Quick Pit Stop: How to Make the Most of a Short Layover
October 11, 2023
Typically, we dread layovers. They can be these awkward three-hour limbo periods when you experience neither the comfort of home nor the thrill of being at your destination. You walk idly through a clinically lit airport. You choose from “mall food court” style dining options. Maybe you strike up a nice conversation at the airport bar, but is it really worth the $12 beer or $18 appetizer? Not really. At worst, layovers can be a stain on an otherwise wonderful trip abroad.
At best, however, a layover can be something worth treasuring. It can be like a second trip, a short vacation slipped neatly inside your overall trip like a Russian nesting doll. It can be an untethered, unhurried, whirlwind whistle-stop tour of an exciting city.
When possible, we always aim for that best-case scenario. Who wants to waste precious vacation time refreshing a social media feed in a stuffy airport when they can use the time effectively? In this article, we explore how to turn your boring layover into an engaging mini-trip.
Grab your best travel clothes from Unbound Merino, download your boarding pass, and let’s make the most out of an unideal situation.
Check Out This (Completely Biased) List of The Best Layover Cities
To start, understand that not all layover cities are created equally. We won’t delve into our least favorite layover cities (that seems unnecessarily mean). We just believe that certain places don't lend themselves well to a short excursion. The airports are too far or too poorly connected from the main urban center; the city’s sites of interest are spread out across long distances, making rapid-fire sightseeing a challenge; the airport itself leaves much to be desired, etc.
What we can reveal is a totally biased rundown of our favorite layovers. A couple years ago, we wrote a list of the 10 best layover cities in the world, which you should check out if you haven’t booked your trip yet. Our picks in 2023 are mostly the same. Here are a few, alongside short descriptions of what we like:
- Singapore: Fantastic airport (routinely tipped as the best airport in the world); fast, frequent transit options into town; a dense city center with plenty to do and see; a world-class hawker food scene that handily trumps any airport restaurant.
- Reykjavik: A common layover city between North America and Europe; gorgeous scenery right out of the gate; a charming city center that immediately immerses you in the home culture; some weirdly fantastic hot dog stands for a quick bite.
- Amsterdam: Easy, quick transit options into town; a dense collection of museums, cultural sites and galleries; lovely strolls along the canals; whatever you do, do not absent-mindedly bring anything illicit back to the airport!
- Istanbul: The best airport in the entire Mediterranean region (we said it); immersive, culturally rich downtown core; intoxicating bazaars and markets; amazing street food, like the world-famous doner kebab; serene walks along the Bosphorus waterway.
- Dallas/Fort Worth: One of the world’s busiest airports by airplane traffic, so it comes up frequently in layovers; a prime location for experiencing Texas culture; great museums and gardens; plenty of options for sampling traditional BBQ.
Other layovers we love include Dubai, Toronto, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Cairo. Then again, if you read another publication’s list of the best layover cities, you might get different results. At the end of the day, choose a place that interests you.
Understand the Mechanics of a Layover
Before we explore how to make the most of your layover, we need to do some housekeeping. First, understand that you can book trips with layovers in mind, and that it’s often more economical to do so.
Second, know that it’s completely within your rights to leave the airport at any time during your layover. We would just caution that you leave an adequate amount of buffer time for your return to the airport and passage through security. We don’t want you missing a flight because of us! We recommend working out the transit times to and from the airport in advance – using Google Maps to hash out generous departure and arrival times.
And lastly, research visa requirements for your layover country. If the government requires an entry visa in advance, you’ll need to procure that visa (waiting out the authorization period) before you fly. Otherwise, you’re stuck in the airport. Some countries do visas on arrival, but depending on your layover's duration, the time it takes for that bureaucratic stamp to hit your passport might cut significantly into your stay.
If You Need to Book a Layover, Stay Out of the Dreaded 3- to 4-Hour Zone
If you’re booking a ticket explicitly for a layover, try to “MacGyver” your way into a respectable layover time. Often, we’re at the mercy of the algorithm when finding suitable, inexpensive flights. But you can fiddle with the settings on search sites like Google Flights, Expedia or FlightHub to display long or short layovers. Likewise, you can manually scroll through options to find a layover and duration that fits.
Essentially, we recommend staying out of the three- to four-hour zone. It’s too short for a meaningful trip into the city. It’s too long to stay comfortably cooped up in an airport. It’s like the reverse Goldilocks: Just not right.
Most of this article is dedicated to layovers over four hours, where you can reliably leave the airport. But toward the end, we include a section devoted to making the most of an airport stay.
Credit: HelloDavidPradoPerucha Via Freepik
Pack Light to Hit the Ground Running
Getting the most from a short layover involves speed and agility. You don’t want a bulky suitcase weighing you down as you snake through Istanbul bazaars or wind along Amsterdam canals. You want to feel unencumbered and free.
We’ve long been vocal proponents of packing light as a way to travel freely, inexpensively and conveniently. And for us, packing light always starts with merino wool. Breezy summer options like our merino wool shirts for men and tank tops for women fit snugly in a carry-on bag. And because they’re odor-resistant and versatile, you only need one or two articles for a whole trip. (Seriously).
Meanwhile, our cold weather clothes – like hoodies and sweaters, leggings and long-sleeves – are both insulating and breathable. That means you can wear them through the warm airport and into the cold city without ever worrying about feeling uncomfortable.
