Making the Most of Long Layovers, and Seeking Them Out
Like most travelers, you’ve probably experienced the dreaded long layover. This happens because of some mysterious booking algorithm convincing you to save sometimes hundreds of dollars to take a (much) later connecting flight. And sometimes it’s because the only onward flight to your final destination is much later than the first flight’s arrival.
Sometimes it’s too cold or too much of a hassle to leave the airport. My uncle comes to mind here. He spent about seven hours in JFK once. And meticulously tested and ranked the terminal’s cafes and sandwich shops. No one actually wants to spend a day ranking JFK’s, or any airport’s, sandwich shops.
Whatever the reason, usually our first reaction is something like a groan of inevitability. But if a long layover does become part of your future travel plans—let’s be honest here: that’s probable—it doesn’t have to be something to overcome, but can be something to enjoy and take advantage of.
In the last few years, I would several times a year have to fly from Washington, D.C. to Lyon or Nice, in France. With no direct flights to either these cities, I had to go through one of several major European hubs. Flights from the U.S. usually leave in the afternoon or evening, getting you to Europe in the early morning hours.
Not pressed for time, I figured I could take an onward evening flight to Lyon or Nice. Result: I’ve had six to nine hour layovers in Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Munich, Geneva, and Zurich. And I went to get a glimpse of each one. Most European airports are well linked to their airports—a far cry from most in the U.S.—and offer left-luggage facilities for your carry-on bags. With luggage checked through to your final destination and visa-free travel to most European countries, knocking a major capital off your bucket list has never been easier.
You can do this in many other European cities, like London, Copenhagen, Rome, etc. I’ve also tested this possibility in Delhi, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. Basically, it seems doable pretty much everywhere. It’s the optimal way of very easily adding a whole new place to your travel plans. And if you like your first impressions, there’ll always be an opportunity to go back.
The key is to plan the long-layover meticulously. When booking, airlines may at first only show you the shortest itinerary if this happens to be the cheapest. But for the same price, you can usually get a later connecting flight, so keep an eye out. And before purposefully booking, do check visa policies of your selected layover country. Wikipedia has dedicated, up-to-date pages for this; just Google search “visa policy of [country].”
Some countries now wave visas for one or two-day stays, like China. Further, airlines like Iceland Air offer “layovers” from six hours to six days if you book directly with them. If you think you want to spend a day and a night, try checking out multi-city tickets. Anything over 24 hours won’t show up on booking pages as layovers. This is how I saw Hanoi, for no additional air travel cost. Once you have an itinerary you like, figure out beforehand how to get to where you want to go from the airport, so you don’t waste any time on the ground. Maps are key, though some destinations are easier than others. In Geneva, I took the airport train downtown, picked up a city-bike, and went for a ride along Lake Geneva.
All in all, deciding on a long layover comes down to your personal cost-benefit analysis. For me, it’s become almost a travel habit, and I’ve seen many wonderful places this way. It can definitely be more of a hassle depending on which city you’re going through, your budget, or if you’re traveling with children. But don’t hate too hard on the long layover. It might just make your trip!