July 6, 2013

Great Layovers

There are a lot of things I love about being an airline pilot. One of those things happens to be the layovers. I fly with a lot of people who hate them and would prefer to fly one day trips regularly referred to as "turns" or "turn-arounds," but with a hectic home life, two children to raise, a stack of bills to pay and a house in constant need of repair, the rare solitude afforded to me by a few lonely hours on a layover is a thing to cherish.

The sad truth is that airline layovers are one of the many aspects of the job that have deteriorated over time. By no means have I worked in what many call the "good 'ole days," but in 20 years as a commercial pilot, I have watched the hotels get cheaper, dirtier, louder, closer to the airport and farther from anything worth my time and effort to visit...and yet I still look forward to them.

Once upon a time, flight crews would fly one, maybe two legs a day and layover in big city, downtown hotels, transported back and forth in stretch limousines. It sounds so glamorous in those terms. Pilots and Flight Attendants were often paired together for entire months if not longer, creating more opportunities to get to know each other and become closer friends. Of course that closeness ended more than a few marriages and cemented a reputation of promiscuous behavior among airline crews, but that sort of thing is mostly a thing of the past...gone as a result of diminished opportunity more than anything else.

But as far as we have fallen, there are ample opportunities to enjoy the time spent on layovers. You just have to try a little harder. Instead of long layovers within walking distance to the beach you might have to take a bus or rent a bike. Where we might have stayed across the street from a city's main attraction, a train ride or long walk might be in order. Below is a list of some of my favorite layover cities and how I like to spend my time when visiting them.  By no means is it a complete list, but it is representative of the way I like to spend my "alone time" while on the road.

Feel free to add your own favorite city in the comment section or suggest another activity in one of the places I mention. I'm always looking for something new to do.

Often, the sleeper cities make for some of the best layovers. For me, Albuquerque, New Mexico is one of those cities.  Our layover hotel is within walking distance to the airport, but there's a free shuttle that runs from the airport to a train station downtown where you can catch the New Mexico Rail Runner and a $10 ride to Santa Fe, one of my favorite cities.  The train drops you off in a fantastic part of town where you can shop at the Sanbusco Market, catch a football game at Junction, Santa Fe's dedicatedsports bar, enjoy Mexican food across the street at Tomasita's, fit yourself in pair of pre-owned boots at Kowboyz or, if your there on Tuesday or Saturday, hang out at the Farmer's Market...all literally steps from the train station.

Austin, Texas is another one of my favorites and reminds me to plug one of my favorite iPhone apps, TV Food Maps. If you enjoy the Food Network or follow Guy Fieri and his show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, then this app is a must during your U.S. travels. Austin's famous 6th street is the perfect place to experience live music, cold local beer, some of the most colorful people watching opportunities in the country (hence the popular "Keep Austin Weird t-shirts) and, if you happen to be using the app, you may find yourself enjoying one of the best burgers I've ever eaten at Casino ElCamino. Be forewarned, this is an odd place and not the kind of burger joint you would expect to find a straight laced, clean shaven guy like me without tattoos or piercings...but the food is something you shouldn't miss.   Austin also boasts accessible public transportation and an unending list of outdoor activities which lands the city high on my bid list.

Keep in mind that I'm still primarily a domestic pilot...my boundaries will expand beyond the borders of the U.S., Canada and Mexico someday, but not yet.  For now, most of the cities I enjoy most are located on the west coast of the United States. San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland rank high on my favorites list.  On my last trip to Portland, Oregon, I was sorry to learn that we had dropped our downtown layover hotel which sat directly across the street from all the outdoor activities available along the Willamette River and a short walk from downtown attractions and restaurants. But the hotel van driver explained that there's a train departing regularly from the airport with reasonably fast and inexpensive rides directly into the downtown corridor.  Once downtown, I like to spend time at Powell's Book Store, fill my stomach at Jakes and search for my favorite new beer at Henry's 12th StreetTavern. Are you noticing a trend?  It’s often about the food.
Henry's 12th Street Tavern
A rental car is needed to enjoy my favorite Portland activity, but even if you’ve visited the Columbia River Gorge before, it's well worth the time and effort. There have been precious few layovers that stuck in my mind and stood the test of time, but one of my all-time favorites occurred in Portland. The captain I was working with forked out the cash to rent a car for the day and the entire crew, all five of us, drove up the gorge, stopped at a number of waterfalls along the way, then drove all the way around Mt. Hood and back to the city in one afternoon. That trip ranks in my top three all-time great layovers and it’s an experience I hope to replicate for one of my crews someday after I make captain. The pictures below are from that trip.

