Not too long ago, I thought of layovers as long, soporific hours spent curled up in metal seats near the gates or roaming listlessly through terminals. I’d picture eating overpriced airport food and watching other bored passengers as time dragged its heels.
Still with strategic planning, I discovered how layovers can become side trips or even surprise destinations in themselves. Rambling walks in old cities, Michelin-star meals, art by European masters, kid-friendly entertainment—here’s how your next layover can become an experience to remember:
Plan a layover like an add-on holiday. Book your connecting flight in a way that allows you 12 or more hours in a new city, preferably one that’s starkly different from your destination. Don’t forget to check the transit visa requirements—this is key for any layover or stopover planning.
Earlier this year, my cruise holiday ended in Los Angeles. Instead of killing time at the airport, I squeezed in an architecture tour of Downtown LA and tried some excellent Salvadorean papusas in the 100-year-old Grand Central Market. Later that night, while flying back home to Mumbai, I had a 12-hour layover in Hong Kong, which only needs Indian travellers to fill up a pre-arrival registration form for a 14-day visa-free stay. The Airport Express took me to the city in just 24 minutes (tip: buy an Octopus metro card for travel within the city). The layover was long enough for me to get off at Sham Shui Po for a HKD20/Rs175 meal of the iconic barbecued pork buns at Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan; walk along colourful areas like Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei, and even take the ferry to Old Town Central to explore Hong Kong’s colonial past and Chinese temples.
Singapore’s visa-free transit entry gives Indians ample time to explore the city-state: four full days. If you’re in transit from a third country, have a valid onward ticket in 96 hours, and have a visa issued by one of the eight countries listed at www.ica.gov.sg, you’re free to get out and spend those days shopping at Orchard Road, noshing on chilli crab and chicken rice at hawker centres, and roaming the hipster, mural-filled nooks of Tiong Bahru.
Turn your layover into a stopover when the city is right. Many airlines offer stopover packages in select cities for no additional airfare—and neat discounts on hotels and attractions. Iberia’s Hola Madrid programme, for instance, allows visitors to plan a stopover for up to six nights in the city with deals on hotels, city sights, and airport transfers. Emirates’ Dubai packages, Finnair’s Helsinki deals, and Air Canada’s multi-city stopover plans, are great ways to break a long journey and squeeze in cheaper day trips or longer excursions.
A layover of five to eight hours might seem too long to schlep around at the airport but too short to get out and make it back in time. But it’s the perfect window for a city tour—some are free! Indians can fill a travel authorisation certificate before their layover at Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport and hop on a tour that takes them to two very different worlds: Taipei’s glittering skyscrapers or Sanxia’s old pottery district and merchant houses from the late Qing dynasty.
Tokyo’s Narita airport offers tours where the guides come free and travellers pay to eat a home-style Japanese meal or stroll the canals of Sawara, a commercial hub from the Edo period. If you’re in Seoul’s Incheon Airport, head to the transit tour desk for their paid packages—seeing centuries-old temples, caves with gold deposits, World Cup stadiums, and glittering palaces are much better ways of spending your layover than nursing the same ol’ Starbucks coffee. Doha airport too offers city tours starting from QAR75/Rs.1,500, desert safaris, paddle boarding and kayaking, and golf experiences. Most transit tours don’t need separate visas, but some airports do charge a small fee. Check the requirements before signing up.
If your layover really is too short to get out or you’re simply in the mood to relax, take a good look around. You’re in luck if you’re at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, where you can discover Dutch masters at a pavilion of the Rijksmuseum (paintings here regularly rotate with the museum’s main collection) and buy precious souvenirs without entering any of the city museums. (It was here that I picked up a beloved passport holder with van Gogh’s “Almond Blossom.”) Kids can head to the NEMO Science Museum and “see” sounds waves or play Einstein. Just want to snooze? Their sink-and-disappear couches can give any lounge a run for its money.
Singapore’s Changi Airport is another world unto itself. Sure, head to Jewel, the world’s tallest indoor waterfall with light and sound shows. But don’t miss sampling Singapore’s traditional breakfast of kopi (coffee) and kaya toast at Ya Kun, at terminals T1 and T2. I also love Changi’s giant displays of topiary animals, and getting lost in the hedge maze. As long as I don’t miss my flight.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.