Waiting in the international zone of an airport for several hours may be the most uneventful part of a trip. A lot of people wonder whether they can go out and explore their layover city instead of waiting inside the terminal.
The answer is often yes, but it depends on various factors that we are going to discuss here.
- Why Leave the Airport During a Layover?
- 8 Things to Consider Before Planning to Leave the Airport on a Stopover
- The United States Is a Special Case
- Final Thoughts
Why Leave the Airport During a Layover?
Leaving the airport during a long layover is a great way to add memories to your trip. Furthermore, it’s a low-cost way of adding new cities and countries to your itinerary. Whether it’s a new museum you want to explore or you are trying to visit as many countries as possible, layovers provide you the chance to explore new places at no additional cost.
Some people book long layovers on purpose, so they have time to leave the airport and explore new locations. Most of the time, if your layover is long enough, you are free to leave the airport. However, there are eight things to consider before planning a long layover. If the circumstances are not right, you may find yourself stuck inside the airport and unable to leave.
8 Things to Consider Before Planning to Leave the Airport on a Stopover
Each situation is different. While you typically need a layover of at least six hours if you want to be able to leave the airport, other significant details come into play, as well.
1. Do You Have Visa-Free Access?
The first question is whether you have the right to leave the international zone of the airport and enter the country. This factor only applies to international flights, such as if you are flying from Brazil to the US with a stopover in Panama City.
The US passport is one of the strongest in the world, with access to 186 countries without applying for a visa in advance, according to the Henley Passport Index. Some of those countries don’t allow visa-free access but instead give a tourist visa on arrival, which you may have to pay for.
In the above example, you would be able to leave the airport and explore Panama City, as US citizens enjoy visa-free access to Panama. If you have dual citizenship, that only applies if traveling on your US passport.
Another example is Egypt. US citizens can get a visa on arrival when traveling to Egypt, so you can leave the airport on a layover if you are traveling on Egyptair and want to see the pyramids in Giza.
However, if you plan on getting a visa on arrival, factor in some time for that – it can take an hour or two in some countries. For Egypt, getting an e-visa in advance would allow you to save time.
Some countries have a special transit visa for people who want to leave the international zone of the airport but will only be in the country for a short time. For example, Australia has a transit visa for those who are staying in the country for up to 72 hours and meet certain requirements (such as having a confirmed onward booking).
On the other hand, for some countries, you are required to obtain a visa in advance, whether online or at an embassy. If that’s the case, you would not be able to leave the international zone if you didn’t do so.
2. Is It an International or Domestic Connection?
On a domestic layover (when the entire journey starts and ends in the same country), you won’t need to worry about visas, as you will already be in the country legally. For example, if you are flying from New York to San Diego but with a stopover in Denver, you’ll be able to leave the airport in Denver.
The same applies when traveling from Tijuana to Cancun with a stopover in Mexico City. Since the entire journey is within Mexico, you will be able to leave the airport in Mexico City.
However, visa-free access isn’t the only factor here. On an international connection, you would have to go through immigration when leaving the airport and checking in again, in addition to going through the regular security screening. That takes time.
Let’s go back to our example of a stopover in Panama City, a common transit point for travelers going to or from Latin America.
If you leave the airport in Panama City, you would have to go through immigration. If lines are long, it could easily take an hour each way, so you’d have to factor in an extra two hours for your layover. The problem is that you can’t know in advance how long the lines will be. It could even take two hours each way.
3. What Are the Covid-19 Entry Restrictions?
Now, you also need to worry about the Covid-19 entry restrictions of the layover country (in the case of international layovers). Entry requirements are constantly changing, so I won’t give any specifics here.
However, to leave the international zone and enter the country, you may need a vaccine certificate and/or a negative Covid-19 test taken within a particular time frame.
4. Did You Check In Already?
Did you already check in for the second leg of your journey? If you did so in advance, you will have more time to explore the layover city, as you won’t have to wait in line to check in again. If you didn’t check in for both flights before the first leg of your journey, you might be able to check in online.
