Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sleeping in the Frankfurt Airport

While I have been traveling regularly for the past five years there is one experience that I've been able to successfully avoid that finally caught up with me on my return trip from Russia. Up until that point I had never spent the night at an airport. As a cost saving measure I chose a flight that had an overnight layover in Frankfurt. I looked into some of the airport hotels, but getting through customs twice in addition to security lines sounded like a good way to cause myself additional headaches. Not wanting to miss my flight the next morning I decided that I would join the ranks of those sleeping in the airport that night.

My flight got in late that night, and as I made my way to the terminal I found that many of the best sleeping spots had already been taken. Amongst those spots were the coveted chairs pictured at the beginning of this post.

Once I found the closed ticket counter where I needed to pick up my boarding pass in the morning I began to search for viable places to sleep. The chairs in this area all had arm rests and they were not usable for sleeping. Several people had camped out in front of the McDonald's as the benches were padded. I considered snagging a similar spot but a nagging thought kept me from it. I couldn't get the image of an irate German McDonald's worker yelling at me the next morning out of my mind. I could imagine being beaten with a broom with startling clarity. Considering that I had already been yelled at in German when I got lost on a train, I decided to move on.

I took a brief escalator ride to a lower level where I found the cleaning crew bustling with activity. You never see cleaning crews out in such numbers during the day at airports. I had known that they must exist, but it was reassuring to have a visual confirmation of their being. I didn't see any other sleepers in this area, and since there is safety in numbers I went back upstairs to find a spot of my own.

Seeing as all of the comfortable spots had been taken I found a nice cold marble ledge to perch on. Another traveler was on the ledge around the corner so it didn't seem like a completely terrible idea at the time. Having the wall to one side offered me some protection from would be thieves. The spot was near a couple of people including a girl in a blue coat who could not sleep. I'm thankful that she was up all night as she probably kept any would-be thieves at bay merely by her presence.

And so I began to rest as best I could given my extremely hard and cold perch. I struggled for some time to find a comfortable position but I finally nodded off. After 2 hours I woke to find that the circulation had been cut off in my arm. I rose to deal with this, put on my shoes and set off to find the toilet.

At some point I realized that my left ear, which had previously adjusted to the pressure changes, was feeling like it hadn't adjusted at all. Sound was muffled and there was a dull yet growing pain. At first I thought that I just needed to pop my ear so I purchased a pack of gum from the 24 hour news stand. The gum didn't help so I took a pain reliever.

A trip to my doctor would later reveal that sinus congestion combined with the pressure changes inherent to air travel had caused something in my ear to rupture. This caused my ear drum to half fill with fluid. Fortunately this was temporary, and all of my hearing has returned.

After this brief distraction, I was unable to go back to sleep right away so I made a few observations, and I took some pictures of my fellow travelers (sans flash). It was strange to be in an airport at night. Airports are places of transit; they are full of activity and movement. At night even the airport seemed to be resting in preparation for another hectic day. Everything had slowed down to a pace that I'd never seen at an airport. I find it hard to describe it, but the term "awkwardly peaceful" seems to resonate in my mind.

Still tired, I tried to sleep once again and nodded off for about an hour. Eventually I found a really comfortable position and slept solidly until the familiar sounds of the airport woke me again at 5:18 am. The bustle and life had returned to the airport once again.

I sat up on my marble slab and began to observe the activity on the moving sidewalk. A little boy and his mother had stopped near the moving sidewalk so that the mother could find the boarding passes in her bag. She told the boy to stand beside her, but if you put a little boy next to something as fun as a moving sidewalk then he's going to be tempted. After testing his mother a bit he decided not to push his luck that morning. Traveling is a lot like the moving sidewalk and the little boy. There are always distractions available but you have to keep time (mother) in mind.

After this observation, I got up, found some food, changed my shirt, got my boarding passes, did a bit of light shopping and found my departure gate. On the way to my gate, I passed the same group of over night travelers in the comfy chairs that I came across the night before; they were still sleeping. I was quite surprised when I saw this because there were large numbers of people passing by, and it wasn't quiet at all. I wasn't envious as my night was probably far more interesting.

Do you have any memorable moments about your first overnight airport visit? If you do, please leave a comment.

UPDATE: Since I posted this article I've revisited the area and investigated a rumor that said sleeping in the Frankfurt airport is no longer allowing sleeping overnight. To read more visit Revisiting Sleeping in the Frankfurt Airport.

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  1. I have slept in airports and it is miserable for me. I am a tummy sleeper so no chair would ever do. I usually curl up on the floor with my jacket under me and my hubby's jacket over me. Not comfortable but I can usually get 20 minutes of sleep, long enough to give me a boost. What is worse is 15 hour flights. I cannot sleep sitting up and when I put my chin on my pull down tray, the person in front of me puts their chair back and about decapitates me. My favorite flights are empty ones that I can lay across the five seats and sleep like a baby. Empty flights are of the past though. Oh in loud places I have to wear ear plugs to sleep (like in most hotels due to the air system coming off and on and my daughter grinding her teeth!), so I would probably get robbed if I were alone!

  2. I've had that same thing happen to me when resting on planes. There's no warning at all when people recline their seats.

    Fortunately my body has learned how to sleep on planes fairly well. They do have inflatable pillows that you can lean forward onto for plane sleeping but I've never seen one of these in use.

    Getting robbed was a concern of mine but I was able to avoid that, mostly by luck but I like to think that picking a well populated area had something to do with it.

  3. I slept, or "slept", at the international airport in Buenos Aires. It was not awkwardly peaceful - just awkward. Flights departed throughout the night. Whoever heard of a 3:30 am flight to anywhere? No wonder there was a riot at that airport one week later.

  4. Lisa: I'm glad that you missed the riot. I'm not sure that a 3:30 am flight is a good idea regardless of the origin/destination. The coffee must be really strong there.

  5. Those padded benches look pretty comfortable but man, look at all that empty floor space in the first pic just waiting to be slept on! Can't believe you chose the marble over that. I sleep fine on floors but the two things keeping me from sleeping well in airports is worrying about getting robbed or waking up late and missing my plane.

    I can't remember all the times I've slept in airports but the most memorable (similar) experience would be a train station in Bari, Italy. I had just taken a train with my girlfriend from up north on the first day of our month long Puglia trip to find out more about my ancestors. We had just gotten drugged and robbed on the train so we didn't have any money, for some reason I didn't bring any pants with me on the trip, and my brother said it would be stupid to bring a sleeping bag with me to Italy. Boy I wish I hadn't listened to him cause it was cold in that station! The only thing I had was this little cotton sleeping bag liner that we both crawled into to try and stay warm. It must have looked weird but I don't think any of the bums that were sleeping nearby cared. It ended up being a great trip and getting robbed just made it more interesting, humbling, and memorable.

    I love reading your blog Graham. I think you're a great writer. Thanks for sharing these fun stories and travel tips!

    Glad your ear is back to normal!

  6. I stumbled upon this post, as I was researching the frankfurt airport via google. I'll be there in July and staying for a 9 hour layover!! grrr.

    Do you by any chance know if there are outlets for laptops, or wireless access points? I've been trying to find out for a few hours. :)

    Thanks for the interesting post! Glad to know you emerged from your exciting night unscathed!