You pull up your flight options, find what looks like a terrific deal, but there’s just one snag: a long layover in a hub airport on the way to your destination. You can turn that headache into a trip enhancement if you’re on the right airline though since many offer an attractive stopover program so you can get out and see the city. In some cases you might even get incentives to stay for a night or two.
If you’re passing through Istanbul, Panama City, or Reykjavik, wouldn’t it be nice to have two vacations instead of one? If you’re traveling a long distance across an ocean, how about stopping off for a while in that place where you have to change planes instead of sitting around the airport? With a stopover built in, you can enjoy two different places instead of just the final destination.
If you do it right, this second stop is not going to add anything to your flight cost either.
This idea is nothing new and a few of these formal airline stopover programs have been around for ages. This scheme probably helped Iceland become such a popular tourism destination: people stayed for a day or two on the way to somewhere else and got entranced enough to return. It certainly helped that IcelandAir threw in extras during promotions, like a hotel room, a rental car, or a local guide. It worked so well that now they’re now talking about what to do about too many tourists.
There are basically four ways to work a stopover into your flight plans without paying extra money for it:
* Fly with an airline that allows a free stopover
* Take advantage of a very long layover that’s already built into the flight schedule
* Call the airline to ask for extra days at your hub
* Use a budget airline for the last leg—a few days later
For the first option, there are a lot of programs that give you something extra during an airline layover though and for reasons I can’t really fathom, they’re not very well publicized. That may be just because airlines are notoriously bad at PR, but it is probably also because these stopover options are rarely shown during the booking process. You have to know about them in advance and sometimes you need to wait on hold to talk to an agent to take advantage of them.
By my count there are more than a dozen free stopover programs available, however, ranging from just a no-penalty overnight stay to a full-blown “sounds too good to pass up” basket of incentives to stick around. Here are some airlines officially offering stopover programs that you can code in while booking or work out with a phone call.
I’m going to start with ones in bargain-priced destinations and then end up in the pricey spots. Last will be some advice on working your own independent layover option out even when there’s not an official program in place.
How Many Airlines Offer a Free Stopover Program?
Depending on how you define it, there are somewhere between 12 and 15 airlines offering some kind of formal stopover program where you can leave the airport, tour the city or spend the night, then get back on a plane to continue your journey. These range from “free” long layovers to mere discounts and local booking help to free 4-star hotel stays.
This doesn’t count the airlines where there’s no formal program in place but you are unofficially allowed to stay for more than 24 hours without your ticket price rising. Unfortunately, the only way to find those is to play around with the multiple cities booking option and see.
I’m not really sure why this idea hasn’t been embraced by more airlines and cities, especially obvious hubs that are already common transit stops such as Dublin, Frankfurt, and Atlanta. Avianca launched a 48-hour program for Bogota back in 2018 but then didn’t continue it, even though all it did was let you stick around longer in Bogota—which few people are going to do otherwise.
Here’s a breakdown of the different programs that are out there as of the time of writing. Do you own research on the official airline or tourism board website to make sure the program still exists and that the conditions are the same. (This post was updated in February of 2023.)
A Turkish Air Layover in Istanbul
This is, in most respects, the best free stopover program out there these days, both because of what’s included and because of the attractiveness of the hub city. Politically Turkey has become an autocracy these days and is not the free and fun country I once lived in during the 1990s, but if you’re there for a couple of days you can ignore the politics and the tilt to the religious right.
The good news that has come out of all that, for foreign visitors, is that the leaders have managed to royally screw up the Turkish economy. In February of 2020 one U.S. dollar got you 6 Turkish lira. Three years later a buck gets you 19. It’s one of the world’s best travel bargains right now, especially for sampling the local food.
Kudos to Turkish Air for clearly laying out the terms and how things work on their website so you don’t have to be a sleuth to figure it out. With this program, you can get a free night in a 4-star hotel if you’re flying economy and a generous two nights in a 5-star hotel if you’re in business class. (I flew on business class on Turkish Air once and it was outstanding, with an amazing lounge to use in their airport, so check the rates and it could be worth the upgrade.)
