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Women on the Road

Long Layover Flights: How to Make Your Airport Time Memorable, Not Miserable 

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24 February 2018—You know the feeling.

You look at your ticket and bam! A 12-hour layover in the middle of nowhere. Or so it seems.

Depression sets in – and you haven’t even started your trip.

Hold on… those long layover flights can lead to adventures if you just have a plan.

Why spend those hours at the airport (or train station) when you can be out on the town? I do it on purpose: I actually look for airlines with stopovers or layovers.

Define Layover vs Stopover: Both are often used interchangeably, but technically a layover is a short stop of less than 24 hours while a stopover refers to stopping in a city for a day or more.  

You probably think it’s too complicated to sort from home – just the opposite. Several airlines and airports offer tours if you change flights in their home city and where they don’t, plenty of companies put on short tours for visitors who only have a few hours to spare.

The first time I visited Singapore was on a layover. I had six hours between flights, with nothing to do – until I found out about Singapore Airline’s special deal for transit passengers. I took a tour of the city and enjoyed it so much I made it a point to return to Singapore.

Singapore at night - ideal for long layover flightsA layover in Singapore is a wonderful way to see the city - especially at night

So, no more complaining about long layovers. Take advantage of them - or even schedule your travels around them.

Recently I flew through Istanbul and made it a point to book a flight with a long layover – just because I felt like going into town and having a Turkish food bite! I visited Istanbul - for free.

6  layover tours that are free (or nearly free!)

Here's how to turn your multistop flights into fun: by taking a free city tour. This is not an exhaustive list but these are the best known and most organized.

Singapore City Tour
Changi is one of those airports you don't ever want to leave, but after you've visited half a dozen times, you might want to actually see the city outside.

There are two tours, the City Tour and the Heritage Tour. The first highlights the city's sights, while the Heritage tour looks at Singapore's rich history that mixes Indians, Chinese and Malays, with a sprinkling of British.

No reservations are needed but you do need to have a layover time of at least 5.5 hours between flights. 

Tours in Taipei, Taiwan
Passengers with at least seven hours in Taipei can choose among seven half-day tours - but only if they have a valid visa or come from certain visa-exempt countries.

In the case of Taipei, go to the arrival lobby of Terminals 1 or 2 because no reservations are possible and you can get on either the morning or the afternoon tour on a first-come first-served basis. Make your plans around 8am or 2pm tours.

Narita Airport Transit and Stay Program
These tours are open both to transit passengers and to customers of nearby Narita hotels and come in two styles: a volunteer guided tour, and a self-guided tour. While both are free, the self-guided tours require you to pay for transport to the venue.

Reservations are available for the volunteer guided tours and several options are available, including a walk in the Japanese countryside.

Seoul, Korea Transit Tours 
If you're spending more than three hours in Seoul's Incheon Airport, a range of eight tours will help you pass the time. Some are as short as two hours, while others will take you all the way into Seoul (and you might fall in love with the city and the country, as I did when I visited South Korea).

While you don't have to reserve, those without a reservation are accommodated on a first-come first-served basis and spaces do run out.

Turkish Airlines Touristanbul
One of the best deals for airport layovers has got to be the tours offered by Turkish Airlines international passengers in transit in Istanbul. I try to transit through Istanbul (and the Grand Bazaar) as often as I can and love the opportunity of going into town). You'll be able to discover some of Istanbul's iconic sights if you have at least 6 hours between international flights.

No reservations are available - just head to the Hotel Desk in the Atatürk Airport arrivals hall.

Discover Qatar Transit Tours (not quite free)
If you have at least 5 hours between flights, this is your chance to get to know Doha and can be booked online 48 hours before the tours. Given the way Qatar has developed as a hub for moderately priced flights - taking advantage of the long layover times is an opportunity to discover this city - this is one that I haven't tried but it's on my list.

(And the reason it's not quite free is you have to pay a small fee for transportation into town.)

Private layover tours

In addition to the free layover tours organized by airports and airlines, there are plenty of other tours designed specifically with the short-stay passenger in mind. You'll find many of these on Viator and Get Your Guide, or see below for some of the more popular ones.

  • This Lisbon layover lasts four hours and provides you with the flexibility to see those sights you most want to see.
  • This longer layover requires a good 8 hours but if you're passing through Jordan, this is your chance to visit the Dead Sea instead of waiting at the airport.
  • Here's something a little different for Helsinki. If you have 3-4 hours between flights, you can hop a train and meet up with a local who will show you the sights.
  • One airport where layovers are common is Amsterdam, so this two-hour tour is perfect for a quick glimpse if you've never seen this delightful city before.
  • If you have a good ten hours or so in Beijing and have never been to the Great Wall, now is your chance with this private pickup tour from the airport.
  • If you're on your way down Africa through Cairo, a well-organized layover will be enough to get you to the city's famed pyramids.
  • As immense and tempting as Dubai airport might be, the city is easily toured during a layover with this tour, which includes a visit to the Gold Souk.
  • And of course, there's London. If you have 8 hours or more and you already know the city inside out, why not head for a guided tour of Windsor?

If you'd rather organize your layover on your own

If you're not in the mood for even a short tour, there's no reason you can't strike out on your own and explore town. Just take a few of these factors into account and check your destination or arline's flight stopover rules before you rush past Customs and hop into a cab.

