Earlier this year, I had a choice: I could get to Southeast Asia quickly, or add a little travel time and have a nine-hour layover in Sydney. I’d never been to Australia and knew that it was unlikely I’d get there again soon. That made the choice easy.
With nine hours on the ground, I had about six to explore the city. I only got a taste of what Sydney had to offer, but it was just enough to make me want to come back.
Long layovers can give you a chance to experience a new city, country, or even continent on your checklist. And while these short trips might not be a preferred way to see every city you want to visit, thinking about it as a bonus trip can often make it worth the added time. Some companies are even capitalizing on this very concept.
If it’s a four-hour layover, you can’t do much with it. And if it’s in an airport far from the city center, even ten hours might be useless. However, there are many times you’ll find a layover of six to 24 hours that is well worth the stop.
But before you book, there are a few things you’ll want to consider. Here are some tips to make the most of your bonus trip.
Work out the logistics ahead of time.
To get the most out of a long layover, you’ll need to ensure that you aren’t stressed during it. The best way to do this is plan ahead of time.
You’ll want to prepare not just for whatever activities you want to do at your bonus destination, but also for all the logistics you’ll need to make them happen. First to see if it is worth the potential extra time and money for the trip, and second to make sure that you can start enjoying yourself as soon as you hit the ground (literally). Which brings me to…
Get a visa (if you need one).
It isn’t uncommon for a country you are entering for even a short amount of time to require you to have a visa. In Australia, you need a visa for any stay over 8 hours. So, just like I would have needed to if I was staying a week, I had to go online and purchase my visa.
This was something I overlooked on my trip, and it could have ruined my whole plan. But thankfully, Australia’s system is quick and easy. I had my visa in about 15 minutes.
I strongly recommend researching this information before you purchase your ticket, as purchasing a visa can add additional costs to your trip. For me, the $130 AUD was worth the chance to visit Sydney.
Figure out transportation and transit time.
Before you commit to a long layover, make sure you’ll have time to get out of the airport and explore. Expect to lose three hours (or more) between passport control, transit, and returning on time. This means that — unless you have at least five or six hours to play around with — it might not be worth it at all. The last thing you want is to do is add time and expense onto a trip and not have it be worth it.
Depending on the city, you may need as many as 20 hours to make it of value. There are places like Los Angeles, where distance is judged by how long it takes to get somewhere — not actual mileage. Or like Istanbul, where you’re lucky if you can get to the airport from the city center in under 90 minutes — even though it’s just a couple miles away. Don’t be fooled one way or the other by mileage.
It’s important to head into your layover with a plan. Forums (like the Wanderful Facebook group) are a great place to start. Ask people who’ve done it before or are local. The airport’s transportation website will also likely provide information on the best way to get into the city and how long it will take you.
If you’re considering taking public transit, ensure it’s running when you arrive and when you need to get back. It might not be if you land late at night or have to be at the airport early. If you’re traveling on a holiday, check the specific hours. I nearly missed a flight once on Christmas morning in London because the Tube opened later than usual and I hadn’t thought to check its hours beforehand.
If public transit isn’t an easy option, check whether you can use a ridesharing app or grab a taxi. You’ll want to plan ahead of time which you’re choosing to take, how long it will be, and what it will cost you.
Store your luggage.
Even if you are a carry-on traveler, it’s still easier to enjoy those few hours out of the airport without a large bag to lug around. If you have a checked bag or two, this becomes a necessity.
Look into the airport you’re visiting and see what luggage storage options they have. Most international airports have a company or two that will store your luggage for a small fee. Plus, if you know where to head when you land, you’ll save some time wandering around.
Get a place to stay.
If you’re staying long enough, you might want a place to sleep. While staying out all night and grabbing a few hours sleep in the airport before your flight sounds adventurous and fun, in reality, it can be miserable. If you can find an affordable hotel or hostel (ideally close to the airport), consider if it’s worth the bed for even just a couple hours.
Knowing you have a safe place to go back to on an overnight layover can be a source of comfort as you plan your trip. As much as you want to have a blast out and exploring the city, if you’re tired or out of things you’d like to do, it’s a good idea to have a place to call home for the night.
Plan a loose itinerary, but not too much.
While I am a big fan of playing it by ear, on a long layover, that may not be the best way to go. You don’t need to plan every minute of your trip, but you’ll want to have a good idea of what you want to do, where you want to go, and how long things might take.
Having two goals in Sydney was easy to check off in my six hours of exploring. I even ended up fitting in a few more small stops from my list, but they were done one by one when I realized I had enough time to catch the train back to the airport. If you want to see everything I was able to do or are planning your own bonus trip to Sydney, you can read all about it here.
Choose your top attractions.
What do you most want to experience in the city? Is it a major landmark? A specific activity? A type of food you’re dying to try? Whatever excites you the most about a city should be at the top of your list. Do some research so you know where to head once you land.
In Sydney, I knew I wanted to tour the Opera House and get out on the water. I was able to work both of these by knowing where they were, how long they’d take me, and that they were my priority.
Once you’ve picked your top attraction or two, don’t add much more onto your planned itinerary. It’s definitely a good idea to have some extra stops in mind if you do end up having time, but don’t try and pack too much in. You’ll want some wiggle room to get you back to your flight on time.
Pick where you want to eat.
Many of us travel all over the globe with the main focus on trying different cuisines. Your long layover shouldn’t be any different. Live like Anthony Bourdain and look into what cuisines or restaurants you can’t miss on your trip. Then check which places are near those key attractions you’ve picked. You can also look for foodie-specific activities that might fit your interests and time limit.
You might only hit one or two places to eat on your layover, so you’ll want to make a choice that allows you to get a taste of what the city has to offer. This will also allow you to plan where you want to eat around the attractions that are your priority. The last thing you want to do is have your one meal be disappointing.
I didn’t do this in Sydney and, while I ended up with some good fish and chips on the waterfront, I also felt like I fell into a tourist trap. I left feeling like I would have done better if I’d planned a little more.
Find fun ways to keep active.
You’ll also want to find ways to stay active between your two flights. If the flights are only small hops, you might not mind sitting a lot during your layover. But if it’s between a 13-hour and six-hour flight, you’re likely going to want to stretch your legs.
Whether it’s finding an area of the city you want to walk in or a unique activity that will keep you on your feet and moving around, it’s helpful to minimize the time you spend sitting during your long layover.
Consider taking a pre-planned layover trip.
If you aren’t so sure about figuring out transportation on your own during your long layover, there are many cities in which you can find pre-arranged tours to take. These can be done through the airports themselves or even certain airlines.
A few airports that offer free tours include Narita in Tokyo, Taoyuan in Taipei, and Ataturk in Istanbul. On top of this, in most major cities, you’ll find companies that offer tours designed specifically for tourists with long layovers. While they aren’t always cheap, they can be a good deal when you factor in transportation, luggage services, and activities.
Stay comfortable, have fun, and remember that you can always come back.
My #1 piece of advice for a long layover is to stay comfortable with your own limits. Whether that means you want to be back at the airport by a certain time, you have to stick to a budget, or you decide to head to your hotel early, do what you need to do.
It’s easy to stress out when between flights, and that can ruin any experience you’re able to fit in. Have a great time exploring your bonus city by pre-planning with the tips here, but also accept the fact that you won’t fit in every single thing the city has to offer.
If all goes well you’ll, have a great trip to a new place, and end up daydreaming of your next excuse to head back.
I’ll be honest: Before I visited, Sydney wasn’t too high on my “must see” list. But now that I’ve gotten a taste of what the city has to offer, getting back there and exploring more of Australia is near the top!