Non-stop flights are, no doubt, the most convenient way to travel by air. However, there are many situations in which they are not an option – whether because of the route you need to travel on or because they are expensive.
In those cases, you’ll have to take connecting flights. If you haven’t flown yet at all or have only flown on non-stop flights, it might seem like a hassle. In reality, though, it’s fairly straightforward.
Booking Connecting Flights
Most often, when booking connecting flights, you will be buying them as one ticket.
In other words, you will search for flights from point A to point B on an airline’s website or through a price comparison engine. And, you will be offered itineraries where you have to transfer at point C. The two (or sometimes three or more) flights might or might not all be operated by the same airline.
If you book flights this way, then they are treated as one journey, let’s say from Frankfurt to New York even if you have to change planes in Amsterdam along the way.
Because of that, if your flight from Frankfurt to Amsterdam is delayed causing you to miss your connection, the airline is required to rebook you on a different flight to get you from there to New York, free of charge.
Basically, the airline is obliged to transport you between your point of origin and your destination and cannot leave you stranded at your connecting airport.
Be Wary of Self-Connecting Flights
While most often the above is the case, more and more people nowadays are booking “self-connecting flights” – flights where your trip is issued as two or more separate tickets.
Historically, you had to search for self-connecting flights manually – i.e. search for flights on various routes and mix-and-match them. Nowadays, however, some of the price aggregators offer self-connecting itineraries as part of the search results as well.
While they can often be cheaper than regular connecting flights, keep in mind that in the case of a self-connecting itinerary, it is your responsibility to “make the connection.” If your first flight is delayed and you miss your next one, it is – most often – on you to book and pay for a replacement flight.
That doesn’t mean you can’t try talking to the airline that operates your second flight and explain the situation. Asking never hurts. Just be prepared for the fact that in most cases they will not be able to – and are not obliged to – do anything for you other than offering to sell you a seat on the next available flight.
To help with these situations, some price aggregators like Kiwi started offering their own, third-party (i.e. unrelated to the airlines operating the flights) missed connection guarantees.
If you book a self-connecting itinerary through one of those, make sure to read the rules on how to deal with a missed connection before you leave. Not following the rules they set forth – for example, not calling the company to inform them of your situation right away – might make the guarantee void.
In either case, though, if you are booking self-connecting flights, make sure to allow yourself enough time between the flights. You might need it if you have to pick your luggage up and re-check it or if your first flight is delayed.
Personally, I like to have at least four hours of time between two flights issued on separate tickets.
Make Sure You Don’t Need a Visa for the Country You Are Connecting In
It is fairly rare that you would need a visa to transit through a country. So, for example, if you are traveling from the United States to the United Arab Emirates and connecting in France, you will generally not need a French (Schengen) visa.
However, there are some exceptions to that including the following:
- Countries that require visas even if you are just transferring there for a few hours: The United States is the most notable example of those. You will need ESTA even if you are only spending a couple of hours at New York airport or similar.
- Itineraries with a domestic segment included: For example, if you book a flight from Prague to Tokyo via Moscow and Vladivostok, you will need a Russian visa (unless you can enter the country visa-free).
- Transferring at airports without airside transfer facilities: Some airports are not equipped with facilities that allow for getting off an aircraft and going into the secure area of the terminal straight away. In those cases, you might need a visa even if you are just transferring.
- Self-connecting itineraries: While you might be able to do an airside transfer, sometimes you will either need to check-in for or re-check your bags at the connecting airport. In which case, you might have to enter the country – and thus might need a visa.
Unless you are certain about your situation, I recommend checking with your airline or the embassy of the country that you are transferring in.
Confirm the Airport Your Connecting Flight Departs From
Most cities only have one airport with airline flights and most regular connecting flights involve a transfer at a single airport. It’s not always the case, though. Sometimes airlines sell flights where the first flight arrives at one airport and departs from another.
For example, you might be able to book a British Airways flight from Vienna to New York through London that arrives at London Heathrow but departs from London City airport. Or, your flight might involve only London Heathrow as a transit point, but your flight to New York might arrive at JFK airport and depart back to London from Newark airport in New Jersey.
Keep this in mind when booking self-connecting flights as well.
While it’s not necessarily a problem, it can be a bit of a hassle to get from one airport to another, and you will certainly want to allow ample time for the airport-to-airport transfer.
