Guide to Long Flight Layovers: Make Every Minute Count!

March 26, 2024

Flight Travel Layovers offer a unique opportunity to escape from the usual tedious travel activities. Depending on the time and location of your layover, you have the chance to get rest, binge your favorite show, get caught up on work, or even explore the layover city. Below, I'll share my adventure when I had 17 hours to kill overnight in Madrid (MAD) connecting between Marrakesh and Chicago.

ORD Terminal 1 Concourse C Light Sculpture

Here are some tips on getting the most out of your flight layover wherever you may be waiting for your connecting flight.

If Your Layover is 1-1/2 Hours or Less

This is not what I would consider a long layover; there isn’t enough time to do much more than get to your next gate. But it is ample time to refresh yourself in the comparatively spacious environment of an airport bathroom instead of an airplane toilet.

After you’ve found your next gate, head to the bathroom, where you can wash your face, enjoy a change of shirt, refresh your makeup, grab a quick shave, apply a face spritzer, or do whatever else makes you feel less like you’ve spent hours sitting on a plane in stagnant air.

This is also enough time to stock up on some healthy snacks to help boost your immune system and energy levels. Don’t forget to fill up your water bottle at one of the many water bottle fill stations located in airports around the world.

If Your Layover is 2 - 3 Hours

This might be the worst layover time possible. You don't have to rush to your next flight, but there not enough time to get outside the airport. I make the most of the time I have. Still, with a layover of this length while you await your next flight, there is plenty of time to:

  • Browse an airport bookstore and pick up an engrossing novel or the latest issues of your favorite magazine
  • Find a comfortable and quiet seat to lose yourself in your novel. Charlotte-Douglass Airport in Charlotte, NC, has a sunny atrium lined with Adirondack-`style rocking chairs next to large windows and tables where you can make yourself at home for hours.
  • Have a leisurely, sit-down meal at an airport restaurant.
  • Visit the airport shops and pick a few unique items from a boutique for yourself or a friend.
  • Catch up on business or personal phone calls.
  • Get a shoeshine.
  • Get a shoulder massage.
  • Walk around, people watch, and stretch your legs.

If Your Layover is 4 hours or More

This is where a layover can get very interesting. Depending upon where the airport is located, a 4+ hour layover may be long enough where you can leave the airport and explore the city for a short trip. But this is only if the airport is very close to where you wish to visit in the city. It could make for a stressful jaunt if your ride gets stuck in traffic, and the whole time, you’ll need to keep your eye on your watch.

It’s recommended that you only leave the airport on such a short layover if you can get someplace with just a 10-15 minute drive. For instance, Hilo International Airport in Hilo, Hawaii is just 10 minutes away from Keaukaha Beach Park, where you can sit on a park bench and enjoy a sandwich and the gorgeous view, while the ocean breeze ruffles through your hair. You might even spot a sea turtle right there on the beach! Onekahakaha Beach Park is just a few minutes further, with equally amazing vistas. Both are close enough to the Hilo airport, where you won’t have to stress about missing your flight out.


Another easy airport for worthwhile experiences within a 10-15 minute drive is St Barts' Gustaf III Airport in the Caribbean, which is just minutes from Saint-Jean, a breathtaking white sand beach. Take off your shoes and take in the crystal clear waters until it’s time to head back to the airport for your flight.

17 Hour Layover in Madrid

Returning from Marrakech after 2 weeks in Morocco, the best flight back to Chicago meant a stop in Madrid. The first leg jumps easily over the North African coast and the Mediterranean in three short hours putting my wife and I in MAD at a reasonable 6:00pm local time. Our trans-Atlantic flight to Chicago leaves the next morning at 11:00am. 

I asked the Hotel concierge as we checked in to the nearby Airport Marriott, what we should do for the evening considering we effectively, had only this one evening. The concierge pulled out a map of the central city and began circling points of interest with a pen. "I'll get you a taxi," she began, "to Plaza Mayor." 

From there, she pointed out, we could walk to the Royal Palace of Madrid, the Cathedral de Santa Maria, see the Teatro Real and several other highlights. The Plaza itself is filled with restaurants, so we could have dinner, too. Off we went.

