Four and a half million people fly through Frankfurt Airport every month. It's one of the biggest hubs in Europe. For most business travellers, a layover in Europe's business capital is an inconvenience, a stop booked to save money, or to get where you're going in time for a meeting.
But Frankfurt Airport has a secret that few travellers of any sort ever stumble on that can transform your layover into a highlight of your trip: the train into town. It takes 11 minutes from airport to city centre, 11 minutes to get a bonus vacation add-on to your work trip. And even with having to go back and forth through customs, if you've got a layover of, say, four hours or more, you can easily zip into town, take in one of the daily farmers' markets, or stop into a bar and discover that wine is actually bigger than beer here.
And there you have it: a microvacation. Or at least a few hours to de-stress and clear your head.
As airlines get more global, with Turkish Airlines, Emirates and Qatar Airways flying to hundreds of cities, layovers in places you might never think to visit are becoming the norm, and although they've been around for a decade in some places, layover programs – sometimes private, often set up by airlines as perks – are still a seasoned-traveller secret. But with the increasing popularity of tucking fun side trips into business-travel itineraries, it's time more of us to take advantage of layovers for the microvacations they can so easily be.
If you have a layover of seven hours or more, the type you'll have if you're on your way to Johannesburg, for instance, you can do a lot more than the activities mentioned above. If you e-mail ahead – one day will do – Jo or David Ator can meet you and take you on a tour tailored to whatever you'd most like to see.
"Jewish-themed tours are the most popular," says Jo, originally from Columbus, Ohio, but a resident of Frankfurt since 1986. "Frankfurt has probably the longest Jewish history in all of Germany. We had the very first Jewish ghetto, set up in 1462. I have people who are interested in military things, World War II and the Third Reich, and people who are interested in churches."
Though Frankfurt is likely best known for its banks and 20th-century towers, old Frankfurt peeks out all over. It's the home, for instance, of one of the oldest churches in Germany, Saint Justin's, the oldest part of which was built in 830 CE. ( frankfurtonfoot.com)
One of the pioneers of the airline-sponsored layover program, Singapore Airlines may have the best deal on the market. They call it their Singapore Stopover Holiday, and it comes in two sizes.
The basic package includes one night in a hotel and return airport transportation starting at about $38. For $10 more, you get a free ride on Singapore's hop-on bus (almost always one of the most efficient quick introductions to a new city), and free entry to 15 attractions, including a bird park, the natural-history museum, the national gallery, a huge orchid garden and the Singapore Flyer, one of the world's biggest Ferris wheels.
Depending on how you calculate it, Turkish Airlines may fly to more places than any other airline. Its rates are good, its food is among the best in the air in both economy and business, but, frankly, the best thing about flying on Turkish Airlines is that you get to stop over in Istanbul, one of the greatest cities in the world.
If you've got an overnight layover in Istanbul, you can get a free room at a four-star downtown hotel in economy class, or up to two nights in a five-star hotel if you're flying business.
If you've got six hours or more, TourIstanbul offers free city tours once you've passed through security. Ranging from 2 1/2 to nine hours, they leave every couple of hours, starting at 8:30 a.m. Even the shortest one includes a photo op on the famous Galata Bridge, a tour of Taksim Square and a 20-minute stop at Dolmabahce Palace. Inquire at the hotel reservation desk. ( turkishairlines.com)
The capital of the tiny country Qatar has learned a thing or two from its Emirati neighbours to the south. Where Dubai is the Las Vegas of the Middle East and Abu Dhabi has its sights on being the eastern hemisphere's great outpost of high Western culture, Doha has decided to be fully and completely Arabic. We have a lot of lenses put in front of us in this part of the world when we look at Arabic culture, and it can be a revelation seeing it from a genuinely Arabic perspective.
Canadians don't need a visa, so if you've got at least five hours, for under $15, you can get a city tour that will give you a good sense of the place, including visits to the marketplace, or souk, and the majestic Museum of Islamic Art. For $85, you can get a private driver to take you wherever you like, including the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, which features some of the only surviving pieces from the Baghdad School of Arabic art. It's one of the most eye-opening galleries on the planet. (qatarairways.com)
If the Winter Olympics have piqued your interest in South Korea, the main airport has one of the quickest layover offers there is, requiring only a three-hour window to take advantage of the shortest of their tours, which include canal walks, shopping expeditions and temple tours. Or, there's a five-hour tour of Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395. Despite its commercial and technological successes, South Korean culture remains opaque to many of us in this part of the world. A free Korean Air tour, no visa required, could be an excellent introduction. ( koreanair.com)
Salt Lake City
Not as big a hub as the other cities, but where else can you get picked up by a couple of friendly Mormons in a van and get taken on a free tour of Temple Square, a sort of Vatican for the Church of Latter Day Saints? Expect a little light evangelism, but of the friendliest possible sort, while you walk around the architectural highlights of the city. ( lds.org)
The best place for a Canadian layover, thanks to the Canada Line, the city's rapid-transit line that gets you from the airport to town in 26 minutes. With no customs to go through, you could probably hop the train with as little as three hours between flights. It stops at City Hall and the Vancouver Art Gallery, Yaletown with its boutiques and restaurants built into renovated warehouses and the Waterfront. If you've got even less time, there's an outlet mall, McArthurGlen Designer Outlet, just two stops in, no fare required. And don't forget about your points. It's 6,000 Aeroplan points to get into the Vancouver Aquarium, 11,000 for a 48-hour hop-on Vancouver tour. ( thecanadaline.com)
Vienna's CAT train takes just 16 minutes to get into the heart of one of the most culturally dense cities in the Western world. Chicago's Midway Airport is practically downtown, and the Logan International Airport is exactly seven minutes by cab from Boston's newly redeveloped Waterfront neighbourhood. And if you're going through Minneapolis, you could take the LRT to the Mall of America in 12 minutes, or take 25 minutes and pay your respects to the Mary Tyler Moore statue at Nicollet Mall and 7th Street. ( mspairport.com)