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Love Your Layover

Airports are adding amenities beyond fancy restaurants and chichi shops; how about a tranquil butterfly garden or a trippy tunnel of light?

By Sally Benford

If you thought last summer and the holidays combined for nightmare air travel seasons, experts say you can expect more of the same for 2023.

A large waterfall with trees and natural landscaping. Next Avenue
Singapore's legendary Changi Airport

"This travel season could be one for the record books, especially at airports," says AAA Senior Vice President Paula Twidale. More Americans are planning trips and booking early, despite inflation, she adds.

Packed or canceled flights, rental car shortages and crowded airports make for weary travelers, but take heart. If you'll pack some patience, you can enjoy novel airport attractions to take the sting out of getting stranded.

Airport as Ambassador

While most large airports have upgraded dining and shopping options, many have taken traveler amenities even further as they pick up the mantle as the first ambassador of their city.

"An airport has a responsibility to represent its community and to promote the uniqueness of that city and state," says Stacey Stegman, senior vice president of communications, marketing and customer experience for Denver International Airport. "What we do sets a tone for someone's experience, and we are very conscious of that."

"An airport has a responsibility to represent its community and to promote the uniqueness of that city and state."

Entertaining and engaging travelers is a big part of airports' portfolios this year, but so is the responsibility to express more about the state's history, culture and aesthetic beauty. Stegman says that it makes sense to provide options for delayed travelers to reduce their stress and create a more enjoyable travel experience.

Alex Poworoznek of Glendale, Arizona, travels both domestically and internationally for work and leisure. Over the last few years, he's racked up plenty of air miles and he says that airports should provide quiet areas for travelers who become stranded or have extended layovers.

"Airports would do a lot of travelers a favor and make traveling more enjoyable if they offered more quiet zones without PA announcements," says Poworoznek. "I'd like to see low-traffic areas and chairs that allow you to kick your legs up — or sleeping pods."

He was stranded recently in two large U.S. airports after severe flight delays and says the experience was a combination of boredom and exhaustion.

Competing to Please

Getting stranded is one issue, but how about travelers who plan long layovers as a strategy to reduce stress or explore a new city for a few hours?

In the past, airport food was expensive but less than inspiring, so airports are enhancing dining options by adding outposts of local restaurants to give travelers a taste of the city's cuisine. During a long layover, travelers can enjoy leisurely dining, rather than snatching a quick bite at the grab-and-go counter.

Stegman says that creating a great food scene is a priority for airports.

"Decades ago, you were lucky to get fast food at the airport and offerings were limited," she says. "Now, you can enjoy some of the best restaurants in Denver, but more important is the ability of an airport to balance national or global brands with fast food, fast casual and sit-down restaurants that have local flavor."

Soak Up Some Culture

At Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, for example, travelers can choose from an abundance of dining options, including the city's famous Creole and Southern fare. Adding to the Big Easy flavor, live music selected in partnership with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation, showcases the city's culture.

A grassy area with skylights and park benches. Next Avenue
Denver International Airport's plaza park

Nashville International Airport welcomes travelers with free performances of music ranging from country to jazz nearly every day of the year.

In addition to music venues, airports are adding attractions like butterfly gardens, museums, art galleries, movie theaters, breweries and even malls.

Depending on the season and interests, travelers can find more than a few ways to spend quality time at airports — even if your layover is short.

Light My Flyer

Poworoznek travels often through Detroit Metropolitan Airport and during layovers, he makes it a point to walk through the airport's 700-foot LED Light Tunnel — illuminated glass panels paired with soothing music — which connects the airport concourses.

"Traveling can be stressful and frustrating. I really enjoy the Light Tunnel because it's calming and the tranquil sounds drown out noise, so you can have a moment of solitude before you cram into the next plane," Poworoznek says.

Like Detroit airport's calming Light Tunnel, airport offerings are benefitting travelers around the world.


Terminal Boredom?

So you have a long layover at Chicago's O'Hare International. You can relieve boredom and stress by perfecting your downward dog at the airport's yoga room, Zen out in the aeroponic garden, or indulge in self-care at Terminal Getaway Spa.

If you love to watch planes land and take off, the airport's new outdoor Sky Terrace offers the perfect observation spot.

Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is still the world's busiest, welcoming 93.7 million passengers in 2022, and like passengers passing through O'Hare, travelers in the Atlanta airport can take advantage of a spa experience that includes a massage, facial, manicure or pedicure.

If art is your thing, San Francisco International Airport is home to a variety of exhibits and collections, with unique objects, such as San Francisco Ballet and Opera costumes and airline meal service sets from the 1960s through the '80s. If you love to watch planes land and take off, the airport's new outdoor Sky Terrace offers the perfect observation spot.

Minnesotan Movies

If you have time between flights at the award-winning Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, take a seat at the See18 Film Screening Room, where you can enjoy short films about the people and culture of Minnesota, created by Twin Cities PBS (parent company of Next Avenue), or watch TED Talks on a variety of subjects.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport may be the healthiest airport in the country. The airport hosts more than 35 dining options from favorite local restaurants — many offering healthy options. Get some exercise before your flight, along Terminal 4's 1.2-mile Sky Harbor Fitness Trail, which includes the airport's unique terrazzo floors, to view the city skyline and surrounding desert beauty.

A large hallway in an airport with colorful tile flooring. Next Avenue
The Phoenix Airport Museum within Sky Harbor International Airport has, among its permanent collection, massive terrazzo art works built into the floors of two terminals.

Flight canceled at New York's JFK and you have to spend the night? No worries — the airport is home to an adjacent 1960s-themed hotel in the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Terminal. A Lockheed Constellation L-649A Starliner — one of only four "Connies" that remain — sits outside the hotel and serves as a cocktail lounge. Even if you don't spend the night, you can enjoy the mid-century vibe in the lobby and tour the museum of TWA memorabilia.

Denver's Talking Gargoyle

Games are the name of the, well, game at Denver International Airport. Its main summer attraction — Park on the Plaza — features grass-like turf, lawn games and lounge seating. Inside, on the B and C concourses, travelers can pass the time with cornhole games or view art exhibits. If you have time, check out the hilarious talking gargoyle at the Southwest baggage claim area.

Visits to Paris include world-class museums, but if your Paris itinerary is simply a connection at Charles de Gaulle International Airport, art can still be part of your journey. Famous French museum masterpieces at the airport's Espace Musées take center stage and are organized twice a year.

Cure your ales and get a stein of great German beer at Munich International Airport's Airbrau brewery, home to Europe's largest roofed biergarten.

Cure your ales and get a stein of great German beer at Munich International Airport's Airbrau brewery, home to Europe's largest roofed biergarten. Bavarian food and drink specialties rule, and if you plan ahead, you can take 45-minute brewery tour with the brewmaster.

Golf Among the Runways

Waiting to catch your next flight at London Heathrow and couldn't sleep on the plane? You can hit the ground running at your final destination after you catch some zzzs at Heathrow's short-stay hotels or pay-per-use lounges. Some offer showers to freshen up between flights.

A unique offering at Bangkok's Don Mueang International Airport is the Kantarat Golf Course, an 18-hole course located in green space between two runways. You'll have some amazing views of landing and departing aircraft — assuming the noise doesn't affect your game.

Named the World's Leading Airport by World Travel Awards in 2022, Dubai International Airport is a traveler's dream. Spend your layover at the airport's world-class health club that includes a swimming pool, saunas, steam rooms and even a billiards room.

If All Else Fails, Pet a Dog

Step into the Jewel area at Singapore Changi Airport and you'll never guess you're in an airport. With more than five gardens, the world's highest indoor water fountain, five walking paths, a movie theater, a four-story-high slide, mazes, cycling rentals, a rock-climbing wall and a wealth of shopping and dining, you could spend days at the airport and never get bored.

Seoul Incheon International earns points for its spacious VIP lounges and amenities, including an indoor skating rink, a spa, and a "Cultural Street" with local cuisine and music and dance performances.

Finally, nervous travelers can ease their anxiety at 37 U.S. airports that offer pet therapy. From LA to Philly, you can pet your stress away with a dog, cat, or even a pig or rabbit.

Sally Benford
Sally Benford is a Phoenix-based freelance journalist who currently writes about a wide range of topics, including health, careers, lifestyle, travel and history. Read More
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