Surviving an Airport Layover With Kids

March 17, 2015

An airport layover with kids. There aren't very many travelers who enjoy sitting through this. Even seasoned travelers gripe about it. At its best, a layover is a short wait between flights, giving you a chance to stretch out or grab a snack.

At its worst, an airport layover is a slow torture of endless hours of waiting in place. Adding kids into the mix makes the experience even worse, as you're forced to find ways to occupy the kids' attention while simultaneously trying to prevent a mid-flight meltdown later on.

This post was updated on March 24, 2020.

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Spending a layover at Narita Airport (July 2012)

How we survive an airport layover with kids

Over the years, though, I've learned that getting through an airport layover with kids doesn't have to be torture. In fact, my husband and I often use layovers to our advantage, and have had some pretty cool experiences while waiting for our flights.

After years of traveling internationally with kids (and domestically too!), we've picked up a few tricks for how to pass the time during a layover. Here are six travel tips to help you get through an airport layover with kids.

My daughter taking a nap during an aiport layover

Find a spot to run around during your airport layover with kids

After several hours cooped up on a plane, having a chance to run around feels like heaven. If we have a good chunk of time between flights, my husband and I like to find an open area with relatively few travelers and just let our kids run loose. This gives us a well-needed rest, and allows our kids to get some of their energy out before the next flight.

Some airports have unused portions of the terminal that you can essentially use as a playground for your kids. The Denver International Airport, for example, has a whole upstairs area that rarely gets used. We recently had an airport layover there and spent several hours playing around in that upstairs area. Before your flight, do a little research about the airport where you'll be spending your layover at, so you can get an idea of where to take the kids to run around.

My son playing at the Denver Airport (July 2014)

Leave the airport

If time permits, and we are relatively close to the city, we often will use our layover time to leave the airport and explore the city. We have done this in Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Tokyo, and Bangkok.

Many airports have trains that can take you into the central part of town. Some airports, like San Diego International Airport or Reagan National Airport, are right in the heart of the city, so leaving the airport is relatively simple. If you're spending a layover in Miami, for example, there's a public bus that takes you right into South Beach for under $2.50.

Again, it's helpful to do some airport research ahead of time to figure out the best way to get out of the airport, and how long it takes to get to the city and back. If you're flying internationally, you'll need to also take into account the time it takes to get through customs. Many airports have airport storage, so it's easy to leave your carry on bags there while you go out and explore the city.

A platter of sushi at a restaurant in Tokyo during an airport layover with kids
Stumbling upon a great sushi restaurant in Shibuya (July 2012)

Make your airport layover with kids interesting by visiting other terminals

Sometimes, the waiting time during your airport layover is not enough to allow you to leave the airport. In that case, you can also take the time to explore the other terminals. My favorite airport is Changi International Airport in Singapore, because there are just so many things to do there.

When I was a kid visiting my family in Indonesia, I would actually look forward to spending our layovers at Changi. Besides the countless stores for shopping, the airport has a cactus garden, swimming pool, movie theater, arcade, and a few children's play areas.

Granted, most airports will not be the same caliber as Changi, but at the very least, many international airports have a children's play area. Take advantage of the facilities that already exist at the airport, and give your kids a chance to play before the flight.

Playing at one of the terminal in the Taiwan Airport (September 2015)

Grab a sit-down meal or have a snack

Use the airport layover as an excuse to spend family time at a sit-down restaurant. We're usually on a pretty tight budget when we travel, but occasionally we'll go to one of the restaurants at the airport and enjoy a meal together. This gives us a chance to sit down and relax, while also engaging in conversation with one another.

Alternatively, you can pack along some collapsible snack containers. You can fill these with snacks you get at Hudson News, or whatever store is available at the airport. Then head to a quiet corner and have a picnic!

Waiting to order at the Bangkok Airport (July 2012)

Do an activity together during your airport layover with kids

For family trips, I always like to pack along crayons and blank journals for my kids to draw in. I have been journaling since I was a little kid, and I love the idea that I'm passing on that habit to my kids.

Sometimes we'll play games together like tic tac toe or hangman, or sometimes they'll ask me to draw pictures for them in their journals. As a backup, I also pack some books and legos for the kids to play with.

It's good to have a variety of things in your arsenal of activities, but be careful not to overpack.  Some airlines still give out activity packs to kids, so a layover is a good time to let them play with that, if they haven't already done so on the flight.

A child coloring during an airport layover with kids
My daughter journaling (July 2012)

Make it movie time

As much as I hate to admit it, I love having an iPad when we travel. My kids are pretty tech savvy, and they already know how to navigate to their favorite movies. If you have a few hours to spend during your airport layover, let your kids pick out a movie to watch.  

Screen time during travel is okay. If you're traveling to a foreign country (or even if you're not), your kids are already going to be enriched by the travel experience. Spending two hours watching a movie on the iPad is not going to ruin them. And if it means a few hours of relaxation for you, then I say, go right ahead.

Giving my daughter some screen time on the airplane

Getting through your airport layover with your sanity in tact!

Getting through an airport layover with kids can be tedious, and finding ways to pass the time can sometimes be a challenge. Hopefully, though, with these tips, it won't have to be.

In the end, an airport layover is just another opportunity for you and your family to spend time together. Take advantage of that time and use it to seek out adventures.

Do you have any tips for surviving an airport layover with your kids? Share them in the comments!

Surviving an Airport Layover With Kids | The Wandering Daughter

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