I happen to be one of the rare breeds who actually chooses to have layovers for international flights. Why? I’m happy you asked. For one, I cannot stand being on a plane more than 8 or so hours. I admit: my butt hurts, I am tired of sitting, I still haven’t mastered sleeping on a plane, and I just need OUT. I also spent my twenties in random 5 hour layovers all over the world to save a dime, so maybe I am just used to them now.
Anybody who has ever flown has inevitably faced a layover. Long layovers are particularly tough, especially for those on a budget. I’ll tell you how to spend your layover, and, if you have a choice, where to choose a layover.
What to do
The short layovers, under 3 hours, are fairly manageable. When choosing a layover, I aim for these if possible. However, many international flights end up with odd-length layovers.
The Short Layover
I usually end up walking laps around the airport. Simple as that. I will do some browsing, people watch, check out the different escalators and moving walkways (in Europe, the escalators are often flat – like an incline treadmill!).
The Intermediate Layover
These are the hardest. For layovers less than 8 hours, you usually end up stuck at the airport. There are several musts that I always pack in my carry-on. One is a sarong. Yes, even for cold places. Why? Because they can be turned into a blanket, pillow, tied into a cardigan or long skirt, and I frequently use it as a make-shift sheet to lay on the floor. I simply lay it on the floor, place my head on my back-pack (note: this is why I NEVER use rolling luggage as a carry on), and grab my eye mask. Set an alarm, and get some horizontal zzz’s. As a bonus, they are very easy to fold up and do not take up much room.
Be careful when spending money in foreign airports. If you do not have an international travel credit card, you will be charged fees for transactions. I personally use this card, which allows for free international transactions, and access to most airport business lounges in the world (read: free entertainment, food, and wine).
Many international airports outside of the US are much better at airport entertainment. Singapore’s airport (Changi airport) is particularly famous for this. It is filled with gardens, kinetic rain, and, yes, even has a swimming pool on the roof you can watch the planes take off while taking a dip. Truly remarkable. Later, I’ll discuss where to have a layover if you have multiple options for this exact reason. Check airports before you take off, as many international airports have surprising entertainment we are not used to in the states.
The Long Layover
My favorite is the long layover. Many airlines will let you have a 24 hour layover instead of a short layover. Iceland air allows you to choose your layover length in Reykjavik – up to 7 nights without a fee. Long layovers allow you to go out and explore a city. Watch timing, as many flights will land at night and take off in the early afternoon the next day. This is great if you just want a good night’s sleep in a hotel, not so great if you want to explore the city.
Thinking of a long layover? Make sure to check the layover country for visas. Certain countries, such as China, have visa-free periods if you have an ongoing flight and your layover is less than 24 hours. This is important, as the visa is $140.
If you use a third party booking engine such as google flights or kayak, call the airline. Almost all airlines have a 24 hour free cancellation. In addition, airlines have the same flight at the same time every day. You can usually call the airline and ask for the same flight the next day (assuming seat availability) within that 24 hour booking window without a change fee. Speaking of change fees, unlike in the US, many international airlines only charge a nominal fee (Eva Air is $50) to change your flight.
For the layover that is around 12 hours, make sure to check if you must go through customs and immigration both ways. Iceland, for example, you must go through an exit process AFTER you go through security, meaning two waiting-in-line times to account for. This is basically customs in reverse, so lines can be long. Particularly important if you have a “short” long layover.
Especially when flying to Asia, you are almost guaranteed to have a layover. A quick search will show you many options for near the same price with different airlines. First, check airlines reviews. After reviews, picking a better layover option for a few extra bucks is worth it. Look for free WiFi, especially if you do not have an international plan. Most airport websites will tell you.
Finally took that European trip, but missed a dream city? Layovers are a great way to fix this. Take a look at the airport website. This will show you which airlines use that airport as a major hub. The more flights that fly in on an airline, the cheaper prices will be. If the price for this layover is a bit higher, set an alert. Kayak and many other booking engines will alert you when prices drop.
Changi International, Singapore: This airport is hands down the best. It has a cactus garden, water lily garden, orchid garden, roof top pool, a movie theater, and a 40 foot slide. It also has designated “quiet zones” for those of you who want to sleep. It has even gone so far as to offer suggestions based on the length of layover you have.
San Francisco International Airport: My home airport. This airport has lounges dedicated to yoga, good for stretching those travel weary legs. It also has an aquarium! I am biased here, but also the best airport to have a glass of that local Napa wine.
Taoyuan International, Taiwan: This airport has a library, along with rentable e-readers and iPads.
Munich International, Germany: This airport has an actual (seasonal) ice rink. You can skate, or, if you were born with two left feet like I was, can sip one of Germany’s finest exports at the on-site brewery. If you feel like getting wet, you can surf, or just relax and play a quick round of mini-golf.
Zürich International, Switzerland: This airport has a large outdoor conservation area in between the terminals. You can even rent bikes and inline skates. It also has showers, although I have personally never tried them.
Incheon Airport, South Korea: I’m pretty sure I can convince my partner to visit South Korea just for the airport. Why? There is a golf course and casino right next to the airport! There are also movie theaters, several gardens, and free tours.
I will leave you with this departing advice: always spend a few minutes researching layover airports before you book, and always bring an adapter if you are flying international. I like this one for phones, as it is cheap and has every continent all in one (although I would not use for high energy appliances such as hair dryers). Don’t be afraid to sleep, but keep valuables tucked away and safe. Finally, don’t be afraid of the layover if you’ve done a quick bit of research and you have packed prepared.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” – Saint Augustine