Airport Layovers Suck! Discover Fun Things to Do Outside the Terminal
Since we moved out to Australia from the UK we’ve completed many long haul flights between the two countries.
I completed the last trip alone, and it involved a long stop in Singapore. As I explored this vast airport, I started to wonder if I was actually able to leave.
It turns out you can leave the airport during a layover, even during international legs, something I’m thinking about doing a bit more to add extra destinations to my next trips.
In this post I share with you everything I learned when I researched the topic.
Can You Leave The Airport During a Layover?
Yes, you can leave the airport during a layover, provided your passport allows you visa-free entry to the country you’re in, and you have enough time between flights. In fact, some people intentionally book flights with longer layovers (which are often cheaper) so they get to see a new city.
Types of Layovers
There are several types of layovers to consider.
The first type is a standard layover, which is a scheduled stopover that is less than 24 hours long. Standard layovers occur on both domestic and international flights, and they range between three and 24 hours.
There is then the extended layover, which is a scheduled stopover that is longer than 24 hours. Extended layovers are often intentional, as travellers may choose to extend their layover in order to explore the destination city or country. These are not really the target of this post, as generally an extended layover will be planned by you when booking your plans.
Finally, an unplanned layover occurs due to unexpected circumstances, such as a flight delay or cancellation. During an unplanned layover, travellers may be stuck in the airport for an extended period of time, and they may not be able to leave the airport unless they have the necessary travel documents and visas. In some cases, airlines may provide accommodations for travellers during an unplanned layover, such as a hotel room or meals.
International vs. Domestic Flights
There are a few key differences between international and domestic layovers.
For international layovers, you will typically have more time to explore the destination city, as these layovers can be up to 24 hours long. Chances are you are also in a country that is not either your departure or destination country (not always, especially with big countries – we often take flights from Australia that have a layover within the country before heading off internationally for example) so you may well need an additional visa to allow you out of the terminal (see the section below on visas).
Domestic layovers are usually shorter, with most lasting no more than four hours. While you may not have as much time to explore the surrounding area, you also won’t need to worry about travel documents or visas, as you will be staying within the same country. This is only really going to be applicable in big countries such as the USA, China and Australia as most smaller countries won’t need a layover so close to home.
How Much Layover Time Do You Need to Leave the Airport?
Most airlines require you to show up for an international flight two hours in advance, and it is probably going to take around an hour to get out of the airport once you arrive.
Adding in additional time for travel to and from a city (which can vary hugely) I would say the very minimum time you’d need to leave the airport and explore on a layover is five hours, with eight hours or more being ideal.
Either way, you need to leave yourself plenty of time on your return to the airport to make sure you don’t miss your next flight.
Should You Leave the Airport on an Overnight Layover?
The timing of your layover is also a big factor in whether you would leave the airport during a layover.
It is unwise to explore most cities at night and is probably better to use sleepinginairports.net to find the best place for a kip!
Do You Need a Visa for a Layover?
The visa requirements for a layover will depend on your country of citizenship and the agreements with the location you are having the layover.
For domestic flights, such as an American citizen travelling within the USA, the answer is no, you won’t need a visa and will be able to travel outside the airport freely.
For international travel, many countries have what is known as a transit visa, which is a short-term visa with conditions. These are only issued if you have proof of an onward booking to another country within the timeframe specified and if the correct documentation is shown. They also require a passport valid for at least a month from the date of entry.
Examples of transit visa regulations from a few countries are below:
- Australia (72 hours)
- Countries in the EU (The transit visa for the EU does not allow you to leave the airport, but a short-stay Schengen visa does)
- Singapore (96 hours)
- United Arab Emirates (48 hours for free, 96 hours for a fee)
- United Kingdom (48 hours)
- United States (Not available)
What About Luggage?
Leaving the airport on a layover is ideal if you have your most vital possessions for a city exploration in your hand luggage (think camera, guidebooks, currency).
If you have hold luggage, then you’ll have to wait for this before leaving the airport and may need to store it in a locker.
Connecting flights with the same airline should automatically transfer your hold luggage onto your next flight, so that will give you one less thing to worry about.
