In an ideal travel world, all fights would be non-stop. But realistically, that isn’t going to happen. If anything, airline cost-cutting and cutbacks mean less and less of those non-stops. Especially as airlines reduce their presence at one-time hubs. St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Raleigh-Durham and Cincinnati all come to mind as airports with reduced non-stop options. But there are many others.
So if a connection is the only option, or the only reasonably priced option, how do you make it as painless as possible? Here are a few suggestions ranging from what may seem obvious, to more complicated issues.
1. Try to keep it on one airline if possible: Which these days is easier said than done. Often a connection shown, for example, on United Airlines, might be United connecting to US Airways with a code share. I don’t care what airlines say – code-shares are not as seamless as they imply.
Not that either airline will be malicious, but the truth is airlines do not care as as much about another carrier’s passengers as they will about their own. this is especially so in terms of holding planes for a late-arriving connecting flight, getting baggage transferred, etc.
Consider a commuter carrier as a two-airline connection. (In most cases, they actually are.) Personally, I would estimate that 90 percent of my missed connections involve a commuter carrier, either because that small plane was late and the parent company wouldn’t hold the flight, or communications don’t run smoothly between the two airlines.
Last year, for example, I was on a United flight into Chicago that was delayed upon arrival by the gate not being available, and had only about 15 minutes to make my connection. After running at as close to full speed as I can get with a carry-on rolling bag, I was told at the United Express flight (in another concourse) that I had missed check-in time. As were four other passengers from my original flight who arrived a few minutes later. United Express claimed they had not been advised of any connecting passengers by United and it was now too late.
2. Don’t assume just because a website says it works, that the connecting flights have enough time between them: “Minimum connecting time” is an inexact science.
I get asked all the time when I offer flights to clients, with connecting times ranging from 45 minutes to 2 hours, “Is that enough?” And the answer is, “Well usually, but …”
The basic answer is that airlines don’t schedule connections they can’t generally meet, because it is a major hassle to deal with passengers and luggage that don’t make those connections.
On the other hand, the “minimum connecting time” doesn’t allow for stopping for snacks or a meal between flights, (especially for families with children where not eating is not an option) or for travelers who might not move as fast as they used to, or for any delays whatsoever.
3. Consider the likely weather. The short version of this is that it snows in a lot of cities in winter (and often in fall, and spring). Some cities deal with snow and other weather better than others. Minneapolis Airport, for example, seldom closes. Denver manages some storms but not all of them. Places like Atlanta and Washington, D.C., may seldom get snow, but when they do, it closes them down completely.
In addition, there are other local climate issues that come up regularly – thunderstorms in Chicago, New York and Dallas in the late afternoon during the summer are a regular problem that can delay flights. Clouds and fog at San Francisco Airport delay flights regularly as well, especially during the winter rainy season.
4. Ask your travel agent’s advice, or research online, about temporary airport issues. For example, most (but admittedly not all) agents know that JFK has a major runway closure for a few months. This is causing huge delays that may not be reflected in schedules.
Also, United Express commuter flights in Denver are currently mostly going out of what amounts to an auxiliary terminal that is both overcrowded and a LONG walk from most of the other gates. (My sense is that this situation will eventually be improved, but not anytime in the near future.)
5. Consider the worst case scenario. If you are on, say American Airlines in Chicago and you miss a connecting flight to LaGuardia, there will likely be another flight within an hour. If you are on Continental Airlines in Houston and miss the only flight to Sao Paolo, you will wait 24 hours for the next flight.
It also makes a big difference whether you are traveling, say, on a Wednesday in April or on a summer weekend. Midweek flights normally have have plenty of backup space, but weekend summer flights are normally packed. Missing your connection when following flights are packed can mean lots of extra time at the airport.
And finally, a lot of it comes down to your own personal comfort level. If you are the type of person who likes getting to the airport just in time to board when you have cleared security, you may feel more comfortable with a tight connection. If you get nervous without plenty of extra time to check in for your original flight, then why stress yourself out with a tight connection?