The fine print: This must be a round-trip flight and you don’t get the freebie if you booked a free flight with loyalty points. You need to make the arrangements at least 72 hours before arrival.
TAP Air Portugal for a Stay in Lisbon or Porto
I’ve raved about Portugal for years after going on a bike tour of Alentejo, but I spent some time in Lisbon too and would love to return. TAP now offers some of the best flight deals between the USA and Europe, so I may end up flying with them again sometime in the coming year or two.
TAP Portugal allows a stopover in Lisbon or Porto for up to 10 days on the way to their other European destinations. Doing the stopover adds a 25% discounted rate to your second destination in Portugal if you go elsewhere in the country, especially useful if you’re headed to the Azores or Madiera Islands. You can book online, for either an outbound or a returning flight.
Prices have ticked up in Portugal and it’s not the bargain it was when the financial crisis hit them hard: this is no longer a secret, especially for long-term travelers and nomads. But it’s still probably the best value in Western Europe. So you will eat well and drink good wine for reasonable prices, plus some of the castle hotels in Portugal are surprisingly reasonable.
Copa Airlines Stopover in Panama
The Panama-based airline Copa is one of the best options for flying south into Latin America. If you’re headed to Central or South America, Copa is a great choice because it is based in Panama City, “the crossroads of the Americas.” It’s on the way to anywhere you’d want to go in South America and doesn’t require much backtracking for Central America. They’re also part of Star Alliance, so unlike with Icelandair, you can use or earn valuable mileage.
You can break up the trip halfway by stretching your legs in the capital for a while and maybe checking out the Panama Canal. The country has some of the cheapest booze in the world, the Panama luxury hotels are surprisingly affordable, and the natural areas feel like Costa Rica but with smaller crowds and better prices. Some of those natural areas are very close to the city.
This layover used to be notoriously difficult to book but now there’s a dedicated page where you can make the arrangements and you can find more details here. There are no additional incentives, but prices for travelers are good here and the cost of living in Panama is reasonable if you’re looking for a warm spot in the sun to move to.
Fly Iberia and Lay Over in Madrid
If you’re flying to Europe on Iberia, the Hola Madrid stopover program definitely incentivizes you to stick around the capital for a while and even take some excursions. Besides being able to stay for 1 to 6 days at no extra flight charge, you can get discounted hotel rates, 20% off at the Prado Museum, discounts on tours to places like Segovia and Toledo, and more.
One great perk they throw in is a free transportation pass so you can really explore the city. It works on the whole system: metro, light rail, and bus. You can even use it for buses to some other cities.
See all the details on the Iberia website.
A Long Stop in Ethiopia
You won’t find much about this one online and details are kind of sketchy on the airline website, but if you have a layover of 8 to 24 hours in Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines, you get a free hotel night out of the deal. Here’s the official word from the airline site:
For passengers whose connecting flight is over 8 and up to 24 hours and there is no immediate connecting flight to continue the journey, interline desk will facilitate hotel accommodation provided that such passengers have transit /entry visa. For those nationals/ citizens who are eligible for transit visa on arrival, interline desk will facilitate such transit visa. The airline provides a bus service for transfer to/from hotel layover transit passengers.
I have no idea what there is to do in that city since most people heading to Ethiopia get out to tk or tk, but hey, it’ll give you a taste of a different place anyway.
Icelandair is the original; “stopover in Iceland” was probably the first time most people heard about this idea. They figured out early that building a 3-day stay into their flights between North America and Europe would mean a lot more visitors to Iceland. Those visitors spread the word about what a great destination it was and caused the country to get more and more popular as time went on, especially once we got into the age of social media.
The program is still going strong, so you can fly from the USA to 26 destinations in Europe (or the other direction to 18 in the USA/Canada) and spend up to 7 days in Iceland. It’s not a big island really, so you could see most of it in that amount of time easily if you wanted.
Understand though that all the incentives this airline and tourism bureau used to offer have scaled back and this disappeared over time. Back in the pre-internet days before all those Instagram shots they used to throw in free or discounted hotel rooms, a rental car, and a local aide that would help you sort out your itinerary. Now they don’t need to do any of those things to encourage more visitors. So they don’t. All you get out of the deal is the right to stick around without paying more for your flight.
