This year I developed a whole new appreciation for adding layovers to my trips. Routing your flights via stopovers — and then adding some extra time to leave the airport and stay a night — is just such an amazing way to add some variety to a trip. And the best part? It doesn’t even have to cost anything extra.
Recently I spent 36 hours in Istanbul on my way to Georgia. And earlier this year I flew to Thailand via Singapore and flew back with an 18-hour layover in Beijing. These layovers were so much fun that I’m now punching myself in the head for not having done these a lot more.
Perhaps the former long-term traveler in me has been a bit snobbish about such brief visits. Surely you can’t even begin to scratch the surface when you’re in a place for merely a day or two? Surely you should either do a city properly or not do it at all?
But that was dumb. I’ve realized that by not adding layovers to my connecting flights, I’ve actually been wasting a ton of awesome little travel opportunities.
Why layovers are awesome
What I’ve realized is that layovers are an amazing way to sample an extra country on your way to your final destination. It’s almost like a try-before-you-buy experience.
Adding a stopover in Istanbul made me think about doing a proper trip to Turkey. And seeing Beijing, however briefly, made me imagine doing a longer trip in China. Sure, these main cities may not representative of the countries as a whole, but they gave at least some tantalizing glimpses.
But maybe a layover is not just meant to scope out a country. They can also simply be a cool little snack-size addition to a trip! It’s like having a starter before your main dish. And if your flight isn’t direct and you’re having a stopover anyway, why not use it?
Back in January, I’d spent plenty of time lazing in hammocks on Cambodia’s tropical beaches, so it was a fun change of scene to then walk around Beijing in middle of winter. I literally (not literally) froze my face off as I had packed nothing at all for this weather, but it was totally worth it.
I ate some weird Chinese food, strolled around Beihai Park where people hung around the ice-skating rings, and experienced the intense security at Tiananmen Square with its creepy face-scanning technology. It was a little slice of China I wouldn’t otherwise have seen.
(I didn’t need a visa, by the way, as China offers a 72-hour transit visa on arrival in many of its major cities.)
In Istanbul, I spent the day wandering the Grand Bazaar, visited some of the historical sites dating back to Byzantine and Ottoman times, and had delicious brunch and meze dinner before meeting up with my friend and traveling onward to Georgia.
Sure, these were brief stops, but they were definitely worthwhile. They also helped to break up the journey: I could rest, shower, sleep, and then continue flying the following day.
Now that I’ve learned that I love layovers, I find myself thinking back to previous trips. When I flew to South Africa last year I could have totally had a layover in Addis Ababa! And when I went from Lisbon to Romania via Vienna I could have totally spent a day there! Ahhhh!
Tip: do multi-stop searches
Convinced that layovers are a good thing? OK – here’s how to plan them.
Sometimes you might have a short stopover by accident, like having a few hours to kill at a transit airport, but to have a proper layover you’ll have to plan one on purpose.
To find the best layovers you’ll often have to use multi-stop or multi-city flight searches. This is a feature that many flight search engines have, but you might not normally use this as most trips are just point-to-point.
Start by doing a regular flight search on a site like Momondo or Skyscanner first (see: my tips for using flight search engines). Just enter your starting and final destination, as this will give you some valuable information on where certain airlines make stopovers anyway. It really helps to do a regular search first before adding in an extra waypoint, as without this it can be difficult to know what kind of layovers are actually easy or affordable to book.
When you find a route you like, you can then enter the details for it in a multi-stop search, where you can then have both legs of the journey separated by one day (or more).
Now, there’s one little issue: if you do this on a 3rd party booking site you might get issued separate single flights which often end up being more expensive than a return. The solution usually is to go to the airlines’ own website and do a multi-city search there. The price you’ll be quoted will usually be similar to a normal return ticket, just with a longer gap for your transfer. This does depend on whether the airline is layover-friendly.
By the way, layovers can actually make your overall journey cheaper! Some search engines specialize in finding layovers that make the total cost of your journey lower, for example because you’ll be flying on cheaper days or crossing into a different airline sector. Check out sites like Cleverlayover or Airwander.
Tip: consider stopover destinations
Certain destinations are located strategically between continents or regions, making them ideal stopover places.
Consider Iceland for example, which sits conveniently between Europe and North America. In fact, part of Iceland’s huge success as a tourism destination has been to promote and facilitate this type of visit. You can read more on Icelandair and WOWAir‘s websites.
Another example are the Azores islands in the Atlantic, which are right between Europe and the US East Coast. Azores Airlines can connect cross-Atlantic travelers from Oakland, Boston, Toronto and Montreal to several major cities in Europe, with the option of adding a few days on the islands in between.
Dubai is a place that not many travelers will go just for Dubai, but it probably makes for an interesting place to see for a day or two on your way to somewhere else.
Singapore makes for a good stop in Southeast Asia, as its airport is incredibly well-connected globally and you can travel onwards to neighboring countries on regional budget airlines.
Going to Central America or the Caribbean? Try flying to Miami or Fort Lauderdale airports before continuing your journey a day or two later.
London to Bangkok via Kazakhstan is another interesting one, as described here by Nomadic Notes.
If you’re planning a trip somewhere far away, be sure to take a good look at the map to see what might already lay on your path…
Tip: check for special deals
Some destinations promote themselves as a layover place, offering cool freebies to anyone who decides to stay for a while. These freebies usually come from airlines the operate from major (up-and-coming) hubs, though sometimes these offers come from the local tourism board.
On my recent layover in Istanbul, I used a Turkish Airlines promotion that gives you up with a free hotel stay if your layover is at least 20 hours. As an economy class passenger I could choose from a few different hotels, the most expensive of which normally cost 120 EUR a night.
The following destinations offer free or discounted accommodation:
- Istanbul – free hotel on stays longer than 20 hours
- Doha – free hotel with Qatar Airways
- Singapore – free hotel with Singapore Airlines on a long layover through Changi
- Addis Ababa – free hotel on some stopovers with Etheopian Airlines
- Lisbon – the airline TAP offers discounts on hotels and tours on stopovers in Lisbon
There may be more than these that offer free hotels – they’re just the ones I know of right now. The deals do change all the time, so keep an eye out for them. Usually airlines run these promotions for a while just to try and get a destination on the map.
Some destinations also offer free tours or excursions if you decide to make a stopover. Thrifty Nomads has a great list of layover cities offering free tours.