An airport connection (or two) is often the price you pay for service to far-off destinations. Unfortunately, a connection almost always complicates your travel planning, asking you to decide where to connect and how much time to allow for the connection. There’s no easy formula answer to those questions, but there are a few choice airports to try and avoid.
Airport Connection Issues to Avoid
You don’t always have a chance to choose where to connect, but when you do, three factors can determine which airports are riskiest:
Delays: Among the major U.S. airports, New York’s JFK, Newark, Chicago’s O’Hare, and San Francisco generally fare the worst in delay tabulations, which make them bad for an airport connection. Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston suffer more delays than you’d expect, given their benign weather locations. Conversely, snowy Salt Lake City and rainy Seattle generally do pretty well.
Connecting abroad? In Europe, Paris’s Charles De Gaulle, Frankfurt, and London’s Heathrow tend to top most delay lists. Most frequent travelers suggest connecting in Munich or Zurich when possible. In Asia, Seoul’s Incheon and Hong Kong also suffer heavy delays. Try Taipei and Tokyo as alternatives, instead.
Airport Layout: The best hubs for an airport connection consist of large, single terminals, with all gates accessible through a single security point and inside-security (airside) for access between any two gates. Connecting is usually relatively easy this way, in that you need not go out of security and back in through another position; you only worry only about getting from one gate to another. Among North American hubs, Atlanta, Denver, Miami, Portland, Salt Lake City, Toronto, and Vancouver are built this way. Overseas single-big-terminal hubs include Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Milan, Munich, Zurich, Hong Kong, and Seoul.
Other big hubs, however, consist of separated terminal buildings you might need to navigate, including Chicago’s O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston’s Bush, Los Angeles, New York’s JFK, Newark, and San Francisco, plus London’s Heathrow and Paris’ De Gaulle overseas. You might be OK if your connecting flights are on the same airline, or otherwise use the same terminal. But if you have to change terminals—and there’s no airside interterminal transport—you may have to exit security at your incoming terminal, schlep to your outgoing terminal, and go through security again. Avoid connections that require changing terminals.
Transit Areas: Most big connecting airports outside the U.S. allow you to remain in “transit” status, airside, on any connection. You still have to have your passport stamped, but you don’t have to do the double security thing. The U.S., however, does not offer transit status. Even if you’re connecting on the same airline in the same terminal, you could have to exit the secure zone to get your baggage, go through the immigration and customs rigmarole, and re-enter security.
But connecting at a foreign airport isn’t as easy as it once was, either: At many airports the U.S. now requires secondary screening for travelers heading here, even for in-transit passengers. Still, if you have a choice, it’s generally better to connect at a foreign rather than a U.S. airport.
How to Make Your Airport Connection
As with the “where,” you don’t always have a choice of scheduling your connection. But you often do, and your choice can have a big effect on your risk.
Enforce Minimum Times: Airlines maintain tables of minimum connecting times at the airports they serve, with separate entries for different situations such as domestic/international or mainline/regional. On any connecting ticket issued by an airline, the minimum connection time is time—say an hour, for instance—they need to provide you to find your gate. That means if your incoming flight is late, the airline is responsible for getting you out as quickly as possible and taking care of you in long delays. If you miss your flight because of a connection and the airline doesn’t offer to rebook you, ask what the minimum time was.
Allow More Slack: Some travelers on a tight legal connection—especially seniors—may find it difficult to get from arrival to departure gate quickly enough: Last year, I missed a “legal” online connection at De Gaulle because our arriving flight arrived at a gate area a long way from the area it usually uses. When you build an online itinerary, the search engine often gives you the opportunity to take a connection later than the tightest airport connection listed, and that’s often a good idea.
Never Book Separate Tickets: An airport connection involving two unrelated airlines poses a substantial risk. Unlike the case of a legal connection, if your incoming flight is so late that you miss the connection, the connecting airline treats you as a no-show and has no responsibility to rebook you. That means potentially losing the value of your ticket and paying a last-minute fare to complete your trip. You can reduce your risk by scheduling a lot of slack, but there’s no way to schedule enough slack to avoid all risk with a serious delay on your incoming flight. The best way to avoid the problem is to avoid booking separate tickets on two different airlines.
Avoid the Hassle: When I first covered connections, decades ago, I wrote something like this: “The best way to avoid connection hassles at O’Hare is to pass it at 35,000 feet.” That’s still valid. On many trips, airlines charge more for a nonstop than for a connecting itinerary. Unless the price difference is substantial, however, think carefully before you reject a more expensive nonstop in favor of a cheap connection. That’s assuming a risk you don’t have to assume.
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.