As someone who has travelled a lot on business I have seen an awful lot of airports, which means I have drunk a lot of Starbucks coffee, sat in many soulless, generic bars, and browsed through many keyrings, hoodies and snowglobes bearing the name of whatever city the airport serves. I never even saw many of these cities, their names being mere stop-offs on the way to somewhere else – Dubai en route to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur en route to Australia… A few years ago I decided something needed to change – it seemed such a waste to technically be in a new place and not see it. So, rather than going for the shortest layover, if my schedule permits I now tend to choose the longest, and am quickly becoming an expert in seeing as much of a place as possible in a limited timeframe. Here are my tips:
- First, check that you’ll actually have time to leave the airport! The website Sleeping In Airports is a great resource for this. For example, 5 hours may seem long enough for a layover, and in some cities where the airport is very near to a place you might like to visit (Dubai, for example) it probably is, but in other places, once you’ve factored in going through immigration and customs, the journey time to the city and then doing it all again in reverse, it might not be worth the effort, and could jeopardise your making your onward flight.
- Secondly, check if you’ll actually be allowed out of the airport. Different countries have different visa rules, and it might be that, in order to go out and explore, you’ll need to apply for a visa in advance, which could be costly and ultimately probably not worth the effort. On the other hand, don’t assume you can’t leave the airport if it’s a country for which you’d normally need a visa: many countries nowadays are trying to entice tourists with single-entry, time-limited special visas (usually at a small cost) for those who in the past might have just sat around in the airport. China is probably the best example – in certain cities you can now enter for up to 72 hours by getting a transit visa on arrival. We did this in Beijing, and this turned out to be surprisingly simple.
- See if there are organised tours. If you’re anxious about navigating your way around an unfamiliar city in a short space of time, doing it with a guide could be a better option, and will probably take away the worry of getting back for you connection. Quite a few airports even offer free tours, and even if they don’t you might find a local tour company that will pick up and drop off at the airport.
- Work out the transport options in advance. If you’re short of time, you don’t want to be winging it on an unfamiliar metro system! Read up on the quickest way to and from your intended destination (public transport? Taxi?) and work out exactly where you need to get on and off. Most major layover cities (Bangkok, Seoul, Dubai etc.) have superb public transport systems that offer a more efficient and quicker route into town than sitting in bumper to bumper traffic.
- Work out what you want to do, and remember it’s not possible to do everything! Try to banish FOMO by remembering that the majority of people won’t leave the airport at all! This website has plenty of viable suggestions, or you might even want to look at my own suggestions for 24 hours in Beijing (easily the most adventurous layover I’ve done so far), which isn’t covered there, including our experience with immigration. Tips for Dubai can be found here.
I’m Polly, London-based author of travel blog www.tuesdayinbucharest.wordpre
For more travel tips – as well as some more humorous insights – see https://tuesdayinbucharest.wordpress.com/