8 tips for determining your personal “minimum connecting time”

by Janice Hough on October 4, 2012

As most travelers have learned, “Minimum connecting time” is one of the murkiest concepts in air travel.

In theory, it’s a simple number — the amount of time it will take a passenger to make a connection between two planes. But, not only does it vary by airport, it varies by airline and whether the flight is international or domestic. There are also occasional exceptions based on flight numbers.

But whatever the decision-making process, the results are often anything but simple. In theory, if you or your luggage miss a legal connection the airline should help you out. In practice? Well, that can be another story. Especially with flights so full these days and reduced staffing at the airport.

Here are eight tips for making an informed decision.

1. What’s the potential backup plan? If you choose a connection where there are several other later flights should you miss the first plane, and you aren’t traveling around the holidays or on a busy weekend, then there’s a good chance of making it to your destination the same day.

On the other hand, if you choose a tight connection to the last flight of the day, or to a flight with no alternative for hours, then you could face a much bigger problem.

2. Are you checking luggage? Running through an airport is one thing; having the baggage handlers rush your bags between flights in a few minutes is another.

3. Weather. Quite simply, booking a tight connection in the summer through an airport that gets thunderstorms or in the winter with an airport that gets snow is rolling the dice. Curiously enough, airlines don’t change their legal minimum connection times by the seasons.

4. Are commuter planes involved? In my experience, not only are smaller planes more likely to be delayed, but also they tend to land at remote gates. (United Express at Denver can be particularly difficult, as they all leave from a gate at one end of the terminal; it’s a long walk even with plenty of time.)

5. Are you traveling with children or anyone with mobility issues? Motorized carts can help, but it’s risky to count on one being available quickly. Plus, children can have issues with being hungry and/or needing a restroom NOW, neither of which helps when you’re in a hurry.

6. Is there help? Is there someone you can call for help in case of a delay, a travel agent or a help desk? Or, are you really good rebooking your own travel online? Because with airline cutbacks, the odds of finding a human to help you quickly, in a pinch, are getting slimmer all the time.

7. How critical is your arrival time?
Do you have to be at your destination on your scheduled travel day? If it’s really important — a cruise, a tour or a wedding, for examples, maybe you should be planning to arrive the day before in any case. If your schedule doesn’t allow for that and nonstops aren’t available, book as generous a connection as is reasonably possible.

8. Stress. Finally, and sometimes most important, how much stress will a tight connection cause you? I tell all my clients, “It just isn’t worth booking flights that make your day miserable even if you make the connection.”

Some travelers hate wasting time and are confident in their abilities to get through an airport quickly and to navigate potential problems. Others want as relaxed an experience as possible. Neither is the “right” way. It’s your trip. Do whatever makes you more comfortable.

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  • Geo

    The connection time also depends on how far apart the gates are and this cannot be predicted.

  • mjhooper

    Not mention how far a run it is between terminals. Paris is enough stress to make me want to travel to another gateway city.

  • Anonymous

    Lately, in my GDS, I have been able to sell segment by segment to get better connecting times. Not sure why the flights are not married, but another suggestion would be to use a TA since we have capabilities that the online companies don’t.

  • Jeff

    In addition to points #2 and #4, even if you do not check luggage, and are taking a commuter plane, you may have to gate check your bag as it may not fit in the overhead bin — if the plane even has them. You will then need to wait for the handlers to bring your luggage plane-side before making your connection. That could be quick or not, depending on how busy things are.

  • reasonedthought

    Also some airlines load misleading minimum connect times, such as Delta when connecting from Cathay Pacific. Delta is insisting on a 6 hour minimum, which is what will show up on Travelocity, etc. With 6 hours, you can claim your baggage, clear customs, walk to the Delta terminal, recheck your bag, clear security and still have hours to kill.

  • Anonymous

    Simple rules of thumb:

    For a domestic to domestic connection, double the allowable connection time. For any mix of international and domestic, multiply the allowable time by 1.5. Simple as that. This alleviates about 95% of the problems,

  • Anonymous

    Watch out for those ADMs (Debit Memos for the non-agents here) especially for international routes. If I don’t already know the airline policy, I’d read each airline’s agency site before I do it. The $600 fine is too much !!!