  • Deal with your luggage. If you're lucky, you've managed to check your luggage right through to your final destination. But if you're still carting around suitcases, make sure you find the left luggage and deposit your suitcases for safekeeping.
  • Check out the airport before you get there. Not only do you need to find the left luggage office, but you may need to find other airport services before your layover - say a pharmacy or other shop. Most airports have websites so get your bearings and make your plan before you even take off.
  • Assess your physical condition. If you're already stepping off a long-haul flight and are exhausted, make sure you don't choose the most active walking tour available. Opt for something shorter and less demanding.
  • Sort your transportation into town. You'll have any number of options, from limousines and taxis to airport buses and shuttles. Again, your airport website will probably give you the lowdown, as will any city official tourist office website. You can easily use Google Maps, but another highly helpful resource is Rome2Rio.
  • Have the correct paperwork. Not everyone can be in transit or enter a country automatically. Sometimes you'll need a visa and occasionally you may not be allowed in at all. Be sure you check - your airline should be able to provide you with the right information.
  • Plan your itinerary carefully. Much as I love to play it by ear, a layover is one time when I don't. I plan each minute because catching that onward connecting flight is paramount. Even if you only get to see a sight or two, it's worth it if you've never visited this particular destination.
  • Book your return to the airport. Whatever you do, make sure you have reliable transport - a train or a subway will do fine, whereas a bus or taxi may be subject to traffic. Whatever you decide, be sure you're back in time! Remember, in most international airports you should allow at least two hours before departure, often three and sometimes even four. 

What if you'd rather spend your layover IN the airport?

Some airports, like Dubai or Singapore, are so incredible you really have no reason to leave. Ever.

So if you've seen the nearest city or have no desire to, you'll often find more than enough entertainment inside the airport, so much so you may have to pay serious attention not to miss your flight.

But first, check the airport's website. Some airports are so dismal you won't want to spend an extra hour there, let alone half a day.

As for those topnotch airports that are worth an exploration, here are just a few of the activities you can enjoy.

Relax with yoga

  • Major airports with yoga spaces include San Francisco, Chicago (Midway and O'Hare), Dallas-Fort Worth, Helsinki, London and Frankfurt - and the list is nearly endless, as relaxing between flights with yoga becomes increasingly popular

Immerse yourself in art

  • Amsterdam airport has an annex of the Rijksmuseum
  • An extraordinary photo installation at Frankfurt
  • Outdoor art at Auckland airport
  • A multi-storey art façade at Mumbai
  • The moveable Kinetic Rain with hundreds of raindrops at Singapore
  • And that's just the beginning... art installations and sculptures can be found around the world as airports become destinations in themselves - LED lights at San Diego, lamps at San Francisco. aluminum sculpture at Dallas-Forth Worth, a bicycle sculpture in Dubai, sound and light in Miami, the glass globe at Copenhagen, the slipstream sculpture at Heathrow and the Tug of War in Bangkok - few airports aren't exhibiting some sort of art these days

What about culture?

  • Korean Culture Museum at Incheon airport
  • The Made in Hong Kong exhisibiont in - Hong Kong

Go for a swim

  • Changi in Singapore has a rooftop pool and jacuzzi
  • Dubai has a pool, jacuzzi and gym

Play some golf

  • Experience the region's largest golf course at Incheon in Seoul
  • Use the nine-hole course at Hong Kong 
  • Or how about an 18-hole mini-golf at Munich airport

Be at one with nature

  • Visit the aquarium at Vancouver airport
  • Butterfly Creek is a tropical animal trove a minute from Auckland Airport
  • The multiple gardens at Changi in Singapore: Butterfly, Cactus, Sunflower, Water Lily...
  • The Stargarden's seven themes at Seoul's Incheon
  • Japanese, Chinese and Hawaiian Gardens at Honolulu airport
  • The vegetable garden at O'Hare or the conservation reserve between terminals in Zurich

For a bit of prehistory

  • There's a four-floor high Brachiosaurus skeleton at Chicago's O'Hare

Watch a movie

  • You'll find cinemas of all shapes and sizes in Singapore, New Delhi, Hong Kong and Seoul

And much more...

These days airports are so crammed with activities you can play video games, go gambling, visit full-service spas, browse fabulous bookstores, shop till you drop, eat a gourmet meal, get a massage, and almost anything else under the sun.

The best airports for layovers

Here are just a few examples of exciting airports and things you can do there: 

  • Hong Kong International (HKG) for its IMAX theater
  • Taiwan Taoyuan International (TPE) for its Hello Kitty departure gate
  • Munich Airport (MUC) for its in-house brewery
  • Calgary International (YYC) for its video arcades
  • Denver International (DEN) for its conspiracy themes
  • Portland International (PDX) for its foodie trucks
  • San Francisco International (SFO) for its museum store and great food
  • Dubai International (DXB) for sheer size, diversity and the world's largest duty=free

And, some favorites mentioned earlier...

  • Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS) for its Rijksmuseum
  • Singapore Changi (SIN) for its amazing gardens 
  • Incheon International (IIA) for its cultural experiences

Whether you decide to stay at the airport, take a layover tour or visit the city on your own, remind yourself that layovers don't have to be boring or tiresome - they can be a fantastic part of your travels.

Airport layover resources