Later in the evening my wife and travel partner dragged me down a side street of the Plaza looking for a good restaurant. By this time we had walked for a couple of hours and passed scores of eateries. Fortunately, we stumbled onto Europe's oldest restaurant, Restaurant Botin. Known for its pork selection, we sampled perhaps 8 kinds of meat. I don't remember any vegetables.

People ask me if I've been to Spain; does a whirlwind evening and a nice dinner count?

What to Consider if You Want to Leave the Airport During a Layover

It’s important not to leave the airport without some careful planning. Here are things you need to consider before leaving the confines of the terminal:

Visa and Passport Restrictions

If you're wondering , can I leave the airport during a long layover? It depends on where you are. Like the Tom Hanks movie, “Terminal,” you may not be permitted to enter a country by exiting the airport terminal if you don’t have the necessary documentation. International airport layovers are different in that you have customs and immigration to deal with. Customs and Immigration will prevent you from exiting if you don’t have what’s needed, so there’s little danger of making a grave error. Just don’t get your heart set on an excursion just to be told to turn around.

Luggage Requirements

Some layovers or other travel details require you to collect your luggage and then check it in again. If this is the case with your itinerary, you should head straight to the baggage carousel along with the other passengers. For an overnight layover with a hotel stay like my trip through Madrid, this is recommended. Otherwise, if your bags sit there uncollected, they could be carted off to some dusty room in the airport, and it could be very complicated to find and claim them as yours. If you don’t wish to be saddled with your bags, just claim them and then check them back in again, as required. Then, you’ll be free to enjoy your layover without trailing your luggage behind you.

Think About How to Return to Airport

Assuming that you’re stopping over in a city you’re unfamiliar with, you should find out what kind of environment you’ll be entering if you do venture out of the airport:

  • Consider the time of day. Will you be sitting in commuter traffic in the back of a rideshare or taxi?
  • Consider the season. Are you wearing appropriate clothing for hot or cold weather?
  • Consider safety. If you’re traveling solo or with kids, will you be safe exploring the city?
  • Consider the crowds. Is it a high tourism season? Will you be subjecting yourself to standing in long lines wherever you go?

Best Airports For Long Layovers

Determining the best airports includes considerations for cleanliness, comfort, and food and beverage offerings. Based on those criteria, and more than 40 overseas flights, here’s my list of the best airports for long layovers.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas (IAH)

Like many things in Texas, whoever oversees this airport is doing an over-the-top good job. In fact, George Bush Intercontinental Airport is rated one of the best in the world. They put the passenger experience to the utmost, with 112 restaurants and 114 shops for browsing. The downside is that public seating—that is, when you aren’t seated in an eatery—is limited. And, if you’re looking to stretch out for a snooze, you might find it hard, given that the vast majority of chairs have armrests.

Dubai International Airport (DBX)

Traveling internationally, you may often find yourself with a long layover at this airport. But enjoy it because this is a top-shelf airport with world-class amenities that you may not find at other airports. The shopping alone will impress you, with options to buy gold jewelry, luxury brands like Gucci, and much more. As luck would have it, Dubai is only a few minutes from Dubai's city center, and a quick taxi ride can have you exploring this famous area and back in time to catch your flight out.

Zurich Airport in Switzerland (ZRH)

This is rated one of the best airports for a long layover. There’s a Swiss chocolate shop (of course!), guided tours of the airport, specially—designated relaxation zones, and even day rooms for escaping the crowds and resting!

Amsterdam Schiphol Airport in Netherlands (AMS)

If your layover isn’t long enough to leave the terminal, or you can’t for another reason, you can still have plenty of adventure inside this airport. There’s a small museum that showcases Dutch art, an indoor park so you can get some fresh air and sunshine, and a library for reading. Of course, there are also abundant shopping and dining opportunities inside the airport, too.

Worst Airports For Long Layovers

We know that you’re probably going to book your flight based on price and convenience, but if you can avoid having a long layover in the following airports, you’ll be happier!

