The secret to getting two vacations for nearly the price of one? Free stopovers. A lot of major airlines offer free or low-cost stops in hub cities to flyers continuing on to other end-point destinations. Tiresome layovers or breakneck connections these are not. Stopovers are overnight or multi-night stays in destinations—mini sojourns on the way to other parts of the world. They allow for exploration as well as relief from long-haul air travel, and they often come at no or low additional cost to travelers.
Some carriers, such as Icelandair, plainly advertise their free-stopover programs. Others quietly allow customers to book multicity itineraries for round-trip prices, give or take a few bucks. Depending on the carrier, you might have to do some groundwork to arrange a free stopover. Dialing up the call center may be necessary, or a simple spin on an airline's multicity booking page might suffice. Either way, we'll show you the way. Here are some of the best airlines that offer free (and almost free) stopovers in major destinations, plus advice on how to book.
Out of all major airlines, Icelandair is probably best known for its free-stopover advantage. The carrier has long advertised stops in its hub city of Reykjavik at no additional cost beyond that of a standard round-trip ticket. Travelers seem to love it, thanks to the convenient geographic position of Icelandair's hub in combination with the airline's regularly discounted Europe fares. Prices are pretty competitive, and Reykjavik makes for a handy Atlantic respite midway between North America and Europe. Because Icelandair offers service from 12 North American destinations to 24 cities in Europe, there are plenty of routes from which to choose. Use the airline's booking engine and select the "Iceland stopover" option to book your trip.
When I compared prices for multicity itineraries that included overnights in Reykjavik to routes with shorter layovers, I found identical pricing. This is a true free stopover.
Years ago, there was a page on the Air France website advertising free stopovers in the airline's hub city of Paris. Apparently, though, France's flag carrier no longer markets a complimentary Paris stop for itineraries to other destinations. What, then, does a test search on the Air France website turn up? Although trial bookings did not produce any no-cost stopovers, multicity fares featuring overnights (or longer stops) in Paris were only a touch more expensive than round-trip tickets. A journey from New York to London with a two-day stop in Paris cost $1,193.81, compared to a round-trip direct flight for $1,130.74—a difference of about 63 bucks.
There's one caveat. The multicity search tool on the Air France website displays fares by time and not by price, making it difficult to discover the cheapest route. Call Air France directly and book over the phone to get around this issue.
Turkish Airlines doesn't advertise free stopovers, but, like many of the carriers on this list, it offers multicity itineraries with hub-city stops for prices equivalent to (or sometimes even less than) those of standard round-trip routes. When I searched for round-trip fares from Washington, D.C., to Beijing, with a connection in Istanbul, Turkish Airlines' base, I found tickets for as little as $1,542. My multicity search with a full stopover yielded a cheaper fare: $1,407 for travel from D.C. to Beijing on the same dates, with a two-day stop in Istanbul.
Turkish is one of my favorite stopover airlines thanks to its extensive global service. It flies to 249 destinations in 106 nations, serving more countries than any other airline on the planet.
According to a representative from Japan's flag carrier, JAL offers free stopovers in Tokyo (Haneda and Narita airports) and Osaka. If you want to add a Tokyo break to your journey, you have two options: Either use JAL's multicity booking tool and select "make stopover," or, if you'd like to arrange a shorter trip, try the standard round-trip booking tool, which displays overnight stopovers in JAL's Tokyo hub when available.
When I compared multicity tickets with round-trip bookings on identical travel dates, I came across a slight price bump with the former; if that happens to you, give JAL a call to book your flight. Since the airline promises a no-cost stopover, a representative should help you arrange that Tokyo stopover ticket for the same price as a comparable round-trip.
Hawaiian Airlines is another carrier that doesn't advertise a true free stopover for all flights. But when I ran a test search for fares, I found that, in many cases, you can stay a few extra days in Honolulu for just a bit more than a comparable round-trip route. This is an attractive arrangement principally because it offers travelers a tropical breather in the midst of lengthy transpacific flight itineraries.
A ticket from Los Angeles to Taipei with a two-day stopover in Honolulu came to $1,436.92 round-trip. Comparatively, an L.A.-to-Taipei fare with a connection in Honolulu cost $1,295.87. That's a difference of $141.05—a small price to pay for a few days in a Hawaiian paradise. Prices vary by route, of course. Use Hawaiian's multicity booking tool to pull together your stopover itinerary.
According to a representative from Finnair, "We do offer a free stopover in Helsinki, apart from the lowest fare classes (tickets with the least flexibility). We have 2 million passengers traveling via Helsinki, so there's a lot of potential in developing stopover services even further in the future." Your stopover in Finland's capital city might be better than free—it could be cheaper than a regular round-trip.
My test search for fares on the Finnair website yielded a much more affordable price for an itinerary with an overnight stopover in Helsinki than the price of a similar itinerary with a short connecting flight. I tested fares from New York JFK to Amsterdam in September. With a brief layover in London, my round-trip ticket came to $1,296.36. A multicity route from JFK to Amsterdam with an overnight in Helsinki, however, came to $897 round-trip. Even though I searched for travel on the exact same dates, in this case, differences in connecting cities produced a significant price disparity between the two routes.
Connecting to 140 destinations via its Dubai hub, Emirates advertises a stopover package that includes complimentary visas for stays of up to 36 hours. The booking process isn't so simple, though—especially for those of us who are accustomed to buying all of our travel online. First, you need to purchase a flight; you can do this via the "multiple destinations/stopovers" option on the Emirates booking engine. Second, contact a travel agent or visit an Emirates office to set up and pay for the stopover package, which includes hotel transfers, breakfast, accommodations, various tours, and that no-charge visa. Prices start at $48 per person, per night.
My comparison of multicity flights featuring stopovers in Dubai with regular round-trip tickets showed that the prices are nearly equivalent. A round-trip ticket from New York to Mumbai cost $1,361.27, whereas the same itinerary with a two-day stop in Dubai came to $1,429.07.
Like Icelandair and JAL, Singapore is one of those few major airlines that offers a true free stopover in its hub city. Complimentary stopovers in Singapore's eponymous hub are easily booked on the airline's website. I tested itineraries from the U.S. to some of the destinations to which Singapore flies and found equal pricing for both round-trip bookings and multicity bookings that include a stopover in the island city-state. For example, tickets from San Francisco to Beijing, with a short connection in Hong Kong and an overnight stopover in Singapore, came to $1,580; a matching itinerary without the stopover amounted to the same price.
As with Emirates, Singapore advertises a stopover package that includes accommodations and transfers. Prices start at 43 SGD (about $34) per person, per night.
—By Caroline Costello