It happens every time you try to book an international ticket. You shop around for the cheapest fare but the airlines hit you with the long layover penalty. “You want that cheap seat mister - it’ll cost you a twelve hour layover in Madrid.” Sometimes they’ll intimidate you with a 10 hour layover in Amsterdam or Paris. You get the picture - you could end up spending an entire day staring at planes in London or Rome. If they’re really nasty, they might threaten you with a 14 hour layover in New York, in the middle of a snowstorm.
The idea of spending 12 monotonous hours in an international terminal waiting for your next flight is not everybody’s cup of tea. On the other hand, if you have time on your hands, a long layover in Madrid or Amsterdam or any other major European or American hub can be a bonus. What you save on the fare is more than enough to spend a lovely day being an accidental tourist in a charming European city.
Here’s the math. The cheapest round trip ticket from Cairo to New York is $710 - including taxes and all the other stuff they tag on. Not bad. But the only airliner offering that fare was Iberia and the offer came with 12 hour layover in Madrid on the way over and another 8 hours on the way back. The 'normal' flights would set you back an additional $300. I'm sure you don't need to guess which option the nomad opted for.
From the time I set foot on Spanish soil - it took me twenty minutes to get through passport control and another hour to take the subway from Madrid airport to the Plaza del Sol in the heart of the Spanish capital. I didn’t have any bags or a hotel to check into - just a few overpriced Euros to spend the day. It takes two Euros for the trip into town and another two to make it back to the terminal. It’s about the same in Amsterdam, London and Paris. The subway stations take you straight from the terminal to downtown. You might have to change trains a time or two but it’s all very efficient. All you need is a schematic map of the transportation system which you can pick up at the information desk in the airport when you land.
After having a leisurely breakfast, I booked a ticket on one of those double-decker tour buses. In Madrid it costs 17 Euros for the tour and you can get on and off all day. It’s about the same price in most major cities. The tour in New York is $45 - so don’t complain about European prices. Allow about two hours for the tour - more if you hop off and on. The best part about it the tour in Madrid is that they pipe in Opera music which goes really well with the architecture.
It helps if you’ve been to a city before and know exactly where to go but even if you haven’t - it’s amazing how much you can see on a one day tour. Think about it - what do most tourists do on their first day in Madrid or Paris? First, they have to wait for their bags. Then they have to take a cab because of their luggage and, if it’s rush hour, that might cost them an extra hour. Next, they check into the hotel, set up their clothes, and by the time they get out and about they’ve lost half the day. If they’re wimps, they might decide to rest up and lose the rest of the day.
I’ve had occasion to take advantage of layovers in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Madrid, London, Rome and Paris. It takes a little stamina and it helps if you manage to sleep on the first leg of the flight so you’re up and alive when you land. Of course, the layover has to be during day hours. It’s always nice to start with breakfast and mix with the natives on their way to work.
Don’t get drunk or stop at any of those "special" cafes in Amsterdam. You can’t miss your flight because your bags are already checked in. Save the thrills for another time. Since you’ll already have your boarding pass when you get back to the airport, you only need thirty minutes to get through security. By the time you get buckled up in the seat for the second leg of your trip, you’ll be ready for a nice nap and land wherever you’re going without jet lag. It might cost you fifty Euros, including two meals, which ain’t bad for a day out on a town like Madrid or Amsterdam. When you take into consideration that you’ve saved a few hundred dollars on your ticket by opting for the layover - you end up with a bonus mini vacation.
I almost forgot to tell you about the bonus layover in Madrid on the way back. I got to see a free exhibit of Claude Monet’s work and there was this five minute clip of him painting in his garden at Giverny. I just never knew he was so fat. The things you find out on a long layover!
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