Where the ‘jet-set gypsies’ sleep

Rico Gagliano Dec 20, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Christmas approaches. And with it, a feeling of joy and warmth for those of us staying home. For the millions flying over the holidays, you’d better include a big dose of angst. What with traffic jams at airports, long security lines and flight delays, too. But for a discrete number of the flying public, ease and comfort are not high on the list. Rico Gagliano spent the night with travelers for whom rock-bottom cheap is the bottom line.

RICO GAGLIANO: It’s a chilly night in Southern England. Scotsman Sam Waldron and his girlfriend Sybil have just set up camp.

SAM WALDRON: S’gonna start off with our backpacks, which’ll be a little windguard from the wind comin’ in. Then a coupla ground mats, one inflatable, which’ll keep our hips off the ground hopefully, and then a sleeping bag.

Oh, you may be wondering what this passing train of baggage carts is doing in the wilderness. Well, we’re not in the wilderness. We’re in the lobby of England’s Stansted Airport. Me, Sam, Sybil and several hundred other pseudo-campers. It’s 1 a.m. We’ll be here ’til dawn.

W.H. SMITH WORKER: OK, I work at W.H. Smith in Stansted Airport. We actually caught one guy putting up his tent! I mean, most of ’em bring blankets and towels and sleeping bags but, yeah, it was an enormous green camping tent!

People sleep at airports all over the world. But Stansted sleeps so many, it’s been described as an unofficial hostel. Why? You could probably sum it up in one word: Ryanair.

Stansted is Ryanair’s main hub. The budget airline is known for stupidly low international fares — my flight to Ireland cost 20 bucks. But many of the cheapest flights leave around 6 a.m. Show up two hours early, factor in the hour-long bus ride from London, now you’ve gotta leave your house around 2:30 in the morning. And if you’re flying Ryanair, you’re probably not the type to pay five times the cost of your ticket to stay at a nearby hotel. So every night hundreds of budget travelers like Carl, a musician on his way to Copenhagen, prefer to sack out at Stansted.

GAGLIANO: Have you ever slept here before?

CARL: Yeah, plenty of times. It’s where all the jet-set gypsies hang out.

In this post-9/11 environment, it’s certainly nice of Stansted to tolerate the “jet-set gypsies” camping out in the lobby. Still, many agree the place makes a better airport than a crashpad. On a website called sleepinginairports.net, travelers exchange tips for stealing shut-eye there. Like for instance:

“LIAM:” A good spot to get some peace of mind in this hellhole is as follows: behind the car rental desks. There’s a couple of feet of clearance between the back wall of the unit and the front glass of the airport.

I figured I’d check it out.

GRAHAM: My name is Graham, and I work the night shift at Avis at Stansted Airport.

GAGLIANO: Are you aware that it is very popular to sleep behind this area?

GRAHAM: Yes, a lot of people do sleep behind there.

GAGLIANO: While you’re open?

GRAHAM: Oh yeah, all night.

GAGLIANO: Anybody ever try to have a party here?


GAGLIANO: Never, like, cocktails getting busted out?

GRAHAM: No, unfortunately not.

Well, apparently no one told this guy.

ALFREDO: My name is Alfredo, 54 years old.

GAGLIANO: And you’re drinking what? It’s a beer?

ALFREDO: Very strong beer, yeah.

It’s dark and quiet back there behind Avis with Alfredo, but also a little weird. So I set out in search of better accommodations. To no avail.

That’s a motorized floor polisher the size of a small golf cart. A guy drives it around all night. If you try to sack out against the walls, its whirling brushes will come grinding past your head every 10 minutes or so.

You might also want to avoid bedding down near the arcade room. . . . Or near the lobby entrance. Unless you like frequent blasts of frigid wind, and can sleep through this: [Drilling sound].

That’s construction work right outside the front door. Another tip: if you do find a comfy spot? Stay there.

GAGLIANO: OK, so earlier I dropped off my sleeping bag and laid it out. And someone has not only taken my spot, they’re using my sleeping bag as a pillow.

Say, excuse me, I’m sorry, but that’s my sleeping bag.

GIRL: I know, I’m not using it.


GIRL: All right.

GAGLIANO: Whatever. She was so using it. So to heck with it, I’m gonna . . . [BEEEEEEEEP!]

And then — swear to God — come the fire alarm tests!

FIRE ALARM VOICE: Attention please. The fire alarm has been activated.

They say it in four languages, to make sure all nationalities are equally aggravated.

FIRE ALARM VOICE: [Says same thing in Spanish.]

I hightail it back behind Avis. And you know what? It’s fine! Alfredo loans me some flattened cardboard boxes he swiped from the W.H. Smith store. I use ’em like a mattress, so I can lie on top of a warm radiator. Then he drinks himself to sleep. My eyes close. And then: [SNORING]

I dunno if you can hear that. It might seem quiet to you. To me it’s like a knife through my brain. Alfredo is snoring.

Wide awake outside London, I’m Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.

Travelers sleep behind a car rental counter at London’s Stansted Airport

Travelers lie along a walkway at London’s Stansted Airport.

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