What’s the Difference Between a Layover and a Stopover?
A layover is a shorter period of time (generally less than 12 hours) between flights.
A stopover is a period of up to three days, which are often offered by airlines at no extra cost. This allows you to build an additional stop into your travel and is a great way to see an additional city for a few days. See the stopover program from Icelandair as an example.
Best Cities to Explore on a Layover
There are a number of cities which are perfect to explore on a long layover as they are close to the main airport.
Singapore Airport is a major hub for services across Asia, Europe and Oceania and is the perfect place to explore on a layover.
One advantage of being both a country and a city is that wherever you stick an airport, it’s not going to take long to get into town. The train service (MRT) will get you into the city in around an hour, but if you’re in a hurry the taxis will take less than 25 minutes.
A 12-hour layover is sufficient to see popular attractions such as the Gardens by the Bay, Chinatown and Kampong Glam. They are so well set up for layovers there is even do a free 5.5 hour tour from the airport.
To be honest, the airport itself is pretty good – with everything from a movie theatre to a swimming pool!
Ok, I know it’s not a city, but I include Iceland on this list as IcelandAir have a stopover policy encouraging travellers to spend a few days in the city at no extra cost.
On this list I am focusing purely on short layovers, but it is still possible to get out and see some of Iceland in this time.
With a stopover of less than 8 hours, you’re probably best to stick to the capital city of Reykjavik, but anything up to 12 hours could mean seeing some significantly more spectacular sights.
This post suggests 10-12 hours could be enough to see all three major attractions of the Golden Circle sightseeing route Þingvellir National Park, Haukadalur Geothermal Valley and the waterfall Gullfoss.
You’ll need to hire a car, but what an incredible way to spend half a day on a layover!
READ NEXT: One-Month Iceland Campervan Trip with Indie Campers
London has two major international airports – Heathrow and Gatwick. Both airports have train services that will take you directly into the city, with a travel time of around 45 minutes from either to Green Park underground station (which I think is the best one to start exploring the sights of London, but there are lots of others nearby).
You have a couple of options for a short(ish) layover.
Head to a tube station such as Green Park to explore the area around Buckingham Palace, Westminster, Big Ben, Covent Garden, the London Eye and Big Ben.
You could instead head slightly further west and get off at a station such as Monument, taking in Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, The Shard, a Southbank walk past the Globe Theatre and St Paul’s Cathedral.
There is loads to do in London, so a layover is of course going to mean compromise, but if you set out with a couple of clear goals in mind you can see some of the biggest attractions.
TIME SAVING TIP: Book tickets to St Paul’s Cathedral, London Eye or the Tower of London in advance to avoid the often huge queues.
The distance between Dubai Airport and the city is the shortest on this list at only 10km, meaning you can be in town using the public transport system in less than 15 minutes.
Many flights pass through Dubai as part of an international layover, with some allowing a stopover in the city for up to 24 hours at no extra cost (Emirates were even offering free hotel rooms at one point). This is a city trying to become the layover capital of the world!
An 8-hour layover would allow you to get to the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building), the Souks and even a beach or two. A longer layover even gives you the chance to get out on a tour into the desert and a camel ride.
TIME SAVING TIP: Click Here to buy tickets to Burj Khalifa in advance and skip the queues
Amsterdam Schiphol is one of the busiest airports in the world and a hub for transfers out of Europe.
It is also handily located 17km away from Amsterdam’s city centre and can be easily accessed by bus or a 15-minute train journey.
With so many of the great attractions near the city centre, seeing the sights of Amsterdam is a very realistic goal for a layover. The main street of the city, Damrak, is right in front of the station with the National War Memorial, Royal Palace, Anne Frank Museum and infamous Red-Light District all close by.
The canals are my highlight, though, with their narrow waterways and quirky buildings. I’d suggest getting out on a canal boat tour to see the city in quick time.
READ NEXT: 11 Cool Things To Do In & Around Amsterdam
The Sabbatical Guide contains affiliate links and is a member of the Amazon Service LLC Associates Program. If you make a purchase using one of these links, I may earn a commission, at no additional cost to you. For more information, see our disclosure policy.