Best And Worst Asian Cities For A Quick Layover

One of the nice things about airline award tickets is that in many cases you’re allowed a free stopover when traveling between regions. And typically even if you’re not allowed a stopover, you can still make as many connections of under 24 hours as you’d like. That presents a fun opportunity to do several “mini-stopovers” and get a good sense of a city.

So I figured I’d share two of my favorite and two of my last favorite Asian cities for stopovers. In general, when picking out a city for a quick stopover, I’m looking for:

  • A city that’s easy to access from the airport, ideally via public transportation
  • A fairly centralized city, where there’s a lot to see/do in one area
  • A city where you can get a good sense of the local culture in less than 24 hours.
  • A city that’s easy to get around in terms of transportation options and ease of using those

With that in mind, lets start with my favorites:

Singapore Changi — great city for quick stopover

I often refer to Singapore as “Asia light.” I think it almost feels less Asian than Vancouver. It’s a great first city to visit in Asia since it won’t be a huge culture shock. It won’t be like the first time I visited Ho Chi Minh City, where I spent the first day trying to figure out how to cross the street.

Singapore-1

But what makes Singapore a great city for a quick stopover enroute to another destination within Asia?

  • It’s extremely easy to get from the airport to the city, regardless of whether you take a taxi or the MRT. All the cabbies speak English extremely well (and in most cases have some very amusing stories), or otherwise the subway system is one of the easiest in the world to use, and ridiculously clean.
  • You can get a great impression of Singapore in a day. That might just be a function of how sterile it is. But you can easily hit Little India, Arab Street, the Marina Bay Sands/Singapore Flyer, Clarke Quay, the Raffles for a Singapore Sling, etc., all in a day. I’ve been to Singapore a dozen times and love going back, though don’t love spending more than a couple of days there.
  • Singapore is a great food city. There’s just so much amazing food, regardless of whether you’re going to a hawker center or one of the many gourmet restaurants.

Singapore-2

Hong Kong  — great city for quick stopover

Admittedly I’m a bit biased, as Hong Kong is my favorite city in the world.

The first thing working in its favor for a quick stopover is that there’s the really convenient Airport Express, which gets you from the airport to Kowloon in just 22 minutes. Also, virtually all the signage in Hong Kong is also in English, so it’s easy to get around and make sense of public transportation.

I could spend weeks in Hong Kong, but I do think you can get a great impression of it in just 24 hours. A lot of the attractions are very centralized, so if you’re staying in Kowloon you can easily visit Victoria Peak, stroll down the Avenue of Stars, take the Star Ferry, visit the Ladies Market, and watch the Symphony of Lights, all in one day.

Hong-Kong-1

Hong Kong is also a city where I feel like you get 90% of the vibe just by strolling down the streets. You don’t have to go inside museums or watch any “shows” to get a sense of the city’s vibe.

I’ve been to Hong Kong well over a dozen times, and have on several occasions taken friends there for sub-24 hour visits, and I think they all walked away with a good sense of what the city is about.

Hong-Kong-2

Tokyo Narita — not so great city for quick stopover

Full disclosure — I’m extremely directionally challenged. Like, when I lived in Florida I still got lost driving to the supermarket four years after I moved there. I’m just utterly useless when it comes to directions. Period.

And that presents a real challenge when you’re in what’s quite possibly the fastest paced and most daunting city in the world for a non-local.

Tokyo-2

The first challenge with Tokyo is that it’s a long way from the major international airport, Narita. If you’re taking the “Friendly Airport Limousine” to your hotel, expect it to take about 90 minutes in each direction, which will eat into your layover time quite a bit.

And then there’s the challenge of actually getting around. I love exploring Tokyo, though in practice I need at least five or so days in order to make anything of a Tokyo visit. That’s not just because I very much feel “lost in translation,” but also because the city is so spread out. So it’s not just that I’m having to go further to see stuff, but I’m having to do so in a city where it takes me about three times as long as usual to get anywhere, since I always get lost. And actually constantly getting lost is part of the charm of Tokyo for me.

