How Long Should a Layover Be to Leave the Airport?

Yes, it's possible to leave the airport on your layover. Here's how you can make your connecting flight and explore a new place.

Time is of the essence

Successfully boarding your flight is the end of the airport journey for most travelers. However, if you booked a connecting flight, then making that flight is just the first hurdle to work through. Is there enough time in between to make your next flight? And what if you have a long layover and plan on leaving the airport to check out a city—would that even be possible? In short, it depends. Avoiding the final flight of the day, selecting the best seat, and using the same airline are a few tips on how to avoid missing your connecting flight.

How much time do you need to make a connecting flight?

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Domestic airlines don’t have a standard minimum connection time, so it’s up to you as the passenger to gauge how much time you need to make your connecting flight. Your connecting flight could still leave without you if you’re not there, so it’s best to leave more than enough time. In general, according to SmarterTravel, in order to make a connecting flight at a U.S. airport, you should allow 60 to 90 minutes to make your flight. That includes the time needed to disembark the plane and gate. If the worst-case scenario happens and you miss your flight, this is exactly what you should do next.

What if you want to leave the airport?

It’s tempting to book airfare that has a long layover so you can take advantage of your time in a new city. However, it’s important to keep in mind that timing is a crucial factor. “It’s tough to visit most American cities on a short layover, but the time involved will vary greatly by destination,” Scott’s Cheap Flights flight searcher Darci Valiente told Reader’s Digest. “I would want a minimum of eight hours in most cities in order to leave the airport, take transit into the city and return in time to re-clear security before boarding my flight. Make sure that you return to the airport as early as you would typically arrive to check-in for a flight so that you aren’t snarled by unexpected traffic or long security lines.” If you’re really cutting it close, this is how to cut the security line when you’re about to miss your flight.

Where do you put your bags?

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Sometimes it’s worth packing only carry-on bags, like how this traveler packed for a two-week international trip with only carry-on bags. If you opt to bring your bags with you on the plane, make sure you avoid the worst spot on the plane for your carry-on bag. However, it’s good to know there are times it’s smarter to check your luggage. If you’re concerned about where to place your luggage before a long layover, Valiente says there’s “less to worry about if your bags are checked, but most airports (especially internationally) have luggage lockers so you can stash your carry-on bags while you explore during your layover.”

Is it worth it to leave the airport and explore a new place?

It’s important to explore the world at your own pace. “I greatly enjoy leaving the airport to explore, but it’s essential to plan ahead. Be realistic about whether or not you have enough time to leave the airport and return in time for your connecting flight,” says Valiente. “This is frequently easier outside the United States where security lines are less intense and airports are better connected to city centers via public transportation.”
As with any vacation, it’s important to make an itinerary and do your research. “Plan out what sites or neighborhoods you’d like to visit and prioritize places that are within close striking distance of the airport so that you’re not crisscrossing the city and wasting time, and plot out the amount of time you’ll need to leave and return to the airport on Google Maps (as well as what modes of transportation to use) before committing to the trip,” says Valiente. These are the 13 things you should never do at an airport.

What’s the difference between a layover and a stopover?

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A layover is when you’re trying to go from your current location to a new destination but the plane stops at a third place along the way. Think of flying from New York to Florida but stopping in Atlanta in between. A stopover, on the other hand, is when you can spend a few days in the middle place. Airlines like Icelandair offer stopover programs so you can stop in Iceland at no additional charge on your way to your destination.

Do you have to go through security again to make your connecting flight?

For most connecting flights, you won’t need to go through security if the gates are in the same terminal. If the gates are in separate terminals, depending on the airport, then you might need to go through security again. However, if you end up leaving the airport, then you will have to go through security again. On international flights, it’s important to know when you will need to clear customs. In case you’re curious, a TSA agent explains the reasons why you get stopped at security.

Are there airports to avoid?

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Even though some airports might be better than others, Valiente says there are no specific airports to avoid. “Short connections in very large airports can be more difficult to make, particularly if you have to change terminals,” says Valiente. “For stopovers, avoid airports in large cities that are far from the center—major domestic examples include IAD, JFK, and LAX. Getting out of the airport will be costly, both in terms of time and money.”
However, Valiente notes that there are good airports to choose if you do happen to have a long layover. “Singapore is an excellent airport for a long layover, also a big fan of CPH Copenhagen and Tokyo Haneda,” says Valiente. “Domestically ATL and DTW are some of our favorites.” Make sure you know the 10 worst airports if you’re running late.

What to know about international layovers

While it’s tempting to book a layover in a new city in a new country, it’s important to know if there are any additional requirements. “While there are many destinations that you can layover visa-free internationally, there are destinations that require visas even for short visits,” says Valiente. “Depending on the visa process, it may not be worth the hassle depending on the length of your layover. It’s also always a good idea to stay on top of local situations, for example, transportation strikes, holiday closures, or political unrest can greatly impact your layover/stopover.” Next, make sure you know these 68 travel tips that can help you have a stress-free trip.

Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at RD.com. Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: www.madelinehwahl.com