When Does It Make Sense To Go Into City On A Layover?

Reader Djangojam asked the following question in the “Ask Lucky” forum:

Hi Lucky, I know that you’re a big fan of Abu Dhabi so I wanted to get your advice. My 9 year old son and I will be transiting AUH later this month on our way to Bali. Specifically we are on DFW-AUH-KUL both in F. Arriving AUH at 19:30 and departing at 2:30. So a 7 hour layover. When I originally booked the flights I anticipated spending the layover in the massive new first class lounge. But His Excellency squashed that plan. Now I’m wondering if I should leave the airport. What would you suggest for spending that time, keeping in mind the 9 year old? And if I leave the airport, what is the minimum amount of money I would need to withdraw to make sure I’m not stranded somewhere, or would I just be able to charge everything? Thanks.

I figured I’d answer the question here, not just because I have a specific answer, but also because I think the topic of when to go into a city during a layover is an interesting one to discuss in general.

When does it make sense to go into the city?

Generally speaking I’m the wrong person to ask about this, since I’m not someone who usually goes into the city on a non-overnight layover. Why?

  • I struggle with what to do with my bags if going into a city on a layover — some airports have locker facilities, while others don’t. Either way, there’s something that makes me feel uncomfortable about being in a foreign country without any of my belongings “truly” in my possession.
  • This is my bias given what I do, but I find a long layover to be a great chance to catch up on work. I don’t mind a layover of up to eight (or so) hours so I can get some work done between longhaul flights.
  • I know a lot of people like to visit a restaurant in the city between longhaul flights. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m almost never hungry between longhaul flights in international first class. I’m not generally hungry when traveling to begin with, but when you add in exhaustion and great meals on flights, that makes dining even less desirable to me.

Etihad-First-Class-777-45

Again, those are all my biases, and others will certainly disagree. If you’re “truly” on vacation when traveling and don’t have any work to catch up on if you’re hungry between flights, and if you don’t mind dragging along your bags, your experience might be different.

What could be done at the airport?

It’s true that Etihad’s new first class lounge in Abu Dhabi isn’t yet open… and unfortunately it’s unlikely to open in the immediate future.

With that in mind, Djangojam would have access to the Etihad Premium Lounge Abu Dhabi, which has a partitioned off first class section.

Etihad-Lounge-Abu-Dhabi-14

They offer first class passengers both a complimentary 15 minute massage at the Six Senses Spa, as well as a treatment at the Style & Shave Salon.

Etihad-Lounge-Abu-Dhabi-53

It’s perhaps not the most fun place to kill a long layover, though the layover is seven hours to begin with, and in practice they’d probably have around five hours between flights by the time you factor in security checks and boarding.

So it’s not the most exciting lounge in the world to spend time in, but it’s certainly among the better ones out there.

What can you do in Abu Dhabi for 7 hour layover?

If I had a similar layover in Abu Dhabi and were motivated to leave the airport, what would I do?

One great option is visiting the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, which is about a 15-20 minute drive from the airport. Other than Fridays it’s open until 10PM, so you should have plenty of time to visit if your flight is on-time.

Mosque

Then if you’re so inclined, you could go to the Shangri-La for dinner, which isn’t far from the Mosque. In general UAE hotels have fantastic restaurants — especially at the top hotels.

If you wanted to go further into Abu Dhabi, the Emirates Palace is worth checking out, as it’s probably the most over-the-top hotel in Abu Dhabi, and it also has some great restaurants. But that’s really getting to the point where you’d be using up your whole layover and wouldn’t have much lounge time.

Etihad-Lounge-Abu-Dhabi-33

Bottom line

I’m curious to hear how you guys feel about the bigger picture here.

When you have a non-overnight layover at an airport, how do you decide whether to go into the city or not? Does it depend on the length of the layover, distance of the city, ability to store bags, or…?

What would you do in Djangojam‘s situation?

Comments

  1. Different strokes for different folks, but I simply cannot comprehend for the life of me that anyone could sit there in an airport when they could be exploring one of the greatest cities in the world. For example, I have a friend who is transiting through Bangkok and says he has absolutely no interest in seeing that city. How could he know, if he’s never been there? He said the exact same thing about Dubai. Dubai!!!

    if I’m traveling overseas, I’ll purposely schedule a long layover so I can explore. I’ve gone on safari in Nairobi, and explored cities like Beirut, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Moscow on layovers, to name a few. My goal is to visit every country in the world, so I get to cross these countries off my map (and a layover at an airport doesn’t count).

