What if I told you that you can get a mini-vacation on the way to your destination – free – and you wouldn’t have to plan a bit of it? Intrigued?
Anyone who has had to kill time during a long airport layover will tell you, it’s not fun. Airport chairs are uncomfortable, shopping and food options are limited, and crowds and noise become exhausting. It doesn't have to be that way, though. There's a way to turn a long layover into a vacation.
Free transit tours – the secret to a long layover
What’s the secret to a 2-for-1 vacation? Free stopover tours during a long layover! They are an inexpensive way to promote tourism and encourage more travelers to fly through a city's airport. Passengers are grateful for the invigorating relief from their long-haul trips, especially because they come at no cost and help prevent jet-lag. Win-win!
These free excursions are enjoyable ways to get a taste of a new city, with all transportation and logistics conveniently arranged by someone who knows the destination well. They will whisk you out of the airport to show you popular tourist attractions, and get you back to the airport in time to catch your next flight.
There's really no reason to waste hours of your life aimlessly walking around an airport until your next flight departs, if you can take advantage of your situation. It's so easy to do, as long as you ensure that your layover will be long enough to participate in a tour, at the time the tour is offered, and that you are eligible for the tour.
Here are some of the best airlines that offer free stopovers for transit passengers, plus links to their websites where you can find the most up-to-date booking details. Although transit tours are also available in many other cities, these are the ones that are completely free.
Istanbul, Turkey – Atatürk Airport
Description: If the waiting time between your connecting flights in Istanbul allows, you shouldn’t miss the TourIstanbul experience. During the tour, you will be able to see the most significant historical sights of a city that has been the center of world civilizations. Lunch is included as well.
Time needed: Minimum stopover time is 8.5 hours.
Available tours: Touristanbul offers 3 extensive tours, which last for 6 or 9 hours. The 3 different tours cover the city’s most famous sights, such as the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Basilica Cistern. Click here to see what each tour covers.
For more information: Click here for details on how to qualify for a free tour of Istanbul.
- You must arrive at the tour desk at least 1 hour before the tour starts (8:00 am for the 9:00 tours and 11:00 am for the 12:00 tour). For tours ending at 15:00, flight departure time must be 16:30 or later. For the 6-hour tour ending at 18:00, flight departure time must be 19:30 or later. See the website’s FAQ page for details.
- If your layover is overnight, you are eligible for a free hotel stay (you can’t do both). Transfers to and from the hotel are included. Contact email@example.com to ensure your booking is eligible.
- Passengers may not get both free accommodation and TourIstanbul on the same journey.
Singapore – Changi Airport
Description: You may just be passing through this tiny island-state, but let Singapore’s sights and sounds, colors and beats, energy and electricity enthrall you on the Free Singapore Tour.
- Passengers can join only one tour during each stopover.
- Availability of seats is on a first-come-first-served basis.
- Tour itinerary may change, depending on weather and traffic conditions.
Time needed: Tours require at least 5.5 hours (or at least 6 hours for City Sights Tour). Click each tour link for precise details.
- City Sights Tour – This evening tour showcases modern Singapore with a short stopover at Merlion Park where you can get a photo with a piece of history of the Lion City, the Merlion, against the magnificent cityscape of our world-class attractions in their night-lights – Singapore Flyer, Marina Bay Sands, the Esplanade, of all others. The tour also offers another short stopover at Gardens by the Bay.
- Heritage Tour – The Heritage Tour brings you through the colonial and cultural districts – Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam – with a short stopover at the Merlion Park where you get a photo opportunity with the symbol of Singapore. The second stopover is at Kampong Glam, one of Singapore’s colourful ethnic precincts.
For more information: Click here for details on the free transit tours in Singapore.
Korea – Incheon International Airport
Description: Instead of sitting at the gate and waiting for the next flight, turn your layover into a cultural experience. The Korean Tourist Board offers exciting transit activities and tours that will give you an opportunity to experience some of the popular sights and sounds of Korea.
Time needed: Layover must be at least 4 hours long. Tours last between 1 and 5 hours.
Available tours: Choices include an Incheon City Tour, Seoul City Tour, Temple Tour, and several others. Click here for the list of free tour options at Incheon Airport.
- 1-hour tour: Yonggungsa Temple.
- 2-hour tour: Incheon Culture Tour
- 5-hour tour: Incheon City Tour
- 5-hour tour options include: Seoul City Tour, Seoul Culture Tour, Seoul Shopping Tour.