  • Anonymous

    Wow 6 hours ??? What airport is this ??? Must be JFK correct???

  • Anonymous

    It may have to do with their contracts and flights they work with for the fare you are pricing, so not really misleading just the flight options based on incoming arrival times and the departing time on the domestic flight.
    Online you can’t pick segment by segment, which if the flights are married, a TA can.

  • Anonymous

    Yep, but if it prices and isn’t forced, the GDS backs you up.

  • Anonymous

    No Bodega, even if it autoprices correctly, for as long as you did not request O&D THROUGH availability some airlines will ding you. It’s crazy!

  • Anonymous

    No Bodega, even if it autoprices correctly, for as long as you did not request O&D THROUGH availability some airlines will ding you. It’s crazy!

  • Graham

    It’s imperative torealise that Minimum Connecting Time (MCT) only applies if the two flights are on the same ticket. The fact that they were bought at the same time and on the same reservation does not guarantee you are on one ticket. For instance, the Low Cost Carriers (LCC) in Europe simply don’t do connections. Period. If you turn up late for a flight it is forfeit. Even if the delay is because your incoming flight on the same airline was delayed YOU missed the flight.

    And the Network carriers like Delta and British Airways are beginning to do similar things. If you have 2 separate tickets they won’t check you through and if the result is that you miss the onward then tough. The Network carriers do have exceptions but don’t count on it. The safe assumption is 2 tickets = not a connection and make much, much more extra time to allow for things going wrong.

  • Anonymous

    I put in the request the long way, so the carrier comes back with the ok. I check the pricing by selling it the regular way but request the carrier to give it to me. It is only recently this has been possible, yet I have done the regualr sell with with first and business for long time with no issue. It is usually on international, not domestic, too. A consolidator I use, also got me flights by booking segment by segment…again for international, not domestic. Domestic, everything is married.

  • Anonymous

    Also, if it auto prices with no fic or pic, Sabre said I was good to go.

  • Anonymous

    Makes sense – if you request (sell) manually on a need-need basis and they come back to confirm then I assume they are OK with whatever you sold. BTW, I see the same thing when I waitlist my passengers and the airline confirms the waitlist. The married segments markers are not there.

    Re BC/FC, I don’t think they will audit these so closely since the fares are so high anyway. The airlines probably want to control the cheap coach discounted fares a lot more so they limit inventory more closely on a complete O&D basis.

    I also notice that airlines handle married segments differently. I like the way BA does it when I sell segment by segment. They create the married segment AFTER I sell. Sometimes, they even reply with a message that Favored Availability was given to the booking (whatever that means). United is also pretty flexible. If they don’t want you to sell segment by segment, the availability simply changes in the next segment you want to sell. The most inflexible is Delta, IMO. I sometimes get a INCOMPATIBLE SELL message when I try to sell segments separately. Cathay Pacific is another hard one. But generally speaking if I know the airline policy forbids going around married segment logic, I am very careful since the penalty is a lot more than the commission.

    Sorry folks if Bodega and I went on a tangent. This has nothing to do with connection times.

  • Anonymous

    Bodega, reasonthought is actually correct. I checked the MCT between CX to DL in JFK, LAX, SFO and ORD and they are all 360 minutes. BA and CX share terminal 7 in JFK but BA to DL MCT is only 210 minutes. Standard MCT in JFK for International is about 105-120 mins. but I would not recommend that to anyone. But 6 hours is insane!

  • Anonymous

    I think the problem is common folks cannot get the minimum connection time between different airlines for airports easily. I have to use my GDS to get it. Is there a free website out there for this info?

  • Anonymous

    Yeah it does Tony as we have the compability of booking many of the flights, segment by segment, where the OTA or airline websites don’t, so we can be helpful with some of those ridiculous connect times.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah it does Tony as we have the compability of booking many of the flights, segment by segment, where the OTA or airline websites don’t, so we can be helpful with some of those ridiculous connect times.

  • Anonymous

    If you are using Sabre just *IMSL to play it safe.

  • Anonymous

    It has to be something with DL in their contracts, as I find much shorter connecting