How to do a Layover in Seven Steps

Tokyo’s Narita airport, sometime in the 1980s.

On one of my many childhood trips from the States to the Motherland, during our few hours’ stop in Narita, I saw people and things that I’d never seen in the Midwest. Groups of Buddhist monks in bright orange robes, shaved heads, scarlet sashes and wooden prayer beads. The uniformed airport employees with pillbox hats and white kid gloves, and the way they bowed at the waist to you, even as a kid. The tick-tick-tack whirr of the old-school updating Arrivals and Departures board. Europeans going home from their beach vacations with Birkenstocks. Japanese businessmen. The lovely, soothing timbre of the Japanese woman announcing final boarding calls. A cross-section of Earth was there and they were all trying to get somewhere else.

Inevitably, too, our plane would be “overbooked.” I always found this phrasing amusing, like my first lesson in PR damage control, because how do you sell more tickets than you have seats on the plane?!?! That doesn’t just HAPPEN. I was in grade school and I knew that.

A call for volunteers would be made over the loudspeaker seeking passengers willing to forgo their seats for guaranteed seats on the next plane to Manila out tomorrow, lodging and meals paid for by voucher, and some cash to sweeten the deal. Every time this happened – almost every time we went through Narita – I always wished my mom had taken the deal. And this was years before I’d ever tried sushi! I mean, if the people-watching in the airport was this interesting, what fantastic wonders lay beyond the airport gates?

Fast-forward to last fall. Instead of running out my 90-day visa stay in the EU, I had to cut short my European adventure because, 1, Money and 2, my editor moved up my Filipino street food deadline by a month. Bummed by this new reality, I decided to take a little layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Why not?? Layovers can be kind of like the travel version of the amuse bouche, just a little taste of something good to whet your appetite, arouse your interest and wonder what lovely ingredients and methods and people could have elicited such a good reaction. The costs were the same and I didn’t have to arrive in Manila on a particular day. And what’s a better way of learning if you want to travel somewhere than by just going there? Here’s how I did my layover, and how I could have done it better.

ONE. Open up Google Maps. Find your starting point, and your final destination. Take note of points of interest (look at the shorter distance betwixt them on the globe). My geography can always use some improvement, so I’m always on Google Maps.

TWO. Figure out how much time you have to spare. Half a day? A day? A week?

THREE. With Kayak.com, search for flights between your starting point and final destination. In the search results page, on the left hand Options area, you’ll see a list of airports through which the airlines have layovers for those routes, and you can individually these toggle off and on. You’ll also see Layover Length slidebar. Click and drag that to the desired number of hours.

If you have more than 24 hours of free time to play on layover, LUCKY YOU! You’ll likely find the best international flight prices by doing two separate one-way searches on Kayak: starting point-layover city; layover city-final destination. I’ve done this search more than a few times and it’s usually cheaper than doing the Multi-city flight search.

And depending on the terrain you’ll be covering and the amount of time and money you have, it might be worth to look at bus and rail options.

FOUR a through e. Questions you’ll need to answer/double-check with Google, forums like those on Lonely Planet, Fodor’s and Frommer’s, bloggers like yours truly, airlines or airports, and, importantly – foreign affairs departments of your home country and the layover country (like travel.state.gov from the US State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs):

  • Can a worthwhile layover be done in the time I have?
  • Is the airport in nowhere-land, without a bullet train and too far from cultural interests, real people, good local cuisine and actual life?
  • Does the airport have a luggage check? Bank branches where I can exchange for some local currency?
  • Do I need special documentation or a visa to leave and re-enter the airport? Or will my onward ticket suffice?
  • How much time should I budget for transport to/from the airport, check-in and security?

FIVE. Come up with a loose itinerary: sights to see, places to eat, public transpo options. Leave yourself time to get lost, whether intentionally or not.

SIX. Know the risks. Weather- and mechanical-related delays could cause your 11-hour layover of fun and adventure to evaporate to nothing. Or similar unforseen conditions could keep you in your layover city for longer than you’d planned for.

