Let's say you're planning an interstate holiday and you found an incredible deal on a flight. The only problem? It arrives at 8am and that's too early to check into most hotels. No need to nap at the gate, though - you have options.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Book a Hotel With Early Check-In
The easiest way to deal with the check-in problem is to eliminate it in the first place. Some hotels are strict about their rules, but others will work with you, depending on when you arrive. If you're only going to be a couple of hours early, many hotels will accommodate. And the earlier you let them know, the easier it is for them to make room for your request.
Others have "early check-in" policies. You'll pay extra, but it's typically a better deal than just booking an extra day. As You Stay is a free app that helps you find these rates, too. You plug in your travel dates and time frame, and the app finds hotels based on your specific availability.
If checking in early isn't a solution, though, you might have to find a way to kill time. While you do, you probably want to ditch your bags. If your hotel won't let you check in early, chances are, they will at least store your bags for you.
Buy an Airport Lounge Day Pass
Airports offer a lot of amenities these days, so killing time doesn't have to mean hanging out at a McDondald's for hours on end.
Depending on the airport, you may be able to book a day pass at an airport lounge. Travel site View From the Wing says that rules vary quite a bit, but if you have a membership, chances are, the lounge will grant you access even if you're arriving, not departing. If you don't have a membership, use a site like Lounge Pass to look up day pass rates and availability at different airports around the world.
Rates are usually between $30-$70 and free amenities usually include TV, Wi-Fi, charging stations, food and even booze. JFK's Airspace Lounge, for example, is $US25 ($33) for the day and not only includes free snacks, coffee and Wi-Fi, but also access to their showers. Other lounges may have beds and spas that you can book for a little extra. No, fifty bucks isn't cheap, but it's probably cheaper than booking an extra day for a hotel room you're not going to use.
If lounging isn't an option, you can at least see what else the airport has to offer. Apps like TravelNerd (Web/iOS, Free) and GateGuru (Android/iOS/WP7, Free) will tell you what restaurants, bars, and other amenities you have to choose from, depending on the airport.
Hang at the Business Center or Gym
If you have work to do, you might consider just hanging out at your hotel's business center, if they have one. It's basically a room with desktops, printers and workspaces, which might not be the most fun if you're planning a relaxing, stress-free vacation. On the other hand, if you have to kill time anyway, this might be the perfect time to tie up any loose ends so you can thoroughly enjoy your trip. Plus, you don't have to work. You can catch up on news or watch stuff online.
Most hotels have gyms or pools, too. You might not want to hang out at the gym all day, but if you have a couple of hours before check-in, you might as well squeeze in a workout. It helps to know what your hotel offers beforehand or even pick a hotel based on these amenities. If you know you have a red eye, and the hotel won't budge on the early check-in thing, at least look for one with a decent gym or business center where you can hang out. Bonus: business hotels are often cheaper.
Treat It Like a Layover
Of course, many of your options for killing time will just depend on the destination. This is where layover guides can come in handy. These guides suggest quick options for activities if you're on a time crunch. So if you're looking for the best use of a few hours of your time and you're ready to explore, travel site The Points Guy has some useful layover guides for popular airports. Here are some examples:
Airfare Watchdog has their own layover guide for 20 of the world's busiest airports. Again, many airports offer luggage storage so you don't have to drag around a bunch of bags, but if you're leaving the airport, that might not be the best option.
Some cities have luggage storage at or near subway stations. Here are the lockers at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, for example. In New York, Schwartz Travel offers storage near Grand Central and Penn Station. I've also had luck asking hotels to store my luggage even when I'm not a guest. During a recent layover in Boston, I asked a nearby Marriott to store my luggage. They obliged, and best of all, it was free (minus the tip).
When you have to kill a few hours, it kind of feels like you're wasting precious vacation time. It doesn't have to be that way, though. All it takes is a little planning to ensure you make the most of your trip.