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The Art of the Stopover

Updated: Feb 25

There are a seemingly endless number of destinations to dedicate to your travels, and the more you travel, the more the world seems to open up. Most opt for the most direct route to their destination and back, to maximize their time on vacation. Direct flights may reduce overall travel time and limiting vacations to a single destination may allow for more in depth exploration, but in doing so, you may also be missing out on fabulous add-on vacation opportunities. The stopover allows you the unique opportunity to pad your trip with additional experiences, without great additional cost or commitment.

There are essentially two ways you can maximize a stopover; spend a few hours sightseeing before your connecting flight (aka a stopover opportunity); or delay your connecting flight by a few days to enjoy a short stay before returning home (aka a stopover vacation).

The first time I tasted what a stopover vacation could be, was an impromptu trip where a friend and I visited Spain, Ireland and France over the span of ten days. Until then, my experience was limited to round-trip vacations, meaning one major location with direct flights to and from. This trip began just like that, with only one destination in mind, but we took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves and allowed the trip to evolve.

Sunset on the beach, Cambrils, Spain
Sunset on the beach, Cambrils, Spain

Originally, we were to fly direct to Ireland, but when a mutual friend invited us to join him at his summer home in Spain, we jumped at the opportunity. The direct flight to Spain was the same cost as the direct flight to Ireland, so for a minimal addition of an inter-Europe flight, we were able to visit two countries. Once we discovered how inexpensive the inter-Europe flights could be (even on major airlines) we opted to stop in France before heading home. The direct flight home from France happened to be less expensive than direct from Ireland, so the added cost of the second inter-Europe flight was virtually non-existent. This is what the art of the stopover is fundamentally all about; taking advantage of opportunities.

TIP: If your travel dates are flexible, be sure to check flight routes for different airlines and select the best date for the best price. Most airline websites will show the difference in cost from one date to the next when searching.

At the time, I recall being excited to see three separate countries in one trip, but scared that hopping on a different flight every three-four days would be exhausting and deter from the vacation. Pleasantly, it did not. In fact, with each flight, we were invigorated; ready to say goodbye to one destination and experience the next leg of the journey.

TIP: When planning short-stay vacations, whether you’re accustomed to stopover trips or not, it’s best to leave one full day open and free from plans. This allows for rest if you need it, or spontaneous adventures if you don’t.

The next opportunity came when we were planning our Galapagos cruise. Since there were no available direct flights from our location, we were forced to stopover both on the way to and from Ecuador. On route to Ecuador, we had a 3-hour layover in Panama, but this did not allow for enough time to do anything but relax in the airport lounge. On our way home, however, we opted for a longer layover. Same flight to Panama from Ecuador, but the later connecting flight out of Panama, at the same price. The 8-hour layover allowed us enough time to leave the airport and visit the Panama Canal.

Panama Canal, Panama
Panama Canal, Panama

TIP: Even if you don’t book flights through search engines like Expedia, they can be useful research tools. Being able to easily toggle between dates and see a list of flight options can help determine if a stopover vacation (or opportunity) is possible.

Before we picked the longer layover flight, we did research how much time was needed to leave the airport and see certain sights. This, of course, varies from city to city, depending on where you’re stopping and the airport you’re landing in. It’s smart to double check, with a quick online search, on how difficult it is to exit and re-enter the airport. If others have not attempted it, give yourself extra padding in case something goes awry.

TIP: Set realistic expectations when planning sightseeing destinations, with plenty of padding. If google maps estimates x number of minutes to get from point A to point B, add at least half as pad. This allows for delays and spontaneity along the way.

Landing in Panama, once we passed through security, we were approached by a taxi driver asking if we needed a cab. We let him know what we wanted; a ride to the Panama Canal, where he would wait the hour or two for us to visit there, then a scenic drive around the downtown area before heading back to the airport. We agreed on a set price, and we were off. We didn’t specifically ask the driver to play tour guide, but he very graciously pointed out areas of interest during the drive and offered to stop so we could capture a few photos. It was a lovely extra experience to tack onto an already full vacation.

Camel rides in the desert, Dubai, UAE
Camel rides in the desert, Dubai, UAE

The next opportunity came while we were planning our vacation to The Maldives. Similar situation as Ecuador, there were no available direct flights to Male, so we needed to stop somewhere. And from what was available, we knew it was going to be a long journey to the Lhaviyani Atoll. After researching the options, we settled on stopping in Dubai, so that we could explore the city for a few days on the return trip. This also allowed us the opportunity to experience Business Class for the first time, via Sri Lankan Air, from Dubai to Male and return.

This trip was a perfect example of a stopover vacation. As avid travelers, we have a long list of “must see” destinations. Dubai was on that list, but not necessarily at the top, so when the opportunity presented itself for a short stay, we took full advantage. Spending only two nights in the city, we had prearranged excursions to maximize our time there, including a private falconry safari, camel rides in the desert, dinner in a small Bedouin-like camp and a view from the top of the Burj Khalifa. Our experiences in Dubai were unforgettable, and we never would have experienced them (or at least not anytime soon) if it hadn’t been for the stopover.

Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England
Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England

After travelling to The Maldives and Dubai early on in the year, we didn’t think we would be able to travel again until the following year, but circumstances unfolded and we were soon off to Greece. Having now decided Business Class was the only way to travel long distances, we searched for routes that would allow that option within our budget. Flying Business Class to Athens via London was the same cost of Economy Class direct to Athens. So, for the same price, we stopped in London for a few hours on the way to Athens, and a few days on the way home. We only spent two nights in London, but pre-booked a tour to visit Stonehenge, hired a driver for an afternoon to whisk us around the city to see the main sites, and of course, walked the city at our leisure.

We were also able to take advantage of a stopover opportunity on route to Mauritius, where we visited Vienna for a short 9-hours. Research unveiled that a short 15-minute direct train left the airport for the Vienna city center every 30-minutes. We decided to jump on and walk around the city for a couple of hours, before heading back to the airport to catch our flight to Mauritius. This stopover provided us the perfect snapshot of the city. We had the opportunity to walk the streets, visit the stunning St. Stephen’s Cathedral and stop at Demel Bakery & Cafe for a thick slice of the famous Sachertorte. It served not only as a nice break, but left an impression that pushed Vienna up the list of “must see” destinations. That’s the beauty of the stopover; you can sample the destination with little commitment and decided if it is worth a return visit.

St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna, Austria
St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna, Austria

Now, it must be said that it doesn’t always work out. Flights don’t always align the way you’d like them to. On the way home from Mauritius, we stopped in Zurich for 12-hours, which would have allowed for a lovely stopover visit, but unfortunately, we landed late in the evening and could do no more than book a room for the night and nap before our connecting flight early the next morning.

Not everyone loves to fly. Regardless of how good (or bad) of a traveler you are, opting for a stopover vacation breaks up the route and gives your mind one more exciting thing to focus on. For someone like me, who doesn’t love flying, having another place to go distracts from the reality. Stopovers are usually viewed as bad, but if you take full advantage of the opportunity, they can become a travelers tool for see more of what the world has to offer.

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