Can you leave the airport during a layover?

For some people, a layover is a frustration that elongates an already long journey. For others, it’s potentially an opportunity to explore a city that they otherwise hadn’t planned on visiting.

It isn’t always the case, but some of the most common airports for layovers are at some of the world’s coolest cities – cities like Amsterdam, Singapore, Dubai, Munich, London, and Incheon.

So, can you leave the airport during a layover?

It depends, but it’s usually possible to do. But, before you jump on that open top tour bus, there are a couple of factors that you should consider.

Do I have enough time?

Travel is a very time-consuming process, both at the airport and when traveling to and from the airport. If you’re considering leaving the airport during a stopover, make sure you definitely have enough time for it.

How much time do I need?

  • Time for your flight to land, and for you to get off the plane and through the airport (~30 minutes, although it could be more if you need a visa).
  • Time to get from the airport to the city that you want to visit (varies, depending on the city in question).
  • Enough time to make sightseeing worthwhile (somewhere around 2 hours is usually the minimum, although you can cover a lot of ground by jumping on a sightseeing bus or go on a walking tour).
  • Time to get from the city back to the airport (varies).
  • Time to check-in, get through security, and to your gate (most international flights require a minimum of 2 hours, although 3 hours is typical for long-haul flights).

It’s also worth thinking about what time of day it will be when you arrive. If it’s late afternoon, for example, you may not get a lot of daylight hours to explore the city.

In the end, does that leave a comfortable window of time? Comfortable is the key word here as travel always seems to take longer than you initially think it will and it’s always good to leave some extra time to be on the safe side.

Will I need a visa?

Some countries require you to have a visa to enter them. Some visas are free and are issued on entry, others cost an insignificant amount and can be arranged online, and others need to be processed in advance of your arrival.

So, the first question is will you need a visa. If yes, the next question is: how difficult will getting that visa be?

If it’s issued on arrival, it’s usually a straight-forward process and the only thing that’s likely to slow you down is how busy the immigration section is. These visas are typically inexpensive (~$20 or less) and take only a few minutes to get you stamped.

Other visas have to be arranged in advance and, as well as being costly, may require you to visit an embassy as well. If this is the case, you’ll need to decide whether or not it’s worth it.

What about my luggage?

You won’t need to re-check your luggage on most domestic and international flights, especially if you’re flying with the same airline and if your stopover is considered a connection.

On some flights, you will need to re-check your luggage. If this is the case, check to see if the airport has lockers or a left luggage facility. Most do, allowing you to leave your luggage at the airport while you go sightseeing.

How to make the most of your layover

If you only have a few hours, the best bet is usually an open-top tour bus such as those operated by City Sightseeing. It’s touristy, but you’ll cover a lot more ground.

Alternatively, you may have enough time for a walking tour. Rather than viewing the city from a bus, walking tours allow you to get a feel for the city while visiting all of the key sights.

Some cities have special tours in place for layover tourists who are passing through. These tours are often free, and pick you up at the airport as well. Cities that have these schemes include Singapore, Taipei, Doha, Istanbul, Tokyo, Seoul, and Salt Lake City.

It’s not essential to go on a tour of some sort, though. While a bus sightseeing tour may make it easier to get around cities that are spread out, a walking tour won’t allow you to cover any extra ground. However, it does mean that your time will be used efficiently and you don’t run the risk of getting lost and wasting valuable time.

Food is also an important consideration. While cuisine is a big part of another country’s culture, a meal in a restaurant can easily take up an hour or two of valuable sightseeing time. The best compromise is usually to opt for street food (a Banh mi in Vietnam, a Cornish pasty in England, or a kebab in Munich). It’s fast, but it’s also traditional.

Option B: Stay at the airport

If you don’t have enough time, the other option is to stay at the airport while you wait for your connecting flight.

  • Go shopping: Depending on the airport itself, the airport can be a great place to indulge in a little retail therapy, particularly for designer goods like clothes, luxury watches, electronics, perfume, and alcohol.
  • Check into an airport lounge: If the thought of a layover in an airport departure lounge has you breaking out in hives, consider checking into an airport lounge. Airport lounges are separate, paid-entry lounges which are quieter (usually) and more comfortable than the normal departure lounge. As well as free Wi-Fi and a more comfortable place to sit, most also include food and drinks.
  • Work out: Airport gyms are a relatively new phenomenon, but they are starting to become more and more commonplace. A quick workout in between flights will not only help you burn off the calories off your airline meal, but it’ll also help you to relax and get the blood flowing in your body again. Dubai, Munich, San Francisco, Singapore, and Toronto Pearson are just a few of the airports that have airport gyms.
  • Sleep: Many airports have hotels that can be booked by the hour – perfect for catching up on a few hour’s sleep in between flights. Amsterdam Schiphol and London Heathrow both have Yotels, which can be booked by the hour. You’ll also find transit hotels at any major international airport, including Dubai, Singapore, and Incheon.
  • Eat: If all else fails, why not just go for dinner somewhere. While airport food is generally poor quality, most larger airports do have at least one good restaurant in them. Some restaurants – like Plane Food at London Heathrow, Porta Gaig at Barcelona, and Altitude at Geneva International Airport – are even run by Michelin-star chefs.

Have you ever left the airport during a layover? Let us know your experiences by leaving a comment below. 

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