As most travelers have learned, “Minimum connecting time” is one of the murkiest concepts in air travel.
In theory, it’s a simple number — the amount of time it will take a passenger to make a connection between two planes. But, not only does it vary by airport, it varies by airline and whether the flight is international or domestic. There are also occasional exceptions based on flight numbers.
But whatever the decision-making process, the results are often anything but simple. In theory, if you or your luggage miss a legal connection the airline should help you out. In practice? Well, that can be another story. Especially with flights so full these days and reduced staffing at the airport.
Here are eight tips for making an informed decision.
1. What’s the potential backup plan? If you choose a connection where there are several other later flights should you miss the first plane, and you aren’t traveling around the holidays or on a busy weekend, then there’s a good chance of making it to your destination the same day.
On the other hand, if you choose a tight connection to the last flight of the day, or to a flight with no alternative for hours, then you could face a much bigger problem.
2. Are you checking luggage? Running through an airport is one thing; having the baggage handlers rush your bags between flights in a few minutes is another.
3. Weather. Quite simply, booking a tight connection in the summer through an airport that gets thunderstorms or in the winter with an airport that gets snow is rolling the dice. Curiously enough, airlines don’t change their legal minimum connection times by the seasons.
4. Are commuter planes involved? In my experience, not only are smaller planes more likely to be delayed, but also they tend to land at remote gates. (United Express at Denver can be particularly difficult, as they all leave from a gate at one end of the terminal; it’s a long walk even with plenty of time.)
5. Are you traveling with children or anyone with mobility issues? Motorized carts can help, but it’s risky to count on one being available quickly. Plus, children can have issues with being hungry and/or needing a restroom NOW, neither of which helps when you’re in a hurry.
6. Is there help? Is there someone you can call for help in case of a delay, a travel agent or a help desk? Or, are you really good rebooking your own travel online? Because with airline cutbacks, the odds of finding a human to help you quickly, in a pinch, are getting slimmer all the time.
7. How critical is your arrival time? Do you have to be at your destination on your scheduled travel day? If it’s really important — a cruise, a tour or a wedding, for examples, maybe you should be planning to arrive the day before in any case. If your schedule doesn’t allow for that and nonstops aren’t available, book as generous a connection as is reasonably possible.
8. Stress. Finally, and sometimes most important, how much stress will a tight connection cause you? I tell all my clients, “It just isn’t worth booking flights that make your day miserable even if you make the connection.”
Some travelers hate wasting time and are confident in their abilities to get through an airport quickly and to navigate potential problems. Others want as relaxed an experience as possible. Neither is the “right” way. It’s your trip. Do whatever makes you more comfortable.