In Defense of Long Layovers

Stay a while

Save for a period of Italian occupation during World War II, Haile Selassie reigned over Ethiopia from 1930 until 1974, at which point famine and mutiny drove him into house arrest for the remainder of his life. But the presence of the 225th and last emperor of Ethiopia still stalks the capital of Addis Ababa, where his palace — set among palm gardens thick with smirking undergrad couples — now holds the capital’s Ethnological Museum. There, in Selassie’s well-preserved chambers, visitors can contemplate in quiet solitude one of the strangest artifacts in a clamorous city choked by traffic and propelled by the engine of Africa’s fastest-growing economy.

Decked out in a mélange of velvet-cushioned chairs, elaborate drapery, and gold lions, Selassie’s powder-blue bed sits shrink-wrapped in the sort of thick plastic most commonly found in the households of octogenarian Floridian swing-voters. Yes, the kind that makes fart sounds when you drag sweat-damp thighs across it. As I beheld the mummified Imperial divan, and heard my affable tour guide’s delighted sighs echo off the blue porcelain of Selassie’s decommissioned loo in the adjacent room, I fell in love with long layovers. It’s not a popular opinion, especially as governments and airlines suck any remaining fun and wonder out of air travel. But here’s the deal.

The cheapest long-haul fares often entail byzantine itineraries, long intervals traversing mountains of duty-free Toblerone, and pre-dawn connections that require multiple security shakedowns (not to mention the corollary hangovers resulting from consumption — at altitude — of four mini bottles of airplane-grade merlot). It makes perfect sense to skirt these inconveniences, if only to avoid having to wrest naps out of leatherette airport chairs designed specifically to obviate any possibility of meaningful slumber. Most travelers may be forgiven for going with a direct flight.

But airlines have recognized that long layovers can benefit their bottom line and provide tourists with what feels like a distinctive experience. The 2008 global economic collapse dealt a Thor-sized hammer blow to Iceland’s GDP, but also found Americans scrambling for deals on transatlantic flights. For decades, Icelandair has sold cheap flights to Europe with 18-hour layovers in Reykjavik. The financial crisis brought new popularity to these itineraries, which have always been a scheme to entice in-country spending. Icelandair marketed the snot out of their layovers, luring frugal Ibiza-bound millennials — nostalgic for Sigur Rós and intrigued by the prospect of canoodling with real-life Vikings — to experience the sulfuric waters and midnight sun of life at the edge of the Arctic. In the morning, they’d blearily re-board handsome Icelandair 757’s, having spent a surprising quantity of króna on wool sweaters and mini-bottles of brennivín. A decade later, those millennials now have jobs at tech companies and are returning en masse to Iceland, primarily to post to Instagram.

There are reasons beyond frugality to plan long layovers. To spend between five and 24 hours somewhere can prove a challenging, humbling, and illuminating exercise. You can’t get anything more than the briefest glimpse of a place, but you’re there for long enough to exercise parts of the brain that are lulled to sleep by traditional vacations. Such layovers develop one’s capacity to navigate a city’s distinct challenges: the particular (in)efficiency of its transportation system, the (un)availability of free Wi-Fi to navigate neighborhoods without asking other humans for directions, the (im)precise distribution of public restrooms, and the often arbitrary opening hours of tourist sites. On a daylong stop in London, I found the Turbine Room of the Tate Modern closed and my walking route interrupted by an endless stream of sweaty Brits completing a festive Sunday fun-run. On a weekend morning in Oslo, the streets were so empty — and I was so jet-lagged after my three-hour red-eye from Reykjavik (see above) — that I spooked myself into thinking I’d awoken into a zombie movie instead of the thriving Scandinavian wonderland I’d envisioned.

Long layovers also prepare you to better cope with unexpected delays — you know how to handle, and even look forward to, the chance to spend an inconvenient amount of time in an unfamiliar place. Returning from a two-week trip to France and Italy with my mother (a different story), we missed our connection in Dublin. Anxious to get home, she started to cry. I convinced her it was great news! We’d have eight hours to rest before crossing the Atlantic! She could check off another country! And we’d drink real Guinness! Sure, we drank that Guinness at an airport Holiday Inn, but she’ll still say it was the best beer of her life.

For planning freaks, the arrhythmia of long layovers offers a kind of touristic training in flexibility and trade-offs. One must accept that there’s little hope of hitting the Coliseum, Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, Musei Vaticani, and four gelaterias in eight hours, before heading to Fiumicino Airport. Every choice about how to spend time on a long layover seems more valuable, more emphatically made at the expense of alternatives. Every steak and ale pie, slurred conversation with bartender, sniffed rose, panoramic view, and gold lion is electric with the sense that any single experience entails the cost of any other.

I like to think — because of the imperative to make decisions quickly and their sense of gravity — long layovers could serve as exemplary relationship tests. Hemingway said, “Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.” I’d go further: if a person still fancies you, having schlepped a suitcase across siesta-silent Madrid in mid-July — with everything closed and scant shelter from the madrileño sun — marry that person. It bears mentioning that these experiences don’t always produce live-lit-ready rhapsodies on the smallness of the world, the speed of modern life, and answers to that click-baitiest of questions: why do we travel. One does well to remember Jamaica Kincaid on this subject: “The thing you always suspected about yourself the minute you became a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being.”

Qatar Airways (“the world’s only five-star airline”) also markets long layovers, promising tourists a luxurious stop in Doha on return trips to Western Europe from points east. The cabin of my flight from Calcutta, filled with migrant workers with no carry-ons, was sprayed with insecticide before departure (a process called “disinsection,” no less humiliating for its being common). Upon arrival, a Filipino immigrant in white gloves drove me in a boat-sized Rolls Royce to the St. Regis. At the almost empty hotel, a butler of South Asian extraction carried my bag and described my turndown service. In the blue topaz harbor, empty wooden fishing boats sat next to new 8-lane roads, against the backdrop of a fantasy skyline and the stern I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art. As I hiked across a massive crosswalk to the Souq-Waqif, a Toyota Previa packed full of workers sat sputtering next to a Maserati at a red light.

“An ugly thing,” Kincaid continues, “that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that.” I sat drinking tea and smoking hookah in a café, watching a gaggle of Scots in fanny packs take iPhone pictures. Does it make a tourist even uglier if the pauses are briefer? The next morning, a desiccated beetle fell out of a sugar packet and into the coffee that was delivered anonymously to my room. I spooned it out and drank the coffee. Is it better not to go — to stay home and not to risk the ugliness? Is it better to acknowledge the ugliness and try to understand and attack its root?

In Addis, photographing the self-proclaimed Lion of Judah’s neck pillows, I considered whether I should slink back to the airport. It had been hours and I still couldn’t pronounce “thank you” (incidentally: it’s አመሰግናለሁ in Amharic, transliterated unhelpfully as “amäsäggänallähw,” which, good luck). I felt out of place, incapable even of apologizing for my clumsiness, yet wanting to ask questions, to see more, and to take down as much as possible. I left feeling that I had experienced too little, and that I needed to go back and try again: to revisit and revise. Only with time, practice, and rewriting have I come to realize: that seems to be exactly the point.


A-J Aronstein lives in New York and writes when he can. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram, especially if you like pictures of pizza.