Air Travelers: Slow Down and Embrace the Long Layover

Long layovers remove an element of stress and give you the chance to explore another city in your travels.
Sally French
By Sally French 
Edited by Meg Lee

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When Megan Gieske flew from Uganda to Thailand, she had to choose whether her layover in Cairo would be for four hours or for eight. She chose the latter.

An eight-hour layover might feel like a curse for travelers eager to get to their destination. Yet for others, long layovers are preferable.

A long layover can quell anxieties about sprinting through airports to catch the next flight, especially for complicated itineraries spanning multiple countries. But for more adventurous folk, long layovers afford opportunities to escape the confines of the airport and explore a new city — sometimes even for multiple days — without having to pay extra for airfare.

Here’s the case for intentionally choosing a longer layover, how to book flights with spacious time frames, and how to save money in the process.

The benefits of a long layover

Less risk of a missed flight

The on-time arrivals rate for the first seven months of 2022 was the worst that it’s been since 2014, according to data collected by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Only 76% of U.S. airline flights arrived on time in the first seven months of 2022, down from 82% for the same period in 2021 and 81% in 2020.

Given the increased chances of a delayed departure flight, additional buffer time can mitigate the stress of potentially missing a connection.

Scott Keyes, founder of flight-deal site Scott's Cheap Flights, says he builds in longer layovers when he can’t risk missing the connection, such as having a business meeting at his final destination, or when weather will be unpredictable.

"I'm more likely to build in a longer layover if I'm transiting through Chicago in the winter versus Denver in the summer, as there's a higher likelihood that a delay might cause me to miss the connection," he says.

Building in buffer time can be especially crucial for routes that run infrequently. Missing a flight between a route like San Francisco and Las Vegas — which typically has over a dozen flights per day — might not be a huge deal, as you could likely catch the next flight with minimal disruption to your travels.

Contrast that with flights into a smaller regional airport with less than a half dozen flights per day in total or international layovers where you don’t want to risk an unintended overnight stay in a foreign country. For those scenarios, a long layover can be one of the best forms of insurance.

An opportunity to explore a second city

For other travelers, longer layovers are less about reducing stress and more about the possibility of exploring a new city — potentially acquiring an extra passport stamp without actually purchasing another international flight.

That was Gieske's strategy when she chose to spend eight hours in Cairo en route to Bangkok. Seeing the Egyptian pyramids had long been on her bucket list, she says. While it's roughly a one-hour drive each way from the airport, it was enough time to tour the monumental tombs.

What to do during a long layover

Under about 4 hours

Four hours likely wouldn't be enough time to see the pyramids, but long layovers don't have to be boring, even if you stay in the airport — especially as airports have become destinations in themselves.

Some airports offer outposts of beloved local restaurants, giving you a taste of the city without actually having to step on its soil. If you can't venture into Paris, you can still dine on France's famous caviar at Caviar House & Prunier at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. Or chow down on Boudin Bakery's clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl at San Francisco International Airport.

Other airports have expansive entertainment. Catch a film at Portland International Airport's free 22-seat microcinema, or use the putting green and virtual driving range at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport's PGA MSP Lounge. Denver International Airport has an ice skating rink during wintertime.

Jewel Changi Airport — an entertainment venue within Singapore Changi Airport that includes evening light shows, a hedge maze and the world's tallest indoor waterfall — is considered one of the top tourist attractions in the entire country.

Most airports also have lounges, which can offer a calm respite from blaring loudspeakers, plus plenty of power outlets and comfy seating. Some offer showers for freshening up between flights, an open bar, snacks and sometimes even full buffet meals. Lounges are typically accessible by paying a one-time entrance fee, holding airline elite status, purchasing premium airfare, or holding the right travel credit card. Several offer complimentary airport lounge access as a perk.

More than about 4 hours

If you have more than a few hours, go explore. Pick a couple tourist attractions and perhaps a place to eat nearby — or ideally near a taxi stand or train back to the airport.

The amount of time needed to actually go out and explore varies based on a few factors. Figure out:

  • How far the tourist attractions are from the airport: Some airports are practically walking distance from the sights you want to see. Other airports named for a major city are in a different city entirely. For example, if you time the traffic lights right, it's a five-minute drive from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to the National Mall. But if you're flying into Dulles International Airport, budget at least 30-45 minutes or more, depending on traffic, to get to the same destination. Route tools like Google Maps can show travel time.

  • How long you'll need for customs and security lines: For international travel, factor in time for going through customs. Then, make time to re-enter security. In the U.S., TSA PreCheck can whisk you through lines faster.

