The scenario: You’re killing time on a lengthy layover, browsing the internet and eating an overpriced a la carte salad. If you’ve got wanderlust, being trapped at an airport terminal is the worst because you’d much rather be out exploring a new city and hunting for street tacos or banh mi rather than scouring the terminal for a seat that’s quasi-comfortable and close to a power outlet.
If this sounds familiar, we’re guessing you’ll be stoked to find out that you can turn your lengthy layover into a cool sightseeing adventure. Oh, and for free!
Some airports offer free city tours during your layover, picking you up in a charter van and taking you out on the town to help you make the most of your time in uncharted territory. If you can, plan your layover in one of these cities or just hope you end up in one (because the universe owes you for putting you in a middle seat, again!).
Before we begin, though, a cautionary note: Some of these tours require that you book in advance.
Here are five cities where you can run away from the runway for a bit.
OK, OK, we take back what we said about it being a total drag to be stuck in an airport. The Changi Airport is an exception, with a butterfly garden, waterfall and a “snooze area.” After you check out the butterflies, though, you can go on one of two tours. The City Sights tour will show off modern Singapore, with stops at the Singapore Flyer, the world’s second largest observation wheel and the Gardens by the Bay, where you’ll come across the magical Avatar-like Supertrees. The Heritage Tour showcases the city’s architecture in colonial and cultural districts like Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam. The tours are each 2.5 hours. You’ll need at least a 5.5-hour layover for the Heritage Tour and a 6-hour layover for the City Lights Tour.
The airport runs two tours a day; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. A stop on the morning tour includes the Yingge District, which is famous for producing porcelain and has a pedestrian mall where you can check out ceramic arts, pottery and other artwork. (Read: The souvenirs are way better here than in the airport shops.) Those on the afternoon tour get to see the Longshan Temple, a famed Buddhist temple in the center of Taipei.
Really, you’re going to be bummed you’re just here on a layover, and we don’t blame you if you start planning to get back to Salt Lake City for a vacation, STAT. When you land in SLC (as the locals call it), you’ll want to take a few minutes to just soak up the scenery because you’re nestled right in the valley, and it’s 360 degrees of stunning views. If you had more time, we’d direct you up to Snowbird to get a $25 daypass at the Cliff Spa, where you can soak in the hot tub or heated pool, within serene mountain surroundings. But if you just have a few hours, you can take a shuttle to Temple Square, in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City, and get a free tour. Temple Square is Utah’s most popular tourist destination. The gardens are beautiful and the Christmas lights during the holiday season make “best in the nation” round-ups. The iconic religious square is also a must-visit for architecture lovers and history buffs. Skip the airport fare and opt for the panoramic views of the city from a rooftop gourmet dining restaurant in Temple Square.
You: “I’m on layover.
Incheon Airport: “How much time you got?
This airport offers several tours varying in duration. The hour-long tour will take you to the Yonggungsa Temple, a beautiful reprieve from security lines where you can admire the 1,300 year-old zelkova trees. If you’ve got three hours, you can choose from multiple Seoul city tours, which make stops at famous landmarks including the historic Changdeokgung Palace that is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and that the committee described as an “outstanding example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design.” Another three-hour tour is all about caves. You’ll venture to Gwangmyeong Cave and get to check out a waterfall, underground lake and a wine cave. A must-stop? The wishing wall where you can wish for health and happiness. If you’ve got four hours, you can hop on the Songdo City Tour. New York City’s Central Park was the muse for this city park that was built along Incheon’s waterfront. The Singi market will give you a taste of traditional Korean meals.
Travelers have a couple of options: You can take a self-guided tour of Tokyo or get an insider look at the city with a volunteer tour guide. In all, there are eight courses to choose from. If you explore on your own, the suggested routes mostly center around shopping. The tour guide-led routes will give you a more cultural experience. For example, you can visit Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple, which has a park with a few ponds and walking paths where you can take in the cherry blossom spectacle or autumn foliage. On the itinerary of another tour? Enjoy Japanese cuisine, pick strawberries and offer prayers to Shisho Shrine.