The Dubai Stopover Program
I just flew on Air Emirates for the first time ever at the end of last year and I’m sold. I wish I could fly with them everywhere. It topped my former “best flight ever” in economy which was Singapore Air. If flight experience were a 1,600-meter track race, they’d be lapping everyone else these days. Every meal, included of course, was like this:
The airport wasn’t so great though, especially if you’re trying to find a place to recharge your gadgets, so get out of it and head to the city. I didn’t have time on my trip to take advantage of the Dubai Stopover program, but maybe I will in the future if my wife is with me and we can extend a vacation there.
This one is interesting because besides giving you the ability to stop over for a while in Dubai, if you book your hotel through this program you get a 24-hour checkout. So you could arrive at an odd time and check out at that same time a day later. This usually includes buffet breakfast where you’ve booked and many include airport transfers as well.
Last, there are supposedly discounts on local tours, though I didn’t dive into that to compare the details. See more here at the official airline site.
Eithad’s Program for Abu Dhabi
Eithad Airways also gets high ratings from travelers and if you’ve flown all the way from North America or Asia, the chance to stretch your legs for a day or two in Abu Dhabi could be enticing. This just might be the best stopover deal out there besides Turkey’s because here’s what you get if only staying a short time, according to the official website:
Stop over in Abu Dhabi for free at selected 3* and 4* hotels in Abu Dhabi.
Stay for up to two nights
Complimentary in-room Wi-Fi
Sweet! As with Dubai, note that the hotel stay is for 24 hours, so it doesn’t matter when you land.
If you want to stay longer, they’ve still got an offer for you. You can get a 5-star hotel discount of up to 40% and besides the 24-hour checkout and Wi-Fi, they’ll throw in a buffet breakfast. And there’s more: “When you stopover in Abu Dhabi, your boarding pass doubles up as the Extraordinary Abu Dhabi Pass; your ticket to exclusive deals and discounts on days out and dining in Abu Dhabi.” (It also includes free public transportation, like a bus to/from the airport.)
Stop in Muscat With Oman Air
This one is for people outside of North America since the airline doesn’t fly from that continent, but if you happen to have a flight on Oman Air with a layover in Muscat, there’s a limited program to entice you to stick around a while. They offer discounts on hotels and tours, or you can stay for eight hours and get a discounted city tour plus airport lounge access.
It’s a clunky process with human intervention necessary after submitting info through a form it looks like, but start the process here.
A Doha Stop With Qatar Airways
I’d put the Qatar airport up there with any I’ve spent time in except Singapore’s, but what I saw outside the glass reminded me of the landscape of the future in the Terminator movies: lots of fire, smoke, and bleakness. Maybe it’s better when you get into the center of Doha though and you’ll have a chance to find out if you take advantage of the Qatar Airways stopover program.
The main reason to do this, besides checking out the supposedly amazing Islamic art museum, is the incredible hotel prices they offer travelers taking advantage of this promotion:
Standard (4-star): From $14
Premium (5-star): From $20
Luxury (5-star): From $77
The deals get even cheaper per night if you stay for two or three nights. Not such a bargain is going to swim with whale sharks: that will set you back $495 per person.
Limited Stopovers in Expensive Places
There are some long layover programs out there that are half-hearted at best, with no real incentives offered besides the chance to leave a day or two later without any penalties in the price. IcelandAir’s is like that now but we’ve left it above because of the history and the fact that it’s the closest European destination to the Northeast, so an easy hop on the way to elsewhere. These others aren’t so convenient.
Finnair lets you stop over in Helsinki at no extra cost, but of course you will indeed have plenty of extra costs compared to where you came from in that expensive city. So unless you have a burning desire to visit, there’s nothing in for you to take advantage of this one.
The Stopover Switzerland program is more of an add-on package than a perk, with discounted programs to visit one additional city or more. It would take some time to pick through the options and compare them to rates you could set up yourself online, but at least there’s a dedicated booking page after you have it planned out.
