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woman staring out airport windowThe dreaded airport layover has happened to us all — I’m not talking an hour to grab a snack in between flights; I’m talking mind-numbing half-days. Sure, there are shops and sometimes even massage centers and airport gardens to pass the time, but if you’re an antsy traveler like I am, you’re staring longingly out the window and wondering what new adventures await beyond the tarmac. Unfortunately, exploring a new city in a short amount of time with a lot of unknowns can be just cause for hesitation — get lost, get back late, and another long wait for a new flight might befall you.

Luckily for impatient but practical explorers like us, a number of major cities around the world actually offer tours designed to fit within the span of a layover, and get this: some of them are completely free.

Istanbul: Anyone flying through Turkey’s best-known city with a layover of six hours or more is welcome to a historical jaunt about town, free of charge with Turkish Airlines tour operator Touristanbul. Sites include the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar.

London: Self-proclaimed “original founders of the layover tour,” London Magical Tours aims to whisk you away from Heathrow or Gatwick on a customized tour of London, Windsor, Hampton Court or Oxford. A private chauffeur may be a nice way to escape to the city, but these tours aren’t free — a price quote will depend on the needs of your group.

Singapore: While Changi Airport is renowned for being one of the world’s best, that shouldn’t stop you from seeing what’s beyond it. If you have just four hours to kill between flights, you can join the Free Singapore Tour, presented by Singapore Airlines in partnership with the airport. During your two-hour guided tour you will see the world’s tallest observation wheel, the Singapore Flyer; Gardens by the Bay, an arrangement of three spectacular waterfront gardens; Chinatown; Little India; the Colonial District and more. If you have four and a half hours, consider the City Lights Tour — Singapore sightseeing by night.

Best Airports for Layovers

Reykjavik: Turn your layover in Iceland into a mini-vacation. Icelandair allows passengers to turn layovers into a stopover of up to seven days — for no extra cost. That means a few days, not just hours, to tour Reykjavik and its surrounding sights (hey, you might never be back in Iceland). Tour operator Reykjavik Excursions provides day tours with pick-up from the airport. Popular options include a guided city tour and a visit to the Blue Lagoon. Prices vary by package.

Beijing: An eight- to 14-hour layover in China’s capital city is no sweat with a Beijing Layover Tour. Starting from $60 per person, spend the day with a private tour guide and driver to visit a number of themed destinations such as “Olympic Sites” or “Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City.” The value is not as great — just a limited number of stops for the price — but unless you speak the language, a tour is your best way to see some of the things China is famous for, without having to navigate it yourself. (And it beats reading magazines all day in an airport chair.)

9 Ways to Make the Most of Your Layover

Bogota: All you need is five hours to take a layover tour of Bogota, Colombia, with Bogotravel Tours. For a fee, this local tour operator will arrange pick-up and drop-off at the airport, and provide a day trip showcasing the capital’s social, historical and political centers — and, of course, an opportunity to grab a cup of coffee. If you’ve had your share of sitting and want to stretch your legs a bit before flying out, try one of Bogotravel’s bike tours.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

dori saltzman Todai-ji Buddhist temple nara japanA lot of people who know what I do for a living assume I’m such an expert at independent travel that I plan everything on my own and eschew any kind of organized tour. After all, who really wants to be herded from place to place with 50 strangers, some of whom are super annoying? And what “true” traveler likes to be rushed between sites with not enough time to linger and take it all in?

But the truth is I like tours, especially in places I’ve never been before, where English is not widely spoken, the culture is very different and I’ve got limited time.

Doing tours in such places is relatively stress-free. On a recent trip to Tokyo with my husband, I wanted to be sure that I’d get to see all the most important tourist sites in as little time as possible (we only had two days), so we’d have time to explore other places on our own. The easiest way to do that was to book an organized tour.

On one half-day tour with tour company Viator, we visited Tokyo’s most popular Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple, and walked around part of the Imperial Gardens. We also passed by Skytree Tower, the Japanese Diet and the Imperial Palace.

I didn’t mind the zipping-past-sites part of the tour; we ended up going to Skytree Tower another day on our own time, and we were both totally uninterested in touring the Diet. The Imperial Palace is off-limits all the time, so we weren’t going to get too much closer anyway.

12 Best Japan Experiences

I will admit I would have liked more time at the Meiji Shrine. Located in a large park, there are lots of paths to walk, and there was more to see at the shrine itself when our guide started herding us out.

There were plenty of tourists there on their own. But without our guide, how would I have learned how to correctly pray at a Shinto shrine? (Throw a coin in the donation area, bow twice, clap twice, think your prayer, and bow again.) How would I have known that most Japanese people come to Shinto shrines to celebrate good things, like marriages and births, and go to Buddhist temples when someone dies?

Some of what the guide told us I could have read in a guide book, but not all of it. That detailed information that goes beyond guidebook fare is another reason why I like organized tours. A good guide will tell the story of the places you’re visiting, giving you the details and providing the nuances that make each place special. And they’ll answer whatever questions they can.

They also give me an idea of what places I might want to go back to if I’m ever in the area again. With only a day and a half in Kyoto, we chose to spend our entire time on guided tours. I’m glad we did; it was the easiest way to visit all the area’s main attractions. If we ever go back, I know we’ll visit the Golden Pavilion again as there was so much we didn’t get to see. And we’ll be able to explore the rest of Kyoto knowing that we don’t have to run around just to cram in the “most important” sites.

Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

Do you do enjoy organized tours when you travel or do you prefer to wing it on your own?

– by Dori Saltzman