Stopovers are a little-known way of getting more destinations out of your trip. Far from the annoying three-hour connection that leaves you stranded in the airport trying to pass the time, a stopover allows you enough time to get off the plane and explore the city you’re stopped in.
But how can you turn a brief layover into a full fledged stopover? The answer depends on the both the airline and the type of fare you purchased. Some airlines make this a challenge, while others make it very easy.
Layovers versus stopovers, the technical definition
Any airline will let you stop at a city en route to your final destination, but they all have limits based on how long you can stay before it’s considered a separate destination, rather than just a layover. According to USA Today, on a domestic itinerary, a layover is 30 minutes to four hours long, or until the next available flight. Anything longer than that is considered a stopover. And in most cases, a paid itinerary with a stopover will cost more than a connecting flight with a mere layover.
On an international flight, most airlines will let you stay in one city for up to 24 hours on a layover. This allows the intriguing possibility of stretching a single leg of your trip over several days, with connections that are really overnight stops in multiple cities. So long as your departure time is earlier in the day than your arrival time the previous day, it’s treated as a mere layover, with no extra charge. (See also: Extend Your Stay With Open Jaws and Stopovers).
On most airline websites, if you can book a stopover, you’ll begin by selecting the “Multiple destinations” radio button. Then split the trip to include the connection city or cities you want to stop in.
Revenue tickets versus award travel
When it comes to award travel, the rules can sometimes be easier than they would be if paying with cash. It used to be that most frequent flyer programs allowed a free stopover, but now only a few still do such as Air Canada, Alaska, Cathay Pacific, and JAL.
However, most programs still allow open jaw trips, which can be helpful in creating a stopover. Open jaw refers to any itinerary where you return from a different airport than you first flew into, or if you return to a different airport than the one you left from. For example, you could book an award ticket from New York to London and then return to New York from Rome. You would then have to book a separate ticket to get from London to Rome, but you could do so on any airline, or use another form of transportation.
Let’s take a look at the policies for the major U.S. airlines, as well as some other notable foreign carriers that can be great for scheduling en route stopovers. (See also: Which Airlines’ frequent flyer Miles Have the Best Value?)
Delta Air Lines
Since the Delta SkyMiles program no longer has any award charts, award travelers are constantly at the mercy of its website to tell them how much a particular flight will cost. And even though Delta allows one-way award tickets to construct an open-jaw itinerary, it may impose a foreign travel surcharge on flights to or from Europe, and that can add hundreds of dollars to your trip. Therefore, Delta doesn’t offer free stopovers on either paid or award flights.
While United no longer allows traditional stopovers on award travel, it replaced that capability with something called an “Excursionist Perk.” This feature allows you to book a free one-way flight within a MileagePlus defined region, so long as you are traveling between two regions.
For example, if you booked an award flight from Los Angeles to Australia, and a return flight from New Zealand back to LA, you would be able to book a flight between Australia and New Zealand for no additional miles (just taxes and government fees).
Like most airlines, United doesn’t offer free stopovers on paid flights. (See also: Which United MileagePlus Credit Card Should You Get?)
Alaska may be the best airline in the world when it comes to free stopovers on award flights. Its Mileage Plan programs allows a free stopover on each one-way flight, for a total of two on a round-trip award.
Better yet, Alaska has a variety of international partners including Air France, British Airways, Icelandair, and Cathay Pacific. For example, you could fly Cathay Pacific to any destination and take a free stopover in Hong Kong. However, Alaska doesn’t offer free stopovers on paid flights. (See also: Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card Review)
Air Canada has a stopover policy for revenue flights that lets you stay in Montréal, Toronto, or Vancouver for no additional cost, as long as your flights have a connection time of at least six hours. They even offer free or discounted hotel stays, depending on the class of fare that you purchased. You can add your stopover up until 96 hours (four days) before your flights.
For award travel, you can have up to two stopovers on round-trip flights, plus your destination, and you can fly any Star Alliance partner, such as United or Lufthansa. You can even fly in any direction, with some limitation.
Since the British Airways Executive Club program charges you a set number of miles for each individual segment of your flight, you are free to break up your trip with as many stopovers as possible. This is true for flights on British Airways as well as its partners.
Just note that the British government imposes pricey taxes and fees when you add a stopover of more than 24 hours in London. British Airways doesn’t offer free stopovers on paid flights. (See also: Travel Together for Less with British Airways Visa Signature Card)
Singapore allows a free stopover on a round-trip award ticket, and you can add an extra stopover on a round-trip ticket, or book a stopover on a one-way award for just $100. Singapore doesn’t offer free stopovers on paid flights.
Hawaiian allows free stopovers in Honolulu when you are paying for a flight between North America, Asia, and the South Pacific. Stopovers are not allowed on award flights.
Icelandair and WOW air
These two Icelandic airlines allow travelers to stay in Reykjavik for up to seven days when continuing on to another country. Icelandair offers a free stopover on one-way paid and award tickets, which you can book with Alaska Airlines miles. WOW air also offers stopovers on its round-trip paid tickets, but it has no frequent flyer program. (See also: Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card Review)
This Dutch airline allows up to two free stopovers in Amsterdam on a round-trip flight — one on your outbound leg and another on your inbound leg. This applies only to its paid tickets, not awards through its frequent flyer program, Flying Blue.
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