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Layovers are an unavoidable aspect of flying. At some point, most air travelers will find themselves facing a long time in the airport between flights. But with the right mindset, strategizing what to do during a layover can be a fun part of the travel journey.

Whether you opt to relax in an airport lounge, do some shopping for local souvenirs, or perhaps even leave the airport for a few hours to explore a new city depends on how much time you have, which airport you’re laying over in, and what you’d like to experience. 

For inspiration on what to do during a layover, as well as insider tips on making the most of them, I’ve tapped into my own experiences as a longtime travel journalist and included key considerations for your next long layover. Done right, it just might be a travel highlight instead of something to dread.

What to do during a layover?

A side-view shot of a young man wearing casual clothing exploring a duty free shop in an airport in Toulouse, France before catching his flight. The man is smelling aftershave.

Before you decide what to do during a layover, it’s crucial to know how much time you have between flights. If your layover is under three hours, it’s a wise move to stay put. That’s simply not enough time to leave the airport, see anything worthwhile, and make it back through security in time to board your connecting flight.

Obviously, you have plenty more options for what to do during a long layover with those upwards of six or so hours. But don’t forget about other important factors as you decide what to do. Among them:

  • delays of your incoming flight,
  • the time required for security (pro tip: it can fluctuate throughout the day, especially during peak travel times like Friday afternoons),
  • and how far apart your gates are in the airport. 
It’s all smooth travels with our Airport guide.
20 mins read

What to do during a short layover (under 3 hours)?

Asian young woman sitting at airport terminal lounge and using phone to chatting
Two teenagers sitting in an airport terminal.

Depending on the airline, if you’re flying domestic, you’re not likely to have a super long layover. And if you’re flying internationally, a layover of three hours or less may not leave you with enough time to do more beyond grabbing a quick bite and a restroom break before boarding. Still, there are plenty of things to do during a layover of about three hours to make the most of your time. 

Focus on wellness

Following the global wellness trend, more airports are offering spaces dedicated to passengers’ relaxation and well-being. San Francisco International, for example, became the first airport to offer a free yoga room in 2012 (it’s since added another). Yoga rooms can also be found at New York’s JFK, Chicago O’Hare, and Miami International, just to name a few.

Kick back at an airport lounge

For many frequent flyers, airport lounges are the preferred way to pass the time during a long layover. Quality varies widely between lounges, but generally, you can expect free food and drinks (usually including alcoholic beverages), and quieter, more private spaces to escape crowded terminals.

Passengers can access lounges in one of several ways. One is airline membership programs (which are increasingly strict). Another is credit card perks (my current card comes with membership to Priority Pass, a network of more than 1,400 independent lounges worldwide). Finally, passengers can also purchase a day pass (though, as lounges have become way more popular lately, day passes are increasingly limited). 

Shop ‘till you drop

Yes, some airport shops and chains feel the same, no matter where you are in the world. But savvy travelers know airports in certain cities – Dubai, New York, and Paris, just to name a few – beckon with shopping options that are so enticing, that they’re almost worth a visit on their own. 

In addition, on international trips, you can take advantage of duty-free shopping, which means you won’t pay taxes (or duty) on those goods.

What to do during a medium-long layover (under 6 hours)?

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The good news: six hours is plenty enough of a cushion if your first leg is delayed or even canceled. The not-so-good-news: Six hours is a long time to spend in an airport, (especially if you arrived early at the one where you began your journey). Here’s how to make the most of it.

Squeeze in a workout

Some major international airports, including Dubai, Vancouver, and Chicago O’Hare, offer gyms and wellness centers, either as standalone facilities or as part of on-site hotels. Be sure to check opening hours beforehand, and note that most require a fee.

If there’s no such facility in your connecting airport, don’t fret. Airports are ideal places to squeeze in your daily step count, which is one of my favorite things to do during a layover. To really ramp up your effort, forgo the escalators or moving walkways and just start walking. I’m often pleasantly surprised to see how quickly those steps rack up.

Admire some art

In the bustle of an airport, sometimes it’s easy to overlook excellent (and often free) artistic offerings like on-site museums and exhibits.

At Amsterdam Schiphol, travelers who may have missed visiting the Rijksmuseum should head straight to the institution’s smaller but still excellent outpost between Lounges 2 and 3 in the main area. The mini museum showcases a rotating selection of original works from Dutch masters, thoughtfully displayed behind glass partitions. The free space is open 24 hours and also has a high-quality gift shop.

Other European airports, including Rome-Fiumicino, Athens, and Cyprus also boast small but well-curated exhibits that showcase their unique cultures. 

In the U.S., SFO’s public art is almost guaranteed to be good, since it’s selected by the prestigious San Francisco Arts Commission. Av geeks should check out the Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum, which offers a fascinating look at aviation history.

