Travel can sometimes be challenging due to limited financial resources. In many cases, airline tickets make up the bulk of a trip’s budget. Every once in a while, you hear of a friend or relative who got an outrageously cheap deal on a flight, causing you to cringe with envy.
Not to worry! In our experience it is still possible to find affordable plane tickets without having to sacrifice sleep, conjure your own personal travel genie, or leave your children at home with the grandparents. The catch is that you probably won’t get a direct flight, and you may be subjected to some lengthy layovers.
Recently, we took a flight from Denver, CO to Siem Reap, Cambodia with layovers in San Francisco, CA and Singapore. Our first flight was scheduled to land in San Francisco at 2:00pm and depart for Singapore at 1:00am the following morning. An eleven-hour layover on a trip to Asia is pretty brutal as far as flight plans go, but the flight was cheap, and we figured we’d make the most of it.
Upon arrival in San Francisco, we left the airport via the BART train and headed into the city. With the goal of getting a whirlwind tour of the city in about seven hours, we got off the train at Powell Street, intent on catching one of the iconic cable car rides to Fisherman’s Wharf. We bought our tickets, got in line, and found ourselves, twenty minutes later, at the very front of the line with the next cable car approaching. We boarded the legendary vehicle, choosing one seated and one standing position at the front of the car. My husband spent the ride gleefully leaning out from the cable car, barely hanging on as we barreled up and down the city’s steep hills.
We disembarked at Lombard Street, famous for its snaking switchback road, and walked down the street with the other wide-eyed tourists. There wasn’t a moment when Lombard Street was empty of cars. The constant whir of engines is no doubt a contentious issue for the street’s residents!
From there we made our way to Ghirardelli Square and were delighted to discover talented street artists and an abundance of free samples of the delicious chocolate that gives the square its name.
We ventured along Beach Street toward Fisherman’s Wharf, charmed by the plethora of seafood options, ranging from elegant restaurants to street stalls where you stand at the counter to eat. We chose the latter and inhaled a steamy bowl of calamari – fuel to keep us speed-walking through the city.
At Fisherman’s Wharf, we took the obligatory photos of the Golden Gate Bridge and snapped a few shots of Alcatraz, the infamous island prison in the San Francisco Bay.
Our next stop was Pier 39, a tourist hot spot for shopping, dining, and ogling a harem of sea lions who have taken up permanent residence on the slips at the end of the pier. The sea lions romped, frolicked, and brayed into the wind to the delight of the tourists. To an onlooker, the crowd on the pier comically mirrored the sea lions, each person jostling his or her neighbors to get the best view.
With silly smiles on our faces from watching the sea lions, we turned our steps toward Coit Tower, a hilltop overlook with stunning views of the city and the bay. Along the way we noticed several individuals carrying skis on their shoulders, a typical sight for those of us who live in a ski town, but noticeably out of place in San Francisco. The mystery resolved itself a few blocks later as we passed the entrance to a remarkably large ski swap held on one of the piers.
To our great amusement, we followed a snowboard and its proud owner to the base of a long flight of stairs leading to the top of Coit Tower. We began our ascent up hundreds of stairs, passing secret gardens hidden by hanging vines, tiny apartments with no other means of access, and friendly tourists who kept telling us we were almost there.
The views were without doubt worth the climb. The red hues of the Golden Gate Bridge faded into the sunset mist, and the surrounding buildings slowly darkened into impressive silhouettes.
By this point, we were thoroughly tuckered out, but we had one more stop to make before heading back to the airport: Chinatown!
If you’ve never been to a Chinatown, you should put it on your must-see list. There are Chinatowns all over the United States, but the San Francisco Chinatown is the original.
Chinatown forms its own private world within the bustle of San Francisco. Signs are written in Chinese, traditional produce markets line the streets, and paper lanterns are strung between buildings overhead. Tacky tourist shops display postcards and knick-knacks, while priceless Buddha statues and hand-painted dishware are sold in the shop next door. Vast displays of pastries beckon your taste buds and inexpensive prices prompt you to purchase several, not sure what’s inside the sweet dough, but reveling in the unknown.
Just as we grew accustomed to walking through this delightful pocket of Asian culture, Chinatown abruptly disappeared, and we were transported back to metropolitan San Francisco.
Content with our swift city tour, we trekked back to the airport, eagerly anticipating the next leg of our trip to Cambodia. A couple of hours later we boarded our sixteen-hour flight to Singapore and promptly fell asleep, exhausted from our layover excursion. We were so tired that we slept for eight hours straight – impressive for an airplane, we know!
Our takeaway from this experience: If you have a long enough layover, take advantage of it! The benefits of a “bonus” adventure far outweigh the inconvenience of a long layover!
-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel