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Layovers Can Be a Mini-Vacation With Preparation

August 3, 2008

By William Loeffler, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Aug. 3–Whoever said time is precious never had an airport layover.

Think there’s not enough hours in the day? That the weeks, months and years are flying by? Spend seven hours at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York waiting for your connecting flight to Europe. Time will slow to the speed of property tax reform in Allegheny County.

Layovers can seem like a prison sentence. But savvy travelers know that planning and attitude can minimize the stress of being held captive in a strange airport.

“I’ve had a lot of layovers, whether I wanted them or not,” says Marybeth Bond, travel expert and author of “50 Best Girlfriends’ Getaways Worldwide, (National Geographic, $15.95). “What I’ve learned is that you must prepare in advance for the possibility of a long layover or delay.”

That means packing an iPod and a good book, she says. Once you land, stake out a quiet corner of the airport.

“You can create a cocoon of comfort,” she says.

Bond packs food — not to avoid paying for pricey airport fare, but to treat herself. She’ll bring cashews or good chocolate, something she wouldn’t normally buy if she was at home. The involuntary down time of layovers can also provide the opportunity to cross a few things off your to-do list. If she’s traveling in the autumn, Bond carries blank envelopes for her Christmas cards.

“I end up addressing the envelopes for all my Christmas cards in October and November in airports. When the family picture’s done, I just pop it in.”

It’s unclear whether the number or length of airport layovers — as opposed to delays — has increased in recent years. But as financially strapped airlines continue to eliminate flights and overbook the remaining flights, travelers may have more time on their hands, says Genevieve Shaw Brown, Travelocity senior editor.

“As airlines further reduce capacity in the latter part of the year, there are likely to be fewer direct flights, and as a result, more layovers,” she says.

Technology consultant Justin Driscoll visited Peru in June. He prepared for a seven-hour layover at Miami International Airport by purchasing six episodes of the television show “The Unit” to play on his video iPod prior to his departure. He was even able to get a massage.

Miami International opened an expanded south terminal, with 1.5 million square feet of new space, in August of last year.

“They actually have a sleep chamber area,” says Driscoll, of Coraopolis. “It was nice. Seven hours honestly went by a lot faster than I thought it was going to.”

Many airports now offer more homey touches, such as rocking chairs, free Internet, spas and “day rooms” with showers, where weary travelers can sack out between flights.

Chicago O’Hare International Airport has a dental clinic, while Dallas Fort Worth International boasts two “on airport” golf courses a short 10-minute ride away.

Travelers can work out at fitness centers at Chicago’s O’Hare, Boston’s Logan, Las Vegas McCarran International and Orlando International, according to the Airports Council International Web site.

For overseas travelers, Changi International Airport in Singapore is the gold standard. They offer napping areas, a swimming pool, fitness and spa services, an art gallery, a movie theater and a free tour of Singapore for travelers with layovers of five hours or more.

Tracy Certo, publisher and editor of Pop City, an online magazine and Web site about Pittsburgh, sees layovers as a chance to catch up on work.

“The silver lining to layovers is that you that you’re kind of in limbo, so you can get things done without distractions,” she says.

During a five-hour layover in Chicago about a decade ago, she and husband Nick took the train downtown and explored the city before catching their connecting flight to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In 2004, on a flight from Santiago, Chile, to the United States, she was able to extend a four-and-a-half-hour layover in Buenos Aires so she could stay overnight and explore the Argentine capital.

“They allow this on international flights,” she says. “So I had 24 hours to explore Buenos Aires, and I’m still amazed how much I got to see.”

A layover can be a miniature vacation.

Freelance writer David Phillips of Highland Park had time on his hands when he flew into Detroit Metro Airport at 9:30 a.m. His connecting flight to Amsterdam wasn’t scheduled to leave until 4 p.m.

“I sort of treated it as a day off,” he says. “No one was calling me. Everybody thought that I was in Europe, so nobody was bothering me. So it was actually kind of a peaceful day.”

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