Singapore used to have an incentive program where you could get discounted hotel stays and tours, but now that generates a 404 page on their website and all I could find was a reference to a free city tour you can take during a long airport layover.
Japan Air Lines has Tokyo stopovers built into its multi-city booking tool, so it’s easy to set up some time in Japan on the way to somewhere else or within the country, with no extra charges. While Japan has traditionally been a quite expensive place to visit, their currency has tumbled recently and local prices have drifted back down to Earth.
Creating Your Own Stopover
I got out at the metro stop near Notre Dame Cathedral and wandered for hours along the Seine. I ate some cheese, drank a glass of wine, and snapped photos like a tourist visiting the city for the first time. That’s because I was visiting Paris for the first time. I had a 20-hour layover at hideous Charles de Gaulle airport coming back from Kyrgyzstan and I wasn’t going to waste it hanging out there, even if you can sleep in the airport.
I booked a cheap hotel nearby that had a shuttle and hopped the metro into the city. The next day I took the shuttle back to the airport after a horizontal sleep and a shower.
The quirks of international connections often create a situation like this. Normally you want to avoid long layovers if you’re on a tight schedule, but if you’re looking for them you’ll often see that “+1” indication on the choices, meaning you won’t’ depart until the next day. It’s not unusual to see layovers of more than 24 hours either if you keep scrolling down. So the easiest way to create a free stopover is to just choose the option with the longest layover.
Sometimes it can be a similar price to book one yourself via the multi-city option. You book a flight from A to B, then B to C, then C to A on the return. If the price is the same or not much more than just booking a round-trip flight, voila you have your stopover and can stay as long as you want.
You can also book a flight from A to B, then C to A, and find an alternate way between your stopover city and your eventual departure point. That could be a train, a bus, a ferry, or a cheap regional flight on the likes of AirAsia or WizzAir. Technically this isn’t a stopover since you’re not returning to the same airport, but it accomplishes the same thing.
Occasionally you can get away with creating a stopover in the USA in a hub city on the way home. If you live in Chattanooga let’s say, and you’re coming home from Europe on United, there’s a good chance you’ll have to change planes in Newark or Dulles. Sometimes for free, sometimes for a change fee you can spend a few days in New York City or Washington D.C. before making your way home to the final airport later. You can find 100 free things to do in Washington D.C. if you spend a day in the city.
For more details, check flight options on Skyscanner to get an idea of price ranges, then book direct or call the individual airline.
Other Creative Stopover Options
Even though we are made to feel we can book every flight out there online, the website often doesn’t have the same capacity a human agent does. Some airlines don’t have a formal stopover plan in place, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work one out with them for your particular situation. I’ve heard of many people calling the airline and saying, “I want flight ABC to your hub city but want to fly out on XYZ two days later instead of the same day. Can you book that for me at the same price?”
Often, they can. It’s not anything shady, but they have to code it into their system the right way so it’s a layover and not two distinct flights. Some can’t or won’t, but many call center agents are bored of answering the same questions all day and are glad to stretch a little.
Many savvy travelers know that the best way to your final destination is often not with the airline that brought you across an ocean. It’s often better to connect to AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, to EasyJet from the UK, or to a budget Mexican airline in Mexico. The list goes on and on for different continents and new discount airlines are popping up all the time.
The idea here is, you’re changing planes and airlines anyway, so it’s not going to cost you any extra to put three days between those flights rather than booking them right next to each other. Just because Kayak or Skyscanner is showing you the two flights together doesn’t mean you have to book them that way. Plus Southwest and many of the budget airlines won’t show up on these search sites anyway: you’ll need to book two separate flights on different websites. So, space them out and enjoy a break from being crammed into a long metal tube.
Thursday 9th of February 2023
One more addition for this list: Saudi stopover visa (announced on Jan 30, 2023). Here's the link https://www.visitsaudi.com/en/saudi-stopover
Sunday 5th of February 2023
I have created my own stopover many times with that airline switch you are talking about. It's easy to do in Europe or Asia. You pick the cheapest long-haul flight you can find, then find a budget airline flight at the other end to get you to where you want to land eventually. In between you take a few extra days and make it a 2 country vacation.