Some people like to call airports “mini-cities” because they have everything you’d need – fine dining, shopping, and lounges. If you have a few hours to kill before or after your flight, you could just spend your time there and reap all the benefits, right? You might, but you need to learn a few things first.
In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about staying in airports for extended periods, regardless of whether it’s 2 hours or 24.
Understanding the Difference Between Airside (Transit) and Landside Areas in Airports
Airports are generally split into two areas – landside and airside (transit), and both of them have different rules for how long passengers can stay there.
Landside is the area of the airport that is accessible to anyone – with or without a ticket. It’s the first area whenever you enter an airport. It will usually have check-in desks, luggage drop-off desks, airline ticket vendors, a few shops, and the arrivals area.
Airside (Transit) is the portion of the airport you enter after going through security. You’ll need a valid airline ticket to enter the airside area of an airport. In the airside area, you’ll find all the gates (each airplane departs and arrives at a different gate), waiting areas, duty-free shops, restaurants, and airport lounges. The airside area is considered an international area, so you’ll need to show your passport to enter or exit it.
How Long Can You Stay In an Airport After Landing?
Generally, after landing you can stay inside an airport in the secure airside (transit) area for as long as you’d like. This means that whenever you land, you should think twice about going straight to arrivals, especially if you have a few hours that you need to kill. During this time you can use the airport lounges, dine in restaurants, or simply chill at the waiting areas, which are equipped with WiFi, charging outlets, benches, and toilets. As soon as you go through the customs or arrivals, you won’t be able to enter the airside area again without a new airline ticket.
That said, there are a few exceptions to staying in the airside area:
- You have checked luggage. Checked luggage is usually handed out only after exiting the airside area, right before customs and immigration. Theoretically, you could leave your checked luggage at the baggage claim. The airport staff would eventually pick it up, and you could pick it up from them later but it increases the risk of theft.
- The airport requires you to go through customs right after landing. Some countries, such as the United States, require all passengers arriving from international flights to go straight to Customs and Immigration, which means that you’ll need to exit the airside area. This usually doesn’t apply to domestic flights or flights within the European Union.
- The airport closes down during the night. A lot of smaller airports usually close down between 12 pm – 4 am, during which time all passengers need to exit the airside area and sometimes even the whole airport.
If for any of the reasons listed above, you’re required to exit the airside area, you can also stay at the landside area (accessible by the general public) for as long as you want to and even sleep overnight. Most airports actually have waiting areas there with seats, toilets, WiFi, and a few stores. However, if the airport closes down during the night, including the landside area, you’ll be asked to leave.
Tip: Avoiding checked luggage altogether might be a smarter idea. You’ll save on checked luggage fees, you’ll have to carry less, and you won’t have to worry about checking in your luggage and picking it up from the conveyor belts. I would recommend traveling with just a carry-on and a personal item. I’ve used the Travelpro Maxlite 5 fabric carry-on for many years now, and it’s still going strong. If you’re looking for a new carry-on, it’s a really solid choice!
How Long Can You Stay In an Airport Before the Flight?
If you’re planning on waiting for your flight in the landside area (accessible to the public), you can usually wait there for as long as you want to and even sleep overnight. It’s very common for people to do that, especially for very early flights. There will usually be a seating area, some shops, a public toilet, and free WiFi.
If you want to wait in the airside transit area (after going through security), you can usually enter only a few hours before the flight. If you have checked luggage, then you need to wait until the check-in desks open (usually, 2-4 hours before the flight) before you can go through security.
If you don’t have checked luggage, then it really depends on the specific airport. The general rule of thumb is that airports will let passengers through security only on the date of the flight. In most airports, security closes for the night, and it opens up only two hours before the first flight (usually at 4-6 am).
In most US airports, you’ll be able to go through security:
- If you’re departing before 12 pm, you’ll be able to go through security at any time on the same date of the flight.
- If you’re departing very early, you’ll be able to go through security after 4:30 pm on the previous day.
