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How to survive 12 hours in an airport

One reporter’s quest to document the best things to eat, drink and do when stuck between flights

(Illustrations by Washington Post; iStock)

Consuming vodka and clam chowder at 6 a.m. on a Wednesday isn’t behavior normally condoned by the general public. But tell people that you’re having an early morning bloody mary and a snack at the airport, and no one bats an eye.

That’s because the airport is not reality. The airport is a parallel dimension in which the normal rules that govern humanity are cast aside. Strange behaviors — like drinking liquor at daybreak, or sitting on linoleum tethered to an electrical outlet — become the norm.

I’ve only taken stock of my own airport oddities — and observed the oddities of others — when I’m waiting to board a flight or during a reasonably timed layover. What would it be like to stay longer, just for the sake of people watching? To better understand the idiosyncrasies of life within an airport, I am going on a mission to spend 12 hours inside one.

Twelve. Hours.

I want to spend an entire day taking in the airport’s highs and lows, to really soak up the show without worrying about departure times. So it’s off to Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport a half-day before my flight to Los Angeles.

I arrived at BWI, dewy — not in the way Korean beauty vloggers recommend, but in a my-Lyft-driver-didn’t-turn-on-the-air-conditioning kind of way. My flight departs at 7:20 p.m. I normally get to the airport early, for I am not #teamjustintime like some of my Washington Post colleagues. Still, this early is a bit much, even for me.

How to cut your airport arrival time as close as possible

My driver drops me off under the sign for Spirit airlines, salting my wounds just as they begin to split open. My eyes burn into focus as I step inside the airport. The lighting is something else in here. I woke up at 5:30 a.m. for this venture and my body isn’t fully functioning yet.

Before I hit security, I meander through a Hudson News shop. Even though there are a thousand seemingly identical Hudson News shops around North America, each one has its own local tchotchkes. I’m here for that. It’s immediately evident that we’re in crab country. Every Maryland keychain, magnet and clothing item is emblazoned with crab content. I do not buy any crab tchotchkes.

(Video: Natalie Compton)

If you forgot to get your loved ones a souvenir on your trip, stop by a Hudson News to get some locally themed merch on your way home. Baseball hats and magnets are crowd-pleasers, and no one will know you got that crab claw at the airport and not the 28 other gift shops you passed in the thick of your trip.

It’s a blessing not to be in a rush. I get to savor the moments, such as hearing a couple of ladies exclaim, “I want to keep track of my steps!” as they bound past me toward the TSA security checkpoint. Like a lot of people in the security line, they’re wearing tank tops. It’s a swampy summer day in Baltimore, but inside it’s a solid 65 degrees. The sandals and shorts that were appropriate in greater Maryland now seem less so. I wonder if they’re regretting being sleeveless now that we’re trapped in the fluorescent, slightly chilly void.

I take my place in line, and from beyond the confines of security, I spy an airport restaurant and bar. R&R Seafood Bar. I’m going to be eating crab today.

Delta woos economy international passengers with free cocktails and actual place mats

It’s almost my turn to hoist my belongings onto the security conveyor belt. A family of three is immediately ahead of me, and the mother figure takes off her sandals and puts them in a bin to be X-rayed.

“Ew, your bare feet on this floor,” the daughter figure says to the woman. She’s staring at the mom’s feet with a look of disgust that only a teen can pull off so potently. The mom is not alone. Maybe half of the people going through the X-ray are barefoot this morning. I’m happy to have some socks to provide a barrier between my toes and this dirty carpet.

For the love of all that is holy, wear socks when you’re going through airport security. Save yourself the wrath of a teenager judging your vulnerable bare feet. If you’re wearing sandals, high heels or other sock-less footwear, pack a pair of socks in your carry-on to slip into at security. You may want them in case the plane ride is cold, too.

