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The Essential Guide to Getting Stuff Done at the Airport

woman working in airport waiting area
Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Shutterstock

Working in an airport isn’t the most ideal situation, but if you’re a business traveler you know all too well how setting up virtual office there is necessary sometimes. Here’s how to get more done.

Ah, the airport—a space we all seem to be in a love-hate relationship with. It offers nice things: wine bars, cute restaurants, and fancy stuff at the duty-free store. But it also has drawbacks: security, crowds, and confusing layouts that seem designed to make you miss your flight.

And anyone who has spent lots of time in airports has probably faced the greatest airport love-hate relationship of all: that of trying to get stuff done.

On the one hand, airports offer large swathes of time, free Wi-Fi, and multiple sources for coffee refills. On the other hand, you’re often tired, stressed, and easily distracted by the swarms of people around you.

Is the airport a great place to work, or is it a remote-work hellscape? The answer can be a little bit of both, depending on the moment—but you can make your time there more productive without sacrificing your sanity. Here’s what you should know.

How Much Can You Really Get Done at the Airport?

The first step to getting stuff done at the airport: manage your expectations.

Anyone can accomplish things at the airport, whether you’re a full-time remote worker or just someone with emails to reply to and online shopping to do. However, you need to be realistic about what you can accomplish there.

As a frequent traveler with a long layover, for example, you might feel like it’s reasonable to put in a full day’s work at the airport. However, very few people can work in an airport with the same level of focus and stamina that they can elsewhere. This isn’t the time to tackle a full normal workday or aim for inbox zero.

For one thing, you’re surrounded by distractions: loud children, noisy announcements, and the hustle of people going by will make it hard to immerse yourself in work. And for another, the airport offers countless variables that could make things even harder.

You might not get a seat near an outlet where you can plug in your dying laptop. The Wi-Fi might be spotty or out altogether. And you might find yourself running late for your flight, in which case you’re not going to get anything done at all.

Because of these factors, the airport isn’t a good place to work on big or critical tasks. But it is still a great place to get things done. The key is to focus on small, relatively simple tasks that will feel good to check off but which aren’t super pressing.

If you have any major work responsibilities for the week, plan to either get them done before your flight or after you arrive. Don’t schedule any big deadlines for the day you fly. Instead, use that airport time to get caught up.

You could reply to your list of important-but-not-urgent emails. You could pitch your freelance services to a few new prospective clients. You could start outlining a big project that’s coming up soon, or revise one that’s mostly finished but not yet ready to submit.

And so on—you get the picture. These tasks are important, but don’t require deep focus, and don’t have deadlines that will fly by before your flight takes off. If you tackle this kind of work, you’ll feel refreshed and caught up when you board your plane. And if you don’t get it all done, there’s nothing to worry about, since none of it has a strict deadline.

How to Make Your Airport Time More Productive

man checking his phone at an airport terminal
Pressmaster/Shutterstock

With that in mind, there are still a few ways you can get more done before take-off. The more you can accomplish, the less you’ll have to worry about during your trip. Try these tips to get your travels off to a great start.

Invest in Noise-Canceling Headphones

If you often work outside of the house, the idea of noise-canceling headphones has probably come up a time or two before. But there’s nowhere they’re more useful than at the airport.

A pair of quality noise-canceling headphones can get costly. But if you’re easily distracted by noise, you’ll get lots of use out of them, making this a smart buy for frequent fliers. They can even make the plane ride itself more pleasant.

Enable a Hotspot

The airport’s internet can be unreliable, and often isn’t secure. Before you head there, make sure your device is equipped with a Wi-Fi hotspot you can connect to if you need it.

Jot Down a List

Even if you don’t usually work from a to-do list, a short list of things you’d like to get done at the airport can help you stay focused. Put the things you’d most like to accomplish near the top, and work through them in order. If you don’t get them all done, no worries—you can pick that list back up when you have more free time.

Try a Restaurant or Cafe

Sitting near a busy gate can make it hard to focus. But airport cafes and restaurants offer good places to work, too. You can check online reviews to find the best ones to work at—or just walk around and look for an establishment where other people are already working.

Should You Work on the Plane, Too?

As long as you tackle the right kind of low-impact tasks, you can get a lot done at the airport. But should you work at 30,000 feet, too?

While it’s ultimately up to you, we’d actually suggest you avoid working on the plane.

First, you’ll typically need to pay for Wi-Fi on a plane, since you can’t use your hotspot in the air. The added cost can be steep for a short period of work.

But that aside, the plane is still less ideal for getting work done than the airport is. That’s not just because you’re stuck in a cramped seat with limited coffee rations. The cabin pressure and lowered oxygen levels in a plane actually make it harder to concentrate, so you won’t be able to do your best work.

And flying can be fun, as well as stressful. It offers a rare chance to disconnect, read a book, or daydream about your upcoming trip. We suggest taking full advantage of that opportunity—those tasks and emails will still be there waiting for you when you land.

For that matter, if you decide to use your airport time for relaxation or shopping instead of work, we support you. These tips will help you get stuff done if you want to, but airports are great places to ditch work for a few hours and just enjoy the moment.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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