SEVEN. Rest, rest, rest so you can enjoy as much as possible the hours you have in the layover city.

This last point is where I failed miserably. I don’t know if it was my excitement, adrenaline, the litany of movies and episodes of Modern Family available on Malaysian Air, a sudden case of writer’s inspiration, I don’t remember. I got zero sleep on the way over. But because I did all my homework and thinking ahead of time, more or less my Malaysian layover turned out fine. I got to KL (that’s what everybody calls Kuala Lumpur) knowing basically nothing about the country, but after spending a little time in its capitol, I know I want to go back to Malaysia. If only just for the food!

I dropped off my bags and managed to make it to the city and find the KL hop-on-hop-off tourist bus. I know what you’re thinkin': Sarah, the double-decker tourist bus is super cheesy! I know, yes, but it was the cheapest, easiest transport available. KL is also very hilly in spots, not a completely walkable city. I had very few brain cells firing in any capacity in KL and I just needed something idiot-proof.

The tourist bus allowed us to walk around for a few minutes at select stops. (At the other stops, the bus dropped off passengers, where they could pick up the next bus every 45 minutes to an hour.) I was only interested in a few tourist stops, with the time I had and in the impaired, sleep-deprived state I was in; the rest I slept through. We stopped at Istana Negara, or National Palace, just in time for an official motorcade to arrive. This is me getting shoo’ed away by an angry-faced palace guard.

A palace guard trying to shoo me away before the motorcade arrived.

So near and yet so far. National Palace, Kuala Lumpur.And the gates close.

I got a few snaps at the Petronas Towers, too, but as it was very humid and overcast, I didn’t think a ride to the top was going to be fruitful. Also I still hold a teeny grudge since their Towers were declared “Tallest in the World,” a title which was formerly held by the Sears Tower in Chicago, despite the fact that Sears still had higher occupied floors and it was only the Petronas Towers’ antennae that made it taller. Though this debate is all moot, since the Burj Khalifa in Dubai has them both beat by a mile, now. I digress.

Former tallest buildings in the world. Built on oil. Petronas Towers.

Instead I decided to conserve what little energy I had for eating. KL’s Chinatown is a mix of roads and covered and uncovered pedestrian-only market areas chockablock with produce, prepared foods steaming and deep-frying in vats, plastic toys, cheap clothes, knockoff of any recognizable luxury or designer label.

My strategy was to find a covered hawker stall food court, and point at and eat whatever looked good. Fortunately I did this right before a major downpour began! Malaysian curry chicken with rice and veggies eaten, my empty Coke can and place setting taken by a man who seemed to be the self-appointed KP duty, wiping up every trace of me from the plastic table. He placed everything – food scraps, plate, silverware and empty can – into a large plastic bucket, which he dragged behind him with a re-fashioned wire hanger to bus the next table. I respect that kind of hustle, Sir.

Replete, my exhaustion was pushed to highly unbearable levels. As the hour neared rush, I didn’t want to be stuck on the bus. Luckily Chinatown was also the tourist bus’ second to the last stop, Central Station. I handed by 24-hour ticket to a new passenger getting on, and then hot-footed it back to the airport via high-speed rail, KLIA Ekspres.

After almost forgetting to pick up my luggage, I treated myself to even more Malaysian food at the airport. I will be seeing you again, KL.

Flags everywhere! Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) a few days after Malaysia Day, a national holiday commemorating the formation of the modern state.P.S. Before I leave the subject of layovers for now, I would be remiss if I omitted mentioning my rock-star eating & traveling & writing-about-it-all man-hero, Anthony Bourdain. Surely, you’ve heard of him and his show, The Layover, where Mr. B gives us all the run down of what to eat and what to do if you find yourself in a city for 48 hours. Here’s his take on Chicago.

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5 thoughts on “How to do a Layover in Seven Steps

  1. Great advice. I spent 4 months in Asia this past summer, needless to say I did not plan my layovers well! 8 hours stuck in an airport-yuck! I will follow this next time.

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