The first rule of international travel is, don’t leave your passport on your dresser, where could never, ever forget it. The second rule is, always fly direct, because layovers are vacation-killers. Except—hold on a sec. Have you heard of the stopover? Picture a layover so long it goes back around to actually good. While skiplagging might be all the rage, this approach encourages a two-for-one deal.
The setup is this: You book a flight to your ultimate Point B with a stop along the way in the big hub of an overseas airline. Great, you’re used to that. But instead of racing to get through the airport in 50 minutes, dragging your carry-on through another security checkpoint, talking yourself out of some $26 fancy chocolates, and wondering if drinking in this foreign airport “counts” as having visited the country (sorry, it doesn’t), you just … leave. You hail a cab. You book a hotel. And for no extra cost, you kill a day or three or seven before returning for your connecting flight.
In Europe, where far more airlines clamor for your travel dollar, stopovers have become very much a thing. “In days of yore, airlines charged extra for the privilege of stopping over in an intermediary airport, even though it didn’t really cost the airline much to allow the stopover,” says George Hobica, an airline analyst and founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. These days, if you have so much as an extra few hours to fold into a two-destination trip, you should be looking for stopovers.
Look for the option among long-haul carriers. You’ll usually see a stopover option on their website; buy there or via a travel agency. Airlines like Cathay Pacific, Qatar Airways, and Icelandair give travelers anywhere from 24 hours to a week for stopovers at their respective hubs in Hong Kong, Doha, and Reykjavik. Meanwhile, some national airlines will sweeten the pot with deals on travel packages and tours in their home cities. For example, Turkish Airlines offers tour packages for Istanbul and Singapore Airlines gives passengers the option to book a travel package with hotel and ground transportation included.
Even if you’re only sticking around your stopover city for 24 hours, it may make sense to spring for a hotel room, if only to rest your head for a bit. If the airline doesn’t offer some kind of hotel discount or stopover package, you can find last-minute hotel deals on booking apps and sites like Hotel Tonight, JetSetter, and Priceline. Barring that, you’ll find that most major airports around the world offer amenities like free battery charging stations, designated napping areas, and even access to showers. A whirlwind 24-hour stopover is not for the faint of heart, but who wants to throw away a perfectly good vacation day just putzing around the airport?
Or, use a travel booking site to create your own stopover. Even if you’re flying with an airline that doesn’t make it easy to book an extended-stay layover, there are still some online travel tools that will help you DIY a multi-city stay. Travel site Air Wander finds cheap flight deals that include an extended layover, and popular booking sites, like Skyscanner, show you how to book multi-stop trips that could save you some money.
Intrigued? You should be. Here are some of the best cities in the world for a stopover right now.
Stopover cities: Lisbon and Porto
The airline’s stopover program was recently upgraded so you can explore Lisbon or Porto for up to ten days. A week in Portugal is reason enough to get on a plane, especially when the airline also offers a 25 percent discount on domestic flights within the stopover period and an extensive list of partner hotels offering discounts. Lisbon’s the second-closest European capital (after Dublin) to North America’s East Coast and makes a natural detour on the way to Europe or Africa.
Icelandair’s stopover program dates back to the 1960s, well before the country was a hot destination for road trips and Game of Thrones shoots. As these innovators of leisure have watched their own popularity grow, they’ve also watched the stopover’s rise. Definitely check these guys out if you’re heading anywhere in northern Europe, and you can get up to seven nights there along your way—legitimately enough time to drive around the entire country.
Turkish Airlines has one of the sweetest stopover deals on this list. Stop over in Istanbul on the way to Africa, eastern Europe, or central Asia. Any passenger with a connection time over 20 hours in Istanbul gets a free hotel stay: three nights at a five-star hotel for business class passengers, or two nights at a four-star hotel if you’re flying economy. The application process is a little tricky—you’ll have to send an email 72 hours in advance of your first flight with contact details, reservation code, and accommodation preferences—but the results are totally worth it. See historical landmarks like the Maiden’s Tower and Topkapi Palace, and enjoy some baklava on the way.
Stopover city: Panama City
Copa Airlines’ new stopover package allows passengers to book a stay in Panama City for up to a week. If you’re popping over for a short stay, you can choose from a number of discounted day tours, like a walk through the Frank Ghery-designed Biomuseo. Or extend your trip and book a more comprehensive package, which includes lodging and transportation. The Aventuras Panamá deal, for example, offers a visit to Chagres National Park, rafting along the river, and a tour of the San Lorenzo Fortress.
Stopover city: Dubai
Emirates adopted stopovers in 2002, allowing passengers to loiter in Dubai en route to one of the airline’s 150 global destinations. At the time, a mere 16 million travelers passed through the Dubai airport annually. Things have really ballooned since, and it’s become one of the world’s busiest airports. The stopover package offers tours and experiences—like theme parks, desert safaris, and dinner cruises—at exclusive rates.
Stopover cities: Tokyo or Osaka
Making it over to Asia is no easy feat, so why not make the most of your trip with a meaningful detour through Japan? When booking with Japan Airlines’ multi-city stopover tool, you can choose to stopover in Japan or Osaka for up to six nights at no extra cost. The airline doesn’t offer any formal stopover package, but with the JAL Japan Explorer Pass, you can access domestic flights within Japan at a discounted rate.
Stopover city: Abu Dhabi
You could probably spend a year in Abu Dhabi’s electric swirl of excess, technological marvels, architectural wonders, towering buildings, and azure beaches, and still feel like you haven’t seen anything. But one thing you’ll seldom get to do is see any of it for free… unless you snag a stopover deal from Etihad. You can either get up to 40 percent off hotels for two to four nights or choose a one or two-night stay at a selected three or four-star hotel, covered by the airline. If you’re only stopping over for 10 to 24 hours, you can take advantage of the Transit connect package, which offers complimentary transportation near the airport.
Stopover city: Madrid
There’s never been a better time to visit Madrid, home to heavy-hitting museums, 23 Michelin-starred restaurants, new luxury hotels, and, well, vermouth. With Iberia’s Stopover Hola Madrid package, you can spend up to six days in Spain’s capital city and experience a number of perks, like discounted day trips to Toledo or tours of the Royal Palace, as well as a complimentary two-day public transport card.
Stopover cities: damn near everywhere
Globetrot via Star Alliance, if you’ve got the time and the cash. The carrier group comprises 26 member airlines that fly across 50 global hubs. The Round the World program lets you build an ambitious international itinerary on a single airline ticket. You just have to stop for at least 24 hours in as few as two, or as many as 15, stopover cities.