Freshening up is a short investment in having a good time on your layover. Long-haul flights are notorious for leaving you feeling icky. Our bodies thrive at around 50% relative humidity, but airplanes run at around 20%, leaving your skin feeling either overly dry or overly oily. (Read more about the science here).
In any case, you probably won’t feel your best when you touch down in your layover city. Before bee-lining into town, take a moment to leverage the free airport amenities. Give your face a thorough wash in the bathroom, change your clothes in a stall, brush your teeth, blot your skin, apply deodorant – do whatever you must to reset. Likewise, wear breathable, sweat-wicking clothing on the flight to stave off sweat and stay comfy for your layover.
You can read more about staying fresh while you travel in the guide linked here.
Weigh the Cost and "Time Cost" of Transportation
If you’re heading into town, consider a cost-benefit analysis of public transportation vs. cabs/rideshares. Ideally, you’re looking for the quickest option that won’t break the bank. The clock starts ticking on your brief mini-vacation the moment you deplane, so every minute counts.
If, for instance, the train into town costs $17 and takes 45 minutes, whereas a cab costs $30 but cuts the transit time in half, we’d be inclined to choose the latter option. However, if you’re in a place like London where the Heathrow Express gets you to Paddington Station in less time for less money than a rideshare, the train’s a no-brainer.
Pre-Plan Sites and Businesses of Interest
We’re typically the freewheeling type of travelers who prefer a heavy dose of spontaneity. That said, when we’re on a tight timeline, we like to structure our trip so we aren’t fumbling in the dark. The last thing you want is to get off the train at a random station to find yourself in a quiet, residential part of the city with nothing much going on.
If you’re fitting a mini-vacation into a layover, pre-planning is the way to go. Make a running list of all the landmarks, areas, businesses and restaurants that interest you. You can achieve this by using the “Save to list” function on Google Maps, creating a list called “Places I want to go.”
Be indiscriminate with your list, pinning as many locations as your heart desires. In the next section, we focus and curate that list to form a tight itinerary.
Credit: jofreepik Via Freepik
Create a Tight, Geographically Concentrated Itinerary
Here’s the thing about layover trips: You can’t really spread out geographically. You need to localize your attention to one, maybe two adjoining neighborhoods. (This applies to your average seven- or eight-hour layover; 24-hour layovers are a whole different beast).
Now that you have a comprehensive (if unwieldy) list of interesting places, you can look for geographic hotspots – areas with a concentrated number of pins. Then, it’s just a matter of choosing the most compelling walkable area.
For instance, let’s say you have a layover in Toronto and created a list of pins spread out across the vast city. Still, you notice a high density of interesting spots in the Kensington and adjacent Chinatown areas. Well, that’s your itinerary. You explore that area, tackling as many pins as possible. And if you have time left over, you widen your scope slightly to include adjoining neighbourhoods like the Fashion District or the Annex.
Explore Your Itinerary on Foot
We recommend exploring your itinerary on foot for a few reasons. After spending several hours strapped to an airplane seat, your body needs that movement to stay in tip-top shape; a brisk walk during your layover visit can help you feel better once you arrive at your final destination.
More importantly, exploring a city on foot is the finest way to immerse yourself. You don’t have much time to pack in the authentic “city experience,” but walking gets you the closest. You get to see how average people go about their day, catch some unexpected sights, and generally get a feel for the locale.
If you plan on exploring your itinerary on foot during the fall or winter months, pack accordingly. Pack a warm pair of merino wool leggings or pants and our ultra-popular men's travel hoodie. Our travel-tested clothing – with its robust insulating capabilities and unparalleled comfort – can withstand the rigors of even the briskest city walks.
Making the Most of an Airport Stay
Not all layovers can become mini-vacations into the city. Some are too short. Some airports are too far from the city for a feasible trip into town. Some security lines are so congested that returning in time for your connecting flight is a gamble.
In these cases, you have two options. You can accept your dull and monotonous fate, refreshing your feeds, and occasionally peering at the flight board in the hopes that they’ve miraculously pushed forward your boarding time. Or you can seize the opportunity to relax, socialize, freshen up and treat yourself.
First, put on your best Merino clothes. Wear some comfortable travel pants, a breezy Merino shirt and an optional sweater. We weave our travel clothes from superfine Merino wool so they’re soft, silky and light.
Next, consider shelling out a one-time fee for the airport lounge. If you had headed into the city, chances are you would have dropped at least $50 to $100 on transportation, food and other miscellany. By contrast, the $30 to $50 airport lounge fee is a small investment in a relaxing, luxurious stay in. Make the most of the free snacks, free bar (in some places), fast WiFi, comfortable seating, and (at least by airport standards) deluxe washrooms.
Finally, do whatever makes you happy. Sometimes, we’re so amped about our final destination that we use our layover to research things to do and see. Other times, we want nothing more than a comfy chair and a stiff cocktail. And when we’re feeling in the social mood, we might even unwind by striking up a lighthearted conversation with a stranger. There are no rules at the airport (except the strict rules they enforce).
Layovers have long held a reputation as “dead” time. We believe that when you’re traveling, every second counts. Reclaim the layover with the straightforward advice above.