Stuck at the airport? It happens to everybody. As airports ramp up the quality of restaurants and designer shopping, and add spots for massages and manicures, killing time can actually be enjoyable. Or, head downtown if your layover is more than eight hours.
Here are the best airports around the world to spend layover time, and how to spend it. Our list is US airports first, then in international destinations.
Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson (ATL)
Short (1-4 hours): Nap – or just kick back in privacy – with free wireless and DIRECTV at Minute Suites ($34/hr, Concourse B). Fuel up on smart grub and great cocktails at One Flew South (Concourse E).
Very long (overnight): Ride the free SkyTrain one stop to SpringHill Suites (from $169), check-in, drop bags. Take MARTA to Midtown ($2.50, 20 min) for dinner one block east at Hugh Acheson’s very good Empire State South.
For wine in a civilized setting, Beaudevin (Terminal 10) and Bubbles Wine Bar (Terminal 3), while beer lovers should head for the Berghoff Café a famed local spot with a solid draft menu.
Long (4 hours or more): If you need to grab some serious down time, you’re in luck – walk across the street (from Terminals 1-3) to the Hilton Athletic Club, which offers day passes for $20, featuring access to their full fitness center, pool, sauna, Jacuzzi and relaxation area.
Reward yourself for a workout well done with a tub of deliciousness from Garrett Popcorn (Terminals 1 or 3).
A few stops more brings you to Wicker Park (hop off at Damen), a walkable and lively neighborhood with some great hangouts, like Big Star, a cool bar and taco joint in an old gas station one block south.
Los Angeles (LAX)
Long (4 hours or more): Since the terminals are less than four miles from the nearest beach, there’s no excuse to not grab a cab and go. If you have time for just one, make it Venice Beach, obviously ($25, 15 min). Start at the pier and walk up the famed boardwalk; snag an outdoor table at Venice Ale House.
Very long (overnight): Forget airport hotels. Take a mini-vacation. Hop a cab ($25, 10-15 min) to Manhattan Beach and check into the charming Shade Hotel (from $279).
Beijing Capital (PEK)
Short (1-4 hours): Walk (10 min from Terminal 3) to the five-star Langham Place hotel for a decent meal and some civilized chill time; to stay behind security lines, buy your way into the serviceable BGS Lounges ($35, Terminals 2 & 3, post-security) and take a load off.
Long (4 hours or more): Do you qualify for the 72-hr visa waiver? Take the Airport Express train ($4, 20-25 min) to Dongzhimen, transfer to the circular Line 2 Subway ($0.30, one trip around, 40 min).
Exit at Qianmen for Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City; Jishuitan for a stroll around the lakes of Hou Hai (avoid the trains at rush hour).
Very long (overnight): Splurge on a stay at The Opposite House (from $411, 10 min. walk from Dongzhimen), one of Beijing’s best hotels.
London Heathrow (LHR)
Short (1-4 hours): The No. 1 Traveller Lounge ($48 Terminal 3, post-security) features the usual lounge amenities, plus spa treatments and beds for an upcharge. More economical are the Servisair lounges ($29, Terminals 1 & 3 post-security).
Stuck in Terminal 5? Grab a spot at Gordon Ramsay’s brilliantly named Plane Food and grub out on dry-aged steak and chips.
Long (4 hours or more): With less than six hours, leaving the airport can be a risk. But if you’re feeling bold, the Heathrow Express ($55 RT, 15 min) takes you to Paddington, where you’re an easy walk to the Italian Gardens / Long Water area of Hyde Park.
Before heading back, hit the park’s lovely Lido Café at the Serpentine.
Very long (overnight): Don’t waste a night in London at an airport hotel; check into the Paddington-adjacent Hotel Indigo (from $259) and spend the rest of your day exploring Central London via the Tube. In the morning, you’re just a block or two from the Heathrow Express – the first trip back leaves at 5:10am Monday-Saturday, 6:25am Sundays.
Short (1-4 hours): It’s Japan. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to eat everything in sight. In Terminal 1, it’s sushi at Kyotatsu, katsu (cutlets) and curry at Williams, ramen at Kagetsu Arashi and Japanese Italian food (it’s kind of awesome) at Spaghetti Goemon. In Terminal 2, it’s takoyaki – octopus pancakes – at Tako-Bon, affordable and fresh sushi at Gansozushi and tonkatsu at Inaba Wako.
Long (4 hours or more): Tokyo may be far away, but the Narita Express (53 minutes to Tokyo Station) is very reliable. To see a lot in a short time without worrying about getting lost, ride the Yamanote circular line (1 hour each way) through Central Tokyo.
Buy a Suica & N’EX pass at the airport station for $59 – includes round-trip fare and a $15 yen credit for subways and local trains.
Very long (overnight): Take the Narita Express to Tokyo Station. Depending on your budget, check into the Hotel Ryumeikan (from $175) or the Four Seasons Marunouchi (from $500) – both best in class and very close to the trains.
From here, the Imperial Palace grounds, the classic chic of Ginza and the famous Tsukiji Fish Market are all within walking distance.
Short (1-4 hours): Grab a day room at the Dubai International Hotel ($43, 1 hr, $128, 4 hrs, Terminals 1&3) for a shower, a nap and a trip to the pool, gym, steam, sauna and Jacuzzi. (The hotel also sells very affordable passes to the fitness facility as well – pool access is included.)
Refuel at Pulp Juice Bar (T3) and go people watching in the terminal, or book into one of the Marhaba lounges ($45, multiple locations) for some more chill time in the company of free wireless, food and other perks.
Long (4 hours or more):With town ten minutes from the terminal stations of the Dubai Metro (fares from $0.50), getting out is a must. Hop off at the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, which has its own Metro station.
Ride up to the 124th floor for the At The Top Observation deck (from $32, reservations recommended). Downstairs, you’ll find the world’s largest choreographed fountains and gigantic Dubai Mall, boasting Bloomingdale’s, Galeries Lafayette, and Marks & Spencer department stores.
Very long (overnight): With more time, still do the Burj Khalifa / Dubai Mall thing, but then ride the Metro back to Al Fahidi for a self-guided walking tour of the historic Bastakiya Quarter, a charming pocket in a sea of stark modernity.
Have dinner at the overwater Pierchic, a seafood spot at the Madinat Jumeirah hotel, and save money with the a $50 prix-fixe lunch, too. Of course, you could do worse than a meal at one of the iconic Burj al Arab hotel’s many restaurants. They may be expensive, but it sure beats paying to sleep over.
Thanks to Airfare Watchdog and Jetsetter both part of the TripAdvisor family of websites, for putting together this list.
This article was posted originally in October 2016 and updated in 2018.
What’s your favorite airport? Least favorite?