Long Layover? In These Cities, That’s a Blessing
Having a long layover is usually the worst part of a trip. It means sitting in an uncomfortable airport chair for hours upon hours with nothing to do but roam around airport mall shops.
But some cities are cleverly taking advantage of this common travel woe to promote tourism. Rather than have people confined to the airport, they encourage tourists to leave and experience the destination with free or very cheap tours.
Keep these cities in mind the next time you're booking a flight (especially if you have to pass through Asia), so you can get a two-for-one trip.
If you find a Turkish Airlines flight with an absurdly long layover in Istanbul, book it immediately. The city offers what is perhaps the best layover program in the entire world.
Passengers with wait times of six to 24 hours can benefit from free city tours that include everything from transportation to meals and entrances to important landmarks.
I did the 10-hour, full-day tour, and we got free breakfast and lunch, went inside Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace Museum, passed through a bazaar and got to see other important places like the Blue Mosque from the outside. Our local tour guide was very knowledgeable and agreeable. Plus, if you have luggage, there is a storage place right next to where you check in for the tour.
And if your layover is even longer (mine was 19 hours), you'll still have plenty to do at Istanbul Airport. Besides shops and restaurants, the hub has an archaeology museum, hotels you can rent by the hour, spas with showers, art exhibitions and more.
In Istanbul for over 24 hours? Turkish Airlines passengers are eligible for a free one-day hotel voucher and steep discounts for stopovers of two or more days.
Changi Airport is consistently ranked as the best airport in the world, and I have to agree. It's so amazing, you think twice about leaving it. Expect things like a gorgeous butterfly garden, the largest indoor waterfall in the world, indoor rock climbing, a giant bouncing net, a hedge maze and a mirror maze, murals, a game center and Michelin-level meals.
But while you should leave some layover time for exploring the airport, you should also take advantage of the free Singapore tour, which is open to passengers traveling on any airline. Different tours cater to people with layovers between five and 24 hours. You'll be taken to places like Chinatown, Merlion Park and the amazing Gardens by the Bay.
If you'd rather have more freedom, Singapore is also a great place for a self-guided tour. I did this on a 14-hour layover and got to see (and taste!) most of the micro nation's highlights with plenty of time to go back to Changi and relax in the garden.
Seoul, South Korea
Incheon is another highly praised airport that offers incredible layover tours. You can choose between different options that focus on themes like history, culture, food and shopping. Depending on which tour you choose, you'll get to visit landmarks like the Palaces of the Joseon dynasty, traditional food markets, temples and futuristic malls.
If you don't have enough time to leave the airport, you can also do an in-airport cultural tour, where you'll wear a traditional Korean outfit (called a hanbok) and learn to make crafts like paper fans.
You can also take advantage of other entertainment options like the movie theater or try traditional food in one of the excellent airport restaurants that aren't overpriced.
If you're flying into Tokyo International Airport (aka Haneda Airport) and have at least five hours to spare between flights, go on a three-hour tour. You'll get a local volunteer guide who'll take you around the city to see temples, markets and other highlights.
Because the program is run by volunteers, you'll have to cover your own metro costs, but this is a small price to pay to see one of the most exciting cities in the entire world.
Taipei Taoyuan Airport isn't left behind by its neighbors. The Taiwanese capital also offers four-hour tours to people staying between seven and 24 hours. But make sure you reserve a spot as soon as you book your flight since each tour only has 12 seats, and only six of those can be reserved prior to arrival.
If you can't get one of the spots online, go to the meeting point as soon as possible because all the other seats are given out on a first-come, first-served basis. Expect to receive a free souvenir and transportation.
And if you can't get one of the coveted spots, you can always pay for a private layover tour.
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
No matter what airline you're using, you're entitled to a stopover tour while passing through the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Unlike the programs we've mentioned, this one isn't free, but prices start at about $40. If you have more time, you can pay more for cool experiences like a desert safari. Sure, you'll have to dish out some money, but the tours are definitely worth it.
And if you're flying Etihad Airways and have an overnight layover, you can stay in the city for absolutely free for one or two nights. Those who want to splurge can even get discounts on luxury hotels.
Since hosting the 2022 World Cup, Qatar is increasingly on the radars of tourists. If you're flying through Doha on Qatar Airways, check out the transit tours offered. As in Abu Dhabi, you'll have to pay for these tours, but the cheapest costs only about $10.
You can choose between cool experiences like a city tour or a desert and inland sea tour. And if you'd rather not leave the airport, there are also tours that explore this impressive air hub's entertaining amenities like art installations and golf simulators.
This large Central Asian nation is often ignored by tourists. But if you're curious to see its wonders and happen to fly on Air Astana, go ahead and book a stopover package for just $20.
The package includes a return transfer to the airport, hotel accommodation, free breakfast and a city tour. You'll get to see places of interest like the Baiterek Tower, the Astana Opera and the Hazret Sultan (one of Asia's largest mosques). Because the tour includes a hotel stay and breakfast, this is only for people who are spending at least one night in Kazakhstan's capital.
A similar program is available in the city of Almaty as well.
Honorable Mention: Hong Kong
Although Hong Kong doesn't have an official stopover program, we're including it on this list because it's an ideal place to do a layover tour. Trust me; I've done it.
Because of its size, you can visit the city's main spots within a day, especially since the airport is only about 24 minutes from the center. You'll have to cover transportation and landmark costs, which won't necessarily be low, but it's a small price to pay for getting to know this exciting destination.
Take the metro to Kowloon Island, and explore from there. And make sure to take a boat through Victoria Harbor into Hong Kong Island to visit the famous Victoria Peak.
Honorable Mention: Madrid, Spain
The only non-Asian city to appear on this list, Madrid doesn't provide any layover tours per se, but Iberian passengers can add a free stopover in the Spanish capital. If you take advantage of this program, you're entitled to benefits like a free two-day public transit card and discounts on tickets to the Prado Museum and hotels.
Can it compete with everything Asian airports provide? No, but it's one of the best stopover programs out there, so it deserves a mention.