I’m through security and doing a sweep of my new temporary home, concourses D and E. I want to get a lay of the land so I can make the most of this mission. There are standard airport fixins’ — an Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, from which an intoxicating smell of butter and dough wafts bewitchingly. There are touches that remind you that you’re in Maryland, like wooden rocking chairs facing floor-to-ceiling windows with views of Maryland.

Even though it’s been years since I’ve eaten at a McDonald’s, it feels like the right thing to do this morning. The line is 15 people deep and stretches from the two registers out onto the concourse walkway.

From the back of the line, I stare at the menu like a bug hypnotized by a Maryland porch light and weigh my options. I don’t actually want to fill up on McDonald’s, I want to have a proper breakfast at a restaurant. This is just a snack breakfast.

(Video: Natalie Compton)

The beauty of the airport is that I can have a snack breakfast in peace. No one knows me here. The people who witness my McMuffin crushing won’t be around in an hour to see me dip into a restaurant to eat breakfast part deux. It is my secret alone, and it is exhilarating. I order a sausage McMuffin with cheese, plus a hash brown, and wait for an employee to call out order No. 354.

An insider’s guide to airport transit times

As I’m waiting, a McDonald’s employee yells out, “One apple pie!” Who on God’s green Earth orders a single apple pie at 8 in the morning? Some guy in hiking clothes at the airport, that’s who. I admire the power move.

But the moment of wholesome goodness does not last long. A storm begins to churn at the front of the cash-only line. There are some muffled grunts and movements, and then chaos erupts.

“I was here before you! I was here before you! I was here before you!”

The yelling is coming from a woman wearing a shirt that says “Good Vibes” and a tote bag with a sleepy bear illustration that says “barely awake.” She’s turned to the couple behind her, insisting that she’s been behind this young man the whole time. My body tenses up, bracing for impact even though I’m a good 20 feet away from the action. I just can’t take confrontation, for I am a coward.

But as quickly as it erupted, the fight dies down. The McDonald’s employees ignore the skirmish, and everyone goes back to their natural state: languishing dead-eyed at the airport.

Enjoy the blessing of airport anonymity and indulge in “snack meals” between your actual meals. Consider a Dunkin’ Munchkin, a Popeyes buttermilk biscuit or maybe some Cinnabon Bites for your amuse-bouche.

Three minutes after I order, I get my brown bag of McDonald’s breakfast goods. It’s somehow already splattered with grease smudges.

I uncrumple the contents of the bag and start with the hash brown. It’s worse than I remember. The texture is spot on — just the right kind of crunch — but it tastes like an oily, unsalted potato. It burns the back of my throat when I swallow it, and not because it’s hot. The sausage McMuffin sucks, too. I keep eating it. I smother both breakfast items with ketchup to mask the funk of the sausage and oil of the hash brown. Is it weird there’s no yolk in the egg? Just a thick puck of egg white?

I’m sitting across the hallway from the McDonald’s, observing not only its customers but how the food takes its toll on my body. I feel kind of hot, kind of gross.

While the egg, oil and cheese work their way into my soul, a BWI miracle unfolds before me. A woman makes a mad dash down the corridor, running with her shoes in her hand. She flails up to the Allegiant Air gate next to the McDonald’s. It’s almost completely empty, as the whole flight has already boarded. Is she too late? It looks like it.

But soft! What light through yonder boarding gate breaks? It is a passenger crouching next to the boarding door. She’s rifling through her purse on the floor, fervently searching for something. Maybe she lost her phone? Or her boarding pass? Whatever it was, it saves the running woman from missing the flight. The woman finds whatever she’s looking for, and everyone wins. The flight departs.

“Wow, airports have so many outlet chargers everywhere,” a teenager says to his family as they walk down the corridor. He’s right — there’s an embarrassment of outlets in this airport. Usually finding an outlet is a problem in airports, but BWI has about a hundred trillion of them, from what I can see.

They have charging cubbies along the walls that look like repurposed telephone booths. Every other bank of chairs at the gates is equipped with outlets. Times sure have changed.

