Embrace the layover: It's time to give up on booking short connections to save airline miles
Missed connections can be a nightmare, and we’re in a terrible season for delayed and canceled flights. If you want to avoid the stresses of standby and the possibility of sleeping in an airport, it may be better to spend a little extra money or points for a nonstop flight, or give yourself more time to connect.
After a couple of terrible experiences lately, I’m working hard to avoid any connections where the timing would be at risk. Here’s a look at what happened, how to avoid missing a flight when changing planes, and why stretching out your layover for hours or more could be fun.
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3 bad connections on 2 trips
Like countless other Americans, my family is back in the swing of regular air travel to see family and friends and visit new places. We are a vaccinated family and still choose to wear masks when indoors with people we don’t know — like in airports, planes and trains — and have been able to avoid COVID-19 despite a handful of family trips.
LAX to RIC
Our first connection nightmare happened on the way to my sister’s wedding in Richmond, Virginia.
Our long trip from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in early June included a layover at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL). Unfortunately, JetBlue had pilot availability issues, and we ended up in the airport a few hours longer than expected. After landing at Richmond International Airport (RIC) after 3 a.m., we had a serious problem finding an Uber or Lyft, let alone one big enough for my family of five. Had we landed in Richmond on time, this likely would not have been an issue.
On the way home, we were scheduled to connect at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) when heading back to LAX. This time, American Airlines sent me an email that our flight was delayed enough that we would miss our connecting flight and had to pick from different options.
Of course, all were the next day, meaning an extra hotel night. I found a deal right by the airport, but it was still an expense and a missed school day we were not planning on. We went home through New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), where we struggled to get seats together so our 2-, 4- and 6-year-olds could all sit with a parent.
LAX to YYZ
The worst happened to my wife and kids on the way to meet me in Toronto.
While I could find a deal for a nonstop flight for one on the way to a work trip, options were more limited for my family to meet me when the event ended to kick off a family vacation.
When I made it to Toronto Pearson Airport (YYZ), all the horror stories I read proved true, including long lines and waits for bags. I warned my wife about the luggage delays at Toronto’s main airport but didn’t expect Air Canada to flub her trip, traveling alone with our three young children.
While everyone was overly polite, Air Canada handled the situation poorly.
An operational delay leaving LAX left my family missing a connection and getting stuck in Vancouver International Airport (YVR) overnight. I offered to book them a hotel, but my wife didn't want to be far away from the gates because they were on standby for the next flight to Toronto. Due to bad advice from a friendly Air Canada agent in Vancouver, we lost a day of our family trip. Had we booked a longer connection, there's a good chance my family would have made the connection to YYZ.
I got an apology email from the CEO, but that didn’t make up for my family’s experience. From that point on, I vowed to book longer connection times and find nonstops whenever possible, even if they require a few more points or miles to book.
Related: Missed your flight? Here’s what to do
Recommended minimum connection times
Every airport and airline has different minimum connection time requirements. Here’s what the official rules are when booking:
- American: Reported to be 25 minutes.
- Delta: 30-minute minimum connection time.
- Southwest: At least 30 minutes if you have checked bags.
- United: 30-minute minimum for domestic, 60 minutes for international.
Remember that these are the bare minimums. With Southwest, for example, boarding starts 30 minutes before flight time, and seats are first come, first served. A late connection could mean getting stuck with middle seats.
Consider the airport, too. Making your way from one end to another at JFK, O’Hare or Dulles may require a very long hike, while you can get across Portland International Airport (PDX) in just a few minutes. If you’re possibly changing terminals or need to transit from one airport to another, add time for walking, trains, buses and shuttles.
Related: 8 tips for strategically booking your first stopover
What to do with your long connection
Likewise, every airline has its own rules on maximum connection times as well. For example, a standard connection on Delta can’t be more than four hours. That is plenty of time to avoid a missed connection, plus some buffer time to enjoy your travel experience.
If you’re looking for a long connection and enjoy travel, consider any of these fun activities to make use of your layover:
- Visit an airport lounge: Spending time in an American Express Centurion Lounge or a favorite Priority Pass lounge is a great way to enjoy an airport. In most cases, you’ll find at least a light meal and a selection of complimentary adult beverages.
- Dine at top airport restaurants: You may be surprised that some airports feature luxury and fine dining. Top stops include Root Down at Denver International Airport, The Palm at JFK, One Flew South in Atlanta and The Salt Lick BBQ in Austin.
- Planespotting: AvGeeks are happy sitting by a big window watching the planes come and go. Long stopovers at big and busy airports are perfect for planespotting hobbyists. TPG writers are partial to the In-N-Out parking lot by LAX.
- Visiting a new city: If you have enough time, hop on a train into town. I once had a 10-hour layover in Frankfurt and used the time to explore the city center with my wife. Just make sure to plan your transit to and from the airport properly.
- See local family or friends: The more you travel, the more friends you make around the world. Ask local friends to meet you outside security at the airport or anywhere else convenient.
- Overnights/stopovers: Depending on the airline and hub, you may be able to add an overnight or multiday stopover. Years ago, I set up a five-day layover in London. I got out of the airport to visit the city for nearly a week without adding to my flight costs.
- Work on your computer: If you’re someone who gets most of their work done on a laptop, airports are often perfect for work. You can find a quiet corner with internet and an outlet to get work done, so you don’t have to bother when arriving at your destination.
Related: The votes are in — TPG readers pick the best airports around the world
Best credit cards for long connections and delays
If you don’t have lounge access and want to get past those doors, one of these cards could be right for you:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: The Amex Platinum has arguably the best luxury travel benefits of any mainstream travel rewards card. It includes access to American Express Centurion, Priority Pass Select, Plaza Premium and Delta Sky Club (when flying Delta) lounges.
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: Chase's top travel rewards card offers an excellent rewards program and a complimentary Priority Pass Select membership. Chase will soon open its own network of Sapphire lounges with planned locations in Boston, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, New York, Phoenix and San Diego.
- Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card: A newer entrant to the premium travel category with lounge access, the Venture X card from Capital One includes Priority Pass, Plaza Premium and Capital One lounge access. Right now, the bank has its own lounge at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) and planned additions in Denver and Washington, D.C.
Want to learn more? Check out our detailed guide to the best cards for airport lounge access.
Related: A complete guide to Capital One’s airport lounges
Airports can be fun, but not when you’re unexpectedly visiting for hours more than originally planned.
Building in longer connections can make travel less stressful and open up time to enjoy amenities and benefits. From a few drinks in the airport lounge to a full-day adventure in a new city, there’s no reason you can’t put a long layover to good use. But no matter how you use it, you'll fare better on a reasonably long planned layover than an unexpected overnight layover.