“Just passing through” is a phrase normally reserved for small, backwater towns on the way to some grandiose final destination. But the way we like to travel flips the script on this idea. Instead of flying to Rome for Rome’s sake, we prefer to leverage its status as an international hub to have a little mini-vacation on the way to (the much more affordable) Croatia or Albania. This practice is called stopover travel, and it’s been taking the travel world by storm in the last few years.
The basic idea is that you break up a long flight path by spending at least one night in the city of your layover/connecting airport. This is a win/win/win dream scenario for you, the airline, and the “layover” city. You get to add a destination to your trip and break up a long and exhausting travel day. The airline gets more bookings since the flexibility is attractive and do-able for more customers. And the layover city sees a boost in tourism money injected into the local economy.
Why stopover travel?
As a traveler, what are the main benefits of stopover travel? Perhaps the most important one is the opportunity to explore a world-class city that you wouldn’t otherwise make a special trip to visit. Even if you aren’t a big city person, a little taste of Tokyo, Istanbul, or Singapore could be really exciting. These cities often have cheap or low-cost attractions like museums and walking tours that are pleasant ways to spend your time. Major landmarks make great (and free) photo opportunities. And if you love food as much as we do, these cities boast some of the best international cuisine available anywhere.
Another huge benefit of stopover travel is the relief of breaking up a “heroic” travel day with multiple flights spanning 15+ hours in total. Chances are if you’ve ever looked at booking intercontinental flights, you’ve seen such brutal 15+ hour itineraries. These can test the endurance of even the most hardened travelers. But the options for direct flights or connections within a reasonable timespan simply don’t exist. Whether the issue is a long layover or just long total travel time, stopover travel can make these epic journeys much more palatable. Imagine being able to sleep on an actual bed rather than an airport bench! After all, if you arrive at your final destination completely exhausted, you might lose a day regardless.
The last major benefit is cost savings. If you want to visit an airline’s hub city anyway, the fact that some offer discounted hotel rooms and tourist attractions is a huge free-roll. If you are willing to fly multiple airlines (see method #2 below), you can string together multiple cheap flight tickets. These may end up costing less than flying several legs with a single airline.
Method #1: Airline stopover deals
Stopover deals designed by airlines tend to dominate the stopover travel conversation. It’s not hard to see why: these packages make things easy and offer a good way to get your feet wet with the idea of stopover travel. Sometimes they also have extra perks you’d never be able to get building a plan yourself.
These deals usually have one or more of the following characteristics:
- Letting you stay up to x days in their hub between flights at no extra cost to you. This is probably where the term “extended layover” originated (synonymous with stopover).
- Hotel rooms
- Airport transfers
- Tickets to local attractions
The general process for obtaining these deals is to book through the airline’s website with the “multicity” option. Specify a stop in the airline’s hub and double-check to make sure that your flight counts as a stopover.
Here are a few “Stopover Friendly” airlines offering deals as of early 2020:
- Iberia (hub: Madrid, Spain)
- Icelandair (hub: Reykjavík, Iceland)
- TAP AirPortugal (hubs: Lisbon and Porto, Portugal)
- Brussels Airlines (hub: Brussels, Belgium)
- FinnAir (hub: Helsinki, Finland)
- Turkish Airlines (hub: Istanbul, Turkey)
- Air Canada (hubs: Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver, Canada)
- Singapore Airlines (hub: Singapore)
- Etihad (hub: Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates)
- Qatar Airways (hub: Doha, Qatar)
- Oman Air (hub: Muscat, Oman)
- Emirates (hub: Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
- Avianca Airlines (hub: Bogotá, Colombia)
Even if an airline you want to take isn’t on this list, it doesn’t hurt to call them and see if they’ll at least let you delay your connecting flight a day or two at no extra charge. You might be surprised how accommodating they can be! If you go this route, it helps to deal with the airline directly rather than going through third-party booking sites.
Method #2: Build your own stopover plan
Another approach is to build your own stopover plan using online flight tools. The basic idea is simply to book a flight to a major city on one airline, then book another flight from that city to your final destination (usually on a different airline). This is the option we’ve used more often in the past to great success. It takes a bit more work and planning and (sadly) never comes with free hotels. There are two big advantages, however:
- You can fly budget airlines (saving a lot of cash).
- There are more possible stopover destinations.
Let’s breakdown the basic process:
Step 1: Research cheap flights FROM your departure city
Using Google Flights, Kiwi, Skyscanner, or a similar tool, select your departure city with an open-ended (blank) arrival city. You’ll be able to see a map with possible “destinations” and the cost of those flights. For the best results, choose “Flexible Dates” in the date area. In the following example, we are trying to get from Podgorica, Montenegro to New York City in March. We specify Podgorica as the departure city, leave the destination city blank, choose all of March, and click enter. We see the following map:
Screenshot or make note of the options. Here we see super cheap flights to London, Barcelona, Milan, and Berlin alongside many other affordable flight options. If you like, you can drill down and check that the attractive flight options are direct. It’s not strictly necessary for them to be nonstop, but it’s a nice perk if that’s the case.
