Making the most of layovers
May 2, 2006 3:57 PM   Subscribe

In general, how long must a layover at an airport be to be able to leave the airport, see the city (even for a short amount of time), and get back without missing your connecting flight?

I'm travelling to Morocco at the end of August. One of the cheapest flights has two layovers, both ~4 hours long, at Madrid and Paris. I'd LOVE to be able to see these cities during a layover if possible. Is 4 hours long enough?

Before I pick my flight (all of the choices return to PHL at the same time), I want to know if I should try to get one with a longish layover so I can dive into the city for an hour (even just the outskirts) or if I should just try to minimize layover time.

I don't have any experience travelling by air, so this is all new to me.
posted by thebabelfish to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It kinda depends on a few things - distance from the airport, local traffic, and whether you'd have to clear customs to leave the airport and then go through it again to re-enter.

I have no experience with doing this in Madrid or Paris, but CDG (Paris airport) is a ways from the things you'd want to see in Paris, although if you have some spare cash, you could try what I did once - I had a five hour layover in Washington DC, so I paid a cabdriver to drive me around for two hours and show me interesting stuff, as I'd never been to DC before.
posted by pdb at 4:09 PM on May 2, 2006

If you're flying back to the US from either airport, definitely don't do it - way too much security to go through, which most likely will take more time than you think. Also Charles De Gaulle airport is a nightmare to navigate if you don't read French (maybe even if you do).
Also - Paris suburbs are rather blase - you need to be in the heart of the city to appreciate it's greatness.
It's been to long since I was in Madrid to remember the distance of the airport to the city center, but I imagine with Madrid you probably also need more time than you have available.
Plan another trip - a week in both cities is not too long.
posted by walleeguy at 4:13 PM on May 2, 2006

The RER train from Charles de Gaulle into Paris (St Michel, very central) is 35ish minutes. Add 40 mins both ways to get through customs / security etc (at least - you don't want to miss your flight), so you're left with considerably less than two hours.

Is it worth it? I don't know. You will be right in the centre of Paris, so you could have a look at Notre Dame, a bit of the Quartier Latin, the Tuileries, the Ile de la Cité etc. It would definitely give you an impression of the beauty of Paris... but my guess is you'd be too stressed/exhausted/in a hurry to enjoy it.

On preview: seconding what walleeguy said about CDG - I still get confused trying to find the train station, even though I've gone the exact same way, from the exact same terminal, 3 times in less than a year now.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 4:21 PM on May 2, 2006

Four hours is definitely not long enough.

That four hours is made up of a two-hour buffer zone for your incoming flight to be late, and a two-hour buffer zone for you to go through all the crap of checking in for the outgoing flight.

The only consolation is that you'll be spending relatively little time in CDG, which is one of the ugliest, dirtiest airports I've ever seen, and as above, miles from anywhere interesting.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:22 PM on May 2, 2006

And if the layover is "officially" four hours, any delay on your first leg will eat into the layover to make the four hours into three....
posted by Izzmeister at 4:33 PM on May 2, 2006

Both cities are fantastic and well worth spending a day (or more of course) if you possibly can. I would see if you can get an overnight stopover.
posted by NailsTheCat at 4:37 PM on May 2, 2006

I was in Madrid last week. I'd say it's about 35 minutes from the airport to the center of the city by metro. I doubt you'll have time for much of anything worthwhile.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:56 PM on May 2, 2006

Response by poster: Hmm. So I suppose, say, 5.75 hours at Barcelona wouldn't work either?

Dang. I was hoping to at least try and make the most of the flying over there. Unfortunately, due to money and the reality that I can't get back much later due to needing to show up at college, I don't think I can add another day.

All your answers have been helpful though. Thanks!
posted by thebabelfish at 6:22 PM on May 2, 2006

6 hours starts to be more useful. Then, if you budget an hour to get into town, and 2.5-3 hours to get back to the airport, then you'll still have a good couple of hours to sitesee and stuff. It won't be great, but at least you'll get a feel for it.

Two suggestions come to mind: go for an even longer layover. Most flights out of Europe and into the US are mid-afternoon, but see if there's an evening flight. Pack to haul ass. If you're laden with a wheelie bag and a backpack and some crazy shopping bag(s), you will not have fun exploring much of anything. So don't do that. Check out for tips and go with as little as possible. If you're going to do it twice, there are twice as many reasons why it's a good idea. Plus, in Morocco, you'll love having less crap to cart around.

I say go for it. But I once hauled ass into Vegas on a 2 hour layover (and post 9/11). Talk about a gamble. But it was weirdly fun.
posted by zpousman at 8:23 PM on May 2, 2006

Several years ago, I had a 4-5 hour layover in Madrid and took the train into town to wander about. I didn't really have time to see anything in particular; I just got off some random train stops and walked around, grabbed some food, and enjoyed the scenery. It was pretty rushed, but still much better than waiting in the airport. My recollection is that the entry/exit process was pretty efficient.
posted by brain_drain at 8:34 PM on May 2, 2006

I'm going to have to be on the 'don't do it' side' purely because of security. In Brussles alone it has taken me over 1 hour to get through security. And we are taking as a given that all your flights are on time.

6 hours, as zpousman siad, is when the cost/benefit analysis of going into the city makes more sense. Which is a shame because they are both wonderful cities.
posted by Dagobert at 9:25 PM on May 2, 2006

In Paris, you need to be at the ticket counter two hours before your flight leaves*. So you have about 40 minutes on the train to Paris (assuming there's a train right when you get to the station), 40 minutes in Paris, and then 40 minutes back on the train. That's about enough time to peek at the street outside the train station, check out the departures board, and buy an Orangina for the train ride back.

*CDG is the only airport I've ever been to where the 2-hour rule for international flights seems to be strictly enforced.
Even with an e-ticket, you have to stand in line and be asked all sorts of security questions, and then sometimes shuttled to a different terminal. On my last flight, it actually did take almost 2 hours from arrival at the airport to arrival at the departure gate.

If, however, you arrive at the airport within one hour of your flight departure, you are likely to find a nearly deserted ticket counter manned by one cranky Air France employee who will make you beg and plead and blame the RER for your delay before grudgingly assigning your seat and allowing you to proceed to security, but not without a stern lecture on the time-related responsibilities of international travel.

Trust me - return to Paris when you have to experience it properly.
posted by hsoltz at 7:50 AM on May 3, 2006

that would be, return to Paris when you have time to experience it...
posted by hsoltz at 11:33 AM on May 3, 2006

Response by poster: zpousman: Luckily, I'll already be travelling with one bag because I'll be moving around Morocco a bit, including some trekking and biking.

brain_drain: What you did is what I was thinking might be possible. Really, I just wanted to sneak a very quick peek at cities since I'll be close to them. And yeah, it would beat waiting in an airport.

I'm still hoping to find a flight combo with a longer layover that's not too much more expensive, though I've come to terms with the reality that I probably won't get to see the cities (except from the air).
posted by thebabelfish at 6:51 PM on May 3, 2006

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