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Airport Bars

The most interesting side of air travel.

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RHODES, Greece- I budget for drinks in airports.

I lied. I don’t really have a budget. I have no idea how much money I make, how much money I spend, or how much money I have. I used to care about all of this but I don’t anymore. I’m a lot happier because of it.

In a previous era of travel, saving money was a game. “It’s easier to save a dollar than it is to make a dollar” was the mantra back then. When I went broke that meant I had to work. My work wasn’t bad then but I still viewed it as some kind of punishment — which is common for a kid coming fresh out of the USA. The work that I do now I do irrespective of money — to an extent — so my philosophical bearings about my finances have likewise shifted:

If I drop seven Euro in an airport bar for one final drink of ouzo before leaving Rhodes I don’t feel as if I’m sentencing myself to additional servitude. I know that I’m going to wake up the next day and do the same amount of work if I’m broke or if I’m loaded.

I’m also no longer counting traveler points. This is no longer a game, it’s an occupation.

It’s better traveling like this. You can experience things that you wouldn’t otherwise, there’s no loss of creds … I’m on my own little island as far as being a traveler goes.

Previously, I always avoided airport bars. “Extortion!” I’d rage. This was until I pulled up to one in the autumn of 2016 in Washington Dullas. The terminal was packed. There was nowhere to sit except for at these trendy little bars that were built right in the middle of the hallways like boulders in a river. I spotted an empty chair at a margarita bar and said fuck it — I wanted to sit down and the margaritas looked good. I ordered the most ridiculous one I could find, paid $15 for it, and drank it alongside other people who were doing the same. Peace.

And that is the appeal of airport bars: everybody is in the same boat. You have all of these people from all over the world who serendipitously find themselves in the same place, sitting next to each other, doing the same thing for the same reason. Everybody’s story is the same here. And everybody knows it. Where bars are usually pits of culture and identity — with clear distinctions between insiders and outsiders — the airport bar is universal — it’s one size fits all, you’ve cross the threshold, you’re on the other side of the metal detectors and the x-ray machines, in a place where there is only one identity: air traveler.

Airport bars are culture-less, memory-less places. It doesn’t matter what you say to the person next to you; you’re never going to see them again — and they know the same about you. You don’t have a story here, there is no gossip, you don’t come with a reputation and you don’t leave one behind. Everything is transient, anonymous, safe. The Snapchat of the brick and mortar world.

Drinking gives you an excuse to sit and do nothing — the excuse to look around, to notice things you normally wouldn’t, to talk to the person sitting next to you for no reason. You sit back in the airport bar and you watch the people hurry by, you look at the people sitting around you, focusing on the ones who are all alone. You construct these little narratives about them — and then ask to see if you’re right.

People started cultivating grain not to produce food but to produce beer. There is a reason — a very, very old reason — why we like this stuff.

“No ice please.”

“Oh, you want it strong.”

The chick behind the counter of the bar in Rhodes didn’t give a shit. She filled the bare plastic cocktail cup halfway up with ouzo as if there were ice cubes taking up space. There is something magical about ouzo. It was invented by monks on Mount Athos. What else is there to say?

We’re standing in line to board the flight to Athens. Petra is talking to the lady behind us. She’s Canadian so she naturally feels awkward talking to people she doesn’t know.

Petra doesn’t feel awkward doing anything … and has no empathy for those who do. She’s a bit of a social predator when traveling. When she gets bored she scans the crowd for someone interesting to talk to. She locks onto a target and then engages.

She finds out where the person is going, where they’ve been, what they do for work, what they like, and then scans them to see if they have any common interests. When finished with that she makes them take out their phone and go to her blog.

“I have a blog. It’s Petras.world. You should go to it.”


“You should go to it right now.”

The kid knows how to build a blog following.

The Canadian eventually began warming up to Petra. Petra started telling her about the playground she’s going to have in Sofia. She said that her daddy told her that all old Soviet apartment blocks have playgrounds.

The Canadian then asked Petra where she lives.

“I don’t live anywhere,” she responded with the exact same sense of pride that I have when telling people this.

“So you always just travel?”

“Yes, I’ve been traveling since I was an infant.”

The lady digested this.

“Do you know of any traveling kids?” Petra asked.

“Just you.”

I started feeling not so well on the plane. We had already begun our descent into Athens. Maybe it was the ouzo? Probably not. The cheese and meat stuffed pastry that more than likely had been sitting out for half a week? Probably.

When you feel sick on an airplane you get this momentary panic response: what if I barf? Where is the best place to barf? What will happen if I barf?

You look around for a moment, feel around in the magazine rack for the barf bag — there’s a 9 out of 10 chance it’s not there or some bored kid had already turned it into an art project.

You continue panicking, but eventually realize that if you were to barf there’s really nothing that you can do about it and it’s actually the people around you who are fucked. Then you suddenly feel relaxed.

I really did barf on a plane once:

I puked on the plane from Urumqi to Almaty. The bag blew out a hole as I stumbled through the aisle trying to take it to the trash in the back of the plane — you can put the rest of this story together for yourself.

I didn’t write this then but the bag actual blew out two small holes — one in each corner. As I ran through the plane to get to the toilet my vomit squirted out and sprayed passengers sitting on both sides of the aisle. They groaned and tried to bend out of the way as much as they could but it was to no avail: I got em. No joke. I’m not sure if I’m still mortified or still completely amused that something so cinema-like actually happened.


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Filed under: Air Travel, Airports, Greece, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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