When I booked my first trip that had an extended layover in London, I knew I had to get out of the airport. One of my best friends from college had been living there for 8 years, and while we had traveled the world together, I had never been to London while she lived there. I started researching what I could do with an eight hour layover and came across many forums warning people not to bother leaving the airport, it’s too far, just stay in the lounge, etc. etc.

Well, I was determined, so I bought the more expensive Heathrow Express train ticket and found myself in Central London in no time. I had plenty of time to run around and quickly see the sights, have a delicious brunch, and enjoy some beers in Covent Garden.  After that I was sold on long layovers.

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These are some things I would consider when deciding if you’ll be leaving the airport or not:

  • What time is your layover? (a 12 hour layover during the day is far different than a 12 hour layover overnight)
  • How far is the airport from the city you want to explore?
  • How long does it take to get to where you want to explore?
  • Do you have to get your checked luggage and then recheck your bag?
  • Or if you’re carrying on, where is the luggage storage?

Once you’ve determined it makes sense to leave the airport and explore I always prefer to have some idea of what I want to see and do. On a 17-hour overnight layover in Tokyo I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the city. We decided to explore just a handful of neighborhoods and felt like we saw a lot in a short amount of time.

Things we accomplished in 17 hours:

  • Took the train into the city (chose the neighborhood of Shinjuku due to it’s central location and ease of getting from the airport)
  • Ate sushi
  • Checked out the giant crosswalks and famous statue of the dog, Haichiko in Shibuya
  • Ate ramen
  • Wandered around the little alleyways and tiny bars of Golden Gai
  • Had some cocktails

On the way back we had a 6 hour layover so spent some time in much closer, Narita. We ate some sticky buns, more ramen, had personalized chopsticks made (tourist alert!) and checked out some temples.

  • Took a shower and got some sleep
  • Spent the morning at the Meiji Shrine near Harajuku
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A year later I was in a similar situation in Shanghai. An overnight layer on the way to Hong Kong and an afternoon layover on the way home. This time I was able to:

  • Take in the beautiful skyline at night and during a bright, sunny day
  • Head to 86th floor of the Hyatt Jin Mao for drinks and (some) views – it was pretty smoggy up there
  • Enjoy authentic Chinese food
  • Wander around The Bund
  • Visit Yu Yuan Garden
  • …and of course sleep and shower!
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Now I am not only determined to make the most of any long layover, I actually look for them when booking flights! Where’s your favorite long layover or stopover you’ve been?