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Making the most of a travel nightmare: six tips for being stuck in an airport

I recently found myself stuck in Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport (AMS) for 14 straight hours. This was - unsurprisingly - not an adventure I'd ever planned to embark upon.

A one-night city break to the Netherlands' capital - Amsterdam

I'd treated myself to a quick one-night city break to the Netherlands' capital after spotting some cheap flights online. It was supposed to be simple. A quick flight, spend an afternoon and evening in one of my favourite cities: a visit to the Van Gogh Museum, biking alongside the canal, drinks and dinner in the hip eateries lining the old centre, fly back. Needless to say, things didn't exactly go to plan.

A one-night city break to the Netherlands' capital - Amsterdam

Arriving at Schiphol for my return flight, I observed galeforce winds knocking over the huge plant pots that sit outside the airport. Not exactly prime flying conditions. Sure enough, it wasn't long before my flight - on a tiny propeller plane - back to Manchester, was cancelled.

Schiphol airport Amsterdam

Despite having done my fair share of travelling and being delayed numerous times, I'd previously managed to avoid any cancellations. The announcement rang out over the tannoy and panic struck as I tried to work out the best course of action. And yet, by the time my plane did leave the runway - some 14 hours later - I'd had quite an enjoyable day.

Six ways to improve your airport experience

With that experience fresh in my mind, here's my guide on making the most of your time if it's not possible for you to leave the airport.

  1. Make a plan

    Schiphol airport Amsterdam

    If your flight is cancelled, the first thing you need to do is work out how you're going to get to your destination. After all, you don't want to be aimlessly wandering around an airport with no idea when or how you're going to leave.

    Tips for rebooking your flight

    In the case of cancellations, you'll need to rebook your flight. You can do this by visiting the desk of the airline you're travelling with, whose staff will aim to get you a seat on the next available flight. Some airlines have desks airside, while to access other companies, you will have to return to the check-in area, and come back through customs once you're sorted. If you're not sure where to find your airline's desk, head to the airport information booth.

    Schiphol airport Amsterdam

    Alternatively, if you're struggling to get the answers you need, try tweeting their social media handle. Most airlines have social media reps ready to help - and in some cases they can even rebook your flight for you, meaning you can skip the line entirely and in some cases bag an earlier flight.

    You shouldn't have to pay any more to rebook your flight. Make sure you ask the staff about any compensation options available to you - in some cases you may be able to claim money back for the disruption, or you could be given food and drink tokens to use in the airport.

    If you've arrived at the airport late and missed your flight, however, you will likely have to pay for another ticket.

  2. Accept your fate

    At the airport

    Travel delays are universally frustrating, particularly if they throw important plans into uncertainty. I did spend some time enviously watching other people board their punctual flights, and complaining along with other passengers in the long queue to rebook.

    But to make the most of your time stuck in the airport, it's important not to spend the whole day annoyed at your unexpected circumstances. Remember it's (usually) no-one's fault, and there's nothing you can do to get the plane off the runway any faster.

    Instead, once you know when your flight departs, find out what options are available to you in the airport to capitalise on this time. It's quite rare that we have a few hours or a day to simply do what we want away from the pressures of work and home life, so embrace your situation instead of stressing out about it!

  3. Consider treating yourself to a priority lounge

    Priority lounge at Schiphol airport Amsterdam

    Most airports have priority lounges that you can pay to access. If you're only at the airport for an hour or two, it may not be worth the fee, but if you're spending all day there then it could actually save you some money.

    Many of these lounges operate on an all-you-can-eat and drink basis, with pastries, crisps, cheese and chocolates laid out, and both alcoholic and soft drinks in the fridges. Help yourself to these and you won't have to spend as much in the airport's shops and restaurants, where goods are often at a premium price.

    Lounge at Schiphol airport Amsterdam

    What's more, these lounges almost always have much comfier seating than the public areas, alongside conveniences such as plug sockets, showers and private bathrooms.

    Bigger airports tend to have more than one of these lounges: shop around to find one that's right for your needs (e.g. child-friendly, unlimited food, showers) and your budget.

