I used to avoid a long layover at (almost) any cost. Now, I look for them! In fact, I even search for those formerly dreaded overnight breaks.
Why? I’ve discovered some airports, in conjunction with national airlines and tourism boards, offer free or ridiculously cheap layover tours (also called “transit tours”) as a way to promote future tourism.
On international flights, stopovers are generally overnight stays between your departing and final destinations. Layovers are shorter -- anything from a crazy-making one-hour sprint between gates to several laborious hours stuck in the airport searching for the best restaurant or Wi-Fi hotspot. But with these tempting layover tours, a long gap between flights offers a great way to whet your appetite for a future visit to a new city.
Here’s a sampling of my favorite layover tours.
1. Seoul (ICN): Cultural And Shopping Tours
Shop, sightsee, pray, or play during one of eight tours offered to passengers transiting through ICN. Visit Yonggungsa or Jeondeungsa temple, tour Songdo Hanok Village’s traditional homes or Gyeongbokgung Palace and pedestrian-friendly Insa-dong, shop at Triple Shopping Street, trendy Hongdae Street, Myeong-dong shopping district, or the infamous Namdaemun Market, or relive the glory of the 2002 FIFA World Cup by visiting Asia’s largest football stadium -- complete with a tour through the locker and practice rooms.
I toured Gwangmyeong Cave, a former gold mine where Koreans were forced into military service by the Japanese. The mine later sheltered refugees during the Korean War and more recently stored salted shrimp. Now, it’s an arts and entertainment complex featuring an underground theater, colored light displays, large aquariums, and a wine cellar! Tagged onto this transit tour is a stop at the outdoor sculpture garden of the Gwangmyeong Upcycle Art Center, which features innovative outdoor furniture made completely of recycled materials such as tires and vinyl records.
These free tours range from one to five hours long and are available to passengers flying on any airline who transit through ICN for 6 to 24 hours from an international destination to another international destination. You can book online, but if the website indicates the tour’s sold out, show up anyway: 50 percent of the available spaces are held for walk-ups. Transportation from the airport is via comfortable tour busses accompanied by English-speaking guides. Leave carry-on luggage securely at the tour counter.
2. Istanbul (IST): Turkish Meal And A City Tour
Who says there’s no free lunch? Or breakfast, for that matter? When flying Turkish Airlines recently, I deliberately scheduled a long layover in Istanbul so I could take advantage of the airline’s free city tour, which includes breakfast or lunch! (I got both, as my tour ran from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
Tour itineraries vary by day and draw from a list of 39 attractions, including the Blue Mosque and the Spice Bazaar, and they change every few months. But every tour includes a meal, courtesy of Turkish Airlines!
These free tours range from 3.5 to 9.5 hours long and are available only to Turkish Airlines passengers who transit through IST for 6 to 24 hours from one international destination to another international destination. Apply directly at the Hotel Desk in the International Arrival Hall; no pre-booking required. Transportation is via a comfortable tour bus accompanied by English-speaking guides. Leave carry-on luggage securely at the office of the company that conducts the tours.
3. Singapore (SIN): 3 Unique Tours
I did a double-take when the Singaporean customs official handed me back my passport by wishing me a happy birthday. The customs official? I’m used to them frowning and appearing to invent ways to prevent me from entering their country.
Changi Airport realizes its customs officers are the first experience a visitor has when arriving in Singapore. So, they’ve been trained in hospitality as part of their jobs. In my case, the official noticed my birthday was the following day and greeted me warmly.
This was just the beginning of another good airport layover experience. Changi Airport offers three layover tours for transiting passengers. The Jewel Tour showcases the airport’s spectacular attractions: The world’s tallest indoor waterfall, Forest Valley, Canopy Park, and the Singapore Coffee Museum. The City Sights Tour features stops at Merlion Park and Gardens by the Bay. I took the Heritage Tour, which included guided walks through the Colonial District, Chinatown, Little India, and Kampong Glam (the Malay-Arab section).
These free tours are 2.5 hours long and are available to passengers flying on any airline who transit through SIN for 5.5 to 24 hours from one international destination to another international destination. Apply directly at the Free Singapore Tour Desk in the transit area before clearing customs; no pre-booking required. However, passengers flying Singapore Airlines or SilkAir may pre-book through the airline directly. Transportation is via a comfortable tour bus accompanied by English-speaking guides. Leave carry-on luggage securely at the Left Baggage Counters in the airport, as no luggage is allowed on the tour bus.
4. Addis Ababa (ADD): Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony And City Tour
Partake in a coffee ceremony, visit Ethiopia’s national museum, and shop at local craft stores during Ethiopia Airline’s new city tour for transiting passengers.