I’m ready to start eating again.

Of the restaurants around me, the Greene Turtle has the most customers, so I decide to “Seize the Bay” like its menu suggests. I grab a seat at the bar where they are playing sports commentary shows on all three televisions, and where people are drinking like there’s no tomorrow.

I think about that expression “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” that people say when they’re justifying drinking early in the day. After some Googling, I’m nearly certain it’s 5 o’clock in Tbilisi, Georgia, and order the 190-calorie Chesapeake house bloody mary. It has an Old Bay rim and is garnished with a crab claw. I also order the 1,310-calorie scrambler with tater tots, two eggs, sharp cheddar, Belgian waffle and bacon.

Airport me doesn’t care that I’m taking down thousands of calories worth of mediocre terminal food. Airport me deserves a treat.

Two women who just met stand next to each other at the bar, drinking. They’re becoming fast friends, and I feel like I’m witnessing a special moment. They yell, “Salud!” and throw back their shots, then order another round of Jameson doubles.

“Jameson Honey?” the man next to them asks.

“No, regular,” one of the women says. “[Jameson Honey] has a good taste but it sneaks up on you because it’s so sweet. I’ll be drunk for like three days.”

My Chesapeake bloody mary arrives, only it’s the wrong order. There’s no Old Bay rim, and no crab claw. I sheepishly ask the bartender if this is the Chesapeake bloody mary, because I am unable to just say, “This is the wrong order.” The friendly bartender acknowledges the mistake and dumps my drink into the Maryland-appropriate Old Bay glass. She grabs a crab claw from somewhere and dunks it into my cocktail. I immediately get a whiff of what can only be described as old crab. After one feeble nibble of it, I hide the claw in a napkin when the bartender isn’t looking.

The two women are now best friends, as they continue to shoot their fresh shots together. They finish the ritual with a high-five and leave the bar, going their separate ways.

(Video: Natalie Compton)

My breakfast monstrosity hits the bar top, and it’s not what I expected. Sheets of alleged eggs are draped over tater tots. There’s some chopped bacon scattered on top of the eggs. The waffle has a strange density to it, and a weird crunch, like it’s filled with little sugar granule bombs. It came with syrup already poured on top, along with a side of plastic butter packets.

Nothing a little ketchup can’t fix, I figure. I squeeze a plastic Heinz bottle over my tots, and a spritz of ketchup spray coats my entire phone screen. I stare at the twinkling drops of ketchup and have this sinking feeling I can’t explain.

A fellow millennial sits at the bar next to me and looks over the menu. She decides on soup. 9:45 a.m. soup. There’s a new group to my left, too. They’re debating how to say Lancaster. One of them jokes that he’s on a liquid diet as he orders a beer. Another man in the group asks if the bartender has any sweet red wine. He’s out of luck, so he orders a whiskey coke instead.

“Would you like to make that a double for $3?” the bartender asks.

So far today, I haven’t heard anyone turn down a request for a double. Everyone says yes.

Different people come and go while I order a second bloody mary; a classic this time. I keep eavesdropping on everyone around me as they complain about Spirit’s checked bag policy, chat about Myrtle Beach and gush about their nieces and nephews. What I’m learning in my three hours and two bloody marys at this airport is that people love to talk to strangers. It really doesn’t matter about what — some people just want to form a connection with others, no matter how brief. Maybe it’s to pass the time. Maybe I’m just buzzed.

I hear the bartender ask a man nearby if he wants a Chesapeake bloody mary. He grimaces. He tells the bartender that after a crab goes into the fridge, “I won’t eat them.” Good call.