    If you are worried about your bags (please tell me you don’t check bags), simply find a nearby hotel and check your bags there and slip the bellman a few bucks, and carry your laptop and other most important possessions in your backpack.

    After all, this is why we travel, isn’t it?

  2. For me anything that long, being on vacation, I would definitely find something to do outside airport,

  3. For me it really depends on the city and ease of access. HKG, LHR, SFO sure no problem. YYZ, LAX, NRT… No way.

  4. I had 5 hours in LHR during the Christmas season and really wanted to visit the Christmas market there. I told myself if I can clear immigration in a half hour I’ll go. By some miracle It took me 25 mins from foot off the plane to getting onto the tube. I had almost two hours to enjoy the Christmas market and I got to walk past Big Ben as well. Best layover ever.

  5. If the layover is long enough, and if the airport isn’t too far removed from the city, I almost always prefer to get out and explore. Even if it’s as simple as going to a restaurant and walking around aimlessly for a bit, you gain a cultural experience you previously didn’t have. And food and aimless strolling are some of the best ways to soak in a new—or even a familiar—place.

    Sometimes I feel like frequent travelers focus more on the process of GETTING to the destination rather than the reason we got into traveling in the first place—intense curiosity, the desire to explore the unfamiliar, and the joys of experiencing the new. I’m just as guilty as anyone about fixating on the first class experience perhaps too much, but lately I’m making conscious efforts to not let this fixation come at the detriment of the real purpose of travel.

  6. “when they could be exploring one of the greatest cities in the world”

    Different stroke for different folks, indeed…I can understand some of the other cities, but Abu Dhabi? Eh, it’s ok.

    One thing that people need to take into consideration is public transport to and from the airport. AD only has taxis, I believe (does Uber operate in AD?). Also, when will you be arriving? During Ramadan? If so, most places won’t be open until later on in the evening, and most people will be out and about, making the roads more congested. Just something else to keep in mind.

  7. I would absolutely recommend going outside of the airport. Assume that you need 1 hour to get off the plane/clear customs & 2 hours to get back to the airport. That means that you’ll have 4 hours to explore the city – not that much time but it’s far better to be rushed than to be stuck in an airport.

    My husband & I love long layovers so much that we actually plan our trips around them. We did Mexico City on the way back from Costa Rica & Beijing on the way back from Thailand.

    Check out our blog post about what we were able to do when we were on our layovers:
    Beijing – http://moneyleftfortravel.com/long-layover-in-beijing-china/
    Mexico City – http://moneyleftfortravel.com/mexico-city-layover/

  8. @pavel — Absolutely agreed. Plus the difficulty of getting in and out of the airport itself; even if you were going to take the Heathrow Express the annoyance of going through customs and security could vote for not bothering to go into London from LHR, for example.

    Another factor here is that I believe @Djangojam may be able to book Etihad’s chauffeur service to and from the airport even on his layover, which makes it that much easier and more appealing to go into the city, especially because it avoids one of the other downsides of going into the city on a layover–having to get local currency.

  9. I decide whether or not to go into the city strictly by the length of the layover. Bag storage doesn’t matter because I check my bag so I don’t waste time locating a place to put it, get it back, etc. Yes, my bag may get lost, but I don’t put anything important or irreplaceable in there so I don’t worry about it. I’ve visited Narita (the shopping area and temple), Doha, KL, Seoul, Amsterdam, LAX, and HK, just to name a few. With the exception of Doha, I traveled from airport to city via some form of rail service (yes, in LA, too!)

  10. I’d definitively go into the city, in particular if it’s a city where I (or whoever I’m travelling with) haven’t been to. The bag problem can usually be solved by checking them in (which most people do anyway, but even if you don’t do it usually, I would do it for such an occasion) and most airports have luggage storage if that’s not an option.

  11. I have a 12 hour layover at CDG on Christmas Day this year, arriving from LAX at 11am and then leaving for JNB at 11pm. Do you think that’s enough time to have a short day in Paris, or Disney Paris?

