Sometimes, whether by design or necessity, your travel plans involve an extended amount of time in an airport terminal. When your wait time is just a couple of hours, having lounge access can get you through these waiting periods no problem.
But when you have substantially more time or if there is some attraction that you are highly interested in seeing, you are probably going to be interested in leaving the airport grounds.
But the question is can you leave the airport during a layover?
In this article, I will break down everything that you need to know about whether or not it is ok to leave the airport during a layover and I will also spell out all of the things you need to think about when doing so.
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Can you leave the airport during a layover?
Yes, in the vast majority of cases you can leave the airport during a layover in the US and even when traveling internationally. However, whether or not you should leave the airport is an altogether different question.
Below, I will cover all of the different factors you want to consider before choosing to leave the airport for a layover. I’ll first cover layovers in the US and then talk about layovers at international destinations.
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Factors to consider when leaving a US airport
How much time is needed between flights?
How much time you need on your layover depends on how far you are planning on going, how long you are planning to stay there, and whether or not you are someone who wants to play it on the safe side or cut it close.
TSA advises arriving at the airport two hours before your flight for domestic travel and three hours before for international travel. So the same rule would apply to layovers.
Playing it on the safe side
If you want to play it on the safe side, you can start by giving yourself at least two hours of cushion for when you arrive back at the airport.
This means you can take your layover time and subtract it by two hours, and that gives you the total amount of time that you could spend exiting the airport and making your way to your destination and getting back.
Of course, some people don’t like to arrive two hours prior to a domestic flight and may cut it closer to one hour.
Cutting it close
I know that there will always be some of you who are okay with cutting it very close when it comes to getting back to the airport in time. But even you people should know that many major airlines in the US require all customers to be on board the aircraft 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time for domestic flights and no later than 30 minutes before your scheduled departure for international flights.
This means that the absolute latest you could be at the gate is usually 15 minutes before departure (in some cases it could be 10 minutes). If security is not long and you already have your boarding pass on your mobile device you could arrive to the airport around 30 minutes prior to your departure and maybe make it to the gate in time but that would still be pushing it.
That is because you would have to be assuming that everything goes smoothly at security and that you don’t have any hiccups. For example, imagine that you got hit with secondary screening (SSSS) and you had to go through that whole process. In that case you would most likely miss your flight due to the extended amount of time needed for the screening.
So if you are coming back to a domestic airport I would try to give yourself at least 45 to 60 minutes prior to your departure time to be safe, even if you are prone to cutting it close. If you are coming back for an international flight, I would give yourself 60 minutes to 90 minutes at the bare minimum.
Calculating the time needed
You really need to factor in every aspect of your travels during a layover to get a precise idea of how much time you have.
So let’s say that you have a five hour layover and you want to play it safe so you are subtracting two hours immediately from the layover so that you are back at the airport with the recommended amount of time.
So now you have three hours to deal with.
Let’s say that you are flying back into the country from Dubai, connecting in Chicago, and that you want to go see the Willis Tower during your layover.
Here is how you would break down your time.
Immigration and customs
If you are arriving back into the United States, you need to consider how long you might have to wait to get through immigration and customs. Immigration is the first station that you go through upon entering a country. This is where you get your passport scanned and/or stamped and you have to explain to a CBP agent that you are not a drug mule.
Sometimes these lines can be outrageous depending on the location and the timing of your arrival, though typically your wait time will be around 20 minutes.
Sometimes that average time won’t apply and it can be very difficult to predict how long these lines will be so you need to always try to be conservative when planning out how much time you will need to get through customs and immigration. You can find data on average wait times here.
In order to expedite your way through customs and immigration, you should invest in Global Entry. That pass could save you a good 20 to 30 minutes when making your way through immigration so it is a very wise investment. The application process takes a little bit of time and you will have to schedule an interview but it is totally worth it. Plus you can get this for free by utilizing credits that come with a lot of credit cards.
One thing to remember, if you are dropped off at the side of the airport that is far from the exit you also have to think about the additional time it will take you to walk from your gate to where you can get through immigration and customs. This could easily add 5 to 15 minutes in a lot of cases, depending on whether or not trams are involved.
So back to our Chicago example, let’s say that you have Global Entry and you will give yourself five minutes of time to get through immigration.
If you are connecting on a domestic flight chances are your bags will arrive at your final destination so you won’t have to worry about your checked baggage.
