Two trips for the price of one? It's not a scam! It's a layover and it's how we see the world.
Istanbul, New York, Singapore, San Francisco, Stockholm. We've seen all these cities (and more!) for free, thanks to flight layovers. Layovers happen when a plane touches down for less than 24 hours in one city while on route to another and embracing them has become a key part of our value travel philosophy.
Layovers allow us to explore new cities without spending any extra money to get there. In fact, sometimes we even save money! Most travelers avoid long layovers and indirect routes like the plague and thus these undesirable flights are often less expensive. Seeing more and playing less? We'll chose that option every time!
If you're ready to fall in love with layovers like we have, here are some practical considerations for getting the most from the experience.
How much time do you need for a layover?
Consider your layover length carefully. There's nothing worse than the sinking feeling that you might miss your fight. You need at least one hour to clear customs and make your way to the city center. Add another hour for your return journey and don't forget that international flights require passengers to arrive two hours early. And just like that, you're tied up for four hours!
I recommend a minimum of eight hours to enjoy a layover. Your time on the ground should never be less than the time you spend on transportation and logistics. When we had a 4 hour layover in Vancouver, we knew there was no way we could fit in a city visit. Instead, we purchased passes to an airline lounge and spent the time reading and - of course! - eating. On a future trip, with 10 hours to spare, we were able to go downtown and visit with a friend without feeling rushed.
Not all hours are equal.
I recently turned down the opportunity to spend about 14 hours in Belgrade. 14 hours sounds ideal but in this particular case I would have arrived late at night and departed early the next morning. I wouldn't have seen the city, just the inside of a hotel room. I realized the time you commit to a layover is only really valuable if you are able to enjoy it.
The timing was more advantageous when we visited Stockholm while on route to Athens but it still could have been better. We arrived late afternoon and walked around, seeing the city before enjoying a late night dinner. The following morning we spent several hours taking photos and we fit in one circuit of a hop on, hop off bus before returning to the airport.
Unfortunately our shoulder-season visit coincided with reduced hours at the museums and galleries and we weren't able to enjoy any city attractions. We still had a fantastic visit but it was an important reminder that, when it comes to making the most of a layover, timing is everything.
Make your accommodations count.
When your layover includes an overnight stay, there's a lot you can do to make the most of the experience. First, try to chose a property close to the main transportation line. Doing so will save you valuable time and minimize frustration. It's the main reason we chose to stay in a Holiday Inn Express in Singapore over more fashionable properties. It was 3 minutes away from the metro and it was easy to find when we arrived late at night.
Secondly, if you can't get a great location (or even if you can), chose a property with character, something truly local and unique. For our layover in San Francisco, that property was a private room at Hostelling International Fort Mason. The hostel has a rare historical pedigree - and an incredible view of the water. We could see the Golden Gate Bridge from our bedroom! Even when we were doing mundane tasks like packing it still felt like we were soaking in all the amazing things the city had to offer. Hostel time didn't feel like wasted time.
Whatever you do, this is not the time to stay in the suburbs or at a cookie cutter chain hotel in order to save $20. This is the time to invest in convenience, comfort, and character.
Layovers and luggage - easier said than done.
One of the biggest logistical challenges of a layover is what to do with your luggage. Very few airports offer luggage facilities. When such amenities do exist, there may be a lengthy walk or terminal change to find it (I'm looking at you, Heathrow!) Checking your bag through to your final destination is a better solution - just remember to carefully plan what you'll need in your day bag.
If you travel with carry on only luggage as we do, be prepared to haul that bag around! Fortunately, most hotels and hostels offer secure luggage storage and are happy to stow your gear before check in and after check out. And if that doesn't work out, we have a sneaky solution.
When we face long layovers and the prospect of lugging our packs, we turn to bus tours. The quality, style, and value of bus based tours can vary widely but they all have one thing in common. You don't have to walk with your pack on your back!
This worked out perfectly for us in New York City and I'm so glad we chose a movie-themed tour bus. We really enjoyed our experience and it was the perfect layover activity- entertaining and informative. And best of all is that we weren't walking around with our backpacks!
Mastering airplane and airport logistics
Nobody wants to spend extra time at the airport. A minute saved is a memory earned, so in the final hour before your plane lands, use the washroom, organize your gear, and prepare your customs documents. It's also a great idea to check the airport maps at the back of the in-flight magazines so you know your way around once you land.
I think it's worth spending extra money to pre-select your seat so you can sit at the front of the plane. Your speedy exit and subsequent arrival at the front of the customs line will easily save you 30 to 60 minutes in delays.