Read Next: Can You Leave the Airport During a Layover?
How Long Can You Stay at an Airport Lounge?
In most airport lounges, you’re allowed to stay for 2-3 hours before departure or after landing. Some also offer extended stays for upwards of 5 hours. That said, these time limits are rarely enforced. Usually, if you enter a lounge, nobody cares for how long you’re staying there, which means that you can even spend overnight there (of course, if the lounge doesn’t close for the night). This also heavily depends on how full the lounge is – if it’s full, the lounge staff will start paying attention to who is overextending their stay.
Can You Sleep in an Airport if You Have an Overnight Layover?
If you have an overnight layover booked on the same ticket, you’ll be able to stay in the secure airside (transit) area until your next flight. That’s because on connecting flights, usually, passengers don’t need to exit the transit area. In fact, on international flights, they aren’t allowed to, because this would mean that they’d be entering another country, and it would possibly require getting visas and other paperwork. Even if the layover airport requires you to go through customs, you’ll be moved back into the transit area as soon as you’re through.
If, however, you’ve booked a connecting flight on separate tickets, then regular rules apply. If you have checked luggage, you’ll have to pick it up, go through customs, and sleep overnight in the landside area until the check-in desks open. If you don’t have checked luggage, but you’re required to go through customs anyway, maybe you’ll be able to enter the transit area right away and maybe not, depending on whether the security is open and if they’ll let you through.
How Long Can You Wait at Arrivals?
Theoretically, you can wait at arrivals for as long as you want to, because you don’t need to show any tickets to enter, and nobody usually pays much attention to who is waiting at the arrivals. So if you, for any reason, want to arrive very early and need to kill a few hours, you can spend them at the arrivals hall. It usually has public toilets, a seating area, and free wifi.
However, if you want to pick someone up from the airport and not wait for too long, then you should get to arrivals a few minutes after the flight lands. In smaller airports, people will usually get from landing to arrivals in about 10-20 minutes. For medium airports, it should be about 20-40 minutes, and in large airports, it will take a minimum of 40 minutes (closer to 60 minutes on average). This also depends on how full the airport is – during peak season it will take longer.
A smart idea would be for the pick-up driver to arrive a few minutes before the expected arrival time and park somewhere nearby. When the passenger arrives, he should call the driver to pick him up, and he then could arrive at the arrivals pick-up point in a few minutes.
Is It Possible to Live Inside an Airport Indefinitely?
Maybe you’ve seen the movie “The Terminal” starring Tom Hanks, where he was living inside an airport for years. Well, it turns out that this movie is actually made based on real facts. It’s based on Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who lived inside Paris airport from 1988 to 2006. He was fleeing from Iran to England with a connecting flight in Paris, and got trapped in Paris indefinitely when England denied him entry, and it wasn’t possible to arrive back to Iran. He couldn’t fly back, exit the airport, or fly anywhere else, so he had to stay in the airside transit part of the airport, which is considered an international area.
And he wasn’t the only one – there have been many other cases like that as well. In 2021, an Estonian man lived in Manila airport’s transit area for 110 days, when, upon arriving in the Philippines, the country went into a lockdown and there were no returning flights back to Estonia.
So yes, it’s entirely possible to live inside an airport indefinitely. This may happen when you arrive in a country, but for whatever reason, you’re denied entry, and you also can’t return back. This usually happens to refugees, who can’t return because they’re fleeing, and the other country doesn’t want to let them in, or to people who are having some kind of problems with their passports. Although this may sound like a good idea, we wouldn’t recommend it, because it would feel more like a prison rather than a nice retreat at an airport.
Waiting in airports for upcoming flights or killing a few hours after you’ve landed is extremely common, and airports are very used to this. Most people feel anxious about staying overnight in an airport, but they shouldn’t be because it’s really common and there’s nothing to be ashamed about. Most airports are really open to this and they won’t kick you out, especially if you’re waiting in the airside transit area.