15 Hours Overnight at Seoul’s Incheon Airport

Our first night after departing the USA on our gap year was spent sleeping at Seoul’s Incheon Airport. This was a first for us.

Previously, we had done red-eye flights with the kids (not recommended) and early morning flights (also not recommended, but better than red-eye flights). This time we flew from Honolulu to Incheon, arriving at 5:30pm Incheon time (10:30pm Honolulu time), and departing the next morning to Phuket at 8:15am Incheon time. The only viable option to make this connection work was to not leave the airport.

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I had been through Incheon airport a handful of times in 2014 and knew the airport fairly well. On the second floor is a “Rest and Relax” area where there are lounge chairs to lie down, massage chairs, a kids’ play area, free showers, and computers to get on the internet. This area makes connections between different flights easy and painless and is a big reason Incheon is one of my favorite international airports in the world.

Upon arrival at Incheon, we went through the connections security check point and went straight to the “Rest and Relax” area on the second floor. Our youngest daughter had already fallen asleep just before we touched down in Incheon, so it took some nifty maneuvering of getting her in and out of the umbrella stroller we brought with us. Fortunately, she didn’t wake up through the whole process and continued her deep sleep on a lounge chair.

My oldest daughter, on the other hand, was too excited to fall asleep, especially when our makeshift “room” of lounge chairs was located next to a small children’s play area. I let her play there for a few minutes while we got our “room” setup. It was 6pm in Seoul. We were exhausted, disoriented, and finally able to sleep (somewhat).

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I would wake at 10pm that night to find my wife and kids still asleep in the two lounge chairs adjacent to mine. I took out my earplugs to hear the loud sounds of drilling and hammering nearby. Not only would we have to deal with the terminal boarding announcements on the intercom and nearby chatter of people around us, but we would have to deal with the ongoing construction which started at 10pm and ended at 5am.

Just great. Nearly twelve hours on an airplane to Incheon and six more hours the next day to Phuket with two kids and we’d have to deal with the noise of the nearby construction all night long.

Just go back to sleep. This one night of intentional homelessness will be over soon enough. Eventually, I would fall asleep, going in and out of a dreamy state of sleep every hour or so. I would open my eyes to check the time, to check if our carry-on bags were still by our lounge chairs, and to readjust the jackets and thin blankets covering my wife and kids.

At 3:30am, I wake up as it’s 8:30am in Honolulu. My oldest daughter wakes up too and in an attempt to keep her from making any noise, I take her to the children’s playground. We find a woman sleeping on the trampoline. So much for that idea.

Half an hour goes by of trying to keep my daughter occupied with iPad games. Then my wife and youngest daughter wake up. It’s 4am. Everyone around us is sleeping. There are no more announcements for boardings, as the first flight from the airport leaves after 6am. The airport is completely and eerily quiet.

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We pack up our things and make our way down to the first level. All the shops are closed and there is no one in the airport, except for some cleaning people who are checking the restrooms and waxing the floors. Our body clocks are still on Hawaii time, so we are fresh and awake…and we have two kids with boundless amounts of energy.

Luckily, there is another children’s playground on the first level. My wife and I sit near the area while the kids have a blast in their new playground. No stores are open, so we munch on our “breakfast” of beef jerky and crackers that we have brought with us. The kids are in the playground for two hours until it’s 6am and the airport finally comes to life. The stores open, travelers start filing in, and announcements are made on the intercom.

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Our flight leaves in two hours, so we eventually make our way to our boarding gate via the airport tram. We buy a couple of custard tarts for the girls to ease their hunger pangs and happily board our Thai Airways flight to Phuket at 7:35am. Comfortable seats, individual TV screens, and food and drink service await us on our flight.

15 hours overnight at the airport…Thank goodness we were “stuck” at Incheon airport, which had the facilities to make this happen, so my wife and I could keep our sanity intact. If it were any other international airport, I don’t think we could have pulled it off. Sleeping at an airport was a first for our family and one of the many adventures I’m sure we’ll have on this gap year of travel together.

Cliff Hsia is a writer, husband, and father, who is determined to live a better than normal life by traveling the world, slowly and purposefully, with his wife and two young daughters. His writing has been featured on MSN, TODAY, The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and other publications. He writes about travel, parenting, and lifestyle design.

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  • Angela Moy Young

    I wouldn’t relish being at an airport over night with my children, but if I had to I would definitely want it to have playgrounds. Looking forward to reading about Thailand!

    • Angela, the playgrounds definitely helped. Otherwise, the kids would have been waking everyone up.

  • Deven Higa

    I had to sleep at O’Hare once because my connector to NY was cancelled due to weather… You never really notice things like arm rests on those airport chairs until you try to lay down on them to sleep and realize you can’t! To make it worst, the next morning they had to route me through Atlanta to get up to New York so by the time I got to my hotel, I had been wearing my same clothes for over 36 hours for what should have been a same-day trip. Guess that probably didn’t bother me as much as the people sitting next to me! 😉

    • Deven, wow, that sounds like a nightmare of an experience! Traveling to the east coast is always tricky because of weather and airport delays.

  • Neil A

    There’s no need to sleep in the airport at Incheon – there are several hotels and guesthouses fifteen minutes walk from the terminal and they will arrange transport if you book in advance

    • Neil, thanks for your insight. Our experience was “intentional homelessness,” so we could avoid going through customs, dealing with freezing weather, lugging all our bags back and forth, and to save some money.

  • Gan Yung Chyan

    Neil, i am not on transit after arriving in Incheon at 3 am. Can i sleep in the transit area on the fourth floor without going to the Immigration?

  • Jenifer Yumena

    Hi… Good to see your post. Me and my husband will be travelling with our 6yo son and 1yr 1day old daughter on December. With 15hrs 50mins layover in incheon, this amenities will definitely help us instead of going to hotels.

  • Yang Sugue

    Is it free to sleep at “Rest and Relax” area? I’ll be traveling this week to Seoul & will arrive at midnight and my check-in time is at 15:00. So I was planning to sleep at the airport for the meantime.. Thanks in advance

    • Yes! It’s free, but it’s an open area on the second floor, so you need to keep an eye on your bags.

  • Chea Sopheap

    Hi Cliff. Thank you for your experience. Helpful and attractive.! I am not layovers but I am on my inbounce flight at 5AM. So can I check in early at 9PM or so then spend time in that Rest and Relax area and wait overnight? What would you advise?

    • I’m not sure that they’ll allow you to check-in that early. You’ll want to check with the airline to confirm.

      • Chea Sopheap

        Thank you very much.! 🙂