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Is Leaving The Airport During A Long Layover A Good or Bad Idea?


Long layover tips infographic

When booking your flight, you are often presented with several options for layover times between flights. Some are quick, 50-minute connections, where you barely have time for a restroom stop before walking to the gate. Other layovers are around two hours, so you might have time to check out the airline lounge and grab a quick, free drink. Still, some layovers can easily be six or more hours, especially if connecting to an international flight in the evening. If that's your situation, you may consider leaving the airport and exploring the city center. These six points can help you decide whether a city excursion is worth it.

Depending on where you are, your primary concern will be the time required for a round trip to the city and back. If you are traveling during rush hour, add time for traffic. You might consider public transportation. Many cities, including Denver, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., offer inexpensive, direct transportation from the airport to the city center.

luggage being searched at airportWoman's luggage being checked at airport; Photo by cdc/

Remember—once you return to the airport, you'll have to go back through TSA screening. Make sure to consider the time of day you'll be returning and how busy the airport might be. For example, the airport you're connecting through might be larger than your home airport, so take into account that there might be more passengers and more flights departing at the same time. If unfamiliar with the airport, you can check TSA wait times online or ask the gate agent of your arriving flight how long it usually takes to clear security.

Another concern may be your luggage. It won't be an issue if you checked all your bags or only have a backpack, but carrying multiple bags could pose a problem. Many places, like museums, don't allow large bags into the facility, especially if certain attractions have their own security requirements. Some cities, such as Denver, have a solution to this problem. Outside of Union Station, where the train from the airport terminates, you'll find Lugden, a short-term luggage storage and phone charging service. Storage is available at hourly, daily, overnight, and weekly rates.

three people in a cityTourists using navigation tools to explore the city; Photo by jacoblund/

If going into the city center, it's best to have a plan to make your trip worthwhile. For example, decide to simply stroll and see the sights, or purchase tickets and make reservations ahead of time. Many museums require advance tickets for timed entry, even if admission is free. Booking a short tour that is offered on a set schedule might be the best option for managing your time and getting the most out of your short visit.

With international travel, you'll have to clear customs before you can exit the airport and when you return, in addition to security screening. You may also have to collect your bags and recheck them between flights, which can take considerable time. Also, keep in mind that you may need a visa to venture beyond the airport. A number of international destinations require that travelers with U.S. passports purchase tourist visas before entering the country.

If you venture outside the airport and miss your connection, you'll likely be on the hook to buy a new plane ticket. To avoid this risk, stay inside the airport and explore what's offered in all the terminals. Depending on the airport, you can find exercise bikes, showers, museum exhibits, swimming pools, observation decks, and outdoor patios.