How to Survive a Long Layover

Bennett Collins

I do not like layovers. Let’s get that out of the way before I convince you that there are ways to make a layover less painful, and dare I say enjoyable. Secondly, in comparison to my fellow globe trotters, I have to say that I’ve had it quite easy when it comes to layovers.

I have never been grounded due to a natural disaster for longer than a few hours and have only had one cancellation during a layover period. Considering my travel patterns and my love of budget airlines (and frugality), I consider this a mix of both strategic planning and good luck. 

Then again, I have had my fair share of bad luck too (and have also had to bite the bullet to get that low-ticket price). My layover experiences range from having to sleep over at Toronto Pearson Airport two different nights and lounging on two steel benches put together, to exploring the lovely town of Beauvais near Paris-Beauvais-Tille airport, to surviving a 12-hour layover in Addis Ababa Airport’s minimalist and overcrowded milieu due to a cancellation.

Simply put, I’m not exactly a stranger at entertaining myself during long stretches of time on my way from A to B. So, I’m going to lay out some survival tips.

When it comes to finding enjoyment in your layovers you pretty much have two options.

The first?

Settle In: Hanging Out at the Airport

There are many things you can do to make sure that, no matter the airport, your comfort needs are met. Remember is to pack for the journey you want. When it comes to my carry on travel backpack, I take no risks. I’ve had long layovers, emergency landings, and reroutes to municipal and warehouse airports where there is no Wi-Fi, few options for food or shopping, and worst of all, few outlets.

So, here is my quintessential layover travel packing list:

  • Fully charged battery pack
  • Change of clothes (even just a shirt can help you feel fresh)
  • 1-2 bags of nuts, dried fruits, and chocolates
  • Uplifting piece of literature
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant
  • Travel pillow and/or blanket
  • Advil (the situation calls for possible headaches)

It’s important to pack for the worst; just because you’re not traveling through a municipal airport doesn’t mean you’re suddenly home free. Let me be very clear – international airports can be just as bad, if not worse, than their smaller counterparts.

From the outdated and overcrowded halls of New York’s JFK to the confusing lack of electrical outlets at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle to the ability of Los Angeles’ LAX to make you feel filthy, even if you’re not a germaphobe. Do not make the mistake of believing that great cities have great airports.

Ok, now the positive news. Airports across the world are competing to make your visit to them as comfortable as possible. Airports from Berlin, to Mexico City, to New York, and Singapore are bringing in sleeping pods to give you onsite accommodation and an alternative to setting up shop in the nearest Starbucks booth.  

Airports are also bringing in more and more amenities, like spas and gyms, even nail salons. Perhaps to keep passengers from unleashing their anger on the nearest airline representative.

Finally, there are airport lounges in abundance at most medium to large international airports. Here’s how to get lounge access, even if you aren’t a member.

Read Laura’s breakdown on the best US airports for layovers.

Leave the Airport: Go on a Mini Adventure

If you feel like you’re living your own hell, you just can’t get comfortable, or that the airport is just not for you, then you do have potential a lifeline: you can leave.

Yes, leave. Escape your purgatory. Make a little vacation out of your layover. But…

It is really important you know what you are getting into once you step out of the arrivals door.

There are a few precautions to take.

Double Check Re-Entry

If you arrived late at night, you may not be able to get back into the terminal until the following morning when security opens again. This can be pretty inconvenient as airport rest areas outside security, more often than not, have worse seating, weaker wifi, are noisier, and can invite a dodgy crowd. For the latter reason, you may even get rudely awakened by security and told to pack up. You can consult SleepinginAirports.net to check out the specific policies for your layover airport.

Check on the Visa Situation

Secondly, leaving the airport might mean going through immigration, and you may not be able to leave the airport without a transit visa stamp, sticker, or card, depending on what passport you hold and where you are. This option can be costly.

Why?

Transit visas cost, and many countries require you to have a 24+ hour layover before you become eligible for one. Otherwise, you might have to pay for an entry visa, which will be even more expensive. There are some countries that will take out an entire page in your passport with a transit or entry visa stamp or sticker.

If you travel a lot, passport pages are precious. There are other countries that will take your passport in exchange for a transit visa card. If you are comfortable leaving the most valuable item you have in the care of an airport agent, go for it. However, to ensure your layover does not turn into a more diluted version of Tom Hanks’ situation in The Terminal, you may want to bite the bullet and stay put, and in possession of your passport.

Finally, make sure you have enough time to transit to the sites you want to see, transit back, and go back through security. Do not miss your flight to get just a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.

That all being said, tourism offices across the world want passengers on layovers to spend money in their countries. This means that many countries and airports, like Singapore’s Changi Airport and Seoul’s Incheon Airport, are working together to help passengers in layovers access transit visas for as low as 4+ hour wait times and arrange tours of local sites.

Learn the difference between a layover and a stopover.

TL;DR

Big cities do not always have great airports, so do some research ahead of time to know what you’re getting into. Luckily airports are beginning to realize that layover passengers need to be taken care of by bringing in amenities like gyms, spas, and sleeping pods. If you know you’re going to have a long layover, see if  you can reserve your spot in advance, or gain access to a lounge to spend the time in comfort.

Have an emergency kit ready that will entertain you and keep you sane, no matter the airport environment.

You can leave the airport if you want to see the local sites or are just getting cabin fever in the airport. Consider taking a layover tour, or arranging one of your own.

Make sure:

  • You know the hours that security is open in your terminal
  • To check the transit/entry visa laws and costs in order to pass through immigration
  • To allow enough time to come back to the airport and go through security again (6 hours is really the minimum for a good layover escape)

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