The Best U.S. Cities to Turn a Layover Into an Action-packed Day Trip

Boston's Logan International Airport is a short distance from its downtown and a variety of attractions.
Photo: Patrick Foto/Getty Images

Layovers can be a great way to explore a destination before hopping on a connecting flight, but squeezing in the time to get to and from the airport and explore a city in just a few hours can be tricky.

Some cities offer airports that are closer to their downtown and attractions, giving travelers the chance to take the time that would be spent waiting for a flight at the gate and use it to grab a local bite or tick an activity off their list.

To determine which cities make it easy to have an active layover, online travel service company CheapTickets took a look at the nation’s airports to determine the top five locations for a "playover" — what the company defines as a layover in a city where the airport is close enough to the center to allow for a day trip without missing a connecting flight.

CheapTickets started by examining the U.S. airports that were most visited through bookings made on its website within the last year, narrowing down the list to include airports based in major regions throughout the U.S that offer a public transportation time of 50 minutes or less to the city center and to notable attractions.

Each city was then ranked based on the following factors: the travel time from the airport to the city’s downtown, the cost of a round-trip ticket on public transit to the city’s downtown or to a nearby area of interest, the available public transportation options, and attractions travelers can see within four to eight hours (including travel time to and from the airport).

Boston came out on top, with Logan International Airport offering travelers several public transportation options. See which cities ranked in the top five below.

1. Boston: Boston Logan International Airport

Public transportation options from Boston Logan International Airport include water taxis, which travelers can get to by taking the free #66 shuttle from the airport’s terminals.

Travelers can also take the Silver Line (SL1) bus to get from the airport to Boston’s Seaport District, which is noted for its harbor promenade, landscaped parks, and variety of shops and restaurants. The ride takes about 19 minutes and is free from the airport to the Seaport District. Rides back to the airport cost $2.50.

At the seaport, visitors can see the Boston Fish Pier, stroll through the Rose Kennedy Greenway to explore its gardens and plazas, or admire a variety of art at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Visitors can also take both the Silver Line and the Blue Line to get to downtown Boston in around 30 minutes.

In downtown, history abounds at locations like the Old State House and the Paul Revere House. Seafood fanatics can head to Neptune Oyster, where diners line up to taste the famed oysters, buttered lobster rolls, and raw seafood selections.

For dessert head to Mike’s Pastry to sample Italian treats such as cannoli and gelato in a pastry shop that has been open since 1946.

2. Atlanta: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

From the airport, visitors can take the MARTA train to get to downtown Atlanta in roughly 16 to 20 minutes for $2.50 each way.

Once downtown, travelers can enjoy activities like a visit to Centennial Olympic Park to take in the free daily shows of the Fountain of Rings — the world’s largest interactive fountain featuring the symbol of the Olympic Ring.

Downtown Atlanta is also home to the Georgia Aquarium, which features thousands of animals and a variety of exhibits. Meanwhile, Coca Cola lovers can visit a museum dedicated to the history of the company at The World of Coca-Cola. The 20-acre complex is home to over 100 types of beverages visitors can sample, in addition to 200-year-old artifacts and historic accounts.

When it's time to eat, make sure to stop into the Busy Bee soul food restaurant, which has been open since 1947 and serves dishes that range from fried cube steak to old fashioned banana pudding.

3. Chicago: Chicago O'Hare International Airport and Chicago Midway International Airport

After landing at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, travelers can take the CTA Blue Line to reach downtown Chicago in roughly 45 minutes for $5. The Orange Line will connect travelers from the Midway International Airport to downtown Chicago in about 30 minutes for $2.50 each way.

In downtown, visitors can check out popular attractions like the famed Millennium Park and Cloud Gate (known as “The Bean”), Lurie Garden, the Maggie Daly park, and the Chicago Riverwalk to enjoy scenic strolls filled with river views.

The all-local Revival Food Hall is also within close distance and hosts Mindy’s Hot Chocolate, where hot chocolate add-ons include butterscotch and cognac shots, maple syrup, and homemade marshmallows.

4. Philadelphia: Philadelphia International Airport

The SEPTA train stops at every major terminal at Philadelphia International Airport, easily transporting passengers to Center City in roughly 25 minutes.

The Airport Line service runs seven days a week between 5 a.m. and midnight, and costs $6.75 when purchased in advance and $8 one-way for regular purchases on weekdays. On weekday evenings and weekends, rides cost $5.25 one-way when purchased in advance and $7 one-way for regular purchases.

Once at Center City, visitors can explore more than half a dozen neighborhoods that make up Philadelphia’s downtown. Here is where you’ll find historic neighborhoods like Old City and Society Hill, and a variety of shops, restaurants, and parks.

Various corridors throughout the area have their own charm to offer, from the Midtown Village and its independently owned restaurants, hotels, and boutiques to Rittenhouse Row and its upscale selection of galleries and spas.

5. Las Vegas: McCarran International Airport

There are several options provided by the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada for riders headed from McCarran International Airport to Las Vegas’s famous strip and to downtown.

Passengers who arrive at Terminal 1 can use Routes 108 (Paradise), 109 (Maryland Parkway), and the Westcliff Airport Express (WAX) from the Ground Level Zero. From Terminal 3, options include the WAX or the Centennial Express from the Departures Level.

Each ride costs $2 per person, or $5 for a 24-hour pass, with rides taking roughly 15 minutes to arrive at the Las Vegas Strip and 40 minutes to get downtown. The Strip is home to a variety of Las Vegas’s popular casinos and resorts and attractions that include the Bellagio fountain show and the world’s tallest observation wheel.

Try Bavette’s Steakhouse and Bar for a selection of meats, seafood towers, and classic cocktails, or head to the Cosmopolitan’s The Chandelier bar to drink under millions of shimmering crystals.

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