Icelandair discovered that mixing competitive fares with a memorable layover could entice flyers while building a country’s tourism industry. Today, countries around the world and their flagship airlines are turning layovers into bucket-list experiences.

TW Illustration by Jenn Martins

TW Illustration by Jenn Martins

Stopovers. They’ve long been a favorite subject of travel articles. Guide books often suggest itineraries for them, and Anthony Bourdain tackled the concept for two seasons with his Travel Channel show “The Layover.”

Just last month, Lufthansa Group carriers Swiss International Air Lines and Brussels Airlines became the latest to jump on the trend by offering free extended stopovers to passengers transiting through Zurich and Brussels from the U.S.

For long-haul passengers, stopovers provide an opportunity to break up a potentially grueling flight schedule and sample another destination along the way — and they are particularly enticing when combined with competitively priced airfares. 

Thanks to their massive airports and the myriad airlines that serve them, major cities have long been ideal for a stopover of a night or two. But for emerging destinations, stopover promotions by their flag carriers, sometimes including complimentary hotel stays, can be a valuable component in their efforts to increase visitation. 


Iceland: A stopover success story

That’s particularly true if those destinations also happen to be so-called natural hubs, the subject of an April article in the Transportation Research Record. According to coauthors Leah Goldsberry and Adam Scavette, a natural hub is “a location near the path of highly trafficked international flight routes” where a stopover “would not drastically affect the flight route between origin and final destination.”

Iceland served as a case study for the article, since over the past decade, the country has emerged as the quintessential stopover success story. 

According to Michael Raucheisen, Icelandair’s head of public relations for North America, the carrier’s stopover program “was definitely instrumental in building up Iceland’s popularity.” 

Icelandair’s stopover program has existed in some form since the 1960s; currently, it enables transiting passengers to stay for up to seven nights at no additional airfare cost. The carrier’s website includes links to a variety of tours, and Raucheisen said the airline works “very closely with Icelandair Hotels, various travel partners and Promote Iceland [the country’s tourism board] to provide information and special offers for visitors via our website … and various online outlets.” For a time, it even offered a Stopover Buddy program wherein airline employees volunteered to show guests around. 

Icelandic low-cost carrier Wow, which has served U.S. routes since 2015, also offers passengers the option to stop over at no additional airfare charge, and its website includes links for passengers to book tours and rent cars.

Observers say that, along with Icelandic carriers’ stopover programs and the competitive fares associated with them, the country’s tourism promotion efforts following its 2008 financial meltdown helped Iceland transform from convenient midway point to full-blown bucket-list destination.

That transformation can be seen in its visitor numbers: According to Promote Iceland, international visits nearly quadrupled over a six-year period, from about 490,000 visitors in 2010 to nearly 1.8 million visitors in 2016. Arrivals at Reykjavik’s Keflavik Airport rose from nearly 1.3 million in 2015 to nearly 2.2 million in 2017.

“It seems like the Iceland tourism board and the Icelandair Group and Wow [have] really put themselves on the map in the past eight years,” said Scavette, an economic analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia who worked on the Transportation Research Record article as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

And amid Iceland’s ascendancy to final-stop status, its stopover promotions still hold a lot of appeal for those headed to other destinations. 

At McCabe World Travel of McLean, Va., it’s certainly on the radar of the agency’s Europe-bound clients. 

Clients “might have been planning a trip to Prague or wherever, and the cheapest flights are on Icelandair through Reykjavik,” said Beth Jenkins, the agency’s director of development. “So they think, hey, might as well stop in Reykjavik.”


Europe via Lisbon, Istanbul 

Elsewhere in Europe, Portugal is another destination where tourism seems to be benefiting from stopovers.

International arrivals to Portugal increased nearly 12% last year, to a record 12.7 million, resulting in 41.6 million overnight hotel stays, an increase of 8.6%. And some of those stays owe to TAP Air Portugal’s stopover program, which enables passengers to stop off for up to five nights in Lisbon or Porto before continuing on their long-haul journey, or to the Azores, Madeira or Algarve. 

Stopover guests are entitled to discounted rates at participating hotels and a complimentary bottle of wine at participating restaurants. According to a TAP representative, more than 100,000 passengers have taken advantage of the airline’s stopover program over the past two years.

“Portugal is sort of having its moment in the sun as this great destination,” said aviation analyst and blogger Brett Snyder of He added that even if passengers might prefer a nonstop flight to their final destination, low fares “will change people’s minds, if it’s going to save a lot of money to go through Lisbon. But then, also, if they can tag on two or three days in Lisbon, then that’s the kind of thing that can help sway someone to say, ‘This is cool. I’d like to go there, I might as well do it.’”