Savor a gourmet meal

Thankfully, passengers no longer have to rely on soggy sandwiches or vending machine drinks for refreshments at the airport. Dining has reached remarkable new heights over the last few years – especially in international terminals. Hubs including Japan’s Haneda, New York-JFK, Singapore Changi, and Dallas-Fort Worth are among those with world-class dining options that offer an indulgent way to pass the time. 

Lately, foodies have been aflutter over the re-opening of Classified, United Airlines’ exclusive, fine-dining restaurant at Newark International. Strictly invitation only, it’s a highly coveted reservation – and a great way to spend a layover at EWR.

What to do during a long layover (12 hours)?

A group of happy people with their luggage stands on the curbside of an airport.
A modern and cosy capsule hotel room with white walls, equipped with an illuminated mirror and a small safe box.
Group of people at the airport business class bar

Once you hit the 12-hour mark, you’re officially in long layover territory. It’s worth it to plan well in advance for how to spend your time so that you can make any necessary reservations or figure out a plan for leaving the airport.

Catch some zzz’s

For late-night or early-morning arrivals, it’s a wise move to head straight to the nearest hotel for some shuteye. Yes, airport hotels can be pricey, but you might save some money by reserving a room in advance. 

In addition, solo travelers can take advantage of a growing number of what are generally known as napping rooms or sleep pods. These offerings, found at many major airports with long-haul connections, offer tranquil (but tiny) spaces to catch some much-needed rest.

Check out the city

For adventurous-minded travelers considering what to do during a 12-hour layover, the answer is simple: get out of the airport and take in some local sights.

Best cities for a layover

A long-haired woman walking through the colourful streets, wearing a red jacket, knitted sweater, and sunglasses.
A woman taking pictures with a DSLR camera on a cobbled street.
A man and a woman taking a selfie as they ride in the backseat of a car with the top down on a bridge.

If you’re trying to decide what to do during a 9-hour layover (or one that’s even longer), leaving the airport is a common consideration. But it’s important to keep in mind that not all cities are ideally suited for exploring with limited time. 

Ideal destinations have direct access via public transit, as well as plenty of nearby landmarks to experience with a limited schedule. Before you leave the airport, be sure to allow plenty of time to pass through security and make it to the gate in time for boarding your connecting flight. 


In recent years, the capital has become a popular stopover spot for travelers, whether it’s a quick day trip or multi-day layover. But its Blue Lagoon is a must-do for any itinerary. Thanks to multiple bus and shuttle services from both its airports to the attraction, you’ll be melting away any travel stress in about an hour.


With many main attractions about five miles from Humberto Delgado Airport (about 30 minutes via public transit, and even quicker via taxi), this popular European city is just the ticket for travelers who want a quick dose of Old-World culture, top-notch cuisine, or just a shot of sunshine in between flights. For about $1.50, a ticket on the “Aeroporto–Saldanha” line will whisk you downtown, where a long layover will fly by as you explore landmarks such as the elegant Avenida da Liberdade, bustling and beautiful Rossio square, or the iconic Santa Justa elevator.  


Thanks to direct train and bus connections linking the city center to Schiphol, Amsterdam is a cinch to explore. And there’s no shortage of things to do during a layover in Amsterdam: a leisurely boat ride through its canals, a visit to a world-famous museum, or a two-wheeled tour of this biking paradise.

However, be sure to allocate plenty of time to return to Schiphol and clear security and, if necessary, customs and immigration. Recently, the airport has struggled with staff shortages that can result in lengthy lines. (And as a resident of Amsterdam, I’ve experienced some of them firsthand.) The airport’s app is a handy resource for monitoring wait times, and you can also use it to book a timeslot for security lines, a service that’s also available in other airports.

San Francisco

With public transportation offering direct access into the heart of the city, SFO passengers can be gawking at the Golden Gate Bridge in no time. Simply grab a ticket for BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit system, and within about 30 minutes you can be enjoying the myriad delights of the City by the Bay.


If you want a way to transform a long layover into a short getaway, consider that some airlines, including KLM, Tap Air Portugal, Emirates, offer programs that allow travelers to experience a connecting city for several days. Generally referred to as stopover programs, such options are usually at no extra charge. However, be sure to do your research if you opt for one, and be aware of visa restrictions and other logistical considerations (for example, that you must bring checked baggage with you).

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Disclaimer: Prices and information are correct as of 01.26.2024 and may vary with time.

About the author

Blane BachelorBlane Bachelor is a journalist and editor specializing in travel and aviation who writes regularly for top global outlets. Born and raised in Florida, Blane has worked and lived in four countries, including the Netherlands, where she’s currently based with her family. Her favorite way to get to know a new destination is by running or riding a bike around town – or hearing a spooky ghost story about local history. She will always choose the window seat.

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