So love the city, just don’t love it for a quick stopover.

Tokyo-1

Seoul Incheon — not so great city for quick stopover

My feelings towards Seoul are oddly similar to my feelings towards Tokyo, except it doesn’t intrigue me quite as much as Tokyo.

Seoul-2

Incheon Airport is quite a distance from Seoul, so expect for it to take 90 minutes to get from the airport to your hotel, whether you take the bus or train.

I’ve been to Seoul a couple of times and it’s just not a city I’ve ever really connected with. It’s really spread out, sterile, and just lacks a “spark” for me. Don’t get me wrong, I can spend a few days there without being bored, but it’s not a place I’m dying to return to, and definitely not a city I’d want to tackle in a day.

Seoul-1

I’m curious — which Asian cities have you done quick stopovers in, and how did they turn out?

Comments

  1. I’d say Bangkok is a good place for a short layover. As long as it isn’t rush hour, you can get into the city quickly and inexpensively by taxi. There is also a train to/from the airport I think. You can get a pretty good feel for the vibe of the city by strolling down Sukhumvit road for a few hours, and of course get some excellent Thai food from a street vendor or a gourmet restaurant.

  2. Dubai! A great place for a stopover with the airport almost in the middle of the city well connected by the metro which you won’t anyways need to take if you are staying close to the airport. But one can also stay in the new part of Dubai which is the Marina and still reach there in about 30mins by metro. In a short stay of 24hrs one can visit the malls which is what Dubai is famous for or go in for the dessert safari plus go to the top of Burj Khalifa all within 24 hours. Over all a super stopover place for a shoppoholic or otherwise with a great terminal 3 as well.

  3. Hong Kong is one of my favorite stopover cities (amazing food, shopping and metro) but it’s also one of my least favorite places in the world (outside of the airport and disneyland, i’ve encountered way too many rude and obnoxious people, and just can’t stand being there for more than two days per visit)

  4. YVR is a great Asian Layover city. The skytrain is 20min from DT or 15min from the historic Chinese overseas capital, Richmond. Lots to eat and see in both.

  5. so not a question about lay over but now a question about flight choices I was planning a 9 hour layover in Shanghai in between my flight from Hong Kong to Chicago with my wife, I have been to Shanghai many times but not her, she does not want to see anything in China so I am skipping the layover. Now looking at changing to fly either non stop to Chicago or JFK, my original schedule was HKG-PVG-LAX (for PVG to LAX on AA First) now looking at Cathay HKG to ORD or JFK on business, question What would you take AA first or CX business?

  6. I also didn’t enjoy HKG too much. Part of it was the weather, but I agree it seemed a bit more obnoxious than I expect. Too much smoking everywhere too. (However there are some excellent museums there).

    I love BKK, but I’m not sure it’s great for a short layover. True you can take the airport train into the city, and then change to BTS or MRT if you need to. But the main tourist attractions are a little more difficult to reach unless you want to deal with the riverboats which might not be as simple for some one arriving there for the first time.

    Personally I didn’t find SIN especially “sterile”.

  7. Just two comments on your SG bit Ben.
    Yes cabbies usually speak English very well.. however when you take a cab from the center this may be a different story compared to the airport. Calling them “Uncle” always helps 😉

    I also tend to think SG is very easy and enjoyable for western ppl.. not that much of a shock like Thailand/Vietnam etc. I like to call SG “Asia for dummies”. I more than agree on all other points about SG but also the other Asian cities you mentioned 😉

  8. I think Beijing is a good one for a “first timer”. While English speaking taxi drivers are not standard, the taxi’s are reliable an trustworthy; if you have 24 hours you can visit the forbidden city an one or two other thing; it does not get you the full asian flavor, but it’s worth it;

  9. Ben, I share your feelings towards Seoul. I’ve been there, it was nice, it was an interesting experience, and getting around was easy – but I just don’t feel any desire to go back.

