Most airlines will allow you to stop in a city between flights for up to 24 hours without paying extra, whether this is on a revenue or award ticket. They consider this more of a transit than stopover so do not penalise you. Some airlines even encourage you to do this by offering free accommodation, transfers, and activities, in order to grow tourism in their home country.
This has allowed me to visit cities I had never even considered visiting in the past. I love this feature and where time and schedules permit, always try and work this into my travels.
If anything I wish airlines allowed up to 48 hours rather than 24, as I’ve barely scratched the surface in some cities!
I’ve had some wonderful stopovers and some ‘challenging’ ones, but here are some tips to add some extra adventure to your next trip.
Choosing your city
Unless you have a particularly complex itinerary, your stopover options will likely be at the major hub of the airline you are flying, so your options may be limited.
Some cities just work better than others, and there are some key factors to consider in choosing your city.
Arrival and departure time
Where the flight schedules permit, try and have as close to 24 hours between flights as possible. Some airlines may allow you to stay an hour or two more (Qatar allowed 27 hours on a recent revenue booking).
Everyone will have a different opinion on the best arrival and departure time, but my personal favourite is to arrive on a long-haul flight in the late morning and depart at the same time the next day. This allows you to get to your hotel, hopefully check in an hour or two early, possibly have a quick nap and then explore the city over the course of the afternoon and evening.
If I’m only stopping over for 12 hours and the flight times mean I’ll arrive at 9pm and leave at 9am the next morning, I’ll usually not bother exploring the city and just opt for a convenient airport hotel for a proper sleep.
Distance from the airport to the city
I had a wonderful stopover in Taipei, but the airport bus took an hour each way. When you have less than 24 hours and you need to spend at least two hours just travelling to and from the city this can really eat into your stopover time!
Similarly, Tokyo Narita is a long way from Tokyo so I stayed in Narita Town, which I did find quite charming (and very Japanese!).
Pick cities where the airport is either close to the CBD, like Boston, or has a very quick connection to the city, like Shanghai’s Maglev train.
Ease of getting around
Some cities are just made for stopovers and Singapore immediately comes to mind. It has been a favourite stopover choice for Australians heading to Europe for decades. It’s clean, everyone speaks English, it’s well-signed, always warm, has excellent transport, and even the sidewalks are wide and comfortable to walk on.
On the other hand, Seoul, while a fascinating city, was incredibly overwhelming for a stopover and I hardly had time to do anything because I was just trying to navigate the enormous metropolis. I wouldn’t dream of a stopover in somewhere like Beijing!
There are certainly ways to reduce the cost of your stopover. You can arrive in the morning and depart again that evening, saving on accommodation as you sleep on the plane. Or choose those cities where the airline or tourism commission will pick up most of the tab in order for you to visit.
I loved my stopover in Doha last year and hardly spent anything. Or just pick a cheap city to stop in.
Bangkok was a lot of fun for a cheap and cheerful blur of tuk-tuks, night markets, and cocktails.
What to do there
As much or as little as your like. The energy of exploring a new city means I’m full of energy when I land and I go pretty hard — in Taipei I was on my feet for 12 hours, and was exhausted afterwards, but it was completely worth it. I usually try and do at least the following three things every stopover:
- Eat a local meal at a local restaurant/market;
- Do a local tourist activity such as visiting an attraction; and
- Wander around with no specific destination in mind. I particularly enjoy this either early evening as a city transforms into night. Or early morning before the city wakes up.
The X-factor: visas
Make sure you can actually enter the country you are planning to stop in! This might sound obvious, but if you can’t you’ll be stuck with a very long, uncomfortable and boring day airside at the airport!
Many countries offer transit-type visas at no cost but some countries, like Turkey or Russia, may impose a fairly substantial fee even if you are there for less than 24 hours. My stopover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was a comedy of errors from start to finish (I will save that for a separate post!) but I was slugged a US$50 visa on entry fee which in hindsight, wasn’t really worth it, given the experience I had there.
Lots of people just want to get straight to their destination as quickly as possible. But where I have the realistic opportunity, I love exploring a new city on my way.