Booking Layovers

Strategic booking of layovers can be a great way to add an additional destination to a trip, and can sometimes even save serious money. Layovers can also be a great way to break up a grueling travel day into more manageable chunks. However, they can be tricky to book and the logistics can be intimidating. I’ll do my best to break it down. Oh, and how am I defining a layover? To me, a layover is any time you actually leave an airport which you’re connecting through as part of a trip. That might mean popping into a city for a few hours, or even staying for a night or two.

Booking a Layover

Sometimes layovers are accidental or undesired. Sometimes, you need to seek them out. Generally I’ll start by looking at the common routes from my home city to whatever destination I’m thinking about. If there’s a nonstop option, I’ll almost always choose that. But if nonstop isn’t possible, I’ll start looking at where the common connections are. If any of them pique my interest, I’ll start thinking about whether my schedule can accommodate a layover.

It’s worth noting that sometimes flight schedules will essentially force a layover – airports have limited operating hours, and some flights run once a day or even less frequently. Most often, it means you’re landing late at night and then leaving the following morning, and in most cities you’re best off just getting a room at an airport hotel in those cases.

There are a few airlines, usually state-owned flag carriers, which offer special layover booking. These options will usually be available directly through the airlines’ website – TAP offers a Lisbon stopover with discounts on airfare and sights, Iceland Air is a popular option with stopovers in Reykavik, and many of the Gulf airlines offer layovers in Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Doha. Usually those won’t be the lowest cost options, but they make things very easy.

Let’s look at a real world example. I’d like to go from Minneapolis to Baku later this year. My cheapest option on Google Flights has a connection in Philadelphia and one in Doha. Hmm – Doha sounds like it could be a nice layover. But the default routing just gives me a couple hours on the ground.

So now we need to try some strategic booking. Switch your Google Flights from “round trip” to “multi city” and give it a new routing. I’ll explicitly add my layover city, and then adjust the dates to give myself a full day or two there before continuing on. The return will be a single routing (though you could do the same thing on the return). It’s important to note that this will still be giving you a single booking – you’re not booking separate tickets for each leg.

So, what do we get as a result? The price went up by a little over $100, but it’s otherwise the same routing. We’ll land in Doha on Thursday evening, and leave again on Saturday evening, giving us two nights and almost two full days on the ground. Sweet!

There a few things to keep in mind when playing with layover itineraries. First, timezones and travel time can get confusing! I usually have to write it out for myself because Google Flights just adds the “+1” note to indicate you’re landing on a different day. Second, as I’ll cover in the next section, each city is different in terms of how feasible a layover is, so be sure to do some research before committing.

Doing your Layover

First things first – do your research. Does your layover country require you to have a visa? Some countries over special transit visas which are good for 24 or 48 hours, but you’ll need to figure that out in advance. Qatar actually does offer a layover visa, though you still need to apply in advance.

Next, does your layover airport offer any special layover services? The airport in Doha actually offers a variety of organized tours specifically for folks doing a layover. Incheon airport in Seoul also offers these – free tours right from the airport.

Finally, start planning your visit, just like you would in any other destination. If you’re booking a hotel, pick somewhere cool – after all, it’s only a night or two, splurge on something you might not book for a longer stay. Figure out how you’ll get from the airport to the hotel, and then start looking at “24 hours in X” or “48 hours in X” articles – Google is awash in them.

If I’m doing a daytime layover without a hotel stay, I’ll always try to leave my luggage at the airport. There’s almost always somewhere which will hold your bags for a small fee – just pack your essentials in your daypack and enjoy not lugging your stuff all day.

Remember to keep an eye on the clock – give yourself at least three hours at the airport before your departure to retrieve your bags and get back through security and immigration.

On our last trip to Penang, we did a 36 hour layover in Hanoi on the way there, and a 14 hour layover in Seoul on the way back. Both were excellent and very easy to manage. Layovers in Europe are even easier, since you’ll already be in the Schengen zone and won’t need to deal with visas or immigration.

Travel Hack Layovers

If you’ve got time to kill or just enjoy browsing Google Flights, you can sometimes luck into dream itineraries which are low cost or include stopovers in even more desirable places by inserting other layover cities.

For example, my cheapest option from Minneapolis to Baku with a layover in Doha is $1355. And as much as I’d like to see Doha, maybe I could find an even cooler layover.

First, I’ll visit the website for my destination airport and see which cities have direct connections. In this case, most of the flights to Baku are from Russia which, ahem, isn’t super desirable right now. However, there are also daily flights from Milan, London, Istanbul, and Warsaw.

Next, I’ll tweak my multicity itinerary and see what pricing is like for any of those options. I stay away from the “separate ticket” bookings, since those options give you less recourse with the airlines if your plans get screwed up. Istanbul and London come up as options for only a few dollars more than my Doha itinerary, with about the same amount of travel time. And I’ve always wanted to see Istanbul …

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