaan Bator, where she worked; I was on a five-hour layover on my way to Hong Kong. We checked in, said hello, and then didn't meet again. Incheon Airport's 24-hour "Spa On Air" is a traditional Korean jimjilbang, a bathhouse with hot and cold tubs, showers, and wet and dry saunas, gender-segregated and all for $15-20 depending on what time of day you show up. The male and female areas meet at a lounge in the middle, which was dark and full of snoozers; the place has private sleeping rooms, as well.
I soaked for an hour or two, seeing a very few other guys come in to relax: a young Russian, a middle-aged Korean executive, and a Japanese businessman who appeared to have passed out on the massage table. Then I changed clothes, headed back out, grabbed some cold canned coffee at the 7-11, and made my connection.
Seoul's airport is a layover paradise. The airport actually runs activities to prevent you from getting bored; you can dress up in traditional clothing, make crafts, or take tours of Seoul. But at 3am, it's pretty much down to the 7-11, the bathhouse, a Korean culture museum (which isn't staffed) and people sprawled out on couches all around the place.
New airport terminals around the world are more pleasant for overnight visitors than the older terminals they replace, said Donna McSherry, a Toronto-based travel agent who runs The Guide to Sleeping in Airports (www.sleepinginairports.com). We've profiled her 15-year-old website before; it's by far the best resource for knowing what to do if you're trapped in an airport when things (including yourself) begin to shut down.
Delhi, for instance, has dramatically improved from its former status as one of the world's worst airports to get stuck in. That doesn't just extend to the airport itself: formerly a hideous hive of aggressive taxi touts, Delhi now has a speedy train into the city.
One of Delhi's new amenities is a pay-in lounge, the best worldwide trend for folks stuck in airports, McSherry said. Pay-in lounges charge between $15-50 to give you all of the amenities usually reserved for business and first-class customers: relaxing seats, reading material, Internet, nap rooms and food. Five hours in the Delhi International departures lounge costs $33, giving you access to a shower, hot food, Wi-Fi, one alcoholic beverage and even a brief massage.
The Delhi lounges are part of a chain called Plaza Premium (www.plaza-asia.com) available in 18 Middle Eastern and Asian airports, which McSherry particularly recommends. Most of the Plaza Premium lounges are open 24 hours.
But there are also pay-in lounges elsewhere, including in the USA. A British chain, No. 1 Traveller (www.no1traveller.com) runs lounges at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports. In our rundown of the top 10 airport lounges in the U.S. we called out LAX's ReLAX lounge (www.relaxloungelax.com), which charges $50 to stay "all day" between 8am and midnight. Of course, once you get to those rates, you should check out day rates at airline lounges as well; Delta, for instance, also charges $50 for an all-day pass to its lounges (www.delta.com/traveling_checkin/airport_information). Depending on the location, that could be more than the day rate at an airport hotel.
Many of these lounges will also throw you out late at night; while lounges in Singapore and Dubai, for instance, are open 24 hours, those British lounges will boot you out by 10:30pm at the latest.
That sends travelers back to airport hotels, or to looking for floor space in the terminals. McSherry recently had a nice rest at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, which was known for years as one of the worst airports to sleep in. The key is to find the right terminal, and terminals at airports can differ wildly in comfort, she said. Terminal 2E is comfortable and cozy, while Terminal 3 is "third-world," she writes on her site.
"Many of the [bad] reports were coming from the older terminals with the tin roofs, but if you walk around, you look for a proper place and you find it," she said. "I had the best sleep ever at the Paris airport."
Manila, LAX, and New York's JFK airport also seem to have wide differences between terminals. At Manila, Terminal 3 is modern while Terminal 1 is repulsive, McSherry said. At JFK, the new JetBlue Terminal 5 is "really nice," according to McSherry, while Delta's Terminal 3 is so decrepit, the airline intends to tear it down next year. LAX has recently improved Delta's terminals 5/6, but the main problem there is how difficult it is to get between terminals, as signage is awful and there's no modern inter-terminal transit system.
Recent reports on Sleeping in Airports can help travelers figure out which terminal is the best for bunking down. A new feature even shows which terminals have cots (www.sleepinginairports.net/airports-with-cots) -- the ultimate in luxury free lodging in an airport.
But what of the insomniacs? Hope you're in Asia. Asian airports tend to have the most 24-hour amenities, McSherry says, and during the day, the world's top airports tend to offer a carnival of services. Sometimes, that's literal: Singapore's Changi airport has The Slide@T3, a 40-foot-tall slide as well as a swimming pool, butterfly garden and two 24-hour, free, movie theaters.
If you'd rather escape from the airport, at least for a little while, a growing number of airports lead in-airport or transit tours, even at night. Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Dubai, and Bangkok, for instance, all sponsor transit tours that you can book from the airport; they take a few hours and drop you back off at the airport. Frankfurt airport offers $11.32, 45-minute "mini-tours" of the airport grounds, but only for four hours in the afternoon.
Not all airports are improving for overnight travelers. In Italy, the local police have been "a little bit more strict" and stopping people from lying down, McSherry says. In that case, overnight stayers may have to spring for an airport hotel to get a bit of uninterrupted rest.
McSherry's site is expanding with details on airport lounges and entertainment options, as well as reports about sleeping on the floor. It's worth checking before you're stuck at the airport for more than a few hours.