Layovers. Unavoidable nuisances. Unnecessary punctuations in your trip. Often characterized by subpar wifi and average food courts. Some test your speed, others test your patience. If you dare attempt productivity, good luck finding a place to plug in your phone.
Layovers are often the product of circumstance: for many trips, they’re expected. Or perhaps you’re like me, where you had the option of a direct flight but you opted to set your trip back six hours to save $15. It is during these stretches of solitude that I end up spending that same $15 on at an overpriced, allegedly “fresh-made” veggie wrap and Diet Coke.
So while I avoid layovers almost as much as the next guy, I look for hidden opportunity in what can essentially be a free adventure. To me, it’s reason enough to layover because you get more frequent flyer miles. But if for whatever reason you don’t measure your worth in miles, allow me to fill you in on what you’ve been missing in my mini-series called The Layover. (What, that’s a TV show? Crap.)
The Unplanned Yet Enjoyable Layover: On our way to Rio de Janeiro, a delay in Miami caused us to miss our next two flights, meaning we had to wait several hours once we got to Sao Paolo to catch another flight to Rio. While there are many cons to travelling with my five family members, one of the worst is that when we miss flights (often) it’s impossible re-book six people together on the same flight, so we usually have to wait longer. But unlike most of our unplanned strandings, our bonus time in Sao Paolo was sunny and enjoyable. We bought some coconuts from a street vendor and sipped the water straight from them as we checked out some botanic gardens and an hit up an art museum. It was much better than sitting in a dim airport on the floor for four hours. Before we knew it we were boarding a plane to Rio.
Copacabana base tan: Check
The Mailing-It-In Layover: I found myself totally unprepared for my layover alone in Madrid. I wanted to check out the city, so I bought a round-trip train ticket. Two actually. I was too lazy to withdraw any euros and there was a minimum amount to charge on a debit card, so I was forced to purchase two. Oh well. It was a quick and easy ride. Once I got off, I was too afraid I’d lose my way, so I limited myself to walking in a up and down one single road. Now, it was a pretty happenin’ street, and I should have sat at a restaurant and had some tapas, but I chickened out. My Spanish does not go far beyond ¿donde esta? and if I it came down to me using that, I was likely in trouble.
There was, however, an H&M on this stretch. I went inside, and bought not one, but two shirts. I still feel guilty about my uncultured cop-out. That said, I still get a ton of compliments on them, and people are always surprised when I say I bought them from H&M.
“Well, its Spanish H&M,” I correct them. Yup, I’m that snobby.
Spanish Flair: Check…sort of.
The Locked-Up Layover: Many of you have already read this exhausting, 6-hour saga. Must I go into detail? Rule of thumb: don’t make plans to leave a high-security airport when it’s hosting the Olympics.
The Layover Requiring An Entirely Different Wardrobe: We stopped in Frankfurt, Germany for almost 8 hours on our way to South Africa. Having done “mini-vacation” layovers in half that time, we weren’t the least surprised when my dad told us we would be leaving the airport. This wouldn’t have been such a crazy idea if it weren’t 28 degrees and snowing in one place and 77 in our final destination. We toured a cathedral and an art museum, ate hot pretzels from a street vendor for lunch and wienerschnitzel for dinner. We lugged our hats, gloves and bulky winter jackets halfway across the world just so we could walk around. 20 hours later, we went to the beach. Needless to say, we burned.
The Stuck on A Plane Layover: If being stuck in an airport for several hours seems bad, being stuck in your economy-grade seat as your plane sits on the tarmac for 3 hours puts it in perspective. Especially when everyone in your family besides you and your sister were bumped up to business class. On our way back from South Africa, we stopped in Senegal for fuel in the middle of the night. It felt like eternity. My mom brought back the deluxe chocolates you only get in the primo seats, which Morgan and I threw back in her face all the way up the aisle to first class. We may be snotty brats, but we weren’t posers. That was eight years ago, and I’m still bitter about it.
Reality Check: Check.
The Passport Stamp Layover: We had a 4-hour layover in Japan on our way back home from Thailand. It was the end of our trip and everyone was tired, but with four hours between flights, my dad insisted on leaving the airport. He’d already been there, and the rest of us really couldn’t have cared less if we went. We took a poll, and it was 5-1 vote eat free crackers in the United Lounge. But our vacations have always been more authoritarian than diplomatic. If they weren’t, the fact that it took 45 minutes to get into Narita, the nearest town, would have factored in the decision. So would have the universally-accepted rule that and one must get to the airport two hours before an international flight. We can’t agree on religion, Syria or global warming but the people of the world are down with the 2-hr airport rule.
I knew it was going to be dicey when even the customs agent questioned why we were leaving when our flight took off shortly. He stamped our passports as we went through customs to the exit. For a second I thought that once we got our passports stamped, my dad would turn around and head back toward the gates. It wouldn’t be the first time we went on a wild goose chase in an airport seeking a rubber ink stamp.
Our sluggish group trekked on. Upon our arrival, it was snowing in Narita and there was no time to do anything. Everyone was starving so we went to get some fresh, authentic sushi.
Just kidding, we went to McDonald’s for burgers. What we did was the cultural equivalent of leaving Chicago O’Hare Airport to go check out Des Plaines, and then eat some takeout sushi from a strip mall with a fork out of a cardboard box. To say everyone was cranky would be an understatement.
Let’s just say we were well under the 2-hour minimum check-in when we got back to the airport.
Japan passport stamp: check.
The Layover Lunch: My favorite layover was one in which I was not travelling. My dad and uncles were headed to Sweden for an ancestry trip with my grandfather. Dad and I purposely arranged for everyone to layover in D.C. just so I could meet them from school. Without telling his brothers and my grandfather why, my dad somehow coaxed them into leaving the security area at Dulles, and I surprised them outside the gates. I ditched class and it took me two and a half hours to arrive by bus, but for a 45-minute lunch paid for by Paul and a good laugh, it was totally worth it.
Surprise Send-off: Check
My dad and I are partners in crime when it comes to planning these adventures. The two of us get a thrill out of them no matter how seemingly terrible they end up. Surprises, last-minute decisions and outrageous plans are our specialty, and they all come into play in the upcoming series that started out as a quick family trip to Prague and ended up in a layover-filled frenzy that spanned nine cities over nine days. To my father, “Prague” is loosely defined. It could really mean any part of the former Soviet bloc and apparently even stretches into countries that once formed the Ottoman Empire. Geography has never been our strong suit.
Either has been predicting how our trips will turn out. If you’d foreshadowed that I’d be stranded and drunk before noon with two Turkish men and a Nigerian, I would have assumed that I was soon to be abducted and killed with my mouth taped and a bag over my head. Luckily, I made it out alive to tell the story.