Dear Savvy Traveller: How can I make the most out of a one or two-day layover?
You’re already halfway there! The biggest challenge most people face with the 24-hour layover is that they see it as “vacation robbery” instead of “travel opportunity”—but you’re already beyond that.
You even recognize the value in potentially expanding to a 48-hour break! I can’t wait to tackle this for you—but let me back up, and help bring everyone else to your speed, because most people are still leering at layovers from the perspective of “this is awful!” and we need to fix that first.
We also need to talk about stopovers, because your question hovers between layover and stopover. For the general travelling public, a layover refers to short stops on the way to a destination (usually up to four hours in domestic travel, and 24 hours in international, often called connecting flights). Longer-term breaks are stopovers, and these are the ones that truly afford you a chance to explore something additional to your primary itinerary.
You’ll generally have to plan for a 48-hour break, because this is always a stopover, and airlines like to charge more for this multi-city vacation, so they’re not likely to offer it as a standard option when you’re searching online. If you don’t want any added flight cost and you’re travelling internationally, look for that 24-hour layover and grab it.
The long layover is the sweet spot, and travellers should be hoping for them, not avoiding them. There’s no added cost here, so it’s truly a chance to see more of the world for the same budget.
Forget the notion you’re losing one of your vacation days, and be grateful that you’re gaining a bonus destination, even if it’s a city you never planned to visit. In fact, the chance to explore a city that’s not on your bucket list makes long layovers even more valuable. You were never going to spend the money on flights to this particular place, but there are surely at least a handful of worthwhile restaurants, museums, or even just a beautiful park there, so you’ll get to dip into these without investing a week of vacation time or an expensive flight.
This isn’t a day taken; it’s a day given!
OK, Kristin, hopefully everyone is on the same page as you now, so we’re ready to talk about how to spend a day or two in a layover city. Here are a few tips for great ways to maximize this travel benefit:
1. Find something off the wall. When I had a brief overnight layover in Dusseldorf, Germany, I took a cab to a residential neighborhood where an elderly woman converted the first floor of her house into an amazingly local restaurant. We didn’t speak any common languages, but that didn’t stop her from talking to me enthusiastically all evening. She brought me enormous servings of delicious I-don’t-know-what until I couldn’t eat anymore, and we laughed and laughed. If I was having a full vacation in Dusseldorf, I probably would have packed it with top attractions, but since I could only experience one meal before leaving, I felt the freedom to ignore the must-list and go for one hit-or-miss moment, which turned out to be one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.
2. You know that college roommate who lives faraway but always comments, “Miss you! We should get together sometime!” on your social media posts? Now is that time. A layover in that friend’s city is the perfect opportunity to catch up briefly without the commitment of figuring out how to spend a full weekend together. Find the coolest restaurant in town and invite your old roommate to check it out with you. Or, if the weather’s agreeable, ask Roomie for a quick walking tour from a local’s perspective.
3. Look for layover locales that have one thing you’ve always wanted to see. This is your chance to stop in for free, check out that one thing, and leave. There’s a house in Corfu I’ve always wanted to tour, but not much else that’s unique to this little Greek island, so it doesn’t warrant a weeklong holiday for me, but this sort of one-off is the perfect candidate for a layover day well spent. Drop into northern Norway for one night to hunt the ethereal northern lights. Stop in Arizona for a day and be humbled by the Grand Canyon. This is your chance to cross something major, but out of the way, off your list.
4. If you don’t get to choose the layover city and wind up somewhere random with no idea what to do, this is a prime time to check out group tours. Get online and find one with a theme you love at home (culinary, history, art, haunted). You’ll experience a few interesting parts of a new place without having to decide where to go on your own, and you’ll learn more about a topic you’re already into. You’ll also develop an intimate and unique perspective of this new place by exploring it through the lens of your tour topic.
5. Don’t stay at the airport hotel. I know it’s cheaper, and it’s so convenient, but it’s far from the actual city you’re visiting so you’ll be less likely to put your shoes on and walk out the door when the only neighbours are airplanes taking off and landing. Stay in town, where the sights and sounds encourage you to get outside and explore at least one thing in this new city.
And speaking of “one thing,” this may be the ultimate tip to keep in mind: Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to understand a new city in 24 or even 48 hours. That just can’t happen, so take a less-is-more attitude and aim to tackle one theme, one coveted meal, or even just one great vista in your one fine day.