‘Portugal is sort of having its moment in the sun as this great destination.’
Brett Snyder,

For Snyder, that mindset is key to boosting a stopover destination’s popularity. “You get these up-and-coming places that maybe people think are interesting, but they don’t view it as a destination for an entire trip,” he said. “And so Iceland maybe had that. Now, increasingly, Iceland is a destination. But Portugal may be at that point now where people say ‘I’m going to Italy’ or ‘I’m going to Spain,’ [but] if they can go to Portugal in addition and get a couple of days, then that’s great. And that may actually turn into a future trip once people know more about what it’s like to be there.” 

There’s a similar value prospect at work with Turkish Airlines, which launched its stopover offer in March 2017.

“A lot of times, it’s cheaper to fly to Venice or something via Istanbul,” Jenkins said, adding that clients have not been opposed to a little backtracking if it means saving money on airfare. 

“Even though it’s out of the way — you’re flying past [your final destination] then going back — the fares were so much lower that people were willing to do that,” she said. “And then they would say, ‘I haven’t been to Istanbul before, so why not stop over?’”

Under Turkish Airlines’ stopover program, business-class passengers with connection periods longer than 20 hours can get a two-night complimentary stay in a five-star hotel in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet or Taksim districts, while economy-class passengers are entitled to one night in a four-star hotel. For departures from the U.S., the offer is good for passengers whose final stop is Africa, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Southern Europe, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Russia, Iran or Kazakhstan.

According to the airline, 4,000 passengers from 11 countries took advantage of the offer in its first six months, and by the end of the first year, 14,000 passengers from 18 countries had participated. Of the passengers who have visited Istanbul through the airline’s stopover program, 62% said it was their first flight with Turkish Airlines, and 73% said that the stopover program influenced their decision to fly with the carrier.


Game-changing Gulf carriers

Attracting first-time flyers is certainly a priority for carriers based out of Persian Gulf destinations, which have emerged as another viable stopover point for U.S. passengers on long-haul routes.

Gulf carriers’ routes have been a game-changer particularly for East Coast passengers who are bound for Southeast Asia and other destinations where they might have traditionally taken a westbound flight, Snyder said. 

“The problem previously had been there just weren’t a lot of ways that you could go east; you could go through Europe, but you didn’t have as many options as if you went west,” he said. “But now that you have these Gulf carriers, which have huge connecting banks and just massive numbers of flights … it becomes even easier sometimes” than taking traditional westerly routes.

Add to that the Gulf carriers’ competitive fares, and “it’s opened up a lot of new opportunities,” he said. 

Visitors to the United Arab Emirates are permitted visa-free entry for 48 hours; that can be upgraded to a 96-hour visa for less than $15. But a 96-hour visa is included in Emirates’ Dubai Stopover package along with assistance at the airport upon arrival, a choice of more than 99 hotels, hotel transfers and 24-hour check-in and checkout.

Under Emirates’ stopover promotion, guests receive discounts for attractions such as hop-on, hop-off bus tours and tee times at area golf courses. The airline also touts popular tourism experiences such as dune bashing on desert safaris.

Abu Dhabi-based Etihad offers several stopover promotions. Business-class passengers stopping in Abu Dhabi can get one complimentary hotel night, and first-class passengers can get two. Those flying in the Residence, a three-room suite aboard the carrier’s A380s (a recent search for roundtrip flights from New York to Abu Dhabi showed results in the $30,000 range), can enjoy two complimentary nights at Kempinski’s five-star Emirates Palace.

Through the end of the year, Qatar Airways is offering its +Qatar promotion in collaboration with the Qatar Tourism Authority. Those traveling through Doha Airport “can explore Qatar with our range of stopover options, including a free hotel stay and two-night stay offers,” according to the airline’s website. Citizens of 80 countries, including the U.S., can enter Qatar without a visa.

In an email statement, the Qatar Tourism Authority said the stopover program “has been a great asset for Qatar tourism. … We encourage travelers to take advantage of this program in order to truly expand their journeys beyond just one destination and experience the highlights, heritage and adventure of Qatar.”

But as the country prepares to take the world spotlight as host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, it’s clear that Qatar aspires to move beyond stopover status. 

“To really be immersed in culture, one must stay longer than 48 hours,” said the statement from the tourism authority. “For travelers hoping to … truly relax into the heritage of Qatar, we recommend extending their stay to at least three to five days.”

These stopover promotions have helped bring awareness to these Gulf destinations, Jenkins said, not just among clients but agents, as well.

