Add a vacation to your vacation: These 10 airlines have the best free stopover programs

On a recent Turkish Airlines flight from San Francisco to Istanbul, I noticed that a surprising number of people at the boarding gate and on the flight were looking at guidebooks for destinations far beyond Turkey. Their endpoints were varied: Greece, Rome, Dubai, and beyond. But as they chatted with other travelers, it seemed that what united all those people was an excitement to add a vacation to their vacation; a stop in Istanbul on the way as part of the airline’s stopover program.

Turkish isn’t alone in offering a stopover program – a long layover that provides the chance to add a stop in an airline’s hub city at no added flight charge. Icelandair, Iberia, and Emirates, among others, also have a similar stopover program.

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Why is a stopover program worth considering?

Stopovers tend to be offered on long-haul flights, which means there are actually two benefits to taking advantage of them. On the most practical level, booking a stopover is a chance to break up a long travel day on the way to your final destination, a pause to stretch your legs and sleep in a bed overnight. They're also a way of adding a whole extra destination to your itinerary, an opportunity to see a place without planning an entire vacation there.

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What costs are associated with adding a free stopover?

There’s no additional cost for pausing (usually for one to four days) in the chosen city of an airline’s stopover program. Except in a few noteworthy cases, hotel costs (along with transportation, meals, and activities) are still your responsibility during the stopover.

Which airlines have free stopover programs?

These are the airlines that offer free stopover programs. I've also dug into airlines that offer mini-stopover programs that give you the chance to sightsee (or rest) during a long layover, airlines that offer stopovers on award tickets, and airlines that give you all the tools you need to DIY your own stopover.

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  • Stopovers with Turkish Airlines: After putting its standout stopover program on hiatus during the pandemic, Turkish Airlines has relaunched it, and is sweetening the deal with longer free hotel stays in Istanbul. Passengers who are connecting through Istanbul and have a connection period of at least 20 hours can take advantage of the Stopover in Istanbul program. Through the program, economy-class passengers coming from the U.S. can stay up to two nights free in a four-star hotel (after booking, the airline provides a hotel voucher that can be redeemed on the airline’s website after the ticket purchase). Business-class passengers coming from the U.S. can stay three nights free in a five-star hotel.

  • Stopovers with Icelandair: Icelandair’s Stopover in Iceland program offers transatlantic passengers the option to add a one- to seven-day stopover in Reykjavik (and the rest of the country) for no additional cost. To inspire layovers and simplify planning, the airline has ready-made stopover itineraries arranged by number of days you stay.

  • Stopovers with Emirates: Emirates’ Dubai Stopover programs add appeal to a Dubai layover. With its Dubai Connect program, passengers with a Dubai layover of between six (for first or business class tickets) or eight (for economy and premium economy) and 26 hours receive complimentary hotel stays and meals. For longer stopovers (there’s no maximum stay with the stopover program), the airline can arrange a 48-hour visa and travel planning help in Dubai, Ras Al-Khaimah, Sharjah, or Abu Dhabi. For short layovers that don’t offer enough time to leave the airport, the airline’s Dubai Stopover Airport Services offers lounge access and six- or 12-hour hotel room packages at Dubai International Hotel directly inside Terminal 3. To book a stopover package, reach out to the airline or a travel agent after booking a flight and select the package and hotel you want. Bookings can be made up to 48 hours in advance, though it’s a much better idea to book well in advance for better hotel availability.

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  • Stopovers with Etihad Airways: Etihad has two (previously three) stopover options for flights connecting through Abu Dhabi. Its Amazing Stopover program offers discounted stays at three-star hotels for one or two nights plus complimentary WiFi (and 24-hour check-in). The Premium Stopover discounts stays at four- and five-star hotels for stopovers of two to four nights and includes daily breakfast and free WiFi.

  • Stopovers with TAP Air Portugal: TAP’s Portugal Stopover program allows passengers to add a one- to 10-day stopover in either Lisbon or Porto at no additional charge. As an extension of this offer, passengers who want to visit other destinations in Portugal (and its islands) can book domestic airfare at a 25 percent discount. There are also other discounts on hotels, restaurants, and things like sightseeing passes.

  • Stopovers with Iberia: Iberia’s Stopover Hola Madrid program allows Iberia passengers to book a layover in Madrid without additional charges. Stays can range from 24 hours up to six nights, and while Iberia doesn’t cover the cost of hotel stays, it does offer discounts on hotel stays, transportation, activities, and restaurants in Madrid.

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  • Stopovers with Air Canada: Air Canada has a Toronto stopover program that gives passengers the option to pause in Toronto for up to 48 hours as a layover between two destinations.

  • Stopovers with Qatar Airways: Qatar Airways’ Qatar Stopover program allows passengers flying through Doha to add a one- to four-night stopover on either the outbound or return flight. The package includes extremely discounted hotel stays (one night at a standard hotel starts at $14 per person or $81 per person at a luxury hotel). Tours and excursions like city tours and whale shark expeditions are also bookable for stays.

  • Stopovers with Copa Airlines: Copa’s stopover program gives passengers in transit the option to extend a layover in Panama City for up to seven days. And of note, while most of these stopover programs allow passengers to take advantage of the stopover program only going one way, Copa gives travelers the options to do a stopover on both the outbound and return trip for a fee of $250 for the second stopover.

  • Stopovers with Qantas: Qantas takes a the-more-the-merrier approach to its stopover program, allowing one or more stopovers at no extra cost on eligible Qantas flights and oneworld partner airline flights. To book, passengers use the multicity booking tool on the airline’s website – a similar approach to the airlines listed in the DIY stopover below. What sets this program apart is the assurance that the stopovers are allowed at no additional charge on eligible flights.

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Which airlines have free mini-stopover programs?

Airlines that have mini-stopover programs include Finnair (which has short-visit ideas for layovers of six to 24 hours), Air China (which offers free hotel stays for passengers with long layovers in Beijing, Chengdu, Dalian, Hangzhou, and Shanghai), and Ethiopian Airlines (the airline offers connecting passengers with layovers between eight and 24 hours hotel stays).

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Royal Jordanian has a Zuwar Stopover Program, which offers a huge selection of guided tours for passengers with layovers of six hours or longer (there are also traditional food experiences for shorter layovers).

Award travel stopover programs

There’s one more approach to finding no-cost multiday layovers in airlines’ hub cities. Certain frequent flier programs offer free stopovers on award travel. Programs that offer reward tickets with stopovers include Air France and KLM’s Flying Blue program, Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer program, Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan, and Air Canada’s Aeroplan.

Using airlines’ multicity booking tool to DIY a stopover

Even if an airline doesn’t have a formal stopover program, it may have a multicity booking option that will allow you to create a gap between your flights in your layover city. While this option doesn’t score you the perks of a true stopover program – like free hotel stays, discounts on activities, and no additional airfare costs – it does offer the chance to add a few days in a destination.

Airlines that have multicity booking tools include British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Hawaiian Airlines, and Japan Airlines.

Add a vacation to your vacation: These 10 airlines have the best free stopover programs originally appeared on

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: These 10 airlines add a destination for free with stopovers