If my feet were on the land of a new country, I wanted to do everything in my power to see a little bit of it.
Tip: It’s always important to double-check with airlines that, if you have a checked bag, the bag will continue on through your next destination without you having to claim it.
There’s no denying that traveling is much more convenient when you can score a direct flight. However, when you’re traveling a long distance, avoiding a layover in a random city/country becomes an impossible feat. After having a layover in the Istanbul airport back in 2014 and not leaving to see anything, I decided from there on out, if my feet were on the land of a new country, I wanted to do everything in my power to get out and see a little bit of it.
Often times, airlines won’t charge you an extra fee to book a later flight, giving you enough time to explore a new destination.
Here are five amazing places I’ve seen due to extended layovers:
1. Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
I booked a flight through Emirates airlines from New York City to Bangkok, and I saw a 2-hour stopover in Dubai. I decided to call the airline to see if there was anything they could do to extend my layover and put me on a later flight to Bangkok. To my surprise, the answer was, “Certainly!” They granted me ten hours in Dubai for the same price, meaning I could leave the airport and see some of Dubai’s landmarks, at no extra flight cost.
That trip became life-changing for me. While exhaustion obviously played a factor (the flight from NYC to Dubai is about 15 hours!) I was thrilled to cram a random city in; one that I never had the strongest desire to go to, but was still curious about.
I hired a driver to pick me up from the airport. He had another girl that he was picking up from the airport as well, which ended up working out great. To this day, we keep in touch.
He drove us out to the Omani border where we rode camels and went sand-surfing. I learned I am a horrible sand-surfer. We went four-wheeling through middle-eastern deserts and it gave me a new itch to explore more of the region in the future. He provided us with these overly-sweet orange drinks.
After the desert, he dropped us off at the Burj Khalifa. My new friend and I decided to not waste the money to go all the way to the top. It was a perfectly hot day and the building glistened in the sunlight.
We walked around the famous Dubai mall where we saw an indoor aquarium and tried some candies. With still a few hours to kill, we jumped on the Dubai metro to head to “Old Dubai,” where we ended up at a restaurant and I ordered something too spicy for my liking.
Emirates airline provided a free meal pass for somewhere within the terminal due to the long layover, so once we were back in the airport, we scored another meal.
Dubai is a great place to have a layover. Between the desert and the Burj Khalifa alone, it was well worth it.
Highlights: Sand surfing, Camel riding, Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall.
2. Stockholm, Sweden.
My layover in Stockholm was quite short, but because I was coming from another EU nation, I did not have to pass through immigration/customs, saving me quite the hassle. Between flights, I had a total of 5 hours 40 minutes.
Luckily, the Arlanda Express brings you from the airport directly into the city center in 20 minutes. A roundtrip will cost you 60 USD. I jumped on, and next thing I knew, I was in Stockholm!
I was there in December, and seeing the holiday markets set up around the city was a treat. I ended up buying my mom an ornament from a woman-owned boutique. I made my way to Old Town (about a thirty-minute walk from the train station), passing tons of record stores and underground clubs along the way. Though my time was tight, I quickly learned why Stockholm is notoriously a music capital. If I had more time, I would’ve went to an underground club to see some local bands.
Old Town is stunning, and the reflection of the buildings along the water is one of the most picturesque sights I’ve seen. I decided to buy my brother-in-law an old Beatles record, pre-Ringo days. The selection at the record stores in Stockholm is ideal for any music lover looking for something unique.
After grabbing a quick street hotdog (I simply did not have time for anything else, and it was actually quite tasty), I was back on the Arlanda Express to head home to New York.
Highlights: Old Town, Street Food, Record Stores.
3. Beijing, China.
A lot of Chinese airlines will have layovers in Beijing or Shanghai. I saw a flight with a four-hour layover in Beijing from Seoul to Taipei, so I called AirChina to see if they could put me on a flight at a later time. They were easy to work with and put me on a flight three days later, giving me plenty of time to explore Beijing.
Please note the visa-process in China. This was the trickiest layover I did, but I still managed to make it work. China offers a 144-hour transit visa to citizens of certain countries, the US being one of them. This means, if you have a flight from Point A to China to Point B, you are eligible for the transit visa, as long as you are in China for under 144 hours. However, if you have a flight from Point A to China back to Point A (example: Japan > China > Japan) you are not eligible for the visa. You are also not eligible if you have two stops in China; it must be a direct flight in and out of the same airport with no other stops in the country. This seems like it’s confusing, but it ends up being simple and it’s well worth it if you want to enjoy some of the sights.
