The Art of the Stopover

As a fairly seasoned traveller, I am always looking for how I can get the most out of my travel time. One easy way to do this is through stopovers.

I’ve been able to spend a day or two in places I want to check out but don’t want to stay too long in, and have been able to turn a single vacation into two destinations. Since I live in Vancouver, and Toronto is home, I will often use a stopover on my way to Europe or south to stop in and visit family and friends.

How to do this? You have already learned how to find the cheapest flights with my tips here, but the ones with the best stopovers may not be listed first as Google Flights tends to list in order of price. The cheapest flight may not be the best value. There is a function where you can click “show longer or more expensive flights”at the bottom of your search results which I recommend always exploring. I suggest looking for either the shortest stopover, or the longest stopover to avoid spending time waiting around the airport. You can also use the multi-city search function to create your own stopover ideas.

Option to look at longer stopovers on Google Flights search result

3-6 hour stopovers are useless to me and I rarely book flights with these stopovers. I’d rather pay a little bit more to reduce my airport time, either through a quick connection, or through a long stopover allowing me to venture into the city. I’ve been able to make the most of stopovers ranging from 6 hours to several days. Beyond 24 hours can impact taxes/fees so be aware of this (I try to do the 23.5 hour stopover in Toronto to avoid having to pay extra fees but to allow the most amount of time visiting as possible).

Stopovers can also work a different way…. when you are going somewhere, and then add a destination. I was planning a trip to Toronto and was able to add a side trip to Cancun for only an extra $100 total (in business class!!! Whaaaat?) and then fly home from Cancun to Vancouver. It is always fun to play around with Google Flights to see where you end up!

Some airlines promote free stopovers to encourage you to visit additional places.. Icelandair is probably the most famous for attracting visitors to Iceland on their way to Europe from North America however other European airlines such as Air France and KLM do the same with their home bases (Paris and Amsterdam).

A few things to consider when looking to leave the airport on a stopover:

  1. Is this city somewhere I want to explore? Is it worth the trouble/cost to check it out (usually the answer is yes as even exploring a place I don’t like such as Beijing beats sitting in an airport for 14 hours). There are additional currencies to obtain, different weather to pack for, research on transportation and sights, etc.
  2. How far away is the city/nearest attractions? For example, in Vancouver, you can jump on the skytrain from YVR airport and be downtown in 30 minutes.
  3. Do I need to claim and recheck my bags before leaving the airport? Or will I be stuck carrying my bags with me for my stopover?
  4. Do I need to go through customs? Do I require a visa? In China, Canadians are eligible for a 72 hour transit visa which allowed me to visit Beijing. The line to get this visa at the airport however was lengthy and did cut into my 14 hours of exploring time.
  5. How much time do I need to get back in time to catch my next flight? It is important to factor in any stressors that could arise such as traffic or a transportation break down.
  6. Costs. Those pesky Houston stopovers on the way to Central America can get expensive as they are often overnight and require a hotel – thus increasing the price. If there is another flight available that avoids this cost, even if slightly more expensive, it is likely a better value to avoid hotel cost.

To give you an idea of what you can do on a stopover, below are some stopovers I have managed to enjoy while connecting on to my final destination.

  • New York City (via Newark, NJ airport) on my way to Puerto Rico, and again on my way to Ecuador – the train from Newark gets you to Manhattan Penn station in under an hour.
  • Frankfurt, Germany on my way to Croatia, and another time on my way to Lithuania – There is a direct train from the airport to the centre of the city which is incredibly walkable.
  • 40 km bike ride around Adelaide during a 6 hour stopover on my way from Port Lincoln to Perth, Australia.
    40 km cycling ride around Adelaide on a 6 hour stopover.
  • Honolulu, Hawaii on my way to Sydney, Australia – I ended up taking a couple of days here to enjoy my first trip to Hawaii before heading down under.
  • A vegan binge in downtown Denver enjoying the food scene.
  • Vegan baked brie at Watercourse Foods in Denver – worth the stopover!
  • Beijing, China on my way home from Australia. The 72 hour transit visa line was lengthy but thankfully I had 14+ hours.
    Thankfully only one day and not long enough to get too hungry… Beijing, China
  • Several hours in Toronto AND several days in Amsterdam on my way to Turkey.
  • Tokyo, Japan on my way home from Bali, Indonesia. This train was rather long and infrequent however I had 14+ hours and still managed to see quite a bit of the city.
    A day in Tokyo, Japan
  • Hong Kong for a few days on my way to Thailand. Having a few days doesn’t require as much rushing or planning as stopovers of a few hours.
  • Houston, several times on my way to Central America. This is one stopover I can’t really recommend. The airport is not served by any efficient transit and there isn’t much to see or do. If you have to fly through Houston, try to keep it short.
  • San Francisco – if you only have an hour, try the chicken pesto sandwich from Kleins, but if you have a few hours you can jump on the BART and be downtown in no time, hanging with the sea lions at Pier 39.
  • Toronto – my other home. If a route I’m flying has a stopover option for Toronto, I’ll take it, even if only for a few hours. If I only have 3 hours I’ll often have friends come pick me up to grab something to eat at Jack Astors nearby in Mississauga. Otherwise, the new Union Pearson Express train makes going into downtown even for only 5 or 6 hours worthwhile when in Toronto.

This isn’t entirely foolproof. On a recent trip to the Philippines (March 2018) I was denied the transit Visa in Shangahi and spent nearly 10 gruelling hours in the airport. A shorter stopover would have been nicer here. Other than China, I’ve never heard of this being an issue.

Regardless of where your travels take you, you can add a little bit more adventure or culture by looking beyond the basic search results for your flights.

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