How travelers can plan the best layover in Istanbul or elsewhere

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Some airports make a long layover more attractive than others; I happily spent hours at the Korean Spa inside Seoul’s Incheon International Airport.

But for the most part, airports can be expensive and uncomfortable. Especially in this age of unpredictable flight schedules and understaffed food courts, escaping the building may be the best use of your free time.

You can go small, like ditching Los Angeles International Airport for tacos in Inglewood, or go on a distilled vacation, like the recent 26-hour layover I used to explore Istanbul on my way back from Africa.

But making a successful stopover takes a bit of planning. Whether you’re dealing with a long delay or canceled flight or already have a long layover on your itinerary, here are some tips for making the most of your time.

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For Jeff Jenkins, the travel expert and content creator behind Chubby Diaries, if he’s stopped somewhere interesting and has at least four hours to spare, “I’m definitely going,” said- he declared. “I have to go experience it.”

Before leaving the airport, make sure you have enough time to return, go through security and get to your gate.

Calculate how long it will take you to get downtown (or to a special restaurant, the beach or any other tourist attraction you’d like to see between flights), as well as how long it will take you to come back and the time you will need to check -in and security. The last part will vary by airport; whether you are traveling domestically or internationally; and if you need to save a bag.

Then, leave room for obstacles.

“Allow plenty of time in case there are long lines at baggage check or security,” said Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes, adding that it’s also wise to see how many time it takes to get to your door. Although it only takes five to 10 minutes at most airports, it can take up to 30 minutes.

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Better yet, arrange a one-day stopover

You can also plan your trip with a quiet layover to enjoy a micro-trip.

I referenced Scott’s Cheap Flights blog while planning my layover in Istanbul, which recommended travelers have at least eight hours between flights to leave the airport. My original itinerary gave me seven, so I upgraded to a later flight to give myself around 26 hours to play instead.

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Instead of looking for round-trip tickets, Austin Graff, author of By The Way’s local guide to Washington, D.C., buys plane tickets using the “multi-city” option to find what he calls “long and short stopovers” of at least 12 hours.

The airline you’re flying with may also offer a stopover program that makes it easy to add a stopover to your travel plans, sometimes even at a discounted price. Icelandair, Play Airlines, Turkish Airlines, TAP Air Portugal and Emirates are among the most notable.

Jenkins made a subsidized 14-hour layover in Doha via Qatar Airlines, which included a free hotel room. He had the chance to explore the capital, go to museums and see local traditions, like people breaking the fast during Ramadan.

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Make an option map — but set priorities

The best way to have a terrible layover is to try to overdo it. Don’t clutter up your little window jostling to see all the city’s attractions; instead, pick a goal or two and leave room for yourself to wander around.

It was impossible that I could see everything in Istanbul in one day, so I chose a few aspects of the local culture that I wanted to experience.

The day before I landed, I booked a steam room scrub (late afternoon, in case my flight was delayed). I picked one near Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque so I could walk past the famous attractions before my appointment.

Once in town I realized I had enough time to see a football game that night and bought some last minute tickets. The rest of the time I was walking around, stopping when and where I wanted to sightsee, eat and drink, shop for souvenirs, and people watch.

For more efficient exploration, save points of interest to a Google Maps list. I plotted mine for Istanbul using the By The Way guide, plus advice from friends. Once in the city, I was able to see what was most convenient to visit during my time frame.

Keyes says having a Google Maps listing ready helps her travel “by chance” while keeping a backup plan. You can spend the day wandering around, but open the map when you’re hungry to see if you’re near the restaurants you flagged.

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Once you’ve added your points of interest, save the map for offline viewing if you’re worried about international connectivity or want to save your phone’s battery by switching to airplane mode.

Do you want to discover a new city? Go to a game.

Leave as much as you can behind

Even if you’re a light traveler, you don’t want to lug around carry-on luggage during a layover.

Keyes says most airports have a luggage storage service where you can store your suitcase for a small fee. I was spending the night in an airport hotel so I could leave my gym bag and heavy items behind.

But consider the essential items you might need during the day. It could be a portable charger for your phone, your passport or other IDs, medications you can’t live without, or necessary clothing for the elements.

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Find the best way to get to town (and back)

Deciding whether it makes sense to leave the airport often comes down to convenience. In a place notorious for traffic, it can be more stressful than it’s worth getting into town.

Your safest bet is usually somewhere well served by public transport. When a train or subway is available to the airport, “it’s usually the most reliable — and cheapest — way to see the city,” Graff said.

Knowing he could take the train from the airport to Tokyo, Jenkins watched a few YouTube videos explaining how to navigate the system. He spent his seven-hour layover in Japan taking the train to Shibuya Crossing, where he found a restaurant overlooking the famous intersection.

The bus from the airport to Istanbul proper took about 45 minutes and cost $3. I took a taxi on the way back and arrived in the same time frame for $25.

It also cost me $50 for a visa to enter Turkey, a small price to pay for the incredible cultural experience of my layover. But Graff warns that it’s not always affordable or simple to enter a country while traveling internationally. Check if there are any special requirements for leaving the airport.

“In some cases, it’s not worth the time and money if a visa is required,” he said.

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