    Singapore, on the other hand, is a city where I always spend at least a couple hours whenever I can work it into my itinerary. Even if I’m just going to walk around Marina Bay for a while and take in the atmosphere. As opposed to Seoul, Singapore is a place that really fascinates me.

  10. While I don’t think Seoul is the most unusual place, it’s very easy to get in and out. ICN to Seoul Station is under 1 hour for $4.50 and Gimpo is even closer. Subways are easy, fast and inexpensive. Luggage storage up on Level 4. I was there for 12 hours last week. Saw the war museum, walked around, saw a few temples and had an amazing lunch in Insadong.

  11. As someone whose roots are from HKG, it’s fast become one of my most disliked places in the world, having spent a considerable portion of my life there. I do continue to visit once or twice a year purely because I have relatives there. The weather is just too humid/muggy for most of the year, the streets are just way too crowded, people are unnecessarily rude/obnoxious and devoid of any soul (who needs a LV or Rolex shop every 50m?) That said, I do agree it’s good for a short layover like SIN.

    TPE also suffers from the same problem as both ICN/NRT – it’s too far from the city. Easily changed if you use TSA/HND though. Tokyo is one of my favourite cities to visit for an extended period, as well as for a short layover.

  12. +1 on your comment about spending the first day in SGN trying to figure out how to cross the street. Steady (no quick movements, don’t stop) and confident is the way to go.

  13. Thanks to Charlie for the ICN advice, good to know!

    +1 to the others regarding BKK. By train, a short, easy, and inexpensive trip.

    SIN cabbies are hit/miss like the rest of the world.

    3 hours from NRT to Tokyo by airport limousine bus during our last trip there, granted during Friday rush hour. The train might be a better option for those without much baggage.

  14. Singapore and Hong Kong are unbeatable if you don’t have much time. A quick cab in Singapore and you are in the middle of the city. A quick train in Hong Kong and you are in the action as well. Kuala Lumpur is kind of quiet but transportation from the airport to town is amazing. However, I love Bangkok and will do anything to go to my favorite restaurants in town if I have a layover.

  15. SIN for me, but I was disappointed that your post didn’t include any discussion of the “official hassle factor” with clearing/re-clearing immigration/passport control/customs, etc. I have found that there are perfectly delightful places for a layover that I will avoid whenever possible simply because of the “official hassle factor”. LON is one such place for me now. Never an easy place to clear and re-enter any of the City’s airports to begin with, it has become positively dreadful over the past decade or so. Even with the high “hassle factor” present in the old days, I so loved having a day layover in LON because I could take in a play and shop quirky old book and print stores. No more now….. The “hassle factor” in HKG is also getting to the point of “no go”.

  16. Maybe I’m alone on this but I found HKG to be smelly and polluted. It was terrible for my SO’s asthma problems. Even the hotel lobbies smelled bad.

  17. @ peachfront — Totally agree with Haneda in general, but I think the big challenge is that if you’re traveling through Haneda on a longhaul journey, your flight will almost certainly arrive/depart at a really inconvenient time.

  18. @ Carlos — All else being equal I do think American first class is slightly better than Cathay Pacific business class, but not by much at all. If it’s more convenient I would do Cathay Pacific business class, which is excellent as well.

  19. Indeed, ICN and NRT are not great and HKG and SIN are great.

    PEK and PVG work nicely for layovers, though Beijing is also not for the directionally challenged.

    TPE sucks. BKK is doable, but annoying. KUL is out.

  20. I agree with all but ICN, as I find ICN to be faster than HKG to get to see something quickly. I would say that ICN is great for an 8-12 hour layover that you’ll often get stuck with if you take a redeye from BKK back to LAX. The train is fast, and you can spend a few hours walking around Insadong or seeing the temples. Or there’s the Han river park. And if you’re feeling less adventurous, the area around ICN itself is pretty nice (golf course, movie theaters, etc) if you have a shorter layover but want to leave the airport for a bit.

    Seoul itself is probably less interesting than the other cities you’ve mentioned as well as BKK, but I’ve had several good quick layovers.