However, ask the airline to check your baggage to your final destination, so you don’t have to pick it up and check it in again. Otherwise, that would take up extra time, even if you already have your boarding passes.
5. How Far Is the Airport From the City?
Some airports are within the city, not far from the center. Other airports are pretty far. Panama City’s and Santo Domingo’s airports are far from the city centers. The airports in Ponta Delgada, Toronto, Pisa, and San Diego are relatively close to the center or a major tourist attraction.
When the airport is close to the city, or when it has a high-speed train into the city, leaving the airport is a simple matter. However, if you have to budget an extra hour or two to get into the city, that can complicate things, especially if you already have limited time.
It’s critical to know which airport you are flying into. Some cities have two airports: one close to the center and one further away.
6. How Tough Is Traffic?
Traffic matters whether the airport is far from the city or not. If the airport is around an hour from the city, it could take two hours during rush hour, especially in metropolises with horrible traffic, like Panama City.
However, heavy traffic can complicate getting around within the city, too, especially if you want to hit up more than just one or two spots. If the attractions you want to visit are all located within walking distance, this may not be a problem. If you need to go from one side of the city to the other, that could easily add an extra hour or two in traffic.
7. Do You Have Everything Pre-arranged?
If you only have 6-12 hours between your two flights, that will leave only a few hours for sightseeing, once you factor in traffic, transit time to and from the city, immigration, and so on. In such cases, it’s best to arrange your sightseeing with a tour guide in advance. Otherwise, you may get lost or find your tour dragging out longer than you expected.
Some airlines have special tours for those on long layovers. If you are transiting in Doha, Qatar, and flying on Qatar Airways, you can enjoy an exclusive Doha City Tour offered by Qatar Airways. It will take you to some of the best spots in the city.
Qatar Airways generally requires a stopover of at least five hours for this tour. Since the airline is arranging the tour, you won’t have to worry about missing your flight.
8. Is It Worth It?
Finally, you need to ask yourself whether it’s even worth it to leave the airport. If you will only have an hour or two in the city, is it worth the stress and the risk of missing your flight to see one or two spots?
It might be if that spot is the pyramids of Giza, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, or some other famous monument. Otherwise, perhaps you’d be better off relaxing in an airport lounge for a couple of hours.
The United States Is a Special Case
It’s also important to note that the United States is a unique case, as it doesn’t have international zones in its airports. When you transit through the US from another country, even if your destination is another country, you always have to go through immigration. You may need a tourist visa or ESTA transit permit if you are not a citizen.
In other words, even if you aren’t planning on leaving the airport, you will have to go through immigration/customs and typically pick up and recheck your baggage, as well.
Do you still have questions? Here are the most common questions we see from travelers – including experienced ones!
What happens to your luggage when you leave the airport during a layover?
Typically, the airline will be able to check your luggage to your final destination (except when transiting the US), without the need to pick it up during your layover. However, if your layover is long (more than 12-24 hours), some airlines may not do this. It all depends on your airline, so call them up in advance to see what they say.
You can also request that they don’t do that if you want to use your luggage during the layover.
Will the airline arrange for overnight accommodation?
Some airlines will arrange for free overnight accommodation if you have an overnight layover. For example, Ethiopian Airlines will facilitate both a transit visa and overnight accommodation if you have a layover of 8-24 hours in Addis Ababa.
Which cities are the best for layovers?
Some cities are more common for layovers than others, depending on the airlines that serve them. Examples of cities in which people typically leave the airport on longer layovers include Panama City, Paris, Miami, New York, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Doha, Reykjavík, Dubai, Tokyo, Singapore, Addis Ababa, Cairo, and a few others.
If you are flying on an airline like Copa, United, Spirit, Egyptair, Qatar Airways, Lufthansa, or Ethiopian Airlines, you may be able to request a later flight, so you can have a longer stopover. Typically, you can find several options when booking online, and you may also call customer support to ask them to change your second flight to extend your layover.