How to Book Free Mini Stopovers (Less than 24 Hours) at No Extra Cost

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Scheduling so-called stopovers has proven its worth, especially on the long way to Oceania. Stopovers along the route allow you to stretch your legs between flights and explore other cities and cultures (often at no extra cost). These are then possible e.g. in Qatar, Dubai or Singapore, and are often supported by the airline and/or the state. Another well-known stopover destination is Iceland on the way to North America.

But even without such special programs, it is possible to explore several travel destinations on one trip. Due to the very dense network of airports in the USA and Canada, almost every major city can be considered for a stopover. Even if stopovers are theoretically not allowed there, it is almost always possible to spend up to 24 hours in such a city along the flight route.

Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas in one trip? No problem if you are specifically looking for suitable connections. How to do it – and what you need to consider – is what you can find out in this guide.

Initial Situation

The Oneworld airlines recently offered several cheap economy tickets to the USA. For example, you could fly from Amsterdam to San Francisco (or to over 50 other destinations) for €297:

In this case, there is a connection in Philadelphia of 2 hours and 20 minutes on the way there. On the way back, only about 1 hour and 10 minutes of transfer time are planned. Overall, not a bad connection if you want to get to your destination as quickly as possible. But that’s by no means enough for a trip to the city.

The aim of this guide is therefore to book flights with:

  • as many stops at interesting places as possible
  • the longest possible transfer time (i.e. just under 24 hours)

This requires four basic steps:

1. Check Fare Rules

The fare rules of the underlying offer are the rules of the game for your flight booking. Here, among other things, it is determined for which travel period flights are available, with which airlines you can travel and what the costs are if you cancel. They also contain details on transfer and stopover regulations.

Johannes has already explained how exactly fare rules can be interpreted in a separate article. The easiest way is to go to the ITA Matrix and search for a return flight there. It looks something like this in the new matrix:

A simple search query in the matrix. In this case, narrowed down to the Oneworld alliance to speed up the search

After entering travel dates and the subsequent loading process, you only have to select a flight similar to the one above. After clicking on “rules” the complete fare rules appear:

Open fare rules in the matrix

Now, the browser search function (Ctrl + F or ⌘ + F) helps to find the appropriate conditions for “stopover”.

For the purpose of planning a trip with stopovers, two points from the fare rules are of particular interest:

  • Stopover restrictions
  • Transfer restrictions

If stopovers are allowed, it is usually not a problem to spend several days at one destination. As a rule, a stay of at least three days is possible, sometimes it can last several weeks.

With cheap tickets, real stopovers – with exceptions such as Iceland, Lisbon, Doha, etc. aside – are usually not allowed. Instead, only a certain number of transfers, i.e. layovers, are permitted. Each of these transfers must not exceed a period of 24 hours, which is very important for our flight planning later.

The rules for Oneworld fares like this one are quite complicated:

Admittedly, I don’t fully understand every item on the list, either. But at least you can see that up to two transfers are allowed in Europe and two more in North America. That’s enough for a few stops.

Since the fare above is a rather complicated example, here is another one. The corresponding fare comes from Lufthansa / Star Alliance on Frankfurt – San Francisco:

Exemplary fare rules of Lufthansa

We are talking about so-called areas here. The IATA divides the world into the following three zones, which are defined as follows:

  • Area 1: North, Central and South America
  • Area 2: Europe, Middle East and Africa
  • Area 3: Asia and Oceania

2. Look for Stops

After the theoretical details have been clarified, you can then search for the desired stops. Maybe you already know exactly which cities you want to visit. Then, of course, this step is omitted.

Stops can be made either in Europe or North America. The following are therefore in question:

  • Scenario 1: Amsterdam – North America – North America – San Francisco
  • Scenario 2: Amsterdam – Europe – North America – San Francisco
  • Scenario 3: Amsterdam – Europe – Europe – San Francisco

So if you want to see as much of North America as possible, you can change planes once or twice within the USA. Since AA only offers two long-haul routes from Amsterdam, only the Amsterdam – Philadelphia or Amsterdam – Dallas flights can be considered for Scenario 1.

But first, let’s see what other connections are suggested on the Amsterdam – San Francisco route. Google Flights (instructions) is very suitable for this. Among others, the following are listed:

Google Flights connection and price overview

The third option, with 18 hours in Philadelphia doesn’t look too bad. However, an 18-hour overnight stay does not leave you with too much time, if there are transfers to the city, 8 hours of sleep, etc. We will therefore try to extend the whole thing to almost 24 hours if possible.

If you already found an interesting connection, you can jump straight to step 3. But there are countless other routings via other cities that Google Flights does not show.

With the Matrix

The ITA Matrix is a very powerful flight search tool. However, it is not exactly beginner-friendly, so it is definitely worth taking a look at our instructions (Part 1 and Part 2) for the inexperienced.

The function of only spitting out connections with a certain number of stops is interesting. With only two transfers, it still works quite well with “X X” in the Routing Codes field.

The search then returns some results that look much more interesting.

