23 minutes, a $20 taxi and no boarding pass: How I pulled off a seemingly impossible international connection

Dec 27, 2020

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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.

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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.

Landing in SFO about 30 minutes late (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

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.

Fortunately, as a Qsuite business-class passenger, I was the first person off the plane. Sweating under my N95 mask, I sprinted to the Global Entry kiosks and was through customs within minutes.

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.

(Map courtesy of San Francisco Airport)

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.

Well worth it for my only shot at making it home the same day. ($20 was also much more palatable than 20,000 World of Hyatt points to stay overnight at the new Grand Hyatt at the airport.)

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.

More: What’s the difference between connections and stopovers?

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.

Waiting for the gate agent to print my boarding pass (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

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.

More: Where do I clear customs on international flights with connections?

Success! (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

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

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