Int’l Layovers: The Right and the Wrong Way

No doubt that if you travel lots you have had a layover, whether it be domestic or international, short or long, you probably want to make the most of your time there.  Making the best of your time may only be finding a comfortable place to re-charge your laptop and phone while grabbing some z’s, or it might be exploring the increasingly luxurious confines of the big international departure zones.  For those with even more time and flexibility, you might even be able to leave the airport and explore your local surroundings.  This post is for those people who have had long layovers or will in the future. This post is about how to do it the right way and the wrong way.

The WRONG way

On my trip to Cambodia for the Christmas holiday I found myself with a 14+ hour layover on Christmas Day in Guangzhou, China.  I had never been to China but I had read about the new permits at major Chinese destinations like Beijing, Shanghai, and as it happens, Guangzhou, that allow you to stay in the country for 7hrs.  So it was plain to me that I was going to explore the city of Guangzhou.

Right from the get go my planning was flawed.

  1. I booked a hotel in advance (good) but I did not realise it was a chain (bad) and when it came to arriving in Guangzhou my taxi driver had no clue where it was even with a Chinese address.  He proceeded to drive me around like he knew where he was going, driving up the meter, before handing me off to another taxi who equally had no idea.  When I finally got to the hotel they told me that, yes, I had a reservation, but at another hotel of the same chain….no problem! They’d switch it they said. Except they double charged me after my no show at the other hotel I had just spoken to on the phone to clear up the misunderstanding.  They refused to refund me the cost for the other room. TIP: Buy a local sim card always to clear up be able to make local calls and let your hotel know in advance you are coming, they may have an airport shuttle.
  2. I did not get any Chinese yuan before I got there so I had to get it at the airport where it is debatable as to whether you get a favorable exchange rate. TIP: Get your money in advance, it might take some time out of your day but you’ll be thankful once you grab your bag from the baggage carousel and walk right out with money in your pocket.
  3. I had underestimated how big Guangzhou really was and so rather than being near the city center I was on the outskirts, far away from the things I wanted to do.  Rather than get screwed by another taxi or get lost on a bus I decided to stay near my hotel. TIP: Get a basic idea of how large the city is, how long it takes to get to your hotel, how far apart things are, save Google map route images!
  4. After giving up going out into the center of the city having spent quite a bit on taxi fares I decided to go take a walk around the block.  As it happened there was a night market which was interesting to see. But where I went I wrong was not being adventurous when it came to eating.  I saw many small food carts and restaurants but nothing caught my eye…shamefully my Christmas dinner consisted of a crappy and cold KFC meal. TIP: Don’t be afraid to eat local!  Eating fast food abroad regularly, but especially on a layover, is an opportunity lost!
Grey uninspiring view from my hotel room
Guangzhou night market



Depressing; pets for sale in tiny cages….

The RIGHT way

Having been teaching or traveling in Asia since February 2014 I was finally headed home back to Canada after backpacking in Thailand and Laos as well as a month in Abu Dhabi to visit my father.  I had booked the cheapest flight I could find from Abu Dhabi to Toronto months in advance and a couple times I had received emails informing me that the itinerary had changed but I had scarcely looked at them because it was months away and I was busy doing my CELTA and backpacking.  It was perhaps a week before my flight to Toronto when I thought I’d take a look at the itinerary and it turned out that I would have a layover of around 9hrs  in Rome.  Immediately I set to work to make this layover work, the RIGHT way.

  1.  First I researched if it was indeed possible to enter Italy without a visa while waiting for a connecting flight.  It was; I hold a Canadian passport so there was no issues here.  Even though I arrived the day after the Paris bombings I was stamped through immigration with the official barely bating an eyelid. TIP: Always check ahead to see if you can even leave the airport; your nationality or the host nation may not allow you to leave the airport, you may need a visa.
  2. I knew this time that it’d be a good idea to get some euros ahead of time.  Luckily my dad had some euros leftover from his work trips so I got some from him and I was able to find an ATM to withdraw money using my visa card. TIP: If you can’t get money ahead of time it is always a good idea to bring a credit/debit card that you can use internationally to withdraw money and equally a good idea to tell your bank ahead of time in case they notice the activity and deny you access to your funds.
  3. Next I looked up transportation from the airport into the city center and the best means to get around it. I found the amazingly helpful website The Rome Toolkit which helped me immensely.  Seriously, if you are planning a trip to Rome, consult this website as it has just about everything you need to know about transportation, hotels, and the sites. I found that there is an express train from the Fiumicino Rome called the Leonardo Express train and it would only take 30 minutes from the airport to Rome Termini, the main train station in Rome.  I also found that Rome has a subway system that was cheap, easy to use, and with stops located within walking distance of a lot of the tourist attractions. Sorted! Tip:  Always allocate the time to and from the airport to the city in your layover equation.  Also, it might be an idea to get a day pass when using a city’s subway system if you know you will be using it a lot. I underestimated how much I was going to use it and
  4. Then the tough part; deciding what to see and do!  Luckily Rome is not nearly so sprawling as Guangzhou and most of the sites I was researching were at the heart of the city and within walking distance of the subway as mentioned prior.   I narrowed my list of things to see and do to: the Vatican, Trevi Fountain, and of course, the Colosseum.  I specifically chose these sites because they were close to the subway stations and I knew by limiting my self to just a few special places I could more fully appreciate them than having to ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhh’, snap a few pics, then run off to the next one and repeat.  TIP:  Get ruthless!  Dig deep and think about what you really want to do in the limited amount of time you have.  Ask yourself, what would I truly regret not seeing if I never came here again?
  5. Food.  This time I did not make the same mistake of missing out on the local specialties, though I did go for the most predictable; pizza and gelato.  I had looked up the best places to eat pizza and gelato but what in what is a running trend in how to do a layover the RIGHT way, I comprised and ate pizza and gelato at a place just next to the Trevi Fountain (which I should say had just re-opened to the public after a multi-million euro renovation and looked spotless in its ageless beauty).  Luckily, the pizza place I had gone to was actually also one of the most highly rated places for gelato.  I’m not sure of the name, but it was directly to the left of the fountain and inside you are still able to see the fountain.  TIP: Don’t be afraid to splurge money on food if you only have short layover; it beats the hell out of eating McDonalds at the airport!

I hope you’ve found this post helpful in your efforts to make the most of your layovers, learning from the things I did right and wrong.  Have you had similar experiences of great layovers or layovers gone awry? What other tips can you give me and other travelers.  Let me know in the comments!


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