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Are stopovers at hub airports worth it?

A rendering of an aircraft landing in Iceland. Icelandair's stopover program is among the better-known options. ( iStock)

If you have some flexibility in your vacation schedule, you might want to consider a stopover. An extra day in Istanbul, Lisbon or Reykjavík, Iceland, could cost you little — or nothing.

Airline stopover programs meant to attract tourists to international airlines’ hub cities are gaining favor with travelers who want to explore new places. Airlines bend their fare rules to allow an extended stopover and sometimes even throw in a free or discounted hotel room.

The best-known stopover option, Turkish Airlines’ Stopover Accommodation service, recently restarted its program after a pandemic pause. Other programs operated by Emirates, Icelandair and TAP Air Portugal are also up and running.

Jessy Hamel, a travel adviser from Manheim, Pa., just returned from Amsterdam via Lisbon. It was a slight detour, but TAP Air Portugal offered her two nights in Lisbon before she flew back to New York.

“I stayed both nights in a corner room with a wraparound balcony in a four-star hotel with breakfast and a welcome drink for around $300,” she says. “I would highly recommend doing two or more nights. It just gives you a better and less rushed experience. I have recommended it to a lot of my clients and would definitely do it again myself.”

For Hamel, the two-day stopover was like a second vacation. She wandered the old city’s cobblestone streets, visited Belém Tower, rode the Santa Justa Lift and caught a fado performance while she was in town.

Anthony Berklich is a frequent user of airline stopover programs. He has taken advantage of stops in Lisbon, Istanbul and Reykjavík. He says he wouldn’t have visited those destinations as often without the program.

“In Istanbul, I was able to take in a few of the cultural wonders like the Hagia Sophia and a cruise on the Bosporus,” he recalls.

Berklich, who edits a luxury travel blog, also liked the price. Turkish Airlines doesn't charge extra for accommodations.

“My only additional cost for stopping over in each place was food,” he says. “What’s amazing about these programs is that you have the ability to build in extra days to your itinerary and see a completely new destination without worrying about additional flight costs.”

Ahmet Olmuştur, chief marketing and sales officer at Turkish Airlines, says that’s exactly what the program is designed to do.

“Our stopover program not only gives travelers the ability to slow down, unwind and make the most of their layover in Istanbul, but presents a unique opportunity to check multiple countries off their bucket list at the same time,” he says.

Stopover programs do include some fine print. For example, Turkish Airlines’ offer only applies to certain destinations and hotels. If you’re flying from the United States, you qualify if you’re on your way to Africa, Eastern or Southern Europe, and India, among other locations. If you’re flying in economy class, you’ll get a night in a four-star economy hotel such as the Hilton Garden Inn Istanbul Golden Horn or the Grand Yavuz Hotel Sultanahmet. Business-class passengers get two nights in a five-star property such as the Sheraton Istanbul Ataköy Hotel or Renaissance Polat Istanbul Hotel.

You also have to plan your stopover carefully. Hotels are subject to availability with the Turkish program. To register, you need to notify Turkish Airlines at least 72 hours before your first flight. Note that if you’re stuck in Istanbul on a mechanical delay, the stopover program doesn’t apply.

TAP’s program is valid for up to five days of a stopover. It doesn’t include a hotel, but the airline offers discounted rates for passengers who want to stay an extra few days. To find out if your fare qualifies, type in your origin and destination on its website.

How long should you plan to stop? That’s a common question for air travelers with longer connections. Generally, experts advise giving yourself at least one night. It’s not worth the stress of leaving the airport for just a few hours to tour a destination. And besides, hub airports such as Dubai and Istanbul are virtual shopping malls that are tourist attractions in their own right.

Most formal programs have a time limit on stopovers, so you can’t stay longer than a few days.

The programs are a timely reminder to make the most of stopovers — voluntary or not. Take Shaun Eli Breidbart’s recent flight from New York to Paris, for example. Delta Air Lines doesn’t have a formal stopover program. But an airline representative asked whether he wanted to change planes somewhere else — maybe Budapest?

“She said I could stay however long I wanted,” says Breidbart, a comedian from Scarsdale, N.Y. “I didn’t have any great desire to see Hungary. But if I’m already there, why not? I spent three days in Budapest, and I’m glad I went.”

As a bonus, he also got three minutes of new material from the adventure.