How to blag a FREE hotel from your airline on a long-haul stopover
Over Easter, I made a mammoth 23,318-mile return trip to New Zealand – with two stopovers in China, for 12 and then a whopping 18 hours. While I can handle a few hours in a departure lounge, this time I was fully prepared to pay for a proper bed and shower. But when I searched for airport hotels, I discovered my airline China Southern – like many others – would put me up at no extra cost...
No, I wasn't travelling first class, and I didn't have to pull any strings. It turns out this is a fairly standard perk many airlines offer for long-haul flights, usually if the stopover is between eight and 24 hours (though the exact criteria varies by airline). They don't shout about it though, and may not even tell you you're eligible when you book.
If you've long-haul flights with a lengthy stopover, this can make a huge difference to your journey – I've never felt so well-rested and clean on a long-haul trip before.
Plus if you find a bargain ticket with an off-putting stopover, this is a great MoneySaving solution. And with a bit of planning it could even be an extra highlight for your holiday – an unexpected stop in a city like Beijing, Dubai or Istanbul, with accommodation all paid for.
See below for how I did it, and our list of 11 airlines which offer completely free hotel stays. For more help booking cheap long-haul trips, also see our Cheap Flights, Cheap Package Holidays and Overseas Travel Tips guides.
Which airlines offer free hotel stays?
It's not just one airline which does this. In fact, I've found 10 more airlines which offer economy passengers completely free hotel stays on stopovers if you meet certain criteria.
Exactly what you'll get may vary, but it usually includes a night's accommodation in a decent hotel (mine were four-star, others I've seen are three- to five-star), plus a transfer bus and breakfast. My first hotel offered an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet with everything from Coco Pops to egg-fried rice – the second simply a takeaway box with noodles, a hard-boiled egg and some warm soy milk.
See the full list below, along with the airports they let you do this in, and let us know of any we've missed. Interestingly, we found they tend to be state-owned operators based in the Middle East or Far East:
- Air China – Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqingalian, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Tianjin. For all passengers with an overnight stopover between 6-24hrs. Contact Air China to book.
- China Eastern Airlines – Shanghai. If flying on to another city in China with a stopover of up to 24hrs, you get one free night (if your ticket costs 3,000 yuan – £330 – or more you may get two). If flying on to another country with a stopover of up to 48hrs, you get one free night (and if your ticket costs 2,500 yuan – £275 – or more, you may get two). Apply via China Eastern.
- China Southern Airlines – Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Urumqi and Wuhan. For all passengers with an 8-48hr stopover. Either book via the China Southern website or simply go to the airline's transit counter when arriving in China.
- Emirates – Dubai. For economy passengers with an 8-24hr stopover, or first/business class passengers with a 6-24hr stopover. Book online via Emirates Dubai Connect – if you booked via a travel agent, it must book on your behalf.
- Ethiopian Airlines – Addis Ababa. For all passengers with an 8-24hr stopover. Go to the Interline desk on the first floor of Addis Ababa airport.
- Etihad Airways – Abu Dhabi. For economy passengers on 'selected routes' – and all first/business class passengers – with 8-24hr stopovers. Contact Etihad (or your travel agent) for more info. If you need a visa to enter the United Arab Emirates, you must book at least five days before flying – if not, it's at least 48hrs before.
- Gulf Air – Bahrain. For all passengers with a ticket costing $400 (£305) or more and a stopover of at least seven hours. Contact Gulf Air up to 24 hours before departure to book your hotel, or just go to the Gulf Air customer service desk in Bahrain Airport.
- Qatar Airways – Doha. For some passengers with an 8-24hr stopover. You must contact Qatar Airways to check if you're eligible – there mustn't be an earlier connection available and your journey can't include flights to/from Kuwait or Muscat.
- Royal Jordanian – Amman. For some passengers with an 8-24hr stopover. You must contact Royal Jordanian to check if you're eligible – there mustn't be an earlier connection available.
- Sri Lankan Airlines – Colombo. For most passengers with a ticket costing over $700 (£535) or more and an 8-24hr stopover. Your flights to and from Colombo must be on the same booking and there mustn't be an earlier connection available. You must book at least 48 hours before flying – contact Sri Lankan Airlines (or your travel agent).
- Turkish Airlines – Istanbul. For economy passengers with a 12hr+ stopover, and first/business class passengers with a 9hr+ stopover. You won't qualify if there's an earlier connection, even if that flight's full. To claim your hotel, go to the Turkish Airlines hotel desk at Istanbul Airport.
I discovered we could get a free hotel by accident, when I was searching online for airport hotels. To my surprise, I found a page which said our airline offered free stays with long stopovers. We didn't even need to book anything – just turn up and ask.
Our first stopover in Guangzhou involved a bit of hassle getting a 72-hour transit visa so we could leave the airport. It took almost two hours for someone to approve our documents (the system appeared to be piling everyone's passports onto a desk, then going through them at random).
But once we were through passport control, we simply walked up to the airline's transfer desk and were told to choose from a range of hotels. We picked one at random and were put on a private bus to the fancy four-star HJ Grand Hotel (when I checked, a similar room with breakfast costs £60 via Expedia).
Our second stopover in Wuhan was easier, as we found the transfer desk as soon as we got off the plane. Although there was a language barrier, they'd come up with an innovative (if unconventional) solution – they took a photo of us to send to the driver, wrote down the number plate we needed to look out for and sent us off to the exit.
Our driver recognised us immediately, and bundled us into the transfer bus to the four-star Hubei Konggang Business Hotel (a bit less fancy, but a similar room plus breakfast costs £47 on Booking.com).
How to make the most of your free stay
To really take this trick to the max, here are a few tips:
- Check if you can blag a free stopover BEFORE booking flights. I found out after booking, so it was a nice bonus. But the real MoneySaving trick is to check before you book, and factor it into your plans.
For example, you may find flights with a long stopover are much cheaper (they aren't always, so check). If so, free accommodation could make this a slightly more attractive option. If your stopover's long enough, it could even be a chance to see a city you've never seen before.
- Make sure you meet the criteria. As the list above shows, this varies between airlines – some offer all passengers with stopovers of a certain length a free hotel, in other cases only some will be eligible.
- Do your research on visas. You may need a visa to leave the airport and go to a hotel. In China, we were able to get a 72-hour transit visa on arrival, but requirements vary by country. Your airline (or travel agent) should be able to tell you whether you need a visa. Alternatively, go to the foreign travel advice section of the Foreign Office's website.
- Even if your airline's not listed above, it's worth checking. We've listed all the airlines we could find offering completely free stays to economy passengers, but others may offer reduced rather than completely free accommodation, or free stays to passengers in premium classes.
For example, Air Canada offers economy passengers a hotel for $49 (£29) plus taxes, if a stopover is more than six hours. It's free for premium economy and business class passengers.
If you've tried this trick – or know another airline it works on – please let us know in the comments.