But if you are switching airlines or you opt to have your bags received at the layover airport then you will obviously have to think about the time needed for checking your baggage as well.
In our Chicago example you are arriving back from outside the country, and since Chicago is your point of arrival back into the country, you will have to pick up your bags there and re-check them for your connecting flight.
So now you need to allocate some more time for how long it might take to pick up your baggage which could be anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes (you still always have to be prepared for those unfortunate times when the bags take even longer to come out).
So you are already looking at about 25 to 40 minutes that it could take for you to get through immigration and to claim your checked baggage.
Related: Tips for First Time Flyers
If you are flying domestically this does not apply to you but if you are coming in from an international flight you will have to go through customs after you pick up your luggage.
Sometimes they just wave you through especially if you have Global Entry so in this case let’s just say there is not really a line and you get through in about five minutes. But note that I have seen US Customs’ lines that have taken upwards of 30 minutes.
Getting out the airport
Now you need to think about how much time it will take to get out of the terminal and find your form of transportation whether that is a taxi, Uber, or public transport.
If you are planning on utilizing public transport do not wait until you arrive at the airport to figure out your routes. You should have everything figured out before you ever step foot off that plane because if you wait until the last minute, it’s going to be a lot more stressful and you will be burning up valuable time.
And I’m not just talking about routes, you also need to look at things like how to add money to your subway cards and things of that nature because those can be less than straightforward, especially when traveling abroad.
For our Chicago example, let’s just say that we are using an Uber.
I did a test run on Google Maps and found that the time from ORD to the Willis Tower was 37 minutes in the middle of the day. So if you tack on five minutes for the waiting time for the Uber that is 42 minutes one way and 84 minutes there and back.
So let’s take a look at all of the time that we have used so far for this five hour layover:
- 2 hour cushion for a comfortable arrival back in time
- 5 minutes getting from gate to immigration
- 5 minutes getting through immigration/Global Entry
- 15 minutes waiting for baggage
- 5 minutes for customs
- 84 minutes for Uber ride there and back
So you are looking at ~3.8 hours of time that is taken away from all of the above. This leaves you with about 1.2 hours to spend at the Willis Tower which means you need to look at wait times for the Willis Tower and whether or not you need to purchase something like an express pass.
And that is usually what you will need when trying to visit tourist attractions on a short layover: priority lane or express passes. These are usually much more expensive than the general admission tickets but they will be worth the cost in many cases.
Since we are giving ourselves two hours of cushion we already factored in the arrival time for security, but it is still worth mentioning how problematic security lines can be.
Sometimes TSA security lines can be ridiculously long so it really helps if you have something like TSA Pre-Check which will allow you to breeze through security. You often only have to pass through a traditional metal detector (as opposed to the invasive full-body scanners) and you also get to enjoy the following benefits:
- Shoes can stay on
- Belt can stay on
- Light jackets can stay on
- Laptops allowed to stay in bag
- Liquids (3-1-1 rule) can stay in bag
Another program that you can look into is CLEAR which allows you to shortcut the lines even more (although it is more expensive). You can find our full review of CLEAR here.
If you had both TSA Pre-Check and CLEAR, then you could easily put that travel time cushion to 1.5 hours, even if you were traveling during a busy time.
The cost involved
A lot of people get focused on the amount of time they have for leaving the airport and getting back and forget to think about the cost. Some destinations can be very expensive to get from the airport to the major tourist areas.
In the Chicago example, I priced the Uber X for $32.21 so you would be looking at around $64 for the round-trip plus a tip so let’s call that an even $70.
So you have to ask yourself is it worth $70 to only potentially spend about an hour in downtown Chicago?
I guess that depends on how much you like good views and deep dish pizza but to some people it would just not be worth it.
If you have ever dragged around a lot of luggage through a subway system and through bumpy city sidewalks and streets, you know how unpleasant that experience is.
So if you are planning on venturing outside of the airport you need to have a plan for your luggage. I would suggest looking into checking your baggage to the final destination if possible so that you don’t have to worry about your luggage. This will usually be the default.
Some airports have lockers that you can use for your luggage so that can be a way to store it while you are out. You might be spending anywhere from $6 to $15 per day for the locker.
Lounges are designed to make layovers tolerable and even enjoyable in some places. Before you decide to head outside of the airport, make sure you have done some research to see what lounges are available in that airport, if any.