LaGuardia Airport in New York (LGA)

Despite being a world hub, LaGuardia still isn’t on par with most larger airports in terms of passenger comfort. Specifically, it’s been criticized for having outdated facilities, poor dining choices, huge crowds, and worse, bad seating. The entities in charge have been doing upgrades, but they aren’t happening fast enough to satisfy many passengers.

Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris (CDG)

You would think that one of the most popular airports in the world, in one of the best cities in the world, would have its act together in terms of passenger comfort. But this airport has been hit with numerous complaints about indifferent staff, inadequate signage that makes it hard to navigate in the airport, long lines, and just general discomfort.

Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport in the Philippines (NAIA)

The Philippines is known for its high-class service, friendly and welcoming people, and exotic feel. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the airport. It’s overcrowded, has limited seating, and no free Wifi, to add insult to injury. Online complaints have also mentioned a lack of cleanliness and outdated facilities.

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)

Again, you would think that an airport accustomed to hosting movie stars and celebrities would work hard to be accommodating. But this airport struggles with long lines, insufficient seating, bad signage, and a strange security system that often necessitates entering and re-entering secured areas. However, it must be said that one majorly good thing about a long layover in LAX is that you might just spot a celebrity!

General List of Things to Do During Long Layovers

  • Relax and Read With a Good Book - The airport is a great place to read, and book lovers can find plenty of reading choices in airport bookstores.
  • Explore the Terminal Atmosphere - Take a casual walk around the airport to stretch your legs. Check out the shops and grab a snack if you're hungry.
  • Grab a Bite - Try something new at one of the airport restaurants. Whether it's a quick bite or a full meal, satisfy your hunger.
  • Digital Entertainment Escape - Watch a movie or TV show on your device to pass the time. It's an easy way to keep yourself entertained.
  • Chill Out - Find a quiet spot and take a short nap if you're feeling tired. A power nap can help you recharge
  • Get Work Done - If you've got pending work, use the airport's Wi-Fi to catch up on emails or finish tasks.
  • Read Something - Pick up a book or magazine at the airport bookstore. It's a straightforward way to kill time.
  • Connect with Fellow Travelers - Strike up a conversation with a fellow passenger if you're in the mood. Otherwise, put on your headphones and do your own thing.
  • Airport Services - Make use of lounges or business centers if they're available. It's a practical way to relax or get some work done.
  • Tech Check - Organize your phone or tablet – update apps and back up your data if needed. Keep it simple.
  • Express Yourself - Doodle or jot down some thoughts if you enjoy that kind of thing. Take a few photos if you're into photography.
  • Learn Something Quickly - Watch a short educational video or listen to a podcast. It's a low-effort way to pick up something new.
  • Set a Layover Goal - Challenge yourself to achieve something during the layover – like finding the best coffee or trying a snack from a different place.
  • Capture Memories - Snap a few photos to remember the layover. It doesn't need to be fancy, just a quick capture.
  • Know Your Airport - Check out any info about the airport's history or culture. It's a simple way to pass the time.
  • Plan a Bit - Think about your upcoming activities at your destination. It can be a quick mental plan or jot it down.
  • Stay Updated - Use the airport's Wi-Fi to stay informed. Check the news or browse social media for a bit.
  • Environmental Check - Observe if the airport has any eco-friendly initiatives. It's a straightforward awareness check.
  • Unwind - Simply sit back, relax, and observe your surroundings. Enjoy a moment of peace during the layover.

You don’t have to dread long layovers. Instead of counting down the hours, seize the opportunity to make the most of this time. Whether it's exploring the airport, indulging in culinary delights, or simply finding ways to relax, there are numerous practical and just-for-fun activities to keep you occupied. The next time you find yourself faced with a long layover, remember these ideas and turn your layover into a productive, entertaining, and perhaps even memorable part of your travel adventure. And remember, if you're looking for one of the best airport parking discounts available, check out The Parking Spot, a service that offers airport discount parking when you sign up for the Spot Club! Reserve a Parking Spot before you head to the airport for unparalleled convenience!

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