Before you leave the airport to enjoy your layover, check in for the next leg of your flight. I find it a lot easier to check in early when the lines are short. And if something goes wrong and I'm running late, I have peace of mind knowing that I already have my boarding card. This is also a great time to sweetly ask if there is a seat available in the emergency row - or even a complimentary upgrade to first class. Hey, it never hurts to ask!
Verify your visas.
Visas are never fun. They soak up your time, your money, and sometimes can be a massive logistical nightmare - and every country is different. During our first layover in Istanbul, we spent more money on our Turkish visas than we did on food, activities, and transportation.
There are two important things to remember about visas. First, just because you're on a layover it doesn't exempt you from visa requirements. Secondly, you might be eligible for a different kind of visa because you are technically in transit. Fortunately, while you might have to spend more time reading the fine print about this, transit visas are often less expensive and easier to obtain than others.
Money, money, money.
Do you need money for a short layover? Yes. Should you get it in advance? Yes. It's always a smart idea to have cash on hand. It's great for public transit tickets, it's great for tips (and sometimes bribes), and it's great for street food. But where should you get it?
Never get money at the airport foreign exchange office. The rates are absolutely horrible! You'll find far better rates at a foreign exchange in your destination's city centre, but you'll pay in wasted time. Sometimes tracking down currency exchange in a new city is part of an exciting adventure - but mostly it's just a boring administrative task. The theoretical savings on the very small amount of money you need to exchange doesn't justify the very real time commitment. Grab the equivalent of $50 at your local bank at home before departing and spend your travel time doing things you actually enjoy.
Come up with a transportation plan.
A layover is a good time to indulge in a travel splurge, like a wonderful hotel or a memorable meal. One of the ways we save money for these treats is by being frugal in more mundane expenditures, like airport transportation. Fortunately, most airports have a multitude of transportation options and a bit of advance research will help you save time, money, and frustration.
You'll want to evaluate your options for convenience and value. Carefully research hours of operations. A 24 hour shuttle bus that only runs every two hours after dark may not be very helpful. Inquire if there is a deal to purchase a round trip ticket or a combination ticket that includes 24 hour unlimited transportation in the city.
Organize everything - or nothing.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with spending a layover wandering around. Letting a little spontaneity into your life can result in some fantastic travel memories! But if your travel style leans towards more structured activities, doing some advance planning will pay huge dividends once you're on the ground.
A layover is a great opportunity to see a city's most famous sites - but what about those massive lines? They're lines you can happily avoid if you book tours, activities, and museum passes in advance. You might even save some money as there are often deals to bundle several activities. The short length of most layovers also makes it financially feasible to hire a private guide for your visit. You'll experience a more personal itinerary and make a new friend without having to worry much about directions, traffic, or language barriers.
We've had a lot of success adopting a Plan A, Plan B approach for our layover activities. There are so many logistical variables that it is often hard to predict how long it will take to clear customs, arrive at our destination, check into our hotel, and so on. We don't want to be frustrated when the world seems to be moving at a slower pace, nor do we want to be wondering what to do with a few bonus hours on those rare days when all the travel stars align. So we have a Plan A for the most ideal scenario and a Plan B that takes into account what we'll do if things are progressing with maximum delays.
In New York City, our Plan A was to be first off the plane, clear customs in record time, catch a train into the city right away, have several free hours to explore, and take in an amazing breakfast performance at Ellen's Stardust Diner before catching our tour bus. Plan B was for a late flight, a slow customs line, waiting a later train, and grabbing a bagel before directly joining our tour. Happily Plan A went off without a hitch but I'm glad we had Plan B - I knew I wouldn't worry about food, timing, or transportation even if we faced huge delays.
Lasting layover love.
I can honestly say I've never regretted shaving a travel day away from my main destination in order to fit in a layover. I can't remember if I spent 6 days in Athens - or was it 7? - but I know I'll never forget visiting Stockholm. Would I have enjoyed two extra days in Australia? I'm sure I would, but I'm glad I gave those days up to see Singapore and San Francisco when I was in transit.
I could never afford to plan individual trips to all the cities I've seen and incorporating a layover into my travel plans is like flying to two destinations for the price of one. And with a bit of savvy planning, anyone can do it!
Tell us - where would you love to have a layover?
If you enjoyed this article, you'll like:
Your Ultimate Travel Budget Planner
My Value Travel Philosophy
Finding Extra Cash for Travel Treats