Stuck at the Atlanta airport: Survival tips

You may recall I was traveling across the country—from California to Alabama—to attend family celebrations the last two and a half weeks. The two celebrations were too far apart to consider staying for the whole time, and so that meant a lot of back and forth.

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No plane. No go.

Direct flights weren’t an option, and so both weeks, I traveled through Atlanta. And both weeks, I spent an unexpected night in Atlanta.

Misfortune struck on my way back home from the first trip, with bad weather delaying my trip into Atlanta, causing me to miss my connection. In retrospect, that overnight stay wasn’t particularly bad. Yes, it involved a migraine (my first in years), my dinner dropping out of the bottom of a soggy bag and a suitcase I would not see again until home. But the stay also included a hotel room, a clean bed and a hot shower.

I would not be so fortunate on my next trip through Atlanta. Last week, I spent the night in the airport. After weather delayed my flight, we boarded at midnight and then the pilot timed out before we could take off. By then, hotels were full, and I and a few thousand of my new best friends would be spending the night in the Atlanta terminals.

Here are a few tips, should you find yourself in a similar unfortunate position someday.

If it’s late at night but vendors are still open, get food and something to drink. Shops and restaurants will not stay open all night, and they may or may not reopen before your flight leaves in the morning. There are a lot of food options in Atlanta, and the directory can point you to another concourse with completely different choices. A few of my favorites include:

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  • Bojangles (Terminal T): This was the first time I even knew there was a Bojangles in the Atlanta airport. Those of you who follow my blog regularly know this discovery was balm to my soul. Tip: Bo Rounds only come standard during breakfast hours, despite what’s advertised on their sign. After breakfast hours, you’ll get fries unless you specifically ask for Bo Rounds.
  • Willy’s Mexican Grill (Terminal B): This place feels like a step up from Chipotle. Lots of build-your-own options, and you won’t leave feeling hungry.
  • Cafe Intermezzo (Terminal B): You can sit down or take out, and they have an extensive tea menu, too. If you like desserts, they have a tempting bakery case.
  • Chick-fil-a (Terminal A): The only caveat here is that they use the same foil-lined bags for their grilled sandwiches as their fried sandwiches, and the grilled sandwiches will make the bag soggy. So don’t try to put part of your sandwich back in the bag and expect it to stay there instead of dropping through to the floor. (See paragraph three above.)
  • One Flew South (Terminal E): A fellow passenger told me, “People plan their trips through Atlanta around this restaurant. It’s upscale and has the best food of any airport I’ve ever been to.” So I tried it. The lentil soup is fabulous, but the menu caters heavily to carnivores. You’ll find new Southern cuisine and sushi. Hmmm. An odd mix, but worth a try if you don’t mind a limited menu.

Get a blanket as quickly as possible. There will be people in front of you who insist they need five blankets. And it’s not because they have four children with them. The terminal is cold and will only get colder through the night. If you don’t get a blanket at first, continue checking by the “help” areas. Delta was doing blanket laundry throughout the night, and every now and then, a large box of clean, wrapped blankets would magically appear. If the shops are still open, you may also consider one of those travel pillows you’ve been putting off buying. The terminal seats may be cushioned, but they are nowhere near pillow soft.

Try to find three seats together near a charging station. This will kill two birds with one stone. You’ll be able to stretch out. (Please don’t be a hog and take four seats unless you are really, really tall or are traveling with children.) You’ll also be able to plug in your phone to charge. If you have earplugs/headphones, go ahead and use them. Atlanta is quite possibly the loudest airport in the world, and it does not sleep at night. If you have music on your phone, play it to drown out the public address system that will never, ever stop or get quieter all night long. I also recommend covering your face with a spare article of clothing, if you have your bag with you. This is not so you will suffocate, but it will help block the obnoxious overhead lights that will never, ever dim all night long.

Be prepared to move—even to a different terminal—to find a darker, quieter corner away from overhead speakers, the worst of the florescent lights and those inevitable jerks who feel the need to carry on loud phone conversations while walking among a sea of people clearly trying to sleep. Try really hard not to wish scurvy or death on these people. They’re having a bad night, too. You may have to repeat this attempt several times before you can stop wishing scurvy or death or, at the very least, sudden-onset laryngitis on them.

The family restroom may be one of the quietest places you’ll find to brush your teeth and wash your face. It’s also easier to change into fresh clothes in those than in the main bathrooms. Just don’t stay locked in there too long. Others may be waiting to do the same.

Be kind to the workers. The Atlanta airport never sleeps, and there are workers who still have jobs to do, even when the airport turns into a “hostel” for the night. If there is a man sweeping the carpet for an hour near where you’re trying to sleep, get up and go find another area to try to sleep. He’s just trying to clean the floor for the next folks who will have to sleep on it.

You can travel between concourses, but it may take longer at night. The trains stop running at some point. So do many of the escalators. Maintenance on escalators and moving walkways may happen at night. If you want to get from one terminal to another, take the elevator (a nice warm, dimly lit, quiet piece of heaven) to the train level and then walk to the other concourses from there.

If you can’t sleep, go learn something. Several areas between concourses have exhibits. One has an exhibit on the history of Atlanta (I think between B and C concourses). If you don’t feel like walking to read each panel, ride on the moving walkway. When you reach the end, go back on the opposite walkway to read the panels on the other side. Repeat as desired. The area between A and T has a wonderful exhibit of African sculptures. This was my favorite place to linger:

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Aptly named “Waiting”

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It’s pretty cool that there’s even a phone number where you can learn more, almost like being in a real museum.

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A favorite sculpture. I envied this bird for its wings. With wings, I’d never have to be stuck in Atlanta overnight again.

Count your blessings. Know that even though it is miserable and uncomfortable, sleeping in the Atlanta airport is not the worst thing that could happen to you. The CNN newsreel loop that played all night included the woman whose sister called her from the washed-away house in the Houston floods to say “Please tell Mom and Dad I love them. And I love you.” I cannot even imagine the night she had.

Have you ever been stuck overnight at an airport? I’d love for you to share your stories and tips in the comments below.

7 thoughts on “Stuck at the Atlanta airport: Survival tips

  1. Pingback: The comfort of familiar faces | The Flourishing Tree

  2. Hi Daughter! Have been traveling and running, so didn’t read this until now. Chris’ Dad, Chris and I spent the night many years ago in Kennedy, coming back from Europe. Such a long flight, and then having to spend the night in an airport on the last leg to home. It was rather tiring, but we finally got home, and I think spent two days just resting. Didn’t have any previous advice to go on, so we just roughed it on hard benches. By the way, I love Atlanta Airport. My favorite, for many of the reasons you wrote about. Love, E

    • I sympathized with those families traveling with children. A harder night for them to be sure. Glad you like the Atlanta airport. I think I’ll skip it for as long as possible.

  3. As I finish packing to leave for Scotland on Friday, I can’t help but think of all our connections and the promise of bad weather along the route. Plus, the trip is with the boys – one 16 and one 64. I have actually spent the night in an airport and done just fine, (glad NOT to be in the air with the weather) but my heart stilled at your account and I can’t imagine this happening with the fam., It would be a disaster. Your tips will surly help during our 5 hour layover in NY! Loy

  4. Thank you Hope for sharing your survival tips for an overnight stay at the airport. I have not had that experience in an airport but I will take your suggested survival tips with me the next time I travel by airplane. My daughter and son-in-law is moving to El Paso, Texas this month. I have a feeling my air travel will pick up soon. We miss you!

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