It’s no secret that life abroad as an expat can be stressful, and when furlough rolls around, most of us are quite ready for a break. However, we often hit the ground running as soon as we get to our passport country, without taking time to even recover from jet lag.

Sometimes, what you need is a little downtime between these hectic worlds to rest, reflect and just catch your breath. (And we can all agree that no amount of on-demand movies can make 13 hours in economy coach qualify as downtime.) What would really help is time together as a family without expectations, without pressure…maybe even without a data connection.

Enter the decompression layover.

A decompression layover is an extra-long layover (sometimes technically a stopover) taken en route from one’s host country to one’s passport country, or vice versa, particularly when beginning or ending a furlough.

It’s a period of time to pause, decompress, and process between two chunks of life that are normally very busy.

Why should you try it?

A decompression layover can be a special “only us” time for your family to look forward to together. It can also be a key piece in helping guard your family’s mental health. One mom shared that taking a decompression layover “saved us many times” because it created built-in space for her family to process things together on their way to and from the field. They would otherwise have not had the chance to do that.

Stopping halfway is also a much less exhausting way to get across the globe. You can go a little slower through customs without worrying about catching the next flight. Your travel days are broken up into manageable chunks instead of one, long, 36-hour, sleep-deprived journey from door to door. You can perhaps even start acclimating to the right time zone.

What do you do during a decompression layover?

This is an ideal time for your family to reflect together on all that has happened in your departure country, and talk about what’s coming in your arrival country. There are many fantastic resources available for processing your time as a family; ask your company or other expats for suggestions.

As for the rest of your time, it pays to know yourself and your family. Consider the ages of your kids, the personalities in your family, and your exhaustion level. What is it that would help you feel rested and refreshed before diving into life in the arrival country? Here are some ideas:

  • Movies in the hotel room
  • Swimming at the hotel pool
  • Hanging out at the beach
  • Hiking, going to national parks, being in nature
  • Seeing tourist sights in the decompression layover city
  • Reading for pleasure
  • Window shopping in a climate-controlled mall
  • Eating out, sampling the layover country’s cuisine
  • Sleeping in, taking naps

What shouldn’t you do during a decompression layover?

Remember that the point of a decompression layover is to REST. This is not the time for any of the following:

  • Visiting people
  • Giving presentations
  • Squeezing in a lot of tourist activities
  • Working
  • Checking work email (consider staying off all email and social media)

How long should a decompression layover be?

It works best to have about 24-72 hours at your decompression layover city. Families have reported that anything shorter than 24 hours is not very restful, especially for long-haul journeys.

What about longer than 72 hours? If time, money, and schedule allow, and it seems appropriate for your situation, go for it! One expat family was invited to stay for 10 days in Hawaii on their way back to North America. They had just had a particularly stressful field term, and the extra rest and refreshment was just what they needed to recuperate.

Think about whether you might need something more like a vacation rather than a long layover if you’ve just come through major stress. If that’s the case, you might also look into doing a family debrief with a counselor trained in cross-cultural issues before you re-engage in your arrival country.

What do experienced families like best about taking decompression layovers?

“Mostly, it helped me mentally rest after the craziness of packing and before the craziness of seeing everyone again.”

“Time to talk/reflect/enjoy life and each other/just be/rest/get over a little portion of jet-lag at least.
We found we were usually fresher and not as stressed and able to engage with others upon arrival at [our] final destination. For our kids it simply helped them be able to process the differences of life in two different places. We usually laughed a lot, sometimes cried. Had said our good-byes but then had a chance to grieve losses and yet be thankful and joyful about other things.”

“I think it was good just to have time to ourselves, even if we didn’t talk about anything profound. Just chilling out, sleeping late, etc., before jumping into the craziness of a furlough, or jumping back into our busy lives on the field at the end of a furlough.”

What other factors do I need to think about?

Remember that an extra stop will require extra times of hauling luggage between airport and lodging. Most of the time, this is worth it, but think through transportation issues and have a plan.

Consider packing one suitcase with what you’ll need during the layover: clothes, toiletries, swimsuits, etc. That way, you only have to open one piece of luggage en route, rather than digging through several and needing to repack before continuing your journey. That also makes it possible to stash the remaining bags at the airport left luggage.

Don’t forget to double-check visa requirements for the decompression layover country you’ll be staying in. Find out about exit fees or other special requirements as well.

Decompression Layovers: What They Are and Why You'll Love Them |


How do you go about planning a decompression layover?
Click here to get started.

How do you choose a location for your decompression layover?
Great question. Here are 9 things to consider when choosing a decompression layover city.


Many thanks to Martha L., Joy C., and Lori H. for sharing their experiences for this post.