Today’s giant airlines—as well as many smaller ones—make their business on connections. The pervasive “hub and spoke” route system means you can fly from almost anywhere in the U.S. to almost anywhere else with one stop-and-connection at a hub. My home airport, Medford, Oregon, is typical. If I want to fly to, say, New York, there won’t be a nonstop within my lifetime. But I can get from Medford to New York with one stop/connection on four different airlines: Alaska via Seattle, American via Phoenix, Delta via Salt Lake City or Seattle, and United via Denver, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.
But connections are a hassle. Connecting flights nearly double your risk of cancellation or delay, plus they add additional risk of lost baggage, the hassles of airport processing, and usually at least two hours of total trip time. That’s why one tried-and-true rule of selecting a flight is simple: If you can find a nonstop at a good price, take it.
So, given the hassles and risks, why take a connection? Even when a nonstop is available, you can sometimes find a lower connecting fare. I checked a bunch of random domestic routes for early June, and found that on more than half of the long-haul trips, lowest fares on connecting flights were less than on available nonstops— ometimes as much as $200 round trip.
But whether it’s the only option or the cheapest, a connection involves more risk and more hassle than a nonstop.
Schedule Problems. If you have to connect, try to optimize connecting time. Allow enough slack so that you won’t miss the connection, but try to avoid extended connecting times. And if you’re looking for the lowest fare, beware: The least expensive connections I found often involved at least one red-eye flight and many involved long waits at connecting hubs.
Delays and Cancellations. If possible, you want to avoid those connecting hubs that repeatedly post the highest rates of flight delays and cancellations. And that list remains quite stable over the years, usually including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago/O’Hare, Dallas-Ft. Worth, New York/JFK, Newark, and San Francisco. Surprisingly, even in winter, Salt Lake City does better than most southern hubs, and the other big ones generally cope as well.
Double Screening. You want to avoid any schedules requiring that you go through the security hassle a second time at the connecting hub.
–Often, you can’t avoid double security when your connecting flight leaves from a different terminal than your arrival. Some of the busiest U.S. hub airports consist of more than one physically separate terminal building, including Boston, Chicago/O’Hare, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston/Bush, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York/JFK, Newark, and Philadelphia. Airlines try to schedule connections within a single secure “airside” area, and that’s easy at such airports as Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, or Philadelphia, with airside” terminal-to-terminal people movers. But that’s not always possible: Some schedules require an out-of-airside terminal transfer.
–You always have to go through screening at the connecting hub if you claim and re-check baggage—often the case with low-fare lines.
–Multiple terminals aren’t as big a hassle overseas, where most big new hub fields are designed around a single, huge terminal. But terminal change can be a problem at London/Heathrow and Paris/De Gaulle.
–When you return to the U.S. from a foreign airport that doesn’t offer pre-clearance, and you have an ongoing connecting flight, you must leave security, claim your bag, go through customs and immigration, and go through security again. So if you need a connection, try to connect at a foreign airport with a nonstop flight to your final destination. You may face an additional screening, but nothing as bad as you’d encounter at a U.S. hub.
Take a Hard Look. You really want to avoid a big time connection hassle whenever you can. That means study the details—airport layouts, connecting times, and security systems—before you click on that airfare deal.