Do not, under any circumstances, order an airport cocktail that has shellfish as a garnish, particularly if you’re drinking before 10 a.m. As far as your early morning drinking is concerned, shoot for something with a low alcohol by volume, like a mimosa or spritz. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

I feel like a swollen version of myself, and I’m so sleepy I can barely keep my eyes open. I probably should have left the Greene Turtle a long time ago. In a desperate attempt to get away from people, I am hiding in a bathroom stall. It is the only place I feel at peace in this wholly public place. In the bathroom stall, there are no suspicious glares, no shots and no soup. Just privacy. I try posting the photo of my bloody marys on Instagram but keep messing up the captions and arrows. It takes me three attempts of posting and deleting the photo to my story to get it right.

Fifteen minutes pass before I have the energy to leave my sacred stall. I brush my teeth to get the godforsaken taste of old crab out of my mouth.

I’m out of the bathroom and back in another Hudson News, baby! And they have more crab magnets! I try on a bunch of sunglasses. None are keepers.

I haunt the halls of BWI like a trash-filled ghost. It seems way too early to take a nap? I keep walking, then stop my slog to look at the airport spa’s brochure. There’s a woman in the not-so-private corner of the spa getting a foot massage. The masseuse is staring into the customer’s foot like a crystal ball while the customer locks eyes with her tablet. I would have to wait for a treatment, so I leave the spa to keep wandering.

Airport spas may have limited availability, and the wait times can often grow to far longer than your layover. If you think you’d like a service, put your name down on the sign-in sheet ASAP to make sure you can get a stress-relieving massage in full view of airport bystanders before your flight.

(Video: Natalie Compton)

I’m so sleepy, I absolutely must attempt a nap at this point. I try to sleep in a chair sitting upright. It’s not working for me. I abandon the chair and keep walking around the airport. I consider sleeping on the floor. It would not be my first rodeo; I can’t count the number of airport floors I’ve slept on. This one is at least carpeted, although I’m not sure whether that makes things better or worse.

A group of orange-vested airport employees sit near me with bags of Auntie Anne’s. That buttery smell haunts me wherever I go, so I give myself a talking to. No good will come from me eating an Anne’s pretzel, and I already feel like garbage from my buck-wild breakfast.

Once you make it your business of staring at other people at the airport, you start to notice that there’s an epidemic of people wearing their neck pillows as they walk around the place. Without the promise of sleep in the near future, they peruse the Hudson News crab content, amble down the moving walkways from terminal to terminal, all with the plush support of a neck pillow tucked ear to ear.

(Video: Natalie Compton)

The debate is over, I am going to sleep on this carpet.

I choose a corner of an empty gate with no scheduled flight, and stake a spot next to a bank of chairs. I snap my own neck pillow around my neck, throw on an eye mask and curl up on the ground using my purse as a pillow. I angle my suitcase in front of my face to give me some semblance of privacy.

Maybe don’t sleep on the floor. Pay for a day pass at an airport lounge and find a napping location more dignified than the carpet. Additionally, some airports offer nap rooms or sleeping pods that are worth the money for a proper snooze.

Nap is over.

A group of anywhere from seven to 90 people sound like they’ve gathered behind me and are talking loudly. It wakes me up immediately. Even though I brushed my teeth before “bed,” my mouth is a salty wreck. I peel my stiff body off the floor, feeling the bones shift and rearrange until they’re back in their right place (which is not, for the record, smashed sideways on the carpeted concrete floor of the Baltimore airport). At first I have no idea how much time has passed. Hours? Weeks? I feel completely refreshed.

I need to work, but I can’t stay here. You don’t just crawl up from the pits of the floor and keep sitting around the same people. Which brings us to the magic of an airport: You can always hit a reset button. Move a few gates over, and you start anew. I don’t have to have history with anyone. I’m not the millennial train wreck sleeping on the floor. I’m not the antisocial loner at the Greene Turtle, sampling an array of bloody marys. I’m just the industrious young woman working on my laptop now. Another business traveler doing business-y things while I wait for a business flight. No one has to know about my past. What a gift.

It’s incredible how many people blow through this airport. Couples, families, business people, a nun, sports teams, field trips. So much foot traffic.