  • How nimbly you can move: If you’ve got luggage to check or kids in tow, you might move a bit slower than a solo traveler with nothing but a backpack. Some airports offer luggage check services, but it requires time (and usually an additional fee) to make that happen. If both flights are on the same itinerary, your checked luggage will typically be automatically sent on to your final destination, but check with your airline to confirm.

If you're traveling between countries, a daylong layover can mean multiple time zones and minimal sleep, so it might not be for everyone. Gieske says she manages to rest decently on the plane thanks to a sleep mask and sleep aids. She drinks plenty of coffee upon arrival.

"Plus, the excitement of discovering a new adventure is often energizing in itself," she says.

Overnight layovers

Perhaps even more delightful than a bonus day in another city is a bonus overnight stay. An 18-hour layover is likely enough to see the sights and get a full night's sleep.

Some airlines actually encourage overnight layovers as a way to bring more tourism dollars into their home country. Overnight (and sometimes multi-night) layovers are usually referred to as a stopover.

The list of airlines offering free stopovers can change frequently, but Scott's Cheap Flights tracks the biggest ones, which typically include TAP Air Portugal, Icelandair and Turkish Airlines.

You can sometimes finagle stopovers to extend your trip by a week and see an entirely different country — without the extra flight cost. Icelandair lets you book a stopover as long as seven days, allowing you turn what might otherwise be, say, a one-week vacation in London into a two-week European trip for no additional airfare cost.

Some airlines even pay for your hotel, making for an incredibly cheap way to see another city.

For example, when flying on most Turkish Airlines flights with a stopover in Istanbul, the airline will put business class travelers in a five-star hotel for up to two days and economy class travelers in a four-star hotel for one day, free of charge.

But not all airlines do this. (For example, Icelandair does not.) Check with your airline through the airline's stopover webpage or by contacting customer service.

How to book trips with an intentionally long layover

Some airlines make it easy to find overnight (or multi-night) layovers via a "stopover" filter on their websites.

For example, Icelandair lets you set your departure and arrival city. Then, you select "Stopover in Iceland" and choose how many nights you want to spend on the Nordic island.

The "Stopover in Iceland" option will find flights that let you stay in Iceland for up to a week on the same flight itinerary.

Third-party booking tools can also help. Gieske booked her Cairo flight through Kiwi, which has a multi-city ticketing tool to better display flights through all the destinations you want. Keyes recommends Google Flights, which lets you sort by trip length so you can easily find the longest layover.

For example, if you fly from San Francisco to Bangkok in November, you could book an $850 flight with a one-hour layover in Tokyo's Narita International Airport. Or, for a similar price, you could have a 17-hour layover via Tokyo's Haneda Airport, which is far closer to central Tokyo anyway.

If you're in a hurry to get from San Francisco to Bangkok, you might stop for just an hour in Tokyo. Or, you could spend a bonus night in Tokyo for no additional airfare cost.

Should you book two separate legs, or remain on one itinerary?

Booking both flights on the same itinerary is typically better (and often cheaper).

But that's not always the case. Keyes booked a layover on two separate airlines as he flew home to Portland, Oregon, from Baltimore, a practice called flight stitching.

"All the flights from Baltimore to Portland were so expensive, so I got creative," he says.

He found a cheap fare from Baltimore to Boston on one airline. Then, he found a cheap fare from Boston to Portland on another, with an 8-hour layover in Boston, where he'd visit family.

"But it comes with risks," Keyes says. "If there's a delay or cancellation with that first flight that causes you to miss that second, you're not protected. The airline won't accommodate you if you miss that connection, the way an airline would if it were the same itinerary."

Typically, if an airline's mistake causes you to miss your next flight, they'll book you on the next departing flight. Some airlines even offer hotel or meal vouchers.

But if you miss your second "stitched" flight, then you're on your own. For Keyes, it wasn't too risky because his eight-hour Boston layover gave him sufficient buffer. Plus, he could have stayed with family if things really went wrong.

Yet even that wouldn't necessarily protect Keyes from losing out on the airfare he paid should he miss that connecting flight. Plus, he would have to pay for a new, last-minute airfare out-of-pocket, which could be expensive. Keyes says he can generally accept the risk of a last-minute domestic fare, but there are very few reasons he'd risk flight stitching for layovers of less than a day on international itineraries.

"If you have to replace a flight to another country, that's not only expensive — that's going to be hideously expensive," he says.

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