Grounded! What to do in an airport if your flight is delayed by one, three, six or 12 hours

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: CBW/Alamy</span>
Photograph: CBW/Alamy

This was supposed to be a glorious summer. With Covid largely diminished, it was going to be the first year since 2019 where we would all get to pack our suitcases and jet off to warmer climes. Clearly, that hasn’t happened.

There are several factors at play here. The cost of living crisis in the UK has put foreign travel out of the reach of many; the rail strikes have made getting to the airport more difficult; a new wave of Covid has stopped people from leaving their homes and – most importantly – airports themselves are an absolute nightmare.

Around 5,000 Heathrow passengers have had their flights cancelled as a result. Additionally, staff shortages mean that Gatwick will be running up to 50 fewer flights a day throughout the summer months, with EasyJet alone cutting 11,000 flights. And, just to make things even more interesting, British Airways check-in staff may strike next month. In other words: the chances of finding yourself stranded at the airport are impossibly high.

So what can you do? The sensible thing would be to stay at home but, failing that, here’s a handy guide to killing time at an airport.

If your flight is delayed by an hour

Usually this would be a cause of some frustration. This year, however, you’re getting off lightly. Basically, the airport is your oyster. Just do the usual: you could stretch your legs with a few laps of the terminal, or grab a bite to eat, or indulge in some light shopping. If you have young kids, now is the time to explore whatever soft play options the airport has to offer. Equally, you could just find a seat and kill time on your phone, providing that the wifi is working. Of course, there is also the pub. An hour in the pub probably won’t hurt. Either way, this will all be fine.

If your flight is delayed by three hours

Now it’s time to start thinking smart, because three hours is a particularly frustrating length of time: too long to idly fill but too short to start taking drastic action. For example, this is when nosing around shops will become genuinely torturous. What’s more, unless you happen to be ruthlessly sharp-elbowed, all the phone-charging points will have been nabbed by other disgruntled passengers, meaning you run the risk of draining your battery with non-essential scrolling.

However, if you have kids, this is exactly what their tablets were made for. Find a seat anywhere you can, pop their headphones on and let them gorge themselves on as many episodes of Bluey as they are willing to consume. Yes, sure, screen time is bad, but this is an emergency.

This is also the length of time where stress management starts to become an issue. You can mitigate this in a couple of ways. If you’re in Heathrow, for example, you’ll find a spa in Terminal 5, where weary travellers can get massages and facials. Anywhere else buy a book, or opt for a large, leisurely meal. A three-hour pub visit could be risky, so proceed with caution.

If your flight is delayed by six hours

lounges may not be all they’re cracked up to be, but you can stay clean and they welcome bored children.
Shower power … lounges may not be all they’re cracked up to be, but you can stay clean and refreshed in there. Photograph: Jan Mika/Alamy

We’ll start with the good news: a delay this long qualifies you for compensation. Any delay over three hours entitles you to between £110 and £520, and Money Saving Expert has a free tool to help you claim it. You are also entitled to food and drink, which will usually be issued in the form of a voucher.

But this is not going to solve everything. After six hours in an airport, you will be mad with equal parts stress and boredom, and your children, if you have them, will have long since turned feral. Free time-killing options are still available (all airports have prayer rooms, which at the very least offer some amount of quiet). But if you have got compensation coming, this may be time to consider shelling out on a lounge. These will have food and drink, and often showers, and they don’t flinch at the sight of children. True, they are relatively expensive, and not always as luxurious as they claim; also they usually boot you out after three hours – but needs must, and if you’re nice they’ll probably extend your stay for free. Whatever you do, definitely, definitely do not spend six hours in the pub.

If your flight is delayed by 12 hours

if you’re delayed by 12 hours, consider swapping this for your bed and trying again next year.
Take flight … if you’re delayed by 12 hours, seriously consider swapping this for your own bed. Photograph: Alex Segre/Alamy

Oh God, go home. Look at you. You’re coming apart at the seams. Technically, if your delay stretches to the next day, the airline will provide accommodation for you. But if it doesn’t, what are you going to do? You have explored every godforsaken nook of the airport. All your electrical devices ran out of juice six hours ago. The lounge staff can’t stand the sight of you. Your children won’t stop crying. All you will remember from this holiday is the terrible time you had getting there. A delay of this length also qualifies you for a full refund, so cut your losses, go home and try again in a less hellish year. Alternatively, go to the pub.