  21. I would say the 3 Indian cities (bom, del, hyd) are amazing places to visit but very difficult for a quick 24 Layover.

  22. HKG is my #1 choice I like their train system and with the octopus card they make it easy to pay for things. So many places to see and do in HKG and the direction/signs on how to find the subway stations are everywhere. BKK is my #2 choice it’s super cheap city if you want to spend a night in the city before your next morning flight. Can get descent hotel/guesthouse around $30. Airport rail to city is dirt cheap. I avoid taxi at all cost mainly they drive like my life worth 10 cents.

  23. For short stays (not layovers) my favorite cities are Vilnius, Riga, Bratislava, Odessa and Vienna. For longer stays Tokyo (by a wide margin), Istanbul and Paris (mostly so I can go to Beaune and try some burgundies). I don’t like short layovers

  24. Great timing as I just booked an award trip and had the choice of BKK or KUL for a <24 hour layover. I chose BKK because I have been twice before but not in a long time. I was considering changing to KUL as I have never been but it sounds like it's not on anybody's top list.

  25. HKG seemed to me like 10 lbs of s*** stuffed in a 5lb bag. Hot, humid. Not for me. I’d prefer one of those empty cities in China.
    As long as there’s a Subway and Domino’s.

  26. Shanghai! From PVG you can take the maglev train and be in the city center in 20 minutes or so. There’s a lot to see, and there is a vibrant art/culture/food scene. The subway system is very good (everything is marked in English), so it’s fast and easy to get around.

    I like it a lot more than Beijing because the places of interest to tourists are less spread out and it all seems more manageable and a little more laid back.

  27. Just question for those who have mentioned PVG. My mother (in her early 60s) is going to be there for 12 hours (7am-7pm). She’s travelled alone before but never in a country as foreign as China. Any tips or suggestions of what she should do (and how much time should she leave herself to get back to PVG).
    thanks
    SG

  28. NARITA is my favorite – just don’t go into Tokyo! Instead go to the small town of Narita about 10-15 minutes away. A quaint little Japanese town with walking streets and a gorgeous temple area that is rated the 3rd best in Japan. Just make certain you have the destination and airport written in Japanese, as the taxi drivers often do not understand English.

  29. I’d include Kuala Lumpur as well. Easy and cheap train or bus ride to KL Central. Then connect with any light rail or MRT. Food is amazingly delicious and IMO it’s half of the price than Singapore.

  30. Next time you’re in Seoul, I highly recommend taking a trip to the DMZ. Fascinating yet surreal experience. Some advance planning might be needed but well worth it.

  31. To answer specifically the question you posed, yeah, HKG gets high marks. Easy immigration, quick egress into the city. Lots of stuff to do in a central area. BKK probably gets a not-to-distant second.

    ICN and NRT certainly get failing marks on this assignment.

  32. @Dan (and no, I’m not having a conversation with myself)

    You are right about the DMZ (just got back from a trip to Seoul and a much longer stay in Japan), but the one thing that sucked was the packaged tour aspect of it. You can’t do it on your own.

    What you do get to do is walk down a tunnel that the North Koreans dug to try and invade the place.

  33. Oh, forgot to add that you can do a half-day tour with no advance notice, but you do need at least two days notice if you want to do the full day tour that goes to the actual border.

  34. @Dan — yep. The tour right to the border is definitely the one to do. You get to enter one of the UN buildings that straddle the border and technically cross over to the North Korean side. What makes the experience interesting is that the whole area is considered an active military zone. Agree that it’s sort of touristy but no way around that part.

  35. Fly into HKG and take the ferry to Macau, one of the few quickly-accessible places in Asia where the old has been preserved — colonial architecture, distinctive food (African chicken or egg tarts, anyone?), and a sense of cultural mixing that exists in few places other than Penang, Goa, Malacca, Pondicherry, or Galle. It’s not just casinos, and unlike Hong Kong, the Macanese haven’t pulled down everything old.

    Otherwise, I’d vote for Tokyo in a heartbeat.

