When booking flights, it can be easy to look at a long layover as nothing more than an inconvenience — and perhaps a necessary evil — that cuts into your precious vacation time. But, while it is indeed nice to get straight to your destination, a lengthy stop on the way can actually be a good thing. “There are lots of benefits of a long layover — in some cases, I look for them!” said Ryan Cafaro, regional leader at Liberty Travel. “A longer layover allows you peace of mind that you will get from one flight to the next, even if there is a delay due to weather, air traffic or the other myriad reasons planes get delayed. You also get a chance to stretch on long journeys, have a real meal and maybe even have a few hours to explore outside the terminal gates.”
That said, just how great a long layover can be depends on where you land. “Not all layovers are created equal,” said Erick Prince, the travel journalist and photographer behind Minority Nomad. “But some are worthy of special planning to ensure you break up the monotony of a long trip.” Here are five such destinations.
Singapore’s Changi Airport is consistently hailed as one of the best — if not the best — in the world, and has “truly raised the bar for airports,” said Paige Brunton, a digital nomad and online business educator.
“Singapore airport is a destination all on its own,” Cafaro said. “Walk through the gardens — which include [more than] 1,000 exotic butterflies, sunflower fields and koi ponds — catch a flick at the free movie theatre, or take a dip [in] the rooftop pool.” And if those activities don’t interest you, there are countless other jaw-dropping features in every terminal, including in the soon-to-open Jewel, a 10-story development with a hotel, dining, shopping and attractions like mazes and clear slides that take you through gorgeous gardens.
If you are interested in seeing Singapore outside the airport, Changi offers free guided tours of the city (you’ll need at least 5.5 hours before your next flight); and if you’re on your own, you can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. “Given [Singapore’s] relatively small size, you can see pretty much all of the major highlights in under 12 hours,” Prince said.
Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is only about 12 miles from the city center, which is easily accessible by bus or train; the station for the latter is located directly underneath the airport. “You can get from the airport with one train to the main station in under 20 minutes,” Brunton said. You’re then “just steps from the very famous red light district and some great shopping.” If you want a guided experience, you can book an Airport Transit City Tour, which picks you up and drops you off at the airport.
SkyScanner recommends you have at least a four-hour layover if you want to head into the city; but if you don’t have quite that long (or would rather stay close), you can still have a quality experience at Schiphol. “For the culture enthusiast, Amsterdam airport offers its own branch of the world famous Rijksmuseum, with free admission to explore its exhibits,” Cafaro said. And if you want somewhere to rest, Cafaro recommended the YotelAir, “a unique design hotel right at the terminal,” where you can rent a cabin by the hour.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco Airport (SFO) is another one that’s relatively close to the heart of the city — you can get downtown via a 30-minute BART train straight from the airport — with plenty to see and do without venturing too far. But you can also make a pleasant day out of hanging out at the airport. “SFO has airy, well-design sitting areas, yoga rooms [and] organic dining options,” said Jennine Cohen, managing director of global sales at GeoEx. “I even did a wine ‘flight’ of all organic local wines the last time I was there.”
The airport also features rotating art exhibits and offers a wide range of amenities and activities, including an aviation museum and library, a reflection room, an outdoor terrace and an airport butler service. And for stressed travelers — or those who simply love animals — SFO offers its “Wag Brigade,” a program that brings trained service dogs (and one Instagram-famous pig) to the terminals to make passengers’ airport experiences more fun.
Seoul, South Korea
As The Points Guy reported, Seoul’s Incheon Airport has been voted the world’s second best airport (after Singapore’s Changi Airport) three years in a row, and for good reason. “Incheon stands out for me because of its dedication to cultural exposure,” Prince said. “[It shows] aspects of Korean history and culture throughout [the airport], with concerts and art exhibitions regularly on offer. You can also observe a daily parade of Korean historical figures.” The airport offers a long list of attractions, including live music performances, a movie theatre and an observation deck where you can see planes taking off and landing.
The airport isn’t incredibly close to the city center (it’s about 29 miles from Seoul Station, and the train ride between the two takes about 45 minutes, according to The Seoul Guide); so if you have a short layover, it’s best to stay at the airport. But if you do have the time, you can book a layover tour that starts and ends at Incheon.
Icelandair and WOW Air’s free stopover programs contributed to a major tourism boom in recent years, and they’re still going strong. Both airlines give travelers the chance to turn their Icelandic layovers into full-blown trips (anywhere from 24 hours to a few days) without paying more than their original long-haul ticket cost. And depending on how much time you have, you can easily find something to do that fits your itinerary. “If you only have a few hours, you can take a dip in the world famous Blue Lagoon, only 20 minutes away from the airport,” Cafaro said. If you don’t want to rent a car and drive yourself, you can even book a tour straight from the airport.
“If you have more time, or even an overnight connection, you can easily catch an airport bus and be downtown in less than one hour,” Cafaro continued. “Downtown Reykjavik is a perfect walking city, so no need to rent a car here. Explore the Viking museum, waterfront area and try some local delicacies. [And] when the sun sets in the winter, venture out on a nightly Northern Lights tour in hopes to see this natural phenomenon.”
Of course, what you can do with your layover depends on several factors — such as cost, day of the week, time of day and visa or passport requirements — beyond how much time you have between flights, so it’s important to do your research. “While a city might be great on paper, the logistics just might not work for you to visit,” Prince said. “Make sure you’re allowed to leave the airport, plan your transportation and make sure to return in plenty of time to make your flight.”
But if the logistics do work out, the extra planning you do for your layover can be well worth it. As Cafaro said, “treat your layover as part of your vacation, and you’ll end up having two adventures in one.”