Stuck at an airport this summer while waiting to connect to your vacation destination? Let the vacation start right then and there, using your layover for a cheap mini-adventure.
Let's face it: airline service probably won't get cheaper or better, so chunks of time between transfers are more likely. You might even get bumped. The hours can provide leisure instead of frustration. Just make sure that if you leave the airport, reserve enough time to get through security again and catch your flight.
Robert Reid, the U.S. travel editor for Lonely Planet, pointed out to WalletPop that many airports are far from city centers, but are close to smaller villages. By all means, explore them. Reid even suggested that you pay attention to which connecting airport you'll be landing at, to ensure you can spend time in an interesting place outside of the airport limits.
"A great choice is Narita in Tokyo," he said in an e-mail message to WalletPop. "Too far to go into Shinjuku for shopping, but near a great town in itself. A couple years ago I was there for about eight hours, and took a commuter train to nearby Narita village. There's a historic temple there, botanical garden, a free museum. Then I got a weird stuffed animal for a niece's birthday and stopped by a traditional eel restaurant. I was the only non-Japanese person there. I watched the chef up front -- slicing up fresh eel -- and had a nice meal for about $10 to $15, then watched Japanese baseball at a small teahouse by the train station. I spent about $25 in all -- and had a great few hours."
As for airports closer to the urban hubbub, Caroline Costello of Independenttraveler.com listed Amsterdam, Sydney, Washington, D.C., Chicago and London as airports with easy, inexpensive public transportation to urban hubs for a half-day of exploring.
The airports themselves can also provide an economical micro-vacay before the getaway, Reid advised. Try to research them before you go. Changi Airport in Singapore, for instance, will make you feel as if you booked it as part of your original travel package, according to Reid. In the terminals and at the surrounding hotels, there are 107 restaurants in all price ranges, Reid said, plus free outdoor gardens, free movies, and free city tours.
Checking on an airport's amenities beforehand will also spare you unnecessary expeses. "You won't be wandering around aimlessly when your flight lands -- and you won't be tempted to spend $150 at the duty free shop out of sheer boredom," Independenttraveler.com's Costello said in an e-mail message to WalletPop.
If you don't have the time to leave the airport, Costello recommended free or near-free pleasures such as movie-watching on personal devices. Reid is partial to old-fashioned conversation. "In airports everyone's pretty much in the same boat. They've all kicked off their shoes and showed their hole-filled socks at security, and have time to spare," he said.
You'll have to spring for drinks at the bar, but it won't cost anything to spark up a chat at the mobile phone charge stations. "People sit as their iPods get brought back to life and conversation happens," Reid said.
This WalletPopper had planned to make the most of the advice with an eight-hour layover in Rome while en route to a reporting assignment in France recently. But the volcano took care of that. Next time, I guess.