For more information: Click for details on the free transit tours in Korea
- Availability of seats is on a first-come-first-served basis.
- All of the free tours include an English-speaking tour guide, so even those who do not speak Korean can enjoy the tours without any difficulties.
- Site admission fees and meals must be paid by travelers.
- With the approval of the tour guides, you can get off tour bus and enjoy your trip by yourself.
- Medical Tourism services are also available for transit passengers. Details here.
Taipei, Taiwan – Taoyuan International Airport
Description: Free half-day tours are offered on a first-come basis, and are limited to 18 passengers. You can choose between morning and afternoon departures. Transit or transfer passengers with 7- to 24-hour layovers before their next connecting flight, who have valid R.O.C. visas or come from countries eligible for visa-exempt entry. (See website for details.)
Time Needed: Layover must be at least 7 hours long.
- Morning Tour – Shou Sin Fang Creativity Wagashi and Cultural Center, Sanxia and Zushi Temple.
- Afternoon Tour – Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and Longshan Temple
- Lantern Festival Tour – Daxi Old Street and Taiwan Lantern Festival
For more information: http://eng.taiwan.net.tw/tour/index.htm
Tokyo, Japan – Tokyo Narita Airport
Description: Welcome to Japan! If you have a layover at Narita Airport, choose from several tour options that let you tour Narita (Tokyo is too far away for a layover tour). You will experience Japanese warmth and hospitality along with some of our country's history and culture, as well as shopping. You will also experience Japanese public transportation firsthand.
Time Needed: You’ll need about 6 hours to do one of these tours.
Available Tours: The Narita Transit Program offers three volunteer guided tours, and two self guided shopping tours.
- Narita City – Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple and Narita-san Omotesando Japanese culture experience
- Shibayama Town – Discovery of aeronautical science history and aircraft pilot experience
- Tako Town – Japanese Country Life Experience
- Shisui Premium Outlets® Shopping Bus tour (self-guided)
- AEON Mall Narita shopping & Wonderful “WA” experience (self-guided)
For more information: Click here for free layover tours at Tokyo Narita Airport.
Doha, Qatar – Hamad International Airport
Description: Enrich every step of your journey with a complimentary tour of Doha, courtesy of Qatar Airways and Qatar Tourism Authority.
Time needed: You will need a minimum of 5 hours for this tour.
Available Tour: One tour is available, departing four times a day. This tour takes you to all of the city’s most famous sights, including the Pearl-Qatar artificial island, Katara Cultural Village, Souq Waqif Arabian market; and the Museum of Islamic Art.
For More information: http://www.qatarairways.com/global/en/offers/doha-city-tour.page
- Tours cannot be pre-booked. Availability is on a first-come, first-served basis.
- A maximum of 22 passengers can be accommodated on each tour.
- Visa is complimentary but eligibility is subject to immigration approval.
Salt Lake City, USA
Description: Have a layover at the Salt Lake International Airport? Well, you’re in luck! You don’t have to spend the afternoon watching planes take off. “Salt Lake is not New York. Why the heck would it want to be? It’s frickin’ perfect here.”
Time needed: 2 hours
Available tours: Free tour of Temple Square, in the heart of Salt Lake City.
For more information: Click here for details on the free tour of Temple Square in Salt Lake City.
Free Transit Tour Essentials
- Scheduling: Take note of when you need to arrive for tours – some require you to show up 30 minutes to an hour beforehand. Similarly, ensure that your tour will arrive in plenty of time to clear customs and immigration before your next flight.
- Eligibility: Check what documents you will need to take the tour. It is common to need proof of your previous and ongoing flight, such as an airline ticket.
- Visas: “In-transit” passengers usually don’t need a visa to take airport layover tours. See website for list of countries eligible for visa-free entry.
- Passports: You may need to hand over your passport for the length of the tour.
- Money: Museum tickets and lunch are rarely included. If you plan to buy food or admission tickets on your tour, you will need local currency. Options are the currency exchange desk, an automatic teller machine or paying by credit card (bank fees vary).
- Food: Meals are rarely included. If you are a selective eater or your tour doesn’t get out of the bus, you might want to buy something at the airport beforehand. On the other hand, if you are adventurous, you may wish to hold out for a local market or food stall.
- Luggage: Not all tours have room or allow you to bring your luggage with you. If they don’t have storage facilities, you can store your carry-on with the airport’s “Left Luggage” service (fee applies).
Have we missed any free layover tours? Do you have any tips to share?