  12. @Andrew — I think 12 hours at CDG is very doable! I’ve had 8 hour layovers in Paris several times, and I’ve found the experience to be great. It’s enough time to take the RER train into the heart of the city, stroll around, see a museum, have an amazing meal, and head back at the airport without ever feeling rushed. Don’t know about the feasibility of doing Disney Paris, but if you’ve only got 12 hours in Paris, I’d recommend seeing the city instead!

  13. @ pavel @Bgriff — Agree, though I think I take a more liberal view of “city” than some. I’ve spent long LHR layovers in Kew and Windsor, for example, which is much less annoying than schlepping to London proper. Ditto for exploring Narita, or wandering through Roissy-en-France.

    I just really like to be outside, mainly, so I’m highly motivated to find an “easy” way to get out of the airport.

  14. As others have pointed out transport is a key consideration here – if you’re on a four-hour layover but it takes an hour to get into the city (looking at you, Munich) then it decreases the attractiveness of getting into the city. Unfortunately the easiest major airport in Europe as far as transportation to the city center – Frankfurt, about a 15-minute ride on the S-Bahn between the airport and the city center – is also one of the less attractive destinations from a visitor’s point of view.

    One other consideration is that walking around outside, particularly in the daylight, is a good way to help get over jetlag. Airports typically offer few or no possibilities for being outdoors, so for this it may make sense to go into the city even if there aren’t many “attractions” as such.

    As far as bags – some lounges have lockers. Lufthansa’s lounges in Frankfurt and Munich are well-equipped in this regard. But you need to do some planning in terms of which lounge you leave your bags at – for example, if connecting from the US to a Schengen destination in Frankfurt, you want to leave your bag in a lounge on the Schengen side before going into the city, otherwise you have to make an extra round-trip through immigration afterwards just for the bag.

  15. @ Andrew @AB — Plenty of time on a “normal” day, but you’ll want to check schedules. Europe can be pretty buttoned-up on Christmas, so the train schedules and opening hours might be modified. On the plus side, security and customs should be easier!

  16. Re: Frankfurt, I meant to also mention that Mainz probably makes for a better city trip than Frankfurt itself. It’s only 25 minutes by S-Bahn, and it’s a more compact and attractive city than Frankfurt.

    Also worth keeping in mind – while prices are generally higher in Europe, some things are cheaper to purchase there than in the U.S., e.g. you can easily save $100-200 on a Rimowa bag by purchasing in Germany, at current exchange rates and with VAT refund.

  17. Depends on the city. If it is a U.S., Canada or Europe City, then probably not. Transportation cost is too much. With the exception of Istanbul, it is awesome, probably the most beautiful European city I have visited. Some European cities like Tel Aviv, and many African cities is not a great place for layover trip because of securities screening and so on.
    I am not fan of Middle East culture, so I will give it a pass. Asia Pacfic cities are in general great place for layover trip and shopping.

  18. I’d never leave my bags in a locker. If my bag was checked through and my carry-on wasn’t giant, I’d consider it.

    Having been to London, Bangkok, Hong Kong many times – and knowing the trains, systems, etc. Then I’d be more comfy running into the city to do something – maybe see something again that I love, or eating at a favorite place.

    I don’t know about taking 7-8 hours to go someplace I’ve never seen and hoping for the best.

    A good lounge with a good shower and the chance to veg out with a book could be just as relaxing.

  19. @Andrew, I’d probably plan for about 2 hours each way (more on the way back for customs) to travel from CDG to Central Paris. It took me about an hour on the RER to/from Central Paris to CDG but it’s quite a walk between the train station and terminals.

    If you’ve never been to Paris, I’d skip Disney unless you’re a hardcore Disney fan. Paris has quite a bit to offer. However, getting to Disney from CDG isn’t that hard nor is it a very long journey. I believe there is either direct or 1-stop service between Disney and CDG.

  20. Re: customs and security, often there’s no additional “cost” to going into the city. For example, if connecting in Frankfurt from the U.S. to a Schengen destination you’ll clear immigration/customs in Frankfurt anyway, so if you go into the city there’s no extra immigration to go through. And in my experience they make you go through security again in Frankfurt if you’re coming from the US and connecting onwards, so by leaving the airport secure area you simply shift the security check later, but don’t end up going through it an extra time.