“In Dubai, for example, every major luxury hotel brand is there,” she said. “They do a really good job of saying, ‘We want to sell our destination first, we don’t want just one-night stays. Here’s how you can sell two or three nights with us.’ People’s comfort level with [Dubai] is making it more likely to be sold as a destination in and of itself.”


Layovers in the Lion City

Though the recent box-office success of “Crazy Rich Asians” has helped raise its profile in the U.S., Singapore arguably has, like the Gulf destinations, faced perception challenges when it comes to tourism, primarily being thought of as a destination for business and not leisure. And according to Snyder, at one time, flag carrier Singapore Airlines “was the threat that the Gulf carriers are today. This is what airlines were nervous about: ‘This low-cost operator with really high levels of service is going to dominate the world.’”

That might not have come to pass, but today, Singapore Airlines remains a major player for long-haul routes, and accordingly, it maintains a substantial stopover program.

Singapore Airlines’ Stopover Holiday program offers discount rates at hotels ranging from three to five stars. The promotion entitles passengers to complimentary admission at attractions such as Gardens by the Bay, the National Museum of Singapore and Sentosa Island.

During the launch last year of Singapore’s Passion Made Possible marketing campaign, Lionel Yeo, then-chief executive of the Singapore Tourism Board, discussed the country’s history as a stopover and the board’s efforts to entice visitors to stay longer.  

“We’ve been encouraged by our average length of stay,” he said. “Across all our markets we are at about 3.5 days, and I think for the U.S. market it’s actually longer than that — something like 3.8 days. I think we are very confident that the destination product allows you to really spend time and go deep and experience a breadth of things. 

“Now the stopover market is still important. But I think first and foremost we want to present Singapore as a destination in its own right.”


Departing thoughts

That, of course, is the ultimate goal for the destinations served by these airlines. And Scavette said there are some key factors that can help a destination evolve from natural hub to stopover to final stop. 

The article by Scavette and Goldsberry pointed to three natural hubs the authors saw as having tourism potential: St. John’s, Newfoundland (transatlantic); Kathmandu, Nepal (Euro-Asia); and Anchorage, Alaska (transpacific).

And as a tourism prospect, St. John’s, for example, “is a little isolated — like Iceland is, in a way — which might give it a little bit of allure,” Scavette said. 

But location and allure aren’t enough, he acknowledged. 

“The best cities that could capitalize on this would be ones where the country itself will be able to invest money into it and coordinate a marketing strategy for tourism,” he said. 

Snyder said Gulf carriers’ relationships with their countries of origin epitomize that sort of commitment.

“The governments and the airlines [are] so closely connected to each other that the decisions that get made by the airline are often more about what’s best for the destination, as opposed to what’s best for the airline as a profit-making entity,” he said. 

Looking elsewhere around the globe, Snyder said that Panama has attributes that could make it a successful stopover spot for Latin America-bound passengers. 

Flag carrier Copa “can fly 737s, similar to what Icelandair does, over a shorter range to pretty much everywhere” in South America, he said. “So you can fly from Boston to Panama on a 737 and then Panama to Buenos Aires on a 737. And normally to get between those places you need a big aircraft … but because of Copa’s location, they can penetrate into all these places with smaller airplanes.

“And as a stopover point, I know I’m still curious” about Panama, he said. “A lot of people want to see the Panama Canal.”

Copa has offered several stopover promotions over the years, most recently in 2013. A 2014 Copa press release credited  the Panama is Possible campaign, a joint effort with the Panama Tourism Authority, with drawing more than 39,000 tourists to Panama during the second half of 2013. Before that, the Visita Panama Gratis (Visit Panama Free) campaign, Copa said, drew more than 70,000 passengers in 2012. (Copa did not respond to a request to comment on whether it had plans for another stopover promotion.)

Jenkins said she expects that McCabe’s clients will continue to express interest in stopovers, both in major cities as well as in emerging destinations.

“It’s a pretty high percentage for the long-haul exotic [trips],” she said. “It could be a Gulf state stopover, it could be flying to Hong Kong and spending two nights there before going on to Southeast Asia.

“For a long-haul destination like that, the stopover is really important. And it’s for very mature travelers who say, ‘We can’t fly that long anymore, I can’t be on a plane that long’ [as well as] younger clients on a honeymoon or something, who say, ‘This is my one big trip, and I’ll never get to do it again.’”

‘For a long-haul destination, the stopover is really important.’
Beth Jenkins, McCabe World Travel

What’s more, Scavette said, sometimes a stopover “ends up being the best part of your trip.”