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What is a Layover?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A layover is a break in a journey, often imposed by the schedule of the traveler. The term is most commonly used in the context of airplane travel, but people using buses, trains, and ferries can also experience layovers. As a general rule, most travelers try to avoid layovers, although in some cases an extended one will be deliberately scheduled. A trip itinerary usually details the included layovers, along with their lengths.

In the most common scenario, a layover happens because a traveler is traveling between two points which are not directly connected. For example, someone might need to travel between Burlington, Vermont, and Los Angeles, California. There are no direct flights between these locations because there is not enough consumer demand, so the passenger must first travel to a larger city, such as New York or Chicago, and then take another flight to Los Angeles.

This is an illustration of the hub and spoke model which has been adopted by many airlines. These airlines have one or more central hubs with large numbers of flights every day, and they route passengers through these hubs rather than providing direct flights. If a passenger needs to travel directly between two hubs, like London and Los Angeles, no layover would be required. While it can be frustrating for passengers, this system makes transport much more efficient, and can lower the overall operating costs of an airline or freight company.

A layover can be rather grueling and frustrating, especially if a passenger is taking a trip with multiple legs. Even domestic travel can sometimes require as many as four changes of plane, train, or bus, and unlucky passengers may find themselves enduring layovers which are rather long. Typically, passengers stay in the airport or station during a layover, since the time period is usually not long enough to explore the neighboring community. Passengers can also be severely penalized for missing the next leg, so they want to stay close to the station.

If a passenger knows that he or she will need to experience a layover, a deliberately long layover might be scheduled. Typically this type of layover is overnight, allowing the passenger to book a room and explore the city or visit friends, albeit briefly. It can be tricky to plan a trip with this type of layover, especially in the case of airplane travel, since the passenger will need to clear security twice. Some airlines discourage this behavior for this reason.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon301603 — On Nov 05, 2012

I accidentally bought a ticket with a 21-hour layover. Shouldn't the web site have warned me that it was excessive? And should it even have been advertised when I searched for flights from the US to the UK?

By anon273850 — On Jun 08, 2012

Does someone know the average wait time (layover) for airline travelers to catch their connecting flight? e.g. 90 minutes? Two hours? Three hours?

By David09 — On Jun 07, 2011

@MrMoody - I don’t know much about international flights, but I use Air Tran for most of my domestic travel and they’ve been great. They have main hubs in Atlanta and Wisconsin and run over a 1,000 daily flights.

I’ve never had to wait for more than 90 minutes in a layover and sometimes it’s been as brief as 45 minutes; with short layovers you have to hustle but I’ve never missed a flight.

By MrMoody — On Jun 06, 2011

@Mammmood - One great way to pass the time is to watch a film. I always carry what I call a layover movie in my smart phone while I wait. These things can be downloaded onto an electronic device and since movies last two hours on average, you can watch one or more films, depending on the length of the layover, to pass the time.

By nony — On Jun 05, 2011

@Mammmood - Yes, that's frustrating, and you're locked in the airport whole time. People sometimes ask the question, Can I leave the airport during a layover? The general answer to the question is no.

The airports are secured and they don’t want you stepping out and bringing potentially dangerous material back in. So if you have a layover in some exotic destination and are thinking about visiting the city during a long interval between the next flight, you can forget it.

However, if you need to take a smoking break or something, in some airports there are guarded exits where they’ll let you step out briefly under supervision to take your break, but when you step back in you have to go through the security again just as if you had arrived for the first time.

By Mammmood — On Jun 03, 2011

There is nothing more frustrating than a very long lay over. I’ve heard of passengers complaining about 2 or 3 hours, but try 5 or 6 hours and see how it feels. That’s how long my lay over in Los Angeles lasted when I traveled to Jakarta. I arrived at LAX at around 7 PM and the next flight was departing at around 1 AM and headed for Taiwan.

How do you bide the time for 5 hours? If you have a laptop with plenty of battery time left you can work on that, or play with your smart phone, or make endless calls or read a book.

Most passengers (myself included) just lay our heads on small pillows and took naps, with our watch alarms set of course. Others just walked and milled about or sat patiently. It’s grueling either way, but unavoidable on international flights.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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