I’m writing this from Rome’s Fiumicino airport, where over the course of my two-hour layover, I sampled Italian-style pizza, bought a bag of biscotti, and ate a cannoli (or, to be correct, a single cannolo). True, it was an airport cannolo, which means that it was probably not the best cannolo on earth. And I’m sure it cost at least double the going rate for a cannolo. But still, I got to eat a cannolo in Italy, which is better than eating a cannolo anywhere else in the world.
This is why I love layovers: because for a few hours, or maybe even a day, you are afforded a brief taste—quite literally—of a new country.
Longer layovers allow you to get a deeper sense of a place, and I’m always on the lookout for an opportunity to squeeze one in. Last week I had a seven-hour layover in Mumbai, a city I had yet to visit despite many months of travel in India. After leaving my baggage at the airport, I took a taxi to the Bandra West area, and met up with Gaurang Menon, who runs an independent travel company called TrueNorth. (I had booked a customized snowboarding package with TrueNorth in the Indian Himalayas two months earlier, and over the course of our email correspondence, we discovered a mutual love of adventure travel.) No, I didn’t get to see Mumbai’s famous sights—but there was a seaside pavilion, a sunset observed from a café, and a long, pleasant chat with a travel-loving local. In other words: the perfect layover.
In my personal book of notable layovers, the winner is the time I traveled from Tel Aviv to Belgrade via a 22-hour layover in Athens and a 24-hour layover in Sofia, Bulgaria. I wasn’t in a hurry to get to Serbia, and with the money I saved by going indirectly ($400 instead of $800), I got to see the Parthenon, gorge myself on tzatziki sauce, and spend a few hours hiking around Vitosha, a mountain just outside of Sofia.
That’s not to say that layovers can’t suck. They can. They can be boring, frustrating, and expensive, especially if you arrive late at night and need to take a taxi to and from an overpriced hotel. They can also be quite cold, as I found out when I showed up in Zurich in January wearing sandals. (I was en route from Cairo, and had forgotten to remove the warm clothes from my pack, which was checked through to Boston.)
But, when done right, layovers can be downright fun. I have my perennial favorites, like stopping off in Iceland on transatlantic flights (Icelandair allows you a free stopover at no extra charge) and eating my beloved tortilla española at Madrid’s Barajas Airport.
Feel free to share your favorite (or worst) layovers in the comments below!