  21. Since you go everywhere, I’d definitely just work if I were you. 7 hours could be hard though. It’s long, but not necessarily long enough when you factor in tons of unknowns. I am putting my comfort higher and higher these days over new experiences.

  22. @Andrew, Yes, 12 hours should be doable. Take the TVG one stop from CDG to Marne-la-valee, it takes less than 15 minutes each way. Obviously check the train schedule to make sure service is running when you arrive and need to leave . Disney Paris had two parks and can both be done in one day (IMO) and are much smaller than the parks stateside. Did them both this past Saturday of US’s memorial day weekend (flight arrived at 7:45 am and at the park before gates opened) before going into Paris for Roland Garros on Sunday.

  23. If I have a long enough layover, I always try to get out of the airport and always research if there is left luggage beforehand. I’ve built them into my schedule before also. Thanks, 24 hour layover rule!

    @Andrew- I agree with AB. 12 hours is enough time. Since it is Christmas Day, I doubt anything will be open though. I love wandering down streets and the quais, taking photographs, which Paris is lovely for. Plus, I lived in the Paris area for about a year, so I would hopefully have friends to drop in on. So, for me, it would be a no-brainer in that situation.

  24. So many factors at play in a decision. First off, time. Then transportation options. Then visa considerations..just to name a few. I find it incredibly easy and fun to head into Amsterdam on a 4+ hour layover at AMS. I haven’t ever had a layover at Abu Dhabi, but I do like the options within reasonable distance of the airport. The mosque is definitely a great way to pass time.

    I am definitely in the camp of…if you have time to leave the airport, do it. No matter how great an airport, or an airport lounge may be, you’ll find better food and experiences outside of the airport than in it.

  25. @Bgriff : you noted, “Another factor here is that I believe @Djangojam may be able to book Etihad’s chauffeur service to and from the airport even on his layover, which makes it that much easier and more appealing to go into the city,”

    I am not sure about this, my understanding is, based on T&C, that it’s not available for transit passengers in AUH. Anybody who surely knows about this?

    http://www.etihad.com/en-us/experience-etihad/etihad-chauffeur/
    * Etihad Chauffeur is not available for the following:
    The service is not available to guests who are waitlisted, in transit or those collecting tickets on departure.

  26. I love any opportunity to explore, so I always try to go into the city on a layover if there’s enough time. It really depends, though, on the length of the layover and the distance from the airport to the city center. A four hour layover with a 45 minute ride into the city center isn’t going to work, but if I know I’ve got to have a layover somewhere, I purposely try to schedule a longer one (at least 8 hours). If I have to stop someplace, I might as well give myself opportunity to get out and see a little bit of the city.

  27. @Tiffany, @pavel – A visit to the town of Narita is definitely worth it if you have a few hours to kill at NRT. There is a beautiful Japanese temple surrounded by exquisite, serene gardens. On our last trip, we ended up spending two nights and one full day in Narita due to the airline changing its schedule, forcing us to spend 2 nights there rather than one. We were initially quite irritated by this, but we enjoyed every minute of Narita. The lesson, of course, is not just “explore during layovers” – it’s also, “when traveling, go with the flow!”

  28. @ Andrew — 12 hours should be plenty, though keep in mind that almost everything will be closed on Christmas day.

  29. Thanks for the advice everyone! I’ll actually be in Paris for 3 days in early November, so for the layover I think I’ll try for Disney assuming no delays.

  30. Your first “bias” point about why you don’t go into cities on layovers is that you’re worried about your bags?! (Ever heard of checking them?) Your second is that you would rather work. You’re third is that you usually aren’t hungry.

    Ben, I plead with you because I’ve been reading since the beginning (and honestly will continue to read despite your actions) this blog could be so much more if u changed your priorities from sitting in lounges for 7 hours to getting out and seeing places!

    Respectfully,
    Chris

  31. For me, it really depends on how I feel. If I can grab lunch or dinner with a friend in the city during a layover of over 8+ hours, then yes I’ll do it! If I don’t have friends in that city and I feel tired from the trip, I’ll simply take a nap in the lounge.

    As for the example, 7 hour layover is a bit iffy for me. First off, the flight may arrive late. Secondly, AUH can be really really hot in the summer. Hot = sweat = need of a shower. In addition AUH-DPS is not a short flight. Personally, for me, I’d stay in the lounge and keep cool. Then again, I’ve been to AUH before back in 2007 and felt like I’ve seen the tourist sights of the city.