  4. Take in some culture

    Schiphol airport Amsterdam

    The two most traditional airport activities are undoubtedly hitting the restaurants and bars, and duty free shopping. However, many larger airports have expanded their horizons and now offer cultural activities too - you just need to know where to look.

    A museum at Schiphol airport Amsterdam

    Schiphol Airport, for example, cultivates a small museum, in collaboration with Amsterdam's famous Rijksmuseum. I passed this diminutive exhibition by chance, and entered the dark cube to gaze on a collection of masterpieces. Not only did this offer me a dose of colour in an unexpected location, but it also provided a refreshing change from the noise and bustle of the airport.

    Schiphol airport Amsterdam

    Other airports offer similar attractions. Malaga Airport, for instance, has an aviation museum next to its general terminal, where you can wander through the exhibits and even visit the old control tower. In Dubai Airport's terminal 3, you can relax at the tranquil Zen Gardens. Edinburgh Airport's gallery showcases some of Scotland's top talent, with exhibits comprising original paintings, drawings, fine craft and printing from both established and new artists. At Mexico City Airport, head to the exhibition centres to learn about Mexico's aviation history and explore the visual arts.

  5. Indulge yourself in pampering

    Spa at Schiphol airport Amsterdam

    Flying is hard on the body: from the effects of jet lag and bloating due to the drop in pressure, to dry skin from spending a long time in air conditioned spaces, we often feel more than a little out of sync with our bodies by the time we reach arrivals. If your journey takes even longer than expected, this feeling is exacerbated, and on landing you want nothing more than a shower and a sleep.

    So why not use your time stuck in the airport to make sure you touch down feeling good as new?

    Many airports now have spas offering a whole host of wellness treatments designed to perk you up during a long journey. Delhi Airport, for example, has two, with its Heaven on Earth Spa in terminal 1, and the O2 Spa, with its fusion of Thai and Indian treatments, in terminal 3. At Bangkok's airport you can access treatments ranging from foot therapy to a full-body massage or the classic Thai massage.

    Give yourself a boost at the airport

    If the airport you're spending too much time in doesn't have a spa, don't fret - there are still ways to get refreshed. Most airports will have showers and dressing rooms you can use to get rejuvenated ahead of your flight home. If you want to splash out, you can even purchase some luxury cosmetics from duty free to give you that extra boost. Feeling sleepy? Many airports now offer private sleep pods: small capsules containing beds which you can pay for by the hour.

    Relaxing in massage chair at the airport

    At Schiphol I opted for the budget option with a massage chair, which - to be honest - was a bit of a strange experience. The chair was clearly designed for people taller than I, so it ended up massaging my ponytail instead of my upper back, but it was still nice to dedicate ten minutes to relaxing after a stressful start to the day.

  6. Treat yourself to a meal

    Cafe at Schiphol airport Amsterdam

    If you're stuck in an airport for hours on end, you're going to have to eat at some point, so you might as well ensure your meal is worth the money. Instead of simply opting for the first bar or cafe you see, try Googling the airport's restaurants and navigating your way to your favourite - after all, you've got time to spare. You're likely to be surprised with the high-end options available, with many quality restaurant chains and celebrity chefs choosing airports to locate their eateries. And if you did get food vouchers as compensation, make sure they're not still in your back pocket unspent when you finally board the plane.

    Leon restaurant at Schiphol airport Amsterdam

    If your flight is soon, it's worth sticking to the lighter side of the menu to avoid feeling uncomfortable once you're in the air. And while there's nothing wrong with treating yourself to a couple of drinks, alcohol will dehydrate you, so it's best not to drink too much to ensure an enjoyable journey.

Making the most of your airport adventure

Admittedly, I would rather not have been stuck in Schiphol Airport for 14 hours, but after sorting my flight out and deciding to enjoy myself rather than stress out, it turned out to be a relatively pleasant day. It gave me time to do a bit of shopping, see some art, tuck into a delicious meal, and even have a go on the strange massage chair.

Getting stuck at the airport is not part of anyone's ideal travel plans, but since you're not going anywhere - why not make the most of it?

Caroline Howley

Caroline Howley

Travel Enthusiast and Writer

Follow the adventures of a writer who decided to one day leave everything behind and go in a...

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