Turn the four-hour wait into a vacation bonus


layover (lay-oh-ver) n. An unpleasant break in a journey, during which the traveler is subjected to bland, overpriced food, uncomfortable airport seating, and severe bouts of tedium.

If this is your definition of a layover, read on. Your world may be about to brighten, because with a change in attitude and a little creative scheduling you can start turning those dreaded delays into bonus vacations by venturing out of the airport to sample hub destinations.

In Boston, for instance, a shuttle bus will drop you at the ferry for a dramatic trip across the harbor that lands you right in the heart of town in 30 minutes. On a four-hour layover, that gives you a couple of hours to grab a bite at Faneuil Hall Marketplace, check out the aquarium, stroll the financial district, or visit a few historic sights, with plenty of time to get back for your flight. Since your bags will automatically be routed through to your final destination and you already have your boarding pass for the connecting flight, you can move freely without worrying about checking in upon your return.

With the hurried traveler in mind, domestic-flight regulations oblige airlines to place connecting passengers on the earliest available flight. On peak travel days, however, connections often require as much as four hours (the maximum allowed), and an experienced travel agent can sometimes book layovers that exceed the maximum (which may slightly increase the price) for clients who want them. Noteworthy layover-friendly American cities include Chicago, Atlanta, and Philadelphia, which all have direct rail links from the airport.

To arrange an overnight stay that still qualifies as a free layover, try to schedule a hub arrival on the last flight of the day, and a departure on the first flight the next morning. For example, if you're flying from La Guardia to Los Angeles, US Airways could drop you in Charlotte, North Carolina, at 8:58 p.m. to visit your old college friend, and you could catch a plane out at 8:35 the following morning.

On international flights, regulations permit layovers of up to 24 hours, so it's easier to arrange full overnight stopovers. Some tickets allow these free; many others charge a $50 fee. Occasionally airlines actually build overnight connections into unusual routes to fill flights, and offer complimentary accommodations, breakfast, and transfers. Splendid offbeat bonuses can be found, such as an exploration of the Helsinki harbor by the light of the midnight sun, en route to Budapest on Finnair.

Check the airlines that are most likely to pass through your desired layover destination. Korean Air flights to Asia generally pass through Seoul, Air France through Paris, Alitalia through Rome, Air India through Delhi, and so forth. Also, a number of airlines have formed partner agreements to create a worldwide network. Delta, for example, funnels many of its European flights into the Brussels hub of its European partner, Sabena. London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Geneva, and Barcelona all offer quick downtown rail links for European connections, and Hong Kong and Singapore are easy layover gems in Asia—Singapore even provides a free city tour.

Though most countries don't require visas for short stays on a U.S. passport, be sure to confirm (through either the airline or your local consulate) that the immigration authorities of a layover destination will permit entry. Once you're at the hub, there are three key matters to attend to before you leave the airport (two of which apply to domestic destinations as well): currency exchange, baggage storage for your excess carry-ons, and transportation. A tourist information center can direct you to storage facilities, give you schedule and fare information for a ride into town, and provide you with a map to help you plan your visit.

Finally, don't attempt to conquer the world in a day. To maximize your short stay and avoid the potential stress of a foreign environment, limit your itinerary to a few sights and avoid long lines at popular attractions. During a recent layover in Amsterdam, I hopped on an airport train right at the concourse and was whisked into town in less than 20 minutes. I spent a perfect half-day wandering the central canal streets. Between touring the Anne Frank house and lingering over a blissfully long 10-course rijsttafel lunch at one of the city's exceptional Indonesian restaurants, I settled in at a café and played a few games of backgammon with a young Italian couple.

Sound tempting?See you in Helsinki.