An Ode to the Airport Shower, an Underrated Travel Hack

Instead of whittling away time at the bar, book a shower suite instead

February 2, 2023 7:12 am
Travel icons, including one for an airport shower showing a person under a shower head
Get thee to an airport lounge.
Getty/Danica Killelea

The airport shower changed my life. My travel life, at least. 

The first one I took was a revelation. I arrived into London’s Heathrow after a red-eye and was scheduled for a short connection flight. The final destination: Scotland, for a distillery visit — the job is tough, I know — and a meet and greet with the distiller. I knew I wasn’t going to be in my best form. The shower in the Star Alliance arrivals lounge had other ideas for me, though, obliterating my fatigue while endowing me with a fresh start to the morning. With a change of clothes, the hair fixed up and deodorant applied, I felt like a million bucks, and was ready to tackle the rigors of a morning filled with taxing whisky tasting.

Whether for a boost in energy, a chance to brighten the mood, an opportunity to elevate your appearance or to fritter away a few more seemingly interminable airport terminal minutes, the airport shower is a beacon of hope. A testament to what humanity can achieve should we put petty differences aside and set our minds on loftier goals. Today, I’m a staunch advocate of taking one whenever the opportunity arises, and continue to recommend it to every fellow traveler I come across. Now it’s your turn.

What’s So Great About an Airport Shower?

Stumbling bleary-eyed into the arrivals lounge on that fateful day, I didn’t even know a legitimate airport shower was something that existed. The words “airport” and “shower” together in a sentence conjured up thoughts of a locker room or college dorm, with perhaps dozens of nude travelers jostling for space while wearing flip-flops to avoid stepping into anything particularly funky. You can erase that nightmarish concept from your head this instant.

In truth, the airport shower is a private retreat. A blissful piece of personal space removed from the chaos of the terminal. You’ll have comfortable quarters to clean up, to change, to take a deep breath and to brace for the world. I dipped my toes into the waters with that quick arrivals lounge experience, but now, I’ll take one almost any chance I get. Two-hour layover on an international connection? More than enough time for a relaxing rinse. Five-hour layover? What better way to spend a chunk of it than in the warm embrace of a hot shower?

From the QR-code-operated doors that make for a smooth check-in at the KLM Crown Lounge in Amsterdam’s Schiphol, to the wood-paneled personal havens found in Lufthansa Senator Lounges in Frankfurt or Munich, I’m rarely disappointed. At the ANA lounges in Tokyo’s Narita, you receive a convenient text message when it’s your turn, and enter a suite with a feature-rich electronic Toto toilet — heated seat and all — fresh, plastic-wrapped towels, and a little chair and luggage rack to use. At the KAL Lounge in Seoul’s Incheon Airport, I enjoyed a shower that was larger than those of (almost) every hotel I’ve ever stayed at in Manhattan. I’ve cleansed myself in the SAS Gold Lounge in Stockholm Arlanda, the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse in London, Air France lounges in Paris and, well, just about anywhere else I’ve connected through while hopscotching around the world.

How to Pack Like a Seasoned Pro for Super-Long Trips
Essential packing tips for living and traveling like a nomad

Last year, I was returning from Uganda following an epic week and a half of gorilla trekking in East Africa and had a lengthy early morning layover in Brussels after an eight-hour overnight flight. Another eight-hour flight to the U.S. still loomed. The shower was a necessity. A godsend. A curative elixir. Upon emerging from my micro oasis and returning to the lounge, four women — two of whom I had never met, and two of whom had been traveling with me for the past 10 days and were likely sick enough of my company to be disinclined towards complimenting me about anything — told me how nice I smelled. Need I say more? 

Sometimes there are even more luxurious options at your disposal. While returning from a South African safari, I spent half a day at the Fireblade Aviation lounge in Johannesburg, which was equipped with day rooms, bathroom suites and gourmet meals served with vintage wines. While en route to an incredible stint in the Maldives, I made use of the Oryx Airport Hotel in Doha’s Hamad International Airport. After all, why stop at a mere airport shower when you can retreat to a private, king-bed hotel room in a facility equipped with a full gym, golf simulator and lap pool? That said, the Qatar Airways lounges in the airport aren’t too shabby, with high-end toiletries, hairdryers and a digital shower queue.

But I digress. While in-airport hotel suites and snazzy airport-adjacent lounges are rare finds, the airport shower itself is more widespread than you might think. As long as you have lounge access — more on that below — the restorative powers of this woefully neglected ritual await. Don’t turn your nose up at the prospect. Welcome it. Surrender yourself to the serenity of suds amid a day of terminal turmoil. You won’t regret it.

Amid the Gorillas of the Albertine Rift
Our travel correspondent recounts his expedition through East Africa, which you can replicate, where he sought out our great ape cousins

Pro Tips From a Frequent Flier

Now that you’re open to the idea, learn how to maximize your experience with these tips.

  • Your best way into high-end lounges is by achieving the right level of airline status, which will offer you lounge access not only for your carrier, but its full alliance of partners. Status isn’t your only option, though. Priority Pass membership, for instance, provides access to a network of 1,300 lounges around the world. You can buy a membership directly, or get it as a fringe perk with a credit card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Other credit cards and memberships may unlock the doors to their own affiliated lounges as well.
  • Many lounges — especially third-party, non-airline affiliated lounges — allow walk-up customers to purchase day passes. These generally range between about $30 and $75 depending on where you are and what the lounge offers. The booze, food, wifi and comfortable digs are what lure most visitors, but shower access can be a great bonus.
  • You should already be living the carry-on life, in which case you’ll have your clothes and toiletries on hand. But if not, and you insist on checking a suitcase for who knows what possible reason, shove a change of clothes and a few bathroom essentials into your carry-on so you’ll have them in tow for a proper, complete refresh.
  • Take. Your. Time. You probably have a three-hour layover, or more, slotted into a full day of wearisome airport and airplane life. Savor the peace and solitude that your shower suite provides.
  • Sign up for the shower as soon as you arrive at the lounge. Sometimes there’s a waiting list that could take some time to work through, and you don’t want to miss out.
  • Alas, all airport showers are not created equal. That’s especially the case when you’re on a domestic carrier within the U.S. I’ve had some less than stellar experiences in such instances while seeking out a refresh on the return leg of a long-haul international flight (I’m looking at you, Delta Sky Club at JFK). If you find yourself in such a scenario, take a moment to survey the scene before jumping in.

The airport shower is the ultimate, and perhaps most underrated, travel hack. You’ll have the renewed energy and vigor of your prior self from 16 or 22 or 37 hours ago, whenever it was that you began your journey. The sky’s the limit, my friends.


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.