You can’t always fly direct. When a layover is a necessity, I would pick a hefty three or four hour layover over a tight 45-minute connection any day. Especially if the airport is somewhere outside the U.S., where people watching has the potential to be more interesting than the book in my bag.
On a recent trip to Oaxaca, I had four hours to kill in Mexico City. My strategy is to get the tasks done quickly — move through passport control, claim bags, drop bags off for next leg of the journey, go through security again. But once in the terminal, I slow down. After a flight from New York, I stretch my legs walking from one end of the terminal to the other and back again. Some travelers kill time browsing through books and magazines, while others opt for the familiarity of Starbucks and the promise of a strong Wi-Fi connection, but a layover (especially an international one) can be a good excuse to disconnect, to check out, to have zero responsibilities for a while. No one is looking for you, and the next few hours are for reading, chatting with strangers, and maybe ordering a piña colada before noon. Layovers are vacation primers, preparing the mind for a slower pace that (hopefully) awaits when the next plane touches down. After the right kind of layover, you might arrive at your destination actually decompressed.
While I’m wandering the terminal, I’m weighing the options, keeping my eyes open. Few people know airports as well as airline staff; pilots and flight attendants will lead you straight to the best of the terminal. The regular traveler might see a comfortable spot to spread out, and assume all terminal fare is the same. Airline staff will walk further, wait in lines, and crowd into tight booths for something superior.
When I first walked by a cafe in the Mexico City airport, it looked pretty basic. Waiters were classically dressed in black pants, white shirts, and black vests, and bartenders were polishing glasses behind a stocked bar. The small dining room was densely packed with tables and Spanish music played softly overhead. There were no wine flights, no contemporary comfort food, and no iPads for ordering — all of the current trends in airport dining were happily missing. When a pack of airline crew headed straight for this cafe, passing several other options on the way, I knew I had found my spot.
In addition to the airline crew, the cafe was filled with locals. The menu was primarily in Spanish. There was no one waiting to translate or explain dishes. In these situations, a seat at the bar is preferable. While there may be less space, there are more interactions with staff and patrons, and you often get a better view of what people are eating and drinking. I saw at least 10 dishes go by before settling on my taco order.
The bartender was pouring glasses of beer and the occasional glass of wine, but overwhelmingly, the orders streaming in were for piña coladas. I ordered one myself and settled in to the buzz of the cafe, the pleasantly noisy stacking of coffee cups and saucers, fellow bar flies playfully arguing over the soccer game on the TV, the smell of marinated meat for tacos hitting the grill.
Layovers don’t always offer local flavor, but when they do, it’s well worth a stroll from one end of the terminal to the other to find it.