Written by: Alison Eckhardt
If you’re like me and are always looking for the best (cheapest) flight deals, you’re often stuck with one or two airport layovers before reaching your international travel destination. Re-calling stories of my travel adventures with family and friends, I’m often stumped when I hear: “Oh I haven’t been to Germany; I’ve only been to the airport in Frankfurt”.
The flight layover can be the most boring, semi-anxious time when traveling. You’ve waited months for this and after hours in an airport even your inner-child is screaming “are we there yet”? Waiting in the terminal for your next departure time may dampen your mood, but it shouldn’t deter your experience in the country you’re in. There are plenty of things to do, whether you are trapped in the terminal or have a half day layover. Get off the chair, disengage from your internet phone and give yourself a brief introduction to what the country has to offer!
For the short-term layover: Speaking Xhosa? in South Africa
Retail shops and airport stalls employ hundreds of locals. Stop to talk to a few even if the experience may be a bit daunting at first. Retail sales people (like anywhere) are there to mind a business for a few hours, not to be your local tour guide. However, many may be just as de-stimulated as you and may be more than happy to have someone to talk to- if you don’t ask the stereotypical questions. Instead, point or ask about something unique you see in the store. This is your opportunity to be filled in on anything you could have missed while out doing the more touristy things. Often, you’ll find a local telling you how a tiny decoration is one that is made in her village- and her life story continues onward from there. After spending a few days in South Africa, I was back in the airport on a transfer to Namibia. I stopped by a commercialized shop where I overheard Xhosa being spoken by a small group of women. I picked up a few words of the language on a tour in the township of Langa. I greeted the saleswomen: “Melweni”! The women paused in mid-conversation and burst into laughter. Either my accent was way off, or they were amused by a white female speaking a native-African language. They responded and we proceeded to talk (in English) about a bracelet I had found earlier in the outskirts of Cape Town. All in all I didn’t find the bracelet, but it certainly lightened my mood and broke the monotony of the day.
Diving into the local cuisine: Avoid Westernized Cafes and Restaurants
Airport cafes and restaurants are geared toward travelers who can pay full purchase price for overcharged goods. Instead of blowing half your budget on westernized food that you will get plenty more of on your flight, head to the convenience store and browse the packaged goods that are available. Many offer nuts, dried fruits and bottled drinks that are native to the region and are much cheaper than paying for a Starbucks latté that you can satisfyingly indulge in while at home. If you are starving and need to splurge on a good meal, head to a restaurant you’ve never heard of before and have a local dish. Often, your server can better inform you of the quality of the local dish more than he could about the salmon flown in “fresh” off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada.
For the long-term layover:
I remember departing Ottawa at 20:35 and arriving an hour or two later in Nova Scotia, departing Halifax and arriving in Gatwick, London at approximately 6:30 AM local time. I was on little or no sleep, and had an 8.5 hour layover until I further flew approximately 19 hours to South Africa. I had never been to London, and thought it was a good opportunity to have a mini-adventure in-between my actual trip. Even if you have not slept for what seems like forever, there will be plenty of time to rest up on the plane, so get out and enjoy!
To help you avoid the hassle of getting lost on your mini-adventure and missing your connecting flight, ask a friend, a friend of a friend, distant relatives, or re-connect on Facebook with those who you met on your previous travels. Locals or those who have spent more time in the area can often provide good advice on things to do and see in a short period of time, as well as areas to avoid. They will also be better able to navigate subway lines, walkways and roads better than a first-timer ever could. It also may be safer than standing in the middle of a busy subway station, your face glued to a map with an “I’m definitely lost!” expression on your face. With a local, you avoid being a prime target for pick-pockets; lesson learned! If you’re meeting up with someone for the first time and you don’t see eye-to-eye at all remember: you are only there for a less than a day, are staying in public spaces and have company. If you feel uncomfortable, like anything, be alert and trust your gut.
On my mini-adventure in London, I met with a friend of a friend who helped me check my luggage, brought me to the Buckingham Palace, the site for the then upcoming 2012 Olympic Games, the London Tower, Harrods and a “cheeky” local pub. We squished in with the rest of the locals who were also escaping the rain and had a refreshing English cider. At the same time, this generous fellow treated me to a meal of fish and chips and mashed green peas- delicious!
Next time you’re anticipating long layovers or are awaiting a connecting flight, step out of your comfort zone and explore the area for the limited time that you are in it. Every kind of travel involves a sense of humor, if you don’t have one, remind yourself to have one. There is a reason why you have chosen to travel; to expose yourself to a new culture, to visit friends or family or just to de-stress. Your goal may not be to have the country’s travel guide memorized, but you may feel more comfortable to know a few random FAQs and to next time test your travel knowledge and impress those who ask “… have you been to X?”
image credit: schomy