You might be able to spend less money getting admission into a lounge and have a nice relaxing experience versus paying more money and having a stressful and rushed experience trying to get to the city and back. If you are interested in lounge programs, I would suggest to look at Priority Pass Select.
Some airport lounges may put time limits on how long you can spend in the lounge. However, these time limits are generally more liberal when it comes to passengers on a layover.
If you get lucky, you might find an airport lounge that has a nap room but you can get a couple of hours of sleep but again there are generally time constraints on those rooms. So if you really wanted a good amount of sleep, you would be better off purchasing a hotel room or nap room.
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Factors to consider when leaving an international airport
When you’re thinking about leaving in international airport for a layover there are a couple of additional factors that you need to consider.
Even higher prices
The cost to head from the airport to the city center in some major cities can be much higher than you are used to in cities in the US.
I think a prime example of this is leaving from Heathrow to London city center. If you were trying to hop in a cab From London Heathrow to the city center (let’s say to go check out Big Ben), it could cost you about £44 one way. So with a tip (I realize tipping isn’t a big thing in the UK but I still do it) that is about £90 round-trip and that comes out to about $120 — almost twice the price it would cost to get from Chicago’s main airport (ORD) to it’s downtown area.
That’s a lot of money especially if you only have a couple of hours to explore the city.
The good news is that a lot of major international cities have public transportation that runs directly to the airport that you can take it advantage of. So in the case of London you could hop on the Tube or something like the Heathrow Express.
Just note that some of those public transport options can also be time consuming, especially if you have to deal with connections at different stations.
Specific boarding restrictions
Many international airports will have specific restrictions for how early you must arrive at the gate. I talked about the 15 minute and 30 minute requirements stated above for US airlines, but the restrictions for some international airports can be even more restrictive.
Here are a few examples to note of how early you must arrive at the gate before flights.
- Brussels (BRU): 60 minutes
- Dublin (DUB): 30 minutes
- Koror (ROR): 30 minutes
- Kosrae (KSA): 60 minutes
- Kwajalein (KWA): 60 minutes
- Lima (LIM): 30 minutes
- Majuro (MAJ): 60 minutes
- Pohnpei (PNI): 60 minutes
- Sydney (SYD): 60 minutes
- Truk (TKK): 60 minutes
- Yap (YAP): 60 minutes
Note that some airports even require you to be there 90 minutes prior to departure.
One of the biggest issues when traveling abroad is whether or not you need a transit visa.
Visas can get confusing when it comes to layovers because countries have very different policies. Below are a few examples of different transit visa policies that you might run into.
When on a layover in the UK, you might be able to get a 48 hours visitor in transit visa which will grant you access there for up to two days.
If you are traveling through China whether or not you can get or need a transit visa may depend on how long you plan on being outside of the airport.
If you were transiting through for 24 hours or less you could get a temporary permit that allows you to leave the airport and explore China for 24 hours. If you were transiting through certain cities, you could get a permit that allows you to leave the airport for 72 hours.
Of course the eligibility for these permits depends on what country you are from so you’ll always need to do your research. But this just illustrates how some of these visa rules and exceptions can work.
If you want to visit Moscow, you may need a transit visa just to exit out of the airport even for only a few minutes.
In order to step foot in certain countries, you might need proof of certain types of vaccinations. For example, if you are arriving from countries with risk of yellow fever transmission with a connection more than 12 hours, chances are you may need proof of yellow fever vaccination. So be mindful of how your connection could affect your status in other countries.
Spending time on a stopover
The difference between a layover and a stopover is generally that a stopover is a much longer amount of time spent in a given location. Typically a stopover is going to be 24 hours or longer and a layover will not be more than 24 hours.
Some airlines like to encourage visitors to visit their hub destinations.
So they may allow you to take a stop over that is several days which obviously means you can leave the airport and explore the country for a while. Some of these airlines include the following:
- Finnair allows you to add a stop over up to five days on any round trip, which allows you to explore Helsinki.
- Icelandair allows a stopover anywhere from 1 to 7 days.
In most cases, you should not have an issue leaving the airport. However you need to make sure that you have taken all of the relevant factors into consideration such as the amount of time and money it will take you to get your desired location along with potential needs for visas or other immigration and customs needs.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.