Still haven’t moved. Should I eat lunch? There’s been an abandoned jacket on a chair in front of me this entire time. What becomes of all the lost items at the airport? Things must get left behind every 10 minutes. I imagine the owner of the coat getting onto the frigid airplane and realizing the mistake. You left it at gate D22! Now some millennial is staring at it as she clanks away on a laptop. Should I eat lunch?

Whenever you’re relocating to a new spot at the airport, triple check to make sure you didn’t leave items behind like Hansel and Gretel, scattering a trail of neck pillows, scarves and jackets in your wake.

Yes, I should eat lunch. I heave out of the chair and roll my carry-on down the concourse back to Crabtown USA, also known as R&R Seafood Bar. The journey is treacherous. I dodge gaggles of tweens and frantic travelers power-walking to flights.

There’s bar seating and table seating at R&R. I pick a bar stool next to some business dad-types who are watching the recap of a baseball game on TV. The white marble bar reeks of stale alcohol, like someone spilled a full beer and tried to sop it up with one tiny cocktail napkin.

One item on the menu is highlighted in a special box, and it’s Obrycki’s Famous Crab Cake, allegedly a Baltimore tradition made with the freshest jumbo lump and lump blue crab meat since 1944. I order it, plus a lager said to be specially made for the house.

A person closer to my age sits down next to me and puts down a couple of books onto the sticky bar top. He gets a gin and tonic with olives.

Desperate for some human interaction at this point, I swoop in with a potentially regrettable opening line.

“So the Nazis were doing drugs?” I say, motioning to his book, “Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich.”

It’s an opener I never thought I’d be using. We chat about the rampant drug use during World War II that I did not previously know about. I learn my neighbor’s name is Robbie, and he was in town for a parchment-making conference. Also news to me: Parchment used to be made with animals. I ask him what the most common animal used for parchment was. Without skipping a beat, he says, “Goat.”

(Video: Natalie Compton)

The bartender drops off my crab cakes and they are surprisingly good. My expectations had crashed to the bottom of the barrel after my breakfast, but here was a plate of food worth eating.

I ask Robbie if he’s happy to go home and he replies with an unconvincing yes.

“I like to travel; I like airports,” he says.

I ask him what he likes about airports, and he tells me that he’s a fan of the same cliche in the beginning of the movie “Love Actually,” when they show people greeting loved ones at the airport. It’s nice to see people traveling, and people happy to see each other. A lot of people in the neighborhood he’s from in Boston never leave.

Why your emotions and senses go haywire on a plane

Halfway through my beer, I tell Robbie about my story and he sort of lights up. We talk about the lack of rules in the airport. The freedom. We’re on the same page about this place that’s so easy to hate, and yet easy to love.

Don’t be shy; strike up conversation with the people next to you at the bar. You never know what you’ll learn.

Time suddenly feels like it’s flying and I haven’t explored nearly enough of this limbo world. There’s still a wait at the spa, so I opt for the gym. This is not ideal after a lunch full of beer and crab, but if I want to work out, shower and grab some food for the plane, I don’t have long to linger. It’s now or never.

Between leaving the crab emporium and getting to the gym, I see four more people running at a full sprint. One guy’s laptop dangles from his hand as he runs down a moving walkway. It makes me deeply anxious.

(Video: Natalie Compton)

The nice thing about the airport gym, Roam Fitness, is that it lets you rent workout clothes (even sneakers) in case yours are stuck in your checked bag. The Roam attendant hands me some Lululemon apparel and, in no time, I’m in my new gear. The shirt’s way more form fitting and low cut than anything I’d work out in at home, but this is airport me. Airport me is all about cleavage and crab, apparently.

Roam Fitness is not a big gym. It’s a pint-size gym with a small selection of cardio equipment and two small areas where you can lift weights. I tackle a warm-up on the treadmill that really gets the crab churning. There’s one other person in this mini-gym, a middle-aged lady doing some leisurely cardio on a stationary bike.

