6 Crucial Things to Know Before You Leave the Airport on a Layover

Plan carefully or pay the price — with stress or stranding.

Planning an epic international trip that requires a long layover? Leaving the airport to soak up some new sights is an appealing alternative to hanging around indoors. But before you just run out of the building willy-nilly, here are five points you need to consider.

1.  You Need to Have Enough Time

A four-hour layover may seem plenty of time, but taking into account how long it takes to get from the airport into the city — or any place of interest — and that you'll need to go through immigration upon arrival in a new country, and to be back in the airport two hours before your connecting flight leaves (you'll have to go through security again)... you're left with almost zero spare time. But, if you can get out of the airport quickly, anything over, say, six hours should be a comfortable amount of time to get a quick taste of your transit city.

2.  You'll Have to Consider Your Luggage

If your two flights are on separate tickets, you will need to pick up your luggage and bring it into town with you — or leave it in left luggage at the airport. If you have hand luggage only, or your bags are checked all the way through, you're good to go.

3.  You Need to Check Visa Requirements

Before you leave the airport, you'll need to make sure you have the permission to be in that country. If you are transiting through, say, India or Russia, you cannot leave the airport without a visa. However, other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, allow U.S. citizens to get a visa upon arrival should they decide to leave the airport.

U.S. visitors normally require visas to enter China, but the country now offers a 24-hour transit without visa (TWOV) program allowing visitors to leave the airport (after clearing customs and immigration) and spend up to 24 hours in China before continuing on to a third country. Holders of passports from 51 countries (including the U.S.) are also granted a temporary entry permit of up to 72 or 144 hours when transiting through certain Chinese airports. Again, you need to continue on to a third country when your time is up.

4.  You'll Have to Take Distance into Account

Before you fly, check how far your transit airport is from the city it is purported to serve. Tokyo Narita Airport, for example, is about hour outside of Tokyo, which means you'd be better exploring the neighboring, though not as exciting, city of Narita. Mexico City, on the other hand, is just a 20-minute taxi ride from the airport.

5.  Sometimes it's Actively Encouraged

Airlines have caught on to the fact that many travelers are not content to wile away their layover hours on a bench eating a stale sandwich. That's why Turkish Airlines offers passengers with a minimum of six hours in Istanbul to take a complimentary tour of the city's attractions. Free layover tours are also offered at Doha Airport, Qatar; Narita, Tokyo; Incheon, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. 

6.  Staying in the Airport Might Not Be So Bad After All

With movie theaters, whisky tastings, yoga rooms, and even museums now found in airports, maybe you'll have a fine (less stressful) time simply staying put.

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