    As for Singapore, well, it has good connectivity to other places (but they’re not quick stopovers — Luang Prabang, Siem Reap, Ipoh, Borneo). Other than good eats, there’s not much in Singapore that’s unique and unlike Vegas or Dubai, both of which I loathe. (For something interesting in the Middle East, go to Oman.)

  36. Shanghai and Beijing, as already mentioned by other comments. Especially given the visa-free layover rule, these are great places to stop for a few days without having to deal with the cost and hassle of the China visa.

    I’d also say Istanbul. It can take a little while to get from airport to city center, but is about as easy as it gets. Plus there are just so many amazing things to see in such a small area between Sultanahmet and Taksim. I love stopping through there for 6 or 12 hours en route to elsewhere.

  37. For two of your examples, for Tokyo Narita, Narita town is quite manageable with a great historic street leading up to its excellent temple and a good shopping mall with free shuttle from the train station. Similar theme, go for the Incheon part of Seoul Incheon, and you can see some great WWII memorials tied to the Incheon landing a decent town.

  38. If you compare the size of HK and SG to Tokyo and Seoul….
    Anyway, from narita airport, you can easily go to Tokyo bay for Disney sea 😉

  39. As an expat living in Seoul I must say the 90 minute estimate is a bit too high. There is an express train that leaves every 30 minutes from ICN to Seoul station. Takes 43 minutes to arrive and is by far the most convenient way into the city.

  40. HKG gets my vote as best stopover city in the world. Immigration is a breeze. It’s the easiest airport transit anywhere. On the return, you can check in and check your bags at Hong Kong station, before boarding the Airport Express train.

    HKG is super compact and possibly the most functional city in the world, with amazing public transit. I don’t find the people rude at all. It also has an exotic feel. One of the world’s great skylines. And what does the Star Ferry cost? Like 40 cents for one of the coolest rides ever.

    Will be there in 10 days and can’t wait!

  41. Here is the funny thing about Hong Kong. If you are white you will have a great time there, if you are not it’s a totally different experience. It is the only city that I refuse to return to since as all the locals are rude and obnoxious assholes with a superiority complex.

  42. @Jay From my experience, taxi drivers in Narita recognise the phrase ‘Narita Airport’ & definitely will understand ‘Narita kuko’ supplemented by ‘onegaishimasu’ = please
    2 minutes with an English-Japanese phrase-book or dictionary will provide an acceptable pronunciation for non-Japanese speakers.

  43. @ danny – As a HKer I may be biased, but seriously, I think the main impression put on this is the mainland Chinese – scared of the whites but sure will push away any HKers in the way. (Well, the majority anyway, those who can read english are already probably in the minority anyway…)

  44. @ Kevin- I agree. It only takes me about 40 min to get to Seoul from ICN. It took me 30 min to get out and explore SIN, so I don’t think there’s a huge time saving advantage. I don’t know when Lucky went to Korea, but I suggest he try again. hahaha.

    It’s also interesting that he only likes locations where English is the official language.

  45. Use google translate app. When I have wifi I translate several phrases, addresses, etc. and store them in my phone for later use. I don’t speak a bit of Mandarin but show the taxi driver the Chinese characters for “Chengdu Airport Terminal 1” and you’re off. Only in my case the Chengdu taxi driver stopped to pee in a bush on the way. And my other Chengdu taxi driver was a woman and clearly not the man pictured on the license display. She sure could drive though!

  46. No on BKK – immigration takes a while, long drive into city (not so cheap) bad humidity all year long, and mostly crappy lounges. The only plus factor are the cheap luxury hotels and bars.

    Yes on KIX – easy access from airport via train, great hotels and food plus plenty of easy walking and nightlife.

    I think NRT is somewhere in between – the 80m train ride to Shinjuku is long but cheap by world standards and Tokyo is fun and easy to navigate. But hotels are pricey.

    No way on any airport in mainland China – I don’t need chicoms prying into my tech devices.