Crown Point - Columbia River Gorge

Multnoma Falls

A few more hidden gems that probably don't sound like fun...but are.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Rent a bike at the lakeshore.
Dayton, Ohio.  Air Force museum.

Huntsville, Alabama. U.S. Space Camp & Rocket Center

Colorado Springs, Colorado. Garden of the gods. (That's me in the picture)
Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Pikes Peak.

Fresno California: Yosemite National Park

A few more of my favorites...

Vancouver BC: It's a long walk from our layover hotel to The Flying Beaver, but I'd walk half way across the country to visits this place. Half restaurant, half sea plane terminal, the food, staff and atmosphere are fantastic, but the view is an AvGeek's best dream.

The Flying Beaver
Los Angeles, California:  LA is another city where our accommodations seem to get farther from the best attractions with every visit. It's a significant walk to the beach now, but my favorite L.A. activity is to rent a bike and spend the day riding along ocean side communities. The weather, the view and the people watching opportunities are hard to beat.

Biking along Venice Beach.
New Orleans, Louisiana: The French Quarter...need I say more. It's easy to get into trouble on this layover, but I always...ok, usually...exercise good judgment and call it quits before it gets too late.

Seattle, Washington: Seattle is one of the reasons I bid the 737. As the MD80 fleet continues to shrink and new 737 deliveries continue, some of the best layovers continue to disappear from the MD80 bid sheet.  Last month, I had my first Seattle layover since getting checked out on the 737 and the city met all my expectations...with one exception.  Yet another city where our downtown layover has migrated to within walking distance to the airport, public transportation once again saved the layover. After a short 5 minute walk, I caught the ORCA, Seattle's version of a subway, and arrived within steps of the Pike Place Market in about 20 minutes.  From there, it’s a short bus ride the Boeing museum, a short walk to the Virginia Inn, my favorite little bar/restaurant populated more my locals than tourists and of course the crowded but enjoyable Pike Place Market.


  1. "...but that sort of thing is mostly a thing of the past...gone as a result of diminished opportunity more than anything else."

    Not everywhere. :) Not that I participate... but, it's like stepping back 40 years.

    1. I suppose I should have specified that those sort of things almost never happen at MY airline. We have a slightly older employee group:)

  2. Great post Brad! I really enjoyed reading about where you get to spend some time when you're not on the job.

    This is one of those things that makes me want to become a pilot one day. It's not an easy profession to get into by any means, but there is one REALLY amazing aspect of the job. For airline pilots, your job starts and stops when you step on and off the plane. In-between, in theory, you have a lot more free time explore other interests. Looking at my parents who work all the time, and have to answer emails and calls frequently outside of work, makes me want to have the exact opposite lifestyle.

    Keep exploring and showing us what you're doing on those layovers! Sounds like an adventure to me!,
    -Swayne Martin

  3. Very neat little list, definatly some places I'd love to see. On a side note, I work basically across the street from the Flying Beaver in Vancouver, and can say they do a pretty mean bison burger! Nice to see the new American colous flying into YVR on th 37's!

  4. Wonderful post - it would take a heck of a lot to beat those! I know FLL surely won't be able too!

  5. Go Vancouver!!! It rocks. I've been to that place "across the street" quite a few times and love the food, and as you said, the view is a flight geeks dream. - Scruffy69

  6. Good post as always Brad, I'll be heading to Casino el Camino soon to try out one of those burgers. Next Austin layover if you have one shoot me an email I'm only about 50 minutes away in good traffic! Keep the post coming.

  7. I love Colorado Springs - lived there 8 years. If you want good breakfast go to Old Colorado City and eat at Bon Ton's, on the corner of Colorado Ave and 28th St. Then, head over to the Navigator's and hike Queen's Canyon. On your way in you might catch a glimpse of the Big Horn Sheep herd. See the falls and then hike a little more to take a dip in the famous "Punch Bowls", a series of small clear plunge pools. Oh, and if you like fishing , pack a small flyrod when you go. Nothing is more relaxing and good for the soul. Also, don't forget to visit the air museum at KCOS, and dine at Solo's, where you literally eat in an old KC-97. And when it returns, you have to go to Flying W Ranch to get a steak dinner and live Cowboy music. Unfortunately it was destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire last year, but it will be back, as it was a popular Colorado Springs attraction. That should be 3 trips-worth of things to do!