When weighing the merits of a long layover at a seemingly out-of-the-way airport (say, 18 hours at Istanbul’s Atatürk when you’re flying from Washington, D.C. to Bordeaux), consider whether it offers a free layover tour for in-transit passengers. Six major hubs in Asia and the Middle East now provide connecting travelers with a glimpse of the city beyond the airport, on free tours that are easily booked on arrival. The well-run programs are so robust, it’s like getting a mini-vacation tacked onto your real vacation.
CHANGI AIRPORT (SIN) IN SINGAPORE
If you have a 5.5-hour layover (or longer) at Changi, you have a choice of two city tours, each of them lasting 2.5 hours. The Heritage Tour runs four times a day and stops by Chinatown, Little India, and the Kampong Glam district, with a 20-minute photo break at Merlion Park, home of Lion City’s famed fish-lion fountain. Of special note is the Arab Quarter in Kampong Glam, dense with fabric shops, old-world perfumeries, and restaurants specializing in murtabak. The City Tour runs twice daily and also stops at Merlion Park, not to mention the Singapore Flyer (the world’s second tallest observation wheel), Marina Bay Sands, the Esplanade, Gardens by the Bay, and SG’s Avatar-esque Supertrees.
How to Sign Up: Head to the visitor booth near Arrival Immigration, Level 2, in Terminal 2’s Transit Area, located between Transfer Lounge F and the Skytrain to Terminal 3.
HAMAD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (DOH) IN QATAR
Qatar Airways and the Qatar tourism board are behind this free tour, which visits a quartet of major landmarks: the Museum of Islamic Art; the Pearl-Qatar, a high-end shopping/dining district built on an artificial island; the seven-year-old Katara Cultural Village, a mixed-use complex complete with opera house, cinema, fine art galleries, and theaters; and the buzzing Souq Waqif, a wonderland of Bedouin weaving, colorful kilims, gold and silver jewelry, handblown glass, and gypsum carvings. Tours last about three hours and are available to anyone with a transit time of 5 to 12 hours, arriving in Doha between 4 a.m. and 7 p.m. local time.
How to Sign Up: Proceed to the Doha City Tour desk (Concourse B) upon arrival.
INCHEON INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (ICN) IN SEOUL
ICN offers eight tour options starting as early as 7 a.m. The shortest outing lasts one hour and whisks travelers out to the 1,347-year-old Yonggungsa Temple, beloved for its ancient zelkova trees and serene Buddhist architecture. The longest tours last five hours and there are four itineraries to choose from, covering sights both traditional (the 600-year-old hanoks of Bukchon Village or UNESCO World Heritage site Changdeokgung Palace) and ultra-modern (the 774-foot N Seoul Tower and Myeong-dong cosmetics district). All tours are free except for two time slots that include meals or palace entry fees.
How to Sign Up: Visit the Transit Tour Registration Desk on the first floor of the Arrival Hall’s main terminal building, near departure gates 8 and 9.
ISTANBUL ATATURK AIRPORT (IST) IN ISTANBUL
Travelers must have at least six hours to kill to join one of the five available tours at IST; you also have to be flying internationally with Turkish Airlines or on a codeshare flight. Each tour is densely packed with sights of historical and cultural significance. Among the highlights: the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome Square, Yedikule Fortress, Yeni Kapi Harbour, Taksim Square, and Dolmabahce Palace. Some tours rush you from point A to point B to point C as fast as they can; others move a bit slower, tossing in complimentary meals and extended visits to the Grand Covered Bazaar and Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.
How to Sign Up: Head to the Hotel Desk in the International Arrival Hall 30 minutes before your desired tour starts.
NARITA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (NRT) IN TOKYO
In Tokyo, you have several tour choices, from self-guided options to being escorted around by a volunteer guide. There are four self-guided itineraries to choose from: one cultural (Kozaki Town) and three shopping-oriented (Shisui Premium Outlets, AEON Mall, and AEON Town Narita Tomisato). The Kozaki Town tour takes about three hours and stops at Kozaki Shrine, honoring the guardian god of aviation and transportation, plus a sake market. Guided tours also take three hours and travel is via public transportation. The culture course visits the millennium-old Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple; the food course raids a 30-dish Japanese buffet at Fu-Wa-Ri (1,500 yen for adults); and the nature course includes a countryside hike and a stop at Nichihon-ji Temple, famed for its bounty of hydrangeas. A fourth guided option takes travelers to Boso no Mura Sakae, a touristy Edo-period theme park (300 yen admission for adults) where hired actors wander around in ninja and geisha costumes. Tours are free, but guests must pick up transportation costs and entry fees.
How to Sign Up: Head to one of the Narita Transit Program Counters, located in Terminals 1 (1F Central Exit, C1 area) and 2 (1F South Exit, 1, 2 area).
TAIWAN TAOYUYAN INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (TPE) IN TAIPEI
Transit passengers must have at least seven free hours (and no more than 24) before their connecting flight to take advantage of Taipei’s free tours. The morning outing covers Sanxia Qingshui Zushi, a Daoist temple founded in 1769; the New Taipei City Hakka Museum; and the old ceramics thoroughfare of Yingge Street, with a special stop at Tai-Hwa Pottery (official potter of the ROC President’s office). Afternoon tours visit Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers; the atmospheric Longshan temple, built in 1738; and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, located in one of Taiwan’s prettiest parks. There are only 18 spots per tour, six of which may be booked in advance of your arrival.
How to Sign Up: To book ahead, email email@example.com; for on-location registration, proceed to the Tourist Service Center in the Arrival Lobby of Terminals 1 and 2.