Summarizing the way there and back, we are now at the following examples:

  • Philadelphia + Charlotte
  • Chicago + London
  • New York + London
  • Philadelphia + London
  • Dallas + London

Further inspirations could be found by the code “PHL X”. Then the first transfer takes place in Philadelphia, and for a second stop there are further suggestions:

  • Philadelphia + Los Angeles
  • Philadelphia + Dallas
  • Philadelphia + Miami

Anyone who has already found a suitable routing in these inspirations can jump straight to point 3. Otherwise, there is still the manual search for connections:

More Stops

Google Flights finds not only return flights, but also multi-stop connections. In order to be able to search for these in a meaningful way, however, some creativity is required when selecting the airport. In general, you can never go wrong with one of the major hubs, as there are numerous connections to other airports. A (partial) list of hubs and focus cities in North America:

Air Canada (Star Alliance):

  • Toronto YYZ
  • Montreal YUL
  • Calgary YYC
  • Vancouver YVR

United Airlines (Star Alliance):

  • San Francisco SFO
  • Los Angeles LAX
  • Denver DEN
  • Houston IAH
  • Chicago ORD
  • New York EWR
  • Washington IAD

American Airlines (Oneworld):

  • Miami MIA
  • Charlotte CLT
  • Philadelphia PHL
  • Phoenix PHX
  • Chicago ORD
  • New York JFK
  • Dallas DFW

Delta Air Lines (SkyTeam):

  • Salt Lake City SLC
  • Minneapolis MSP
  • Los Angeles LAX
  • Detroit DTW
  • Atlanta ATL
  • New York JFK

In theory, Alaska Airlines should also be listed, which has recently become a Oneworld member. However, it is often not possible to add Alaska segments to cheap transatlantic flights.

With the Star Alliance, you are usually limited to the big hubs when it comes to transfers. It looks better at Delta and American. There you can also transfer at many other airports, e.g. Raleigh, San Diego or Las Vegas.

If you have a specific destination in mind, it is best to use Google Flights to check whether it works or not. The multi-stop search is ideal for this:

Las Vegas? Works too

In the multistop tool, you can now let off steam for hours and search for possible connections.

3. Optimize Flight Times

In the second step, you have usually already found bookable connections. However, these are still not very attractive (except possibly for those who collect miles). You can now change planes in Philadelphia and Charlotte, but a stay of a few hours does not offer enough time for sightseeing.

It is usually attractive to extend your stay to almost 24 hours and to plan an overnight stay. If you arrive early in the morning, a connecting flight in the evening can also be interesting.

Google Flights is again the tool of choice for finding such connections. At least if you don’t want to make more than three stops. All desired destinations are simply entered there individually in the multi-stop search.

Choosing the date is a bit trickier, e.g. for red-eye flights. You can usually always find a cheap connection by trial and error (after a few seconds of loading time). As soon as this is the case, all suitable segments can be selected one after the other.

Here it is important to pay attention to the flight times. For example, if you arrive in Philadelphia at 16:00, connecting on the next day at 15:30 allows for a particularly long stay. Eventually, all flights are selected, and the result looks like this, for example:

23h Philadelphia, 23h Los Angeles + 20 hours in Dallas. Nearly perfect.

If desired, a stop in London could easily be incorporated here. But then you have to search the matrix.

Our example routing from Amsterdam to San Francisco

4. Book the Flights

When searching for flights via Google Flights, the actual booking couldn’t be easier. At the bottom of the search results, you will find a suitable button that will take you directly to the booking. This works very reliably, at least for American and United:

You can then complete the booking on the AA website for €297.

In this case, our routing is not a cent more expensive than the original booking, with only one change in each direction. Otherwise, the price often increases by around €5 per flight segment due to the higher taxes.

Things are different with SkyTeam. Multi-stop bookings with KLM, Delta and others are usually not possible from Google Flights. Then you have to resort to the matrix. Thanks to the ITA Powertools, that’s not a problem either:

Disadvantages & Risks

Those who see flights only as a means of getting from A to B will certainly prefer short flight times. Everyone else has the opportunity to explore interesting cities that you would otherwise probably never visit. Because cities like Charlotte, Minneapolis, Detroit, … are quite nice for a day – but hardly anyone has them on their radar as their final travel destination.

Nevertheless, such bookings are not completely risk-free: Even flights with several transfers are only a transport service from A to B. In the event of a delay, only the arrival time at the final destination (in this case San Francisco) counts for passenger rights. If your flight is delayed, you cannot expect any compensation.

In theory, a layover can also be removed by the airline at any time, e.g. when there’s a schedule change. In practice, however, your wishes are usually taken into account if the flight times change significantly.


I hardly ever book direct flights anymore and always try to include stopovers that are as interesting as possible. It only gets tricky when you’ve seen Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York & others at some point. But even then, interesting alternatives can often be found.

Cover Picture: Pin Adventure Map

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Comment (1)

  1. Nicolas says:

    A very interesting article, many thanks!

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