What Is a Layover and How Long Do You Need For Connecting Flights?
No matter how much of a savvy flier you think you are, odds are you've found yourself sprinting through the airport at breakneck speed to make a connection at one point in time.
And while there’s no one magic number for how long travelers need to change flights, knowing how connections work—and some tips for timing them—can make the process of switching flights a lot less painful.
Here's what you should know.
How Long Should You Leave Between Connecting Flights?
The actual minimum amount of time you need to connect for each flight varies based on a lot of factors, including whether the flight is domestic or international, whether or not you have luggage that needs to be transferred, boarding times, and how far you'll have to walk between gates (we see you, 6,800,000-square-foot Atlanta airport). To keep it simple, having three hours between each connecting flight means that there’s a good chance you’ll be covered by that time frame and most likely have time for an Auntie Anne's pretzel (or three).
To be clear, this isn’t an exact science—instead, it’s a conservative estimate from airlines and travel experts that will keep travelers covered in many connecting situations. Airlines already have a good idea of how long connections will take based on statistics, but there are always exceptions. After all, not every flight is on time: The big ten U.S. carriers’ on-time arrival rate in August was 75.2 percent, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
John Grant, senior analyst at aviation data specialist OAG, puts it this way: While “there is no empirical evidence or data to support” the anecdotal three-hour rule as a blanket policy, it's still a “a very wise piece of travel knowledge based on experience,” he says.
Airlines are relatively straightforward about telling fliers when they should arrive at the airport for the first flight of the day, but timing connections is a process that more or less happens behind the scenes.
For example, Delta advises passengers to arrive at U.S. airports at least two hours before the flight leaves to make sure they are checked in 30 minutes before departure and at the gate at least 15 minutes before takeoff. However, the minimum amount of time needed to connect between flights, for the most part, is implicitly provided by the airlines through itineraries they offer, which have factored in distance between airport gates, how long it takes to sort baggage, and deplaning.
Some airlines are airports make it more explicit: Heathrow offers a handy tool for timing connections across carriers, for example, and British Airways has further info on its website about how much time its customers need to connect there (it suggests at least one hour, 30 minutes to change terminals and one hour for those in the same terminal). You'll also find advice for connections at London City and Gatwick, as well as New York-area airports JFK and Newark, on British Airways's site. Air Canada lists a timetable of suggested minimum connection times on its website, too.
Geneva-based aviation IT company SITA, for its part, notes that there are “official” minimum connecting flight times for airports and terminals based on standards from the International Air Transport Association, but that airlines and airports agree on more than 50,000 exceptions. These are based on specific knowledge of their own operations—so these "minimums" can change quite often, Grant says.
What Affects Connection Times?
The type of flight is going to play a role in how these times are calculated. Grant cites four main combinations:
The last two tend to carry longer minimum connection times, as passengers may have to go through passport controls and recheck bags depending on the airport or country.
Grant points out that transferring from an international to domestic flight at Chicago O’Hare, for example, has several steps, and is much more complicated than strolling from one gate to another: deplaning, joining an immigration line in the international arrivals building, rechecking any luggage, and going through more security. It’s a good idea to add more time for those itineraries that include extra steps.
Specific security procedures and airport layouts will also affect the minimum connection time—sometimes greatly. For example, Air Canada’s minimum connection time between some smaller Canadian cities is a breezy 15 minutes, but international flights connecting to the U.S. via Toronto Pearson International Airport need at least one hour and 25 minutes.
American Airlines says the minimum connection time for a passenger traveling from Albuquerque to Miami through its Dallas-Fort Worth hub is 40 minutes, and that number would be the same if they were on the way to São Paulo through the same airport. However, that timeframe would more than double to 85 minutes on the way back from São Paulo because of added security procedures.
Thinking about making an epic crosstown connection
that requires changing airports altogether?
We recommend you avoid this, as it brings a lot of variables into account that minimum connecting times just don’t account for—namely, highway traffic. If you can’t help it, plan to give yourself well over than three hours in any big city, and map out how you'll get from airport to airport, as well as how long it will take you.
British Airways, for example, suggests giving at least three hours to connect between Heathrow and Gatwick, which are about 30 miles apart. But in that case, there’s a bus that goes between the two airports 80 times per day—a convenience not available everywhere.
Consider Other Factors
While airlines calculate the minimum amount of time passengers need to make their flights, it’s important to keep your own travel habits in mind. Are you traveling with children, or do you always like having time to sit down and eat before a flight? In that case, it is advisable to pick the longer layover when given the option. It's a good idea, then, to check out airport maps before booking to see if the airline’s default layover time will be enough based on your own habits.
Know Your Rights
You can always call the airline for confirmation that you have enough time to connect before flying, but know that they will most likely stand by their published schedules—they wouldn't have made them available otherwise. That being said, it's still a traveler's responsibility to make the flight.
Still, if you do everything correctly and still couldn’t make your connection because of a delayed inbound flight or other circumstance out of your control, the airline has an obligation to re-accommodate you. This usually means taking a later flight, or being routed through another city in the case of major logistical issues caused by severe weather or other problems.
However, it’s important to remember that airlines likely won’t be as sympathetic for those travelers who combine itineraries on two tickets to skirt the minimum connection time or save money, Grant says. He notes that passengers in this situation could be required to play a rebooking fee.
Hope this helps! Good luck and happy travels!