How to leave the airport and explore a city during a layover

by Сашка

Whether you have five or 15 hours, you can plan a micro-vacation away from your gate

Some airports make a long layover more appealing than others; I’ve gladly spent hours at the Korean spa inside Seoul’s Incheon International Airport.

But for the most part, airports can be expensive and uncomfortable. Particularly in this era of unpredictable flight schedules and understaffed food courts, escaping the building may be the best use of your idle time.

You could go small, like ditching Los Angeles International Airport to get tacos in Inglewood, or have a distilled vacation, like the recent 26-hour layover I used to explore Istanbul on my way back from Africa.

But pulling off a successful layover takes some planning. Whether you’re facing a lengthy delay or canceled flight or you already have a long layover in your itinerary, here are some tips for making the most of your time.

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Make a realistic plan

For Jeff Jenkins, the travel expert and content creator behind Chubby Diaries, if he’s stopped somewhere interesting and has at least four hours to spare, “I’m definitely going,” he said. “I have to go experience it.”

Before you leave the airport, be sure you have enough time to get back, pass through security and make it to your gate for boarding.

Calculate how long it’ll take to get into the city center — or special restaurant, beach or whatever other tourist attraction you’d like to see between flights — along with how long it should take to get back and how long you need for check-in and security. The last part will vary depending on the airport, whether you’re flying domestic or international, and if you have to check a bag.

Then leave room for hurdles.

“Build in enough time in case there are long lines at bag check or security,” said Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes, adding that it’s also wise to see how long it takes to get to your gate. While it may take only five to 10 minutes at most airports, it could be up to 30.

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Better yet, organize a day-long layover

You can also plan your travel with a leisurely layover to enjoy a micro-trip.

When planning my Istanbul layover, I referred to the Scott’s Cheap Flights blog, which recommended that travelers have at least eight hours between flights to leave the airport. My original itinerary gave me seven, so I switched to a later flight to give me about 26 hours to play with.

Instead of looking for round-trip tickets, Austin Graff, author of By The Way’s local guide to Washington, D.C., shops for airfare using the “multi-city” option to find what he calls “long short layovers” of at least 12 hours.

The airline you’re flying may also offer a stopover program that makes it easy to add a layover to your travel plans, sometimes even at a discounted price. Icelandair, Play Airlines, Turkish Airlines, TAP Air Portugal and Emirates are some of the most notable.

Jenkins took a subsidized 14-hour layover in Doha through Qatar Airlines that included a free hotel room. He had the chance to explore the capital city, go to museums and see local traditions, like people breaking the fast during Ramadan.

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Make a map of options — but set priorities

The best way to have a terrible layover is to try to do too much. Don’t cram your small window scrambling to see every attraction in town; instead, pick a goal or two and leave yourself room to wander.

There was no way I could see everything in Istanbul in a day, so I picked a few aspects of local culture I wanted to experience.

The day before I landed, I made a reservation for a scrub at a Turkish bath (in the late afternoon, in case my flight was delayed). I picked one close to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque so I could walk by the famous attractions before my appointment.

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Once I was in the city, I realized I had enough time to see a soccer game that evening and bought last-minute tickets. The rest of the time I walked around, stopping when and where I wanted for sightseeing, eating and drinking, souvenir shopping and people watching.

For more efficient exploring, save points of interest in a Google Maps list. I plotted mine for Istanbul using the By The Way guide, plus tips from friends. Once I got into the city, I could see what was most convenient to visit during my time frame.

Keyes says having a Google Maps list ready helps him travel “serendipitously” while keeping a backup plan. You can spend the day wandering but pop open the map when you get hungry to see if you’re close to any restaurants you flagged.

Once you’ve added your points of interest, save the map for offline viewing if you’re worried about international connectivity or want to save your phone battery by going on airplane mode.

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Leave as much as you can behind

Even if you’re a light packer, you don’t want to lug a carry-on around during a layover.

Keyes says most airports have a luggage storage service where you can stash your suitcase for a small fee. I was staying the night at an airport hotel, so I could leave my duffel bag and heavy items behind.

But consider the essential items you may need during the day. That could be a portable charger for your phone, your passport or other forms of ID, medication you can’t live without, or necessary clothes for the elements.

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Find the best way to get into town (and back)

Deciding whether it makes sense to leave the airport often comes down to convenience. In a place notorious for traffic, it may be more stress than it’s worth to get into town.

Your safest bet is usually a place with good public transportation. When a train or subway is available to the airport, “it’s usually the most reliable — and cheapest — way to see the city,” Graff said.

Knowing he could take the train from the airport into Tokyo, Jenkins watched a few YouTube videos about how to navigate the system. He spent his seven-hour layover in Japan taking the train to Shibuya Crossing, where he found a restaurant overlooking the famous intersection.

The bus to get from the airport into Istanbul proper took about 45 minutes and cost $3. I took a taxi on the way back and arrived in a similar amount of time for $25.

It also cost me $50 for a visa to enter Turkey, a small price to pay for the incredible cultural experience of my layover. But Graff warns it’s not always affordable or simple to get into a country during an international trip. Check to see if there are any special requirements to leave the airport.

“In some cases, it’s not worth the time and money if a visa is required,” he said.

More travel tips

Vacation planning: Start with a strategy to maximize days off by taking PTO around holidays. Experts recommend taking multiple short trips for peak happiness. Want to take an ambitious trip? Here are 12 destinations to try this year — without crowds.

Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

Airport chaos: We’ve got advice for every scenario, from canceled flights to lost luggage. Stuck at the rental car counter? These tips can speed up the process. And following these 52 rules of flying should make the experience better for everyone.

Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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