I happened to be there during a major Chinese holiday (May Day, similar to the Chinese Labor Day), so almost all accommodation was sold out. I opted to book a place near a quiet part of The Great Wall, but I unfortunately missed Forbidden City and street food due to a lack of public transportation.
However, if you book in the city center, you will have no issues; just make sure to check ahead of time if anything major is happening in the country at the time!
I stayed at a family-owned bed and breakfast, and while I missed many of the major sights, it ended up being a humbling, quiet, peaceful experience. I still got my fair share of tasting Chinese dishes, only they were made by a loving family instead of a restaurant. Sometimes, google and Instagram become the enemy because you won’t see glamorized pictures of these unique experiences. Who knew you could find peace in Beijing?
Highlights: Great Wall of China, Forbidden City, Food.
4. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
If you are traveling through Asia, there is a good chance you’ll have a layover in Kuala Lumpur at some point.
I was able to call AirAsia and get myself on a flight two days later for the same price, however, this was an airline I did indeed have to pick my bag up from the airport and check back in. This added an extra baggage fee of about $30, but other than that, the flight was the same price.
What a treat Kuala Lumpur was! It reminded me of inexpensive Dubai. The rest of Southeast Asia can be a little run-down facility-wise, but Kuala Lumpur is overall modernized, so it was a nice break between my time in the Philippines and Vietnam.
In my thirty-six hours total in KL, I saw the Petronas Twin towers, ate tons of street food (the food alone is worth visiting this bustling city for), went to the infamous Batu Caves, and explored Chinatown.
The food in Malaysia reminded me of a mix of Indian and Chinese. The flavors were incredible. I tried spicy noodles, stews, and curries to keep me satisfied through my short time there. If you like heat, definitely try some Chili Pan Mee (I got mine from a cart for $2), and some curry mee. Near Batu Caves, there are a lot of Indian joints, and being exposed to those new flavors made me book a flight to India (no joke!).
A perk to having a layover here is it’s inexpensive but still glamorous. You can book a rooftop hotel near the Petronas Towers for around $40/night.
Kuala Lumpur is a wonderful destination with plenty to offer. I highly recommend getting out and seeing what you can if you have enough time between flights!
Highlights: Batu Caves, Petronas Twin Towers, Street Food.
I ended up in Singapore slightly by accident. I had planned to be in Thailand for two weeks, but when parts of the country were getting hit with torrential rains, I jumped down to Indonesia, which landed me a 22-hour layover in Singapore.
I had done no prior research and decided to just wing it. Sometimes this works in your favor, sometimes it doesn’t. For me, it was a little of both.
I checked out the Merlion statue and saw peacocks roaming around CityWalk. CityWalk is a touristy destination where you won’t get a real feel of local life, so it’s not worth your time in my opinion, but like I said, I was strictly winging where I went.
I knew I wanted to ride the Singapore flyer (second largest ferris wheel other than the London Eye). As I headed that way, it started raining heavily. I stopped to grab a Tiger beer first and some Malaysian-influenced food. Singapore has a strong food game, but bring a wallet full of cash. It was recently voted the most expensive country in the world.
Singapore Flyer has great security; I tried to sneak a beer in my bag and they made me throw it out (and I sheepishly said, “how did that get in there?”). So, learn from my mistakes and don’t bring beer!
Seeing Singapore from a high point of view was stunning. I highly recommend riding the Singapore flyer at night.
Afterward, I decided to check out The Raffles Hotel. I was not dressed for the part, to say the least (I was in orange Thai elephant pants and a tank top!) but I wanted to try a Singapore Sling from the place that allegedly created it. The drink was delicious and they give you unlimited peanuts to go with it. The bar was one of the most beautiful bars I had ever stepped foot in. You get transformed to the 1920’s (there was live swing / jazz music upstairs).
I heard about Gardens by the Bay after I left Singapore, thanks to this being pre-instagram days. I have no problem that I missed it, but if I ever have another long layover in Singapore, I plan to check it out.
I ended up spending a decent amount of money in Singapore despite only doing a few things, so I recommend planning your trip a little better than I did. There is plenty to do and it’s a tiny island-nation that takes less than one hour to drive from one end to the other.
Highlights: Singapore Sling at The Raffles Hotel, Merlion, Changi Airport, Singapore Flyer, Tiger Beer, Gardens by the Bay.
There are plenty of places you can see on a layover, and some airlines will even provide free accommodation if your layover is overnight. Just remember to always check baggage and visa policies before making arrangements. It never hurts to call your airline and ask what your options are, especially if you’re landing in a place that you have always wanted to see.