Check-in & Baggage on Connecting Flights
If you book regular connecting flights, then the check-in process and dealing with your baggage is not much more complicated than when taking a direct flight.
If you cannot check-in online for some reason or have a bag to drop-off, you will have to go to the check-in counters of the airline that operates your first flight after you get to the airport. Sometimes – if your itinerary includes a codeshare flight – that might be an airline different from the one on your ticket.
For example, you might book a ticket from Tokyo to Vienna via Dusseldorf with both flights having a Lufthansa flight number but with the Tokyo to Vienna flight being operated by ANA. In that case, you will want to go to the ANA check-in counter.
Getting Your Boarding Passes Issued
With regular connecting flights, you will generally be able to get boarding passes for all of your flights at your departure airport. With self-connecting flights, it doesn’t hurt asking, but you might not be able to do so – especially so if you are flying on low-cost airlines.
You might also not be able to do so if your connecting flight is not open for check-in at the time you check-in for your first flight. However, that’s quite rare unless you have a very long layover.
I’ll talk more about what to do in that case in the next section about the actual transfer.
Sending Your Bags to Your Final Destination
Generally, your bags will be “checked through,” meaning when you check them in at your departure airport, you will only need to pick them up at your destination. You will not have to pick them up and re-check them at your transfer airport.
That said, there are some exceptions to this.
Most notably, you will usually have to pick up your luggage at your transfer airport and re-check it if you are connecting from an international to a domestic flight. That’s also the case with countries like the United States where you cannot do a “true transfer” but have to actually enter and exit the country.
If you are unsure about your specific situation, just ask the check-in staff.
Also, if you have self-connecting flights, you can try showing both of your tickets and asking the staff to check your bags through. While many times that will not be possible, sometimes it will – and in those cases, it will save you a considerable amount of time and hassle.
Transferring from One Flight to Another
Once you arrive at your connecting airport, simply follow “Transfer” (sometimes “Transit” or “Connections” or similar) signs. That should lead you back to the departures area of the airport where you can find the gate for your next flight.
At some airports, like in Singapore, you will be let directly into that area when you get off the plane. At others, you will need to pass through a security check. And, at others (like in the United States or at Xiamen airport in China), you will need to pass through immigration as well.
If you don’t have a boarding pass for your next flight yet, stop by your airline’s transfer counters to get one.
In case your airline doesn’t have them at that airport (especially if you are self-connecting), you might have to enter the country to check-in in the public area if you haven’t checked-in online or don’t have your boarding pass for some other reason.
Your Connecting Flight Will Not Necessarily Wait for You
Each airport through which connecting flights are sold has its own MCT – minimum connecting time. That is the minimum amount of time between the arrival of your first and departure of your second flight permissible for you to book the ticket.
For some airports it’s as little as 40 minutes and for others it might be more than an hour. It will also depend on the type of connection – whether you need to change terminals, whether you are transferring from an international flight to a domestic one or vice-versa, and so on.
Whatever the case, though, it does not mean that you are guaranteed to make the transfer or that the aircraft will wait for you if you are late. Sometimes, your arrival flight might be delayed or there might be very long queues at transfer security causing you to miss your flight.
If you happen to miss your connecting flight, go to your airline’s transfer desk to solve the problem. Unless you missed the flight because of your own fault (or were on a self-connecting itinerary), you should be rebooked on an alternative flight.
Enjoy Your Layover If You Have the Time
Finally, if you have a long layover, make sure to take advantage of it. Of course, if it’s just an hour or two, then sitting inside the terminal – or visiting a lounge if you are eligible – is the best option.
But, if you have a daytime layover of six or seven hours, look into the possibilities of actually entering the country you are transferring through and doing some sightseeing or similar. If you have a long overnight layover, look into the possibilities of actually booking a hotel.
Also, do a quick research about the airport you’re transferring at and airline you’re flying with – sometimes they offer free city tours, discounted or even free hotels, and other similar programs for passengers with long layovers.
While nowhere near as convenient as non-stop flights, connecting flights are often cheaper. And, in many cases, they are the only option to travel between a certain city pair.
The process of taking connecting flights is fairly simple – not much different from taking a non-stop one. In most cases, you will be able to get boarding passes for all your flights at your first departure airport and your baggage will be checked all the way through to your final destination.
Sometimes, though, you’ll have to check-in or re-check your bags at your transfer airport – especially so if you booked self-connecting flights. Even then, though, it’s nothing to avoid.