    If I have a long layover at NRT, I’ve opted to stay overnight at one of the airport hotels and explore Narita. Awesome place to visit!

  32. I would seriously consider a longer layover if it made the difference between being able to get into the city (or surrounding area) vs. being stuck in the airport. I’ve done it a couple of times. Years ago in Frankfurt, I arrived via overnight train from Munich, stashed my luggage, and took a trolley to the zoo. After a pleasant visit, a return trip to the train station allowed me to grab the train to FRA.
    In April, my wife and I had a 12-hour layover in Osaka, which allowed us the option of taking a ferry directly from KIX to Kobe or a train into Osaka. Because the weather was nice, we went to Kobe and saw a beautiful hillside garden.
    Key tips: Research transportation options/needs, including connection times, and be ready to change plans due to weather.

  33. @ Chris — Appreciate the feedback, but I’d suggest you read the post again. So as far as checking bags goes, you’re saying I should check my weekender bag which has my laptop and everything I need to work? And I’m not “sitting” in lounges for seven hours, but rather am working. Because I do have a job, and I do travel constantly. So I understand that might sound crazy to someone who has a limited amount of vacation, but as someone who works 60+ hours per week while traveling, a seven hour layover where I can get work done in peace is a godsend.

  34. “All of the above.” I’m headed back to Malaysia at the end of the year, and have a seven hour layover in HKG. I just might sit it out at the airport. Why? I’ve been to Hong Kong twice already, and am actually planning on spending the weekend there on the way back. I also don’t sleep well on planes, so I expect to be pretty fried and not able to enjoy the layover all that much.

  35. Ben,
    Don’t care what you do with your bag. My point is your bag shouldn’t be a consideration. You can work anytime/anywhere (as you’ve said many times before). You have a dream job as many who read would attest to. But your thoughts on this topic perplex me. For a long layover in a city you either have been to or not as a single person without kids you’d rather work.
    Perhaps I underestimate your work ethic. But, perhaps I also overestimate your definition of travel. After all that’s what this blog is about right?
    Chris

  36. only when airport has metro(train) station because traffic can ruin your coming back on time.

  37. I guess I’m a lot more gung-ho when it come to left luggage. As long as I have my passport, phone and a credit card I am set. Any problems can be solved win one of those three (throw in some travel insurance as well, if you like).

    I’m more than happy to throw my stuff into a locker or left luggage office so I can go and explore somewhere. One benefit of taking the time out of the airport is it can make jet lag at your destination that much easier. On the way home from Europe I try to do a day walking around Hong Kong or a Chinese City to reset the body clock before continuing down to australia. It means I can sleep on both legs and be more rested when I arrive.

  38. Depends on where the are airport is and what time of year it’s.

    Remember that Ramadan lasts to Jul 17 this year that might affect what is open or not. Also the weather in the Gulf is very hot in summer as other have pointed out, it’s already up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit around midnight. Expect it to be around 95-100 degrees when arriving at 1930.

    Going in to see things in AUH might make sense during the winter when temperatures are nice, but never in high summer.

  39. Ha ha, I’ll be in Paris on a 8-hour layover on X’mas day also!! YYZ-CDG (8 hour)-Lisbon
    Probably just RER in to check out x’mas market (if any) and Eiffel Tower

    Return is also intentional layover BCN-FCO (7 hour layover into down)-YYZ

    Thanks to Delta’s $800 VDB voucher, I visit 5 cities for free (Paris, Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome) plus hote/food/other costs of course
    My wife & 2 kids may hate me though

  40. I will have an 8-hours layover at BKK in September, and while I am planning to make the most of the F lounge facilities, complimentary massage, and will spend a good hour (or two) planespotting from the terminal, I am also still planning to go into the city on the train. Even if I will end up only walking the streets and soaking up some atmosphere for an hour or so, it will help kill the time.

  41. @Djangojam @lucky

    At Marina Mall there is a great place called Fun City. It is a play center for children aged 1 to 12 and it seems to be open til 10 PM (during Ramadan even until 1 AM). It is a 30 minute drive from the airport but absolutely worth it as it is located at the beautiful corniche, which is amazing for evening strolls. It is also close to Emirates palace and Heritage Village.

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