23 minutes, a $20 taxi and no boarding pass: How I pulled off a seemingly impossible international connection
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
They say time is money, and last week, I learned that lesson firsthand.
On Dec. 15, I flew on Qatar Airways’ inaugural flight from Doha to San Francisco, leaving me about 2,500 miles away from my home in New York City when I landed in the Bay Area.
With a winter storm on its way to the Northeast, I wanted to get back before the snow started. I’d already been gone for five days and feared getting stuck in the airport with rolling delays and cancellations.
That’s when $20 saved the day.
Stay up-to-date on airline and aviation news by signing up for our brand-new aviation newsletter.
But first, let’s backtrack.
Due to pandemic-related schedules, I didn’t have many connecting options in SFO. My Qatar flight was scheduled to land at 12:55 p.m. local time, leaving me with two choices: a 2 p.m. Delta flight through Salt Lake City or a redeye back to New York.
With a redeye out of the cards — I’d just flown on two back-to-back overnight flights — the Delta connection was my only shot at making it home the same day.
I documented the story as it unfolded on my Instagram page (follow along there), and many followers thought I was crazy to even attempt the short connection.
I thought 65 minutes would be plenty of time for me to clear customs and transfer terminals. After all, I was only traveling with a backpack and a small rollaboard.
But my hour-plus transit time ultimately got shaved to just 38 minutes, as we ended up pulling into SFO’s Gate A8 about 30 minutes late at 1:22 p.m. local time.
At this point, it was 1:28 p.m. — just 17 minutes before the Delta gate would close — and I was in the international terminal arrivals hall.
For a brief second, I contemplated taking the AirTrain to Terminal 2 but recognized that time wasn’t on my side. I’d have to sprint to and from the station — and hope that a train would be waiting for me.
SFO’s terminals are loosely arranged in a horseshoe, making it a pain if you’re connecting between terminals, especially from an international flight to a domestic one.
Aside from the AirTrain, walking between terminals can be inconvenient, and only two of the five terminals are connected airside for easy post-security connections.
I couldn’t let fate dictate whether I’d make the connection.
Despite needing to exit and re-enter the airport roadways, taking a taxi would certainly be the fastest way between terminals.
So, I hopped into the taxi stand and tried finding a driver who was willing to forgo a trip into the city for a three-minute sprint to another terminal. I thankfully found one that agreed — on the condition that I pay him a $20 flat fee.
I arrived at an empty Delta terminal at 1:32 p.m., with plenty of time to clear PreCheck and make it to the gate by 1:45 p.m.
But at this point, I’d encountered what appeared to be a fatal issue: I didn’t have a boarding pass and the flight was already closed for check-in. (Qatar’s inflight Wi-Fi wasn’t strong enough to load Delta’s mobile app.)
Despite pleas to the counter staff, I was told I’d need to rebook for another day.
Before throwing in the towel, I tried one last thing. Could I clear security without my boarding pass?
In most cases, the answer is outright no. But I got very lucky since the checkpoint I used was trialing the TSA’s credential authentication technology (CAT), which pulls your flight information directly from the passenger manifest, without requiring you to show your boarding pass.
The CAT machine scans your photo identification to verify its authenticity and then cross-references your name and identifying information against a secure flight database to ensure you’re booked on a flight from that airport on a given day.
None of my bags were pulled for secondary screening, and I was airside moments later. With my ID in hand, I sprinted to the gate and arrived drenched in sweat just two minutes before the doors were scheduled to close.
I quickly handed my ID to the gate agent, who happily printed my boarding passes, since she was still in control of the flight.
I was ultimately the final passenger to board Flight 1317 to Salt Lake City, and I ended up making it back home around midnight — a big win in my book.
As we departed SFO, I compiled a list of lessons I’d learned after successfully making the 23-minute dash from one boarding door to the other.
In no particular order:
- Global Entry continues to save the day. The automated immigration and customs process saved me at least 15 minutes of waiting in line for a border control agent.
- Take matters into your hands. Sure I could’ve waited for an AirTrain, but without time on my side, it was well worth the $20 for an attempt at making my connection.
- Always have your boarding passes ready. If I’d checked in online before my Delta flight, I wouldn’t have had the last-minute scare when the flight was closed for check-in.
- Avoid checking luggage. Whenever possible, and especially if you’re playing with fire by booking short connections, stick to carry-ons.
- You can check-in at the gate. Gate agents have the power to print boarding passes and adjust your travel plans, when necessary.
And of course, and perhaps most importantly, time is money. Getting home a day earlier saved me a night in a hotel and got me back to my fiancé one day earlier — well worth the $20 I forked over to improve my shot at making my connection.
Featured photo courtesy of San Francisco International Airport
Welcome to The Points Guy!
Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.
- Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
- Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
- Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
- Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide including takeout and delivery in the U.S., and at U.S. supermarkets.
- Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
- Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $80 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
- Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
- Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® after you apply through any Authorized Enrollment Provider. If approved for Global Entry, at no additional charge, you will receive access to TSA PreCheck.
- Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
- No Foreign Transaction Fees.
- $250 Annual Fee.
- Terms Apply.
- See Rates & Fees