Author: Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

Winning The Layover Lottery

My normal modus operandi is to book my flights in the most efficient manner possible, taking into account time changes and minimizing time in transit. Traditionally, there is nothing I hate more than a layover in the limbo world of intra-airport transfer. I’ve done my share of snoozing on benches at my gate, waking every ten minutes worrying about whether or not I’ve missed my flight. In short. I hate layovers.

Or at least, I thought I hated layovers. Until I found myself with six hours in Japan 24 hours into the 30 hour trip from Boston, USA to Penang, Malaysia.

When you are taking a round the world trip, you have time on your side, and you may be able to take advantage of a layover in a city that was never really on your radar.

The options

It didn’t even occur to me until an hour or so before I left to catch my first flight that I had six hours in Japan, a country I’ve never been to and always wanted to visit. Six hours that didn’t have to be spent in the airport perusing shops full of candy sushi and rice cracker dolls. I could escape. I could actually visit Japan.

And so I did.


It took a little explaining to the border control officer that I was only staying six hours and couldn’t produce a hotel reservation because I’d be back on my flight just after dinner, but eventually he “got it” and a broad smile crossed his face: “Welcome to Japan!” He beamed.

I took the train into Narita, walked the famous Omotesando Street, wandering in and out of little shops and trying to remember to bow graciously instead of “wai” as I’m used to, living in Thailand.

I had the Naritasan Temple complex to myself as the sun set behind the big pagoda, and I basked for just a moment in the incense drenched instant of perfect solitude. A bell sounded somewhere on the grounds. I lit my candles, as I always do, and took a moment to just breathe. If only for a few minutes, hours, I was in Japan.

What else but a bowl of ramen for dinner? In a shop I’d photographed on my walk to the temple, ordered in the international sign language of smiles and gestures, punctuated with laughter. The owner spoke no English. I know only three words in Japanese. I ate, completely alone in the world, and seasoned dinner with a quiet walk through my own soul.

And so, I fell in love with the layover.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the time since: How layovers, the bane of travelers everywhere, are just like everything else, a matter of perspective and planning.

I’m now dedicated to maximizing them. If they’re under three hours, it’s too risky to hop the train and risk missing a flight. But I’m not planning long layovers on purpose and hoping to get lots of mini-vacations like I had in Japan last month on a regular basis.

My friends over at Unknown Home inspired me with their intentional layover in Los Angeles this summer, on their way to South America. LAX is a great airport to escape from if you can, and LA has so many perfect one day adventures just waiting for a long layover.

Silk Airways has packaged layovers in Singapore that allow travelers to spend a night or two exploring the city state on their way through. They’ll even do all of the work of arranging your hotel and tickets to attractions up front… for a fee, of course!

Iceland Air has long been famous for their up to seven day stop overs on the enigmatic island between continents on trans-Atlantic flights. I did a long weekend in Iceland between Boston and Kiev in February. It was fantastic. You should do it!

Chicago is a common layover point for cross-continental flights in the USA and traditionally the airport I hate most of all to be stuck in. Why not plan seven hours instead of two and hop a cab into the city? Take a walk on the Miracle Mile, visit the fantastic Natural History Museum, or eat a famous pizza at Ginos?

I’ve been stuck in Atlanta and frustrated more than once. If it happens again, I have a plan. I’m gonna meet my favourite cousin for beers at a fantastic Irish pub downtown, order some peach cobbler and enjoy the moment instead of cursing the size and layout of my second most hated airport.

Are you seeing the possibilities yet?

When traveling round the world, what if we took those travel days, which tend to be days of focused forward motion, and slowed them down, stepped off of the conveyor belt in the airport, looked up at the blue sky, the sun setting behind the pagoda, the smiling faces around us, and lived in that moment. Could we stretch ourselves and live in even that moment? And if we did, how would that change our experience of travel?

We’re heading from Phuket to Kuching, Malaysia soon. I booked the tickets last week and intentionally gave us two overnights in Singapore to explore. We’re headed to New Zealand in the new year, and I’m already thinking about where we can take a six hour break and do something beautiful in the middle of a hard core flight marathon. Do you have some suggestions?

Getting “stuck” with that layover in Japan was a gift. It’s opened my eyes to the possibilities. It’s showed me a whole new world in tiny pockets of time that I’ve previously written off as “wasted.” It’s reminded me to look for adventure even in the very mundane and to expect “life” to take place even in the most lifeless moments… like airport layovers. I love that. I love it when another layer of scales are peeled back from my eyes and I meet the world, and in it, I meet myself.

So how are you going to spend your next layover?

Check out the following articles and resources for more tips on making the most of your travels:


Every week, on “Round the World Wednesday” we share tips for planning, budgeting and selecting a route, plus advice on where to go and what to see and do all around the world.


Photo credits:  Social Geek, Se7enw00d