I can’t stand the unholy sloshing going on in my stomach, so I stop running and try some strength training. There’s a corner with a TRX band that has space for me to do squats, planks and some biceps curls. That corner is also equipped with a window to a gate next to the gym. I don’t know if it’s weirder to face the window or to not face the window.

Do I flaunt my Lululemon-ed derriere to fellow travelers, or make eye contact with them as sweat drips down into my crab mouth? There is no right answer.

If you’re going to work out at the airport, don’t do it after a big meal. Exercise, shower and then eat.

I’m brushing my teeth (again!) at the airport and wearing a bath towel. How did I get here? The bathrooms at Roam are well-lit and actually private. I have the whole place to myself to recharge my senses. The shower has great water pressure, the shampoo is Malin+Goetz, and there’s even an Amazon Echo setup that I can holler at to play music while I get ready for my fate on my Spirit flight.

While making my way to gate D3, I fire up Tinder to see who’s out here, changing my settings to only show suitors a mile away, max. Options such as Lincoln and Daniel pop up, either 80 miles away or with unspecified locations. No time for love at BWI, I suppose. I go back to taking in the scene around me.

Airline boarding is a mess. Can these changes fix it?

It’s been a delight to see the endless combination of groups traveling together. Being a Friday in the thick of summer, there have been so many people starting or finishing their vacations. It makes me feel nostalgic for the beach. I’ve loved seeing the dogs prance through the airport from time to time. With the end of my experiment so near, my heart wells up for the airport. I think this is a case of Stockholm syndrome.

I sneeze and no one blesses me.

Boarding is about to begin and realize that I’m hungry. I almost laugh out loud. How on Earth could I be hungry? It’s probably a figment of my imagination. I don’t know what to do so I start power-walking through the concourse, freeze and change course back in the other direction. D3 seems to be uniquely isolated from every concession stand I stalked all day. The closest thing to me is a Starbucks, and it only has one savory grab-and-go item left: a turkey sandwich with cheese. I buy it, along with a bag of beef jerky, and power-walk back to the gate.

(Video: Natalie Compton)

I take a seat facing the boarding door and get a sneak peek of my plane sandwich. One bite and I determine it’s the worst sandwich I’ve ever had. I taste its every segment trying to figure out what the problem is, and assess that every part is bad by its own right. The cheese is bad, the lettuce is bad, the bread is bad. What’s worse is the goop of mayonnaise drowning the whole sandwich. At least there’s the jerky. Unfortunately, the jerky is soft and sweet, like the Maryland humidity sneaked inside the bag. You can’t win them all.

Two young couples run into each other by surprise and start catching up in front of me.

“It takes parallel trips across the country for us to hang out,” one guy says, and then, “Dude, you’ve lost so much weight, or is it just your beard?”

A monk walks up slowly to the gate wearing a burnt orange robe and a green knit beanie. This is actually the second monk I’ve seen today. His calm keeps me calm. It’s time to board.

Don’t wait until the last five minutes before your flight boards to pick up in-flight sustenance. Give yourself plenty of time to buy a new meal in case Starbucks does you dirty.

I walk onto the airplane. With the 12 hours behind me, it occurs to me that I could do another 12. I could probably do anything at this point. Hey, editor, throw me in an airport for 24 hours! Or 48!

As I buckle myself into my seat, I consider everything I witnessed while hanging out inside the petri dish that is an airport. The heartfelt goodbyes before security, the excited families waiting to board, the woman’s post-sprint look of pure relief when she barely made her flight. When you’re rushing through the airport, it’s easy to focus on anything negative that might get in your way. But spending an ungodly amount of time in the airport allowed me a chance to take in the bad and the good, and all the weird stuff in between that makes us human.

I’m not suggesting that you should show up to your next flight 12 hours early. What I am saying is that there may be things at the airport to embrace next time your flight gets delayed or canceled. The airport, while technically very restrictive, is also freeing.

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