Step 2: Research cheap flights FROM your destination city
This one’s a little counter-intuitive. The next step is identical to the first, but switch your departure city for your final destination city in the “From” box, still leaving the “To” box blank. These tools will not let you leave the “From” box blank because they assume you always know which city you are leaving from. So even though we want to ultimately get to New York, we enter New York in the “From” box and see the results:
In the above screenshot, we’re focusing on Europe once again because the most likely connection will be in Europe in this example. However, you’ll want to move around the map to see alternative options as well (Iceland, etc.). Note the prices and/or take another screenshot to use along with the first.
Step 3: Look for overlaps
Now we can piece together a plan for getting from Podgorica to New York with a juicy stopover adventure in between. Let’s say we want to explore Barcelona as a stopover destination. $24 USD to get from Podgorica to Barcelona. We think it will be about $109 USD to get from Barcelona to New York, but remember we actually had to use New York as our departure city in step 2. So let’s do a quick search on flights from Barcelona to New York in March:
This flight is slightly higher than New York to Barcelona, but it’s still in the ballpark (and still direct). So the total would then be $24 USD + $138 USD = $162 USD to get from Podgorica to New York with a stopover in Barcelona. As you see from this example, there are several other cities that would be a fantastic deal for stopover travel: London, Rome, Paris, and more.
Step 4: Make sure all the details line up
Steps 1-3 offer a very broad first pass at possible deals. To really do your due diligence, you need to look at all the details for each flight and make sure that it makes sense logistically. Here is a starting list of questions to ask yourself:
- Do the dates line up for each flight?
- Are the flights on the same or different airlines? (if they’re on the same airline, you can potentially get a better deal booking a single ticket with that airline; call and request a later stopover departure if the airline doesn’t already have a stopover package put together).
- Are there fees for baggage or anything else that I have to purchase? (the first price you see might not actually be the best deal once all the other necessary costs are factored in).
- If it’s a major hub, would an airline-designed stopover package (as in Method #1) be a better deal once hotel and transportation discounts are factored in?
Less complicated approach: multi-city search
If you know a few more details about your trip, especially if you have a specific date range you’re working with, multi-city search is a simpler option than the more open-ended approach above. Airwander, Google Flights, Kiwi, and Skyscanner all now allow you to perform a “multi-city” search.
Airwander is perhaps the most useful of these since they are designed specifically for finding good deals for stopover travel. As such, they have a good interface for suggesting stopover cities between your origin and destination cities:
The other three tools mentioned force you to choose a specific stopover city “in the dark.” This is fine if you are dead set on a particular stopover city, but can make doing comparisons between options cumbersome otherwise. A drawback to all four of these tools is that they all force you to pick specific travel dates. If you have flexibility in your dates, it might be better to stick with steps 1-4 above.
Drawbacks to stopover travel
Honestly, there are very few drawbacks to stopover travel. That said, there can be some downsides depending on what your motivations are for traveling. If you’re someone who wants a “complete” tourist experience of a huge city, you might end up pulling your hair out trying to squeeze Rome into 48 hours. There’s a real possibility that you blow up that precious rest and relaxation that your stopover was supposed to solve in the first place.
If you’re a traveler on a budget, you might not even be able to afford the stopover even if it sounds like a good deal on paper. International hub cities are often very expensive. Even a discounted hotel room might be above your usual budget for accommodation, nevermind inflated restaurant prices. Be sure to factor the cost of staying in an expensive place into your overall travel budget.
Stopover travel is perfect for nomads who fly from one affordable destination to another through major hubs. These folks usually have the luxury of being very flexible in their trip planning. However, vacationers with only a couple weeks might not be able to justify spending a few nights in Madrid when they’re really trying to have an “Italian” vacation.
Finally, if you’ve been traveling long enough, chances are you’ve already been to New York, London, Paris, etc. Stopping at these major hubs again doesn’t hold the enchantment that visiting the first time did. All the more reason to take it slow and leave a few stones unturned for a future trip!
Stopover travel is a trend that’s here to stay. Icelandair’s generous stopover travel plans are largely responsible for transforming 42 percent of Iceland’s economy into tourism (for better or worse). Icelandair may have paved the way, but imitators are close behind and similar transformations are occurring in Portugal, the UAE, and other countries.
As nomads, we always keep stopover options in mind when moving from place to place, especially when flying between continents. In fact, we almost never make direct plans to spend lots of time in big international hub cities. Why bother, when we can roll it into a stopover trip instead and greatly save on transportation costs?