Skip to content

The difference between direct and nonstop flights

Feb. 07, 2021
5 min read
The difference between direct and nonstop flights
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.

Editor's Note

This story has been updated.

As discussed in an episode of Have Points Will Travel, Ian Agrimis learned a subtle but important distinction in the airline world.

There can be a big difference between a "direct" flight and a "nonstop" one.

Both options will get you to the destination printed on your ticket on a single airplane, but a direct flight could take much longer than a nonstop one. That's because direct flights can actually stop at multiple airports along their route, so long as the flight number stays the same. For example, in pre-COVID-19 times, Singapore Airlines offered two options to get from New York to Singapore: a nonstop from Newark and a direct flight from JFK, with a pit stop in Frankfurt.

The former option, the EWR-SIN flight, when in operation, is the longest in the world, scheduled at just shy of 19 hours gate-to-gate. Flying the nonstop will also generally cost you more — the only classes of service available on the A350 serving the route are premium economy and business. The A380 serving the route via Frankfurt has economy, as well as first-class.

Although the nonstop is certainly the fastest way to travel from the US East Coast to Singapore in normal times, the stopover, direct flight still has some loyalists and upsides. For one thing, it features Singapore's legendary first-class suites, but beyond that, on such a long journey, some travelers prefer to get a stretching break.

Leg one of Singapore Airlines' direct flight to SIN via FRA. Image courtesy of flightaware.com
Leg two of Singapore Airlines' direct flight to SIN via FRA.
Leg two of Singapore Airlines' direct flight to SIN via FRA. Image courtesy of flightaware.com

Before the 1980s, direct flights with stops were much more common. Getting to East Asia from the US East Coast or Europe required stopping for fuel at least once.

"I’m old enough to remember I flew a DC-10 to Hong Kong: Geneva, Zurich, Karachi, Hong Kong," said Guillaume de Syon, a professor of history at Albright College whose research includes aviation history. “I never got off the plane.”

De Syon said that before the 1980s, jet engines were not reliable or efficient enough to fly such long routes nonstop.

“There’s a technical shift starting in the late '70s and definitely confirmed in the 1980s that the so-called direct flights are no longer necessary," he said. "All of a sudden you’ve got better engines, longer ranges.”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Almost overnight, he said, nonstop routes like New York to Johannesburg, which had previously always required at least one technical stop, became possible.

Today's jet engines are "much more reliable," said Gregory Alegi, an aviation historian who teaches at LUISS University in Rome. “You can basically fly nonstop between two points anywhere on earth,” he added. "You take it pretty much for granted that you can fly safely anywhere.”

The rise of nonstop flights coupled with the introduction of longer-range midsize jets like the A321XLR means the whole shape of the aviation industry is changing, according to Alegi. Aside from fewer multi-stop direct flights, it also means connecting flights are slowly becoming less common.

“You can think, in Europe, of places like Amsterdam: it’s in a small country — a rich country, an advanced country, but with a very small local base. It thrives because people fly in there, change airplanes, and then go on to their final destination,” he said. “If I can fly direct from another medium-size city to my destination, then I’m going to skip Amsterdam.”

For Alegi though, there may always be a case for stops on ultra-long routes like New York-Singapore, even if they're not technically necessary.

“Do you consider the stopover an inconvenience, which means you’ll take it only if the price is cheaper, or do you think it’s an advantage because you’re stopping in some place you want to be and you’ll take those six hours to visit the city?"

Alegi answered his own question. “I think the data shows that people want to go nonstop to a destination or stay over for a few days, rather than just doing it lightly over a few hours.”

Airlines are increasingly making stopover flights more flexible, allowing passengers to spend more time (think days, not hours) in the cities where they pause.

As stopover and connecting flights become less common, Alegi also thinks airports may shrink in size and commercial scope.

"If there are fewer stopovers, if there’s less time to kill, maybe we’ll see airports shrink back, shrink down, return to being more oriented to providing the technical service rather than the travel experience.”

The appeal of air travel, generally, according to Alegi, is efficiency, so airlines tend to emphasize how efficient their services are.

Direct flights were once the fastest way between two points, even if they made multiple stops. The terminology stuck, even as nonstop flights took over as more time-efficient alternatives. That's part of the reason this can all be so confusing: nonstop flights are all direct, but not all direct flights are nonstop. So next time you book a ticket, double-check: is your flight merely direct, or is it nonstop? Otherwise, you may be surprised to find yourself on the ground in some unexpected airport for a few hours

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Top offers from our partners

How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
See all best card offers

TPG featured card

Best premium travel card for value
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

1 - 10X points
10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3xEarn 3x points on other travel and dining.
1xEarn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases

Intro offer

80,000 bonus points
Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

Annual Fee

$550

Recommended Credit

740-850
Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more
Best premium travel card for value
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3xEarn 3x points on other travel and dining.
1xEarn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

    80,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $550
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more