Tips for transit city success: How not to do a stopover

A Singapore hop-on hop-off bus ferries tourists past the central business district.
EDGAR SU/REUTERS

A Singapore hop-on hop-off bus ferries tourists past the central business district.

Singapore's population is made up by roughly 75 per cent Chinese, 15 per cent Malaysian, and 7.5 per cent Indian.  The place to buy stolen goods in this muggy metropolis used to be the (creatively titled) Sungei Road Thieves markets, and back in the day in the city-state's Little India district the shopkeepers battled their colonial leaders to let their stalls spill out into the street.

These ultimately useless facts cemented themselves firmly on my brain halfway through my third go-around on the city's hop-on, hop-off bus tour.  I sat on the top deck, with all the enthusiasm of a dad dragged along to his kid's school play.  What fun.  On any other holiday I would look down on those sunburn-bound hordes manically clicking away on cameras from the top deck, but today the sodden seat of the Singapore hop-on hop-off tour was my saviour.

Of course, it was never supposed to be like this. "Two overnight flights with 18 hours in Singapore is just making the most of my journey back to London," I had foolishly thought two days earlier.  After 11 hours crammed down the back on an overnight flight, I landed at the much-lauded Changi airport.

The Flower Dome and Cloud Forest conservatories at the Gardens by the Bay.
EDGAR SU/REUTERS

The Flower Dome and Cloud Forest conservatories at the Gardens by the Bay.

The airport's add-ons such as a rooftop swimming pool, butterfly house, shops, and restaurants suddenly countered for naught as I struggled with the most basic of tasks.  I stumbled into the arrivals hall at Terminal 3 and headed to the pay-per-use lounge.  I had no idea what they charged me, I didn't care – I needed to dump my luggage and settle in to a dark 3x3 cube away from crying babies, seat recline rebels, and stale bread rolls.  The list of "must-dos" in Singapore coincidently shrunk in correlation with my lack of sleep.  That little dim-lit oasis was a life-saver and I still can't fathom why these innovations are reserved for only the mega-hubs of the travel world.

Eventually I did manage to peel myself off the tour bus seat, and dined on chilli garlic crab and dim sum in Chinatown, walked around Boat Quay and the famous Raffles Hotel (sans Singapore Sling), check out the futuristic Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands, but if it hadn't been for a three-hour recharge in the airport's Haven Lounge I may still now be zombie-eyed on the Singapore hop-on hop-off tour bus doing my 50th loop.

Given New Zealand's isolation, many routes to Europe, the Americas, and Africa require a transit through a hub city, which can be easily elongated into a stopover: simply build a route using the multi-booking option through an airfare website such as Skyscanner or Kayak, and push your travel dates out a bit to allow for a day or two in the transit city.  Travel agents can also come in handy  if your itinerary is more complicated or you want to investigate your stopover options.

The point of a stopover is often to rejuvenate, but this can be more trouble than it's worth if you have to worry about entry or transit visas.  The US and Canada require a bit of online form-filling and fee-paying for transiting (all the more reason to make the most of it and leave the airport).  You'll need an ETSA or ETA, respectively.  Quick stopovers through Chinese ports Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou are now easier with a 72-hour transit visa on arrival.  Always check before you fly because, as with Air New Zealand via LAX, you may not even be allowed to board without the correct, completed entry clearance.

Sue Matson, the general manger of retail at Flight Centre, also recommended checking that the airport and airline allow you to even leave the airport transit lounge (this can be complicated further if your luggage is checked through to your final destination).

Matson said: "The distance from the airport to the city is a big oversight many travellers make.  Paris Beauvais Airport for example is 88km for central Paris so a quick trip into the Eiffel tower could be a costly and timely exercise."

Despite my sub-par start to Singapore, Matson said the Asian hub is a perennial stopover favourite, along with recent addition Dubai, owing to their weary-traveller focus – cue the in-airport hotels, 24-hour malls and pay-per-use lounges.

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House of Travel 's Ken Freer suggested thinking first about the kind of stopover you'd like and time you have, before locking in a transit city. "Different destinations cater to rest, exploring, or just a long period in an airport, so knowing what you want out of a stopover will be crucial to where you go and how long you stay."

STOPOVER? START HERE

- When booking online or through an agent, you can often extend a transit into a stopover at no extra cost – so ask.

If stopping off in the US or Canada, you'll need to fill out online clearance forms and pay a fee.

Eight hours is probably the minimum time needed to leave the airport, explore, and then return on time for your departing flight.

Always be conservative when assessing transport times into the city.  Stopover cities with excellent transport links (eg, Singapore and Hong Kong) can save your stress levels.

Airlines, and even airports, offer stopover discounts on tours, transport, activities, and even hotels – my Singapore tour bus-come-napping spot was half price due to my Singapore Airlines boarding pass.

Adding a stopover city to your trip will likely mean adding another currency to your wallet or travel card, so stock up to avoid credit card fees per purchase.

Josh Martin is a London-based Kiwi journalist, who writes about travel, tourism, business, and consumer issues in between trips to places you'd rather be. Email josh.martin@fairfaxmedia.co.nz if you have a travel issue you'd like him to write about.

 - Stuff

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