  47. I have been going to Tokyo for a few years now, and have found NRT to be more convenient than HND. The Keisei Skyliner is right in the terminal and it’s less than an hour to Ueno station which is right in central Tokyo. Maybe I’m biased slightly, because my client’s offices are right near Ueno, but it’s a great part of the city.

  48. Would anyone be able to chime in on TPE? I have a layover there for 30 hrs next month on the way to Bali. Mathew in post 22 says it “sucks” but I’d like more info on why exactly. Thanks.

  49. @ Steve — I love Taipei as a city, but the airport is a long way from the city, and traffic can be pretty bad. Not a city I’d like for a short layover. Shouldn’t be bad for 30 hours, though.

  50. Seoul isn’t so bad. They offer free tours for transit passengers at the airport if you arrive early morning and dept afternoon or evening. Went on a short one to incheon city was really good considering it was free! Also it was Dec and -10C outside they even provided loaner jackets!

  51. Adding to more of the comments, Seoul is not a bad city, but if you get a chance and feel more adventurous I would highly suggest flights to or out of PUS. Busan has so many attractions that you can’t possibly do in one day. So far Busan is my favorite Korean city.

  52. Earlier you suggested a “Lucky retire in Hong Kong fund” – maybe I’m biased since I do live in Hong Kong, but Hong Kong, while exciting for a few days, is definitely not a nice place to live in for a really long time, regarding the weather. That said, the temperatures are what I’ve definitely got used to, which isn’t the f^&*ing hot temperatures of Bangkok or Singapore but isn’t the cold s^&* you find in London (or possibly Seattle, 55 degrees isn’t much).

  53. Istanbul, easy 3 minute $20 Visa includes standing in queue time. Easy 20 minute train ride from departure level, one transfer. To all the major sights downtown.

  54. I recently did a few stopovers on my RTW award tix – ICN, SIN, BKK
    Singapore offers a “free city tour” to those in transit – it’s a quick two hours but hey, its free (they take about 10 pax per terminal). next time I would do the taxi option to Marina Bay Sands or hire private guide depending on time.
    BKK (18 hours) – lots of private guides/transit options, sadly, I was there when protests started and my guide canceled so I spent time in the Novotel Hotel Spa instead…not a bad place to relax

  55. I’m going to try Beijing on a 12-hour layover on Air China next week. Arrive 4:50 a.m. from Houston, leave for Sydney at 4:50 p.m. A driver has been hired….we’ll do the Wall and the Forbidden City, plus lunch. I’ll report on how it goes. Anything I should watch out for?

  56. Agree 100% with Tokyo… amazing city but man is it tough to get around when no one speaks English! Awesome place to visit but if you’ve never been there before or have time to figure out how things work, it is definitely challenging. Having said that, it is one of the most fascinating cities. Agree on SG and HK – great layover cities.

  57. Best city for a quick layover? Singapore, because it is the fastest from gate to town, a decent number of things to do in a few hours (Gardens at Marina Bay, East Coast food courts, or Night Safari if its an evening stopover).

    Worst stopover? Jakarta, because you could spend two hours in the taxi on the way in, if the traffic is bad.

  58. Have a short trip to Tokyo planned for this fall and getting to/from NRT will be fun. Not that I should complain much because in Houston it takes awhile to get to/from IAH.

  59. Lucky,

    I’m arriving at HKG at 16:50 (from phuket) and leaving at 01:00 (to narita), do you think it’s possible to make a quick visit to the city or it’s better to stay at the airport?

  60. RE: TPE – What do you all think about a 16hr layover in TPE? How long would it take me to get to the city?

  61. Hi

    Travelling to NZ from EDi in Feb 2017 and want to have a couple of days stopover in-route. Beijing and Tokyo appeal given the opportunity to cross off “bucket list” type sights but would consider others. We are in our late 50s and not overly adventurous and would be a bit worried, perhaps unnecessarily, about overcoming language problems as well as the reliability and quality of some carriers.

    Ian

  62. how long of a layover can you do on an award trip?
    can you book it yourself online or do you have to call a rep?

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