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Fly for Free? Airlines Entice Travelers with Stopover Programs

The incentive, offered by several airlines, gives travelers the chance to spend a day or longer in the carrier’s hub city or country for no extra charge

by Shivani Vora

October 6, 2022

Skyline from Dubai Downtown / Photo: Cara-Foto/Shutterstock

Dubai, Doha, Madrid, Toronto and Zurich: They’re just some of the cities you can fly to for free on your way to a connecting destination. Paying one fare but seeing two places is the idea behind stopover programs, an incentive offered by several airlines that gives travelers the chance to spend a day or longer in the carrier’s hub city or country for no extra charge.

Todd Bliwise, an airfare expert who has flown more than 2.3 million miles and founder of the travel company An Avenue Apart, says that the concept of stopovers was pioneered by Middle Eastern airlines, with Emirates leading the way. “I am a huge fan of these programs and book them for my clients and myself all the time,” he says. “They let you essentially have two different vacations for a single price, ease you into getting over jet lag, and break up the monotony of a long air trip.” They’re a plus for business travelers, says Bliwise, because they can tack on a vacation to a work trip without paying for another flight.

The Return of Stopover Programs

Many airlines paused their stopover programs in the wake of the pandemic, but now they’re back as a reminder to explore the world. Emirates Dubai stopover give fliers the flexibility to design their dream getaway in the vibrant desert city en route to spots all over Africa, Asia and Europe. Choose from hotels in a variety of price points, and take your pick from among more than 100 experiences—a wildlife-spotting tour in the desert, for example, or a day at a swank golf course or hitting the indoor ski slopes. Perks include 24-hour check-in, daily breakfast and free cancellation up to 72 hours before your stay. Qatar Airways is another Middle Eastern airline that offers stopovers in Doha—a place full of souks, museums and other cultural attractions. Its competitively priced packages start at $21 a night per person for a five-star hotel stay and affordable additions like city tours, breakfast and airport transfers.

Etihad rounds out the trio in the Middle East with a stopover that includes a choice of more than 60 hotels. Passengers can also take advantage of two-for-one deals on a long list of activities such as a sunset boat cruise and a Ferrari experience. Business-class fliers get a free night’s stay at a five-star hotel, and first-class passengers get two. It’s a perk that means hanging your hat at properties such as Rosewood and St. Regis.

European Stopover Programs

Several European carriers offer stopover programs. Turkish Airlines, which claims to fly to more countries than other carrier, encourages passengers to discover Istanbul on a midtrip break by providing them with a free hotel stay—one night for economy fliers and two nights for those in business class.

Stopover Switzerland, from Swiss Air, gives travelers the flexibility to customize a trip to their interests. If you prefer culture, for example, staying at a hotel and hitting museums in Zurich could be the ideal vacation, while nature lovers might prefer a stay at a mountainside Alps resort. Benefits include free train, bus and boat transportation throughout the country, and two-for-one offers on tours and at restaurants.

Iberia’s Stopover Hola Madrid is an invitation to sightsee your way through the Spanish capital. Free public transportation and big price breaks on tours and attractions such as the world-class Prado museum are part of the deal. And Lisbon or Porto are yours to unearth with TAP’s Portugal Stopover, inclusive of discounts on hotels and attractions.

North American Stopover Programs

In North America, Air Canada’s Experience Toronto features attractive deals on choice hotels. Book a tour of the Royal Ontario Museum while you’re in town, or ascend more than 1,800 feet to the CN Tower EdgeWalk to take in views of downtown. These are just a handful of the diversions you can enjoy when you build in a free stopover on that upcoming trip.