If you have a connecting flight on your journey it can be an anxious time. With a range of potential unexpected delays how much flight connection time should I have to safely make the connection?
As a seasoned flyer for more than 16 years I have lots of experience of multi-flight journeys. Whether it be short haul or long haul a combination of flights could well be a more convenient or cheaper option than a direct flight. You shouldn’t rule out connecting flights from your flight itinerary if you want to have plenty of travel options.
I can honestly say that I’ve never missed a flight through my own fault, however I have missed flight connections due to my inbound flight being delayed. Whilst there is no guaranteed solution to avoid this, I detail below some of the things you need to consider if you need to connect flights (also known as flight transfers).
Things to consider with your flight connection time
First of all will your inbound and outbound flight be a domestic or international flight? This could make a big difference in airport connection times.
If you are arriving on an international flight and your next flight is a domestic flight then you are likely to need plenty of connection time. The reason is that you will have to go through Immigration / Passport Control when you disembark your international flight. It is then highly likely that you will have to claim your luggage, go through Customs then re-check your luggage. I know this experience all too well from various international destinations.
I’ve faced this scenario more than ever when arriving in the US. For many years Passport Control (particularly at a big airport like Atlanta) was hit or miss if you landed at a busy time. I’ve sometimes queued for one and a half hours or more to just get through Immigration! Then I’d need another 20-30 minutes to get through Customs, recheck my bag and make it to the gate of my domestic connection.
If you add on the fact that I had to go through airport security again there is another unknown dimension.
Thankfully, with recent technology changes and computer scanning of passports and the ESTA scheme, passport control feels quicker in the US now compared to how it used to be. That’s not to say I could hit a bad day in the future.
Whilst my experiences of the above have mostly been US based I’ve also gone through similar situations across the world, whether it be Australia, Chile, Malaysia and even the United Kingdom, you still face similar challenges.
If you are arriving on a domestic flight then connecting to an international flight then it might be easier. Many countries, although not all, allow you to check your bags all the way through. So after taking your first (domestic) flight your luggage is already assigned to your international flight. You also might not have to go through security again if it is a centralised service such as in the UK or US. However that is not the case in some countries, such as China I have to go through security checks and recheck my bags for two connecting domestic flights.
If you have connecting flights between a domestic flight and an international flight then you might have to go through Passport Control at your connecting airport. This could be a short or long time depending upon how busy the airport is.
You also need to factor in if your flights are with the same airline or not? Also are the flights on the same ticket? If they are not then you might need to consider more time to make your connection. This could be because the check in desk for your first flight may not be able to check your bag or issue your boarding pass for your connecting flight. You’ll have to do all this at the connecting airport.
You are in a much better position if you have a single ticket (with multiple flights), flights are with the same airline or in the same flight alliance such as OneWorld partners etc.
If you have two separate flight bookings then any delayed incoming flight airline has little or no obligation to put you on another connecting flight if you missed your planned second flight.
If possible try to find out if your connecting flight is in the same terminal at your connecting airport. Many large hub airports have multiple terminals, such as London Heathrow has 5! You need to factor in walk / travel time to get between gates and possibly terminals. I’ve nearly walked the length of Singapore Changi airport and that is a massive airport!
Another thing to consider, which you might struggle to know in advance are the way certain countries treat connecting passengers. For example, if I was taking two domestic flights connecting in the US then chances are I’d only have to go through security, checking in of my bag and ID security check at my first airport. However in places such as China I have to do this at both my first and the connecting airport. This can add a lot to the needed flight connection time.
There is one last thing to consider and that is unexpected delays. Here I’m talking about delays on your first flight.
This has happened to me numerous times and makes the first flight very anxious as I worry whether both I and my luggage will make my connecting flight.
My most recent example happened when I took a domestic flight in the UK to connect to an international flight. I was flying with BA from Manchester to Heathrow, then taking an international flight from Heathrow.
Initial check in was fine and since both flights were with British Airways my luggage was checked all the way through to my final destination.
Also, since the flight connection was in the UK (from a domestic flight) I only had to go through security once, at Manchester.
I did however have to go through a passport / ID check at Heathrow before I could take my second flight.
Well all seemed to be going well. I arrived at the airport at least 2 hours before my flight time, always a safe bet. I was at the gate in plenty of time. Yet just as we were about to begin boarding the BA computer systems went down, worldwide. Factors beyond my control (and to be honest much beyond the control of my flight’s aircrew) meant that my first flight was delayed well beyond an hour. All of a sudden I’d lost my near 2 hours flight connection time at Heathrow.
As it turns out my connecting flight was delayed by around half an hour so I miraculously made my second flight. Other people on the first plane were not so lucky though. Many missed their planned connection. However as good airlines do, British Airways reassigned these people to the next available flight to their destination. They did however arrive much later than they originally planned.
Recommended airport connection times
So what are you to do with connecting flights and the times of the connection? Well the next time you use a travel agent or book flights online with sites such as Skyscanner or Expedia, these are the minimum that I recommend you look for:
- Domestic flight connecting to a domestic flight – minimum one hour connection time unless it is China where I would only feel comfortable with a two hour + connection time
- Domestic flight connecting to an international flight – as a guide one to one and a half hours should be comfortable enough to make your international connection
- International flight connecting to a domestic flight – minimum two hours to safely allow you to get through Passport Control, Customs and Security
- International flight connecting to another international flight – minimum one and a half hours but I would prefer two hours to be safe. These connections often run smoothly but you might have to go through a security check, change terminals and the boarding gates at many international airports can close well before the scheduled departure time.
In addition to the above another smart thing to do is to choose your seat on your first flight. If you get a seat close to the front of the cabin then you are able to disembark quickly to make your connection.
Always factor in unexpected delays to your incoming flight. These are beyond your control. So if you want to arrive at your final destination at your planned time and date always think of these minimum flight connection times.