This free tour is three hours long and is available to passengers flying Ethiopian Airlines who transit through ADD for six to eight hours. The tour leaves at 8:30 a.m. Find transit tour staff in the transfer area, or find your way to the Free Transit Tour Information desk. You must contact Ethiopian Airlines before traveling to get a voucher for the tour.
5. Taipei (TPE): Half-Day City Tour
Dip your toe into Taiwan during one of two half-day tours when transiting through Taipei. The morning tour takes you to Sanxia Old Street to stroll a traditional district, Qingshui Zushi Temple, and Yingge, Taiwan’s pottery capital, home to 800 ceramic artists.
The afternoon tour visits the iconic Taipei 101 building and the National Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and Park.
These free tours are 4 hours long and are available to any passengers who transit through TPE for 7 to 24 hours from one international destination to another international destination. Tours leave at 8:30 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. Register online at least 14 days before your flight, or book on the day of your layover at the Tourist Service Center in the Arrival Lobby of either Terminal 1 or 2. Transportation is via tour bus. Leave carry-on luggage securely at the Left Baggage Counters in the airport, as no luggage is allowed on the tour bus.
6. Nairobi (NBO): Safari And A Meal
Go wild on a safari while transiting through Nairobi on Kenya Airways! For $200 USD, you get a four-hour personalized game drive, free admission to Nairobi National Park, home to endangered black rhino, lions, leopards, cheetahs, buffalo and giraffes, and either breakfast or lunch in the park.
The safaris are available only to Kenya Airways passengers who transit through NBO for at least eight hours. Book the safari in advance when you purchase your ticket by adding “KQ Go Wild Safaris” via the “Choose Services” page on Kenya Airways’ website. Booking must be made at least 24 hours before arriving in Nairobi. Note: The fee does not include the cost of a transit visa ($21 USD).
7. Xiamen (XMN): Hop-On, Hop-Off Tour Bus Ticket
Tour at your own pace with a free ticket for a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing tour bus, compliments of Xiamen Airlines. Located on China’s southeast coast across from Taiwan, Xiamen is famous for its seascape, art scene, cat street, and elevated cycling path. On your self-guided tour, visit the Taiwan Folk Cultural Village, the Hulishan Fort, and 15 other attractions. Pick up your free ticket at the Transfer Counter on the first floor in Terminal 3.
To be eligible for this freebie, both legs of your flight must be ticketed on Xiamen Airways, and one leg must include an international flight. Your layover must be between 4 and 24 hours long. Some fare classes are excluded. The sightseeing bus runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and stops at XMN.
Finding Layover And Stopover Programs
These programs aren’t easy to find. A good tip-off to a possible promotion is seeing a significantly cheaper routing that includes a long layover, particularly if that long layover is in the airline’s home country. Some of these programs are listed on the airlines’ websites, some on the airport website, and others on tourism boards’ websites. Google “layover + [city],” “stopover + [city],” “’transit tour’ + [city],” and each of those terms with the airport names to see what you find.
Tips For Making Your Layover Or Stopover A Success
Consider the weather and activity offered. Usually, layover tours involve walking after being bused from the airport. If you, like a recent group of tourists I met in January, are traveling from Manilla to Los Angeles through snowy Seoul, for example, you might want to pack warm shoes, socks, and a coat that would not ordinarily be on your packing list between two hot destinations if you want to participate in a layover tour.
Be on time. The tours are scheduled to get everyone back to the airport in time to clear security and catch their flights. If you are late, you will be stuck with an unnecessary (and likely expensive) taxi fare back to the airport.
Think about your travel style and needs. If you really can’t sleep on a red-eye, perhaps an all-day city-tour during an eight-hour layover is not for you -- especially if you want to land at your destination somewhat rested. Instead, consider scheduling the tour on your return when you might be traveling through fewer time zones to reach the layover city. For example, I recommend anyone traveling on Turkish Air from the U.S to Africa or Europe schedule their layover tour during their return travel.
Check visa requirements. You will be required to clear customs before taking advantage of a tour. I’m a U.S. citizen and in order to take the Istanbul city tour, for example, I needed to apply for a visa to Turkey, which cost $75 for a six-month visa. Since I was planning on returning to Turkey in a few months, the cost was worth it. Some programs include a visa waiver.
Don’t assume airline personnel will know about the layover tour. Especially if the tour is run by a local tourism board and caters to tourists flying all airlines, your cabin crew will likely be clueless. Download and print as much detailed information as you can from the website where you made your reservation. Especially in countries where little English is spoken, having a print-out will help you navigate.