5 Ways to Transform Your Stopover Into a Vacation

Fountain of the Goddess Cibeles
By taking advantage of stopover programs, Kyle was able to visit Madrid—at little extra cost.|©iStock/VitalyEdush

After a big career move, I went on the hunt for a once-in-a-lifetime experience before the next chapter. I was less concerned with where I went than achieving a champagne experience… on a light beer budget.

I’d heard stories about airlines giving out hotel vouchers for long layovers, so I snooped around GoogleFlights—and that’s how I discovered TAP’s stopover program… which allowed me to visit Lisbon and Madrid on the same $400 round-trip ticket.

Twenty-five countries (and a much more generous budget) later, Lisbon remains one of my favorite cities—and I’d never have explored beyond the airport without the stopover.

National airlines typically offer stopover programs like this to passengers connecting in long-haul flights through their hub airport(s). They take a couple different forms, from simply functioning as an extended layover to unique excursions provided by the airline, but they share the common goal of encouraging visitors to explore what their cities have to offer.

This opens up a host of new possibilities to savvy travelers, allowing for an unexpected adventure or the opportunity to bookend your planned vacation with a return to a favorite place.

Though I may no longer be a broke traveler, I am still a bargain hunter—and I’m always on the lookout for stopover deals. You can check out my favorites below.

TAP Air Portugal: The World’s Best Stopover Program

©iStock/Aleh Varanishcha
©iStock/Aleh Varanishcha

My personal experience with TAP a few years ago was seamless, and Global Traveler named their Portugal stopover program the world’s best in 2023—for the fifth year running.

Medium- or long-haul flights connecting through Lisbon or Porto are eligible for a free stopover in either idyllic coastal city for up to 10 days.

TAP’s flexibility is unparalleled. Oneway, round-trip, and multi-city itineraries are all eligible and your stopover can be on either the outbound or return leg of your journey. This was invaluable to me, as I ended up booking an outbound flight to Funchal, Madeira and the return flight from Madrid, stopping in Lisbon for three days before returning to New York. Tacking on a one-way ticket from Funchal to Madrid was more than worth it, and still within my budget.

TAP offers discounted hotel rates and experiences.

The process is fairly easy; you’ll just check the "Portugal Stopover" box during your online booking process and navigate the selections from there. Your Portugal stopover includes access to discounted hotel rates, city transportation cards, and experiences like Setúbal Peninsula wine-tasting in Lisbon, or a tour of Porto’s hidden culinary gems. If your stopover leg connects to another destination in Portugal, you’re entitled to a discount of 25% off your domestic connection, applied while booking the second leg online.

A couple days in Lisbon was all I needed to fall in love with the city. Take a day trip to the incredibly preserved town of Sintra, visit the iconic Torre de Belém, or party on the city’s infamous Pink Street. Porto, meanwhile, offers a charm all its own—plus discounted access to the nation’s remote islands.

Icelandair: Readymade Itineraries on Offer

Icelandair offers stopover itineraries from the Blue Lagoon to the Northern Lights.
Icelandair offers stopover itineraries from the Blue Lagoon to the Northern Lights.|©iStock/ASMR

Icelandair has positioned its stopover program as the gateway between North America and continental Europe, with capital city Reykjavik’s location serving as a pitstop for long-haul trips across the north Atlantic.

But the island nation’s volcanic beauty is stunning in its own right, and the airline has pioneered the extended layover—affording travelers the chance to spend up to a week exploring its rugged terrain before moving on to the next leg of their journey. Like TAP, booking a stopover in Iceland is as simple as checking a box and exploring your options from there.

Icelandair also offers ready-made stopover itineraries up to five days in length. The country has a reputation for being an expensive place to stay, but the airline is aware of this—advertising a budget-friendly list of free and inexpensive things to do in Reykjavik and the surrounding area in addition to more lavish, all-encompassing tours.

Only in Iceland can you visit the picture-perfect Blue Lagoon or walk up to an active volcano while waiting for a connecting flight. If you’ve been wanting to witness the Northern Lights in person, look at this program as your first step.

Turkish Airlines: A Free Four- or Five-Star Hotel Stay

Istanbul, Türkiye

Turkish Airlines operates connecting flights from the UK and North America to far-flung destinations all over the Middle East and Asia, but in doing so guests risk missing out on Turkey’s crown jewel: the continent-straddling city of Istanbul.

Turkish Airlines is already my favorite airline, thanks to its upscale economy class. It boasts the roomiest legroom you’ll find on a commercial flight outside of business class, plus top-tier service and delicious in-flight meals. (Yes, really.) And Istanbul Airport, opened in 2018, is rivaled only by Singapore Changi Airport.

But don’t stay there during your long layover. By taking advantage of the Istanbul stopover program, travelers can explore the iconic city—and stay in four-star or better accommodation free of charge. Not bad for an economy-class flight!

Eligibility varies depending on where you’re coming from and where you’re going, but US-based guests connecting anywhere outside of Turkey are good to go. Generally, anyone connecting to a destination outside of Europe can take advantage of the offer.

Turkish Air will pay for your stay in a 5-star hotel.

Your connection must also be booked with a built-in layover of at least 20 hours—a functional requirement of any multi-day stopover, but explicitly defined on Turkish. Passengers who meet the above criteria can make a reservation online by sending flight information, contact details, and accommodation requests via the airline’s online portal, and the airline will issue a hotel voucher in return.

And again, this isn’t just any airport hotel. Economy guests are entitled to one complimentary night in a contracted four-star hotel free of charge. Bump that up to two nights in a 5-star hotel for business class ticket holders, and guests traveling to or from the United States even benefit from an additional complimentary night, depending on the fare class, for up to three nights in a five-star hotel, courtesy of the airline. From a value perspective, it doesn’t get any better.

Emirates: A Dubai Experience

Burj Al Arab, Dubai

As the largest airline in the Middle East and with destinations served all over the world, Emirates is renowned, like Turkish, for its onboard product and service. Plus, the airline connects to every inhabited continent through its hub in Dubai, which itself has become world-famous for its commitment to grandeur.

The airline encourages guests to book their "Dubai Experience" alongside their flight, but you can also submit your pre-booked flight information to begin planning your stopover. Unlike most similar programs, a multi-day stop isn’t necessary to partake; in fact, there is no minimum time requirement at all.

Guests can choose from a massive selection of pre-planned, discounted excursions—ranging from a four-hour tour of downtown Dubai to a multi-day desert safari—to "transform even the shortest stopover into an unforgettable experience."

Booking through the Dubai Experience portal offers extra benefits to your reservation, such as flexible cancellation, 24/7 hotel check-in and a small discount on future flights booked. After selecting your flight, you can then book all manner of restaurants, tours, hotels and entertainment through the airline’s booking portal at exclusive rates.

Copa Airlines: Up to a Week in Panama City


European airlines might have the most renowned stopover programs, but they certainly don’t have a monopoly. Copa Airlines flies all over North and South America, from Argentina to Canada. And their brand-new stopover program, launched in 2023, lets travelers bookend a trip between the continents with up to seven days at the bridge between them: Panama.

Booking can be done online, with a built-in stop of between 24 hours and a week in Panama City. Like Icelandair, Copa offers a wide range of discounted tour packages based on the duration of your trip. A sample offering includes a visit to Casco Antiguo (a UNESCO World Heritage site), the engineering marvel of the Panama Canal, a whirlwind trip through the Panama City skyline and an overnight adventure to Monkey Island—all in three nights.

There are more than two dozen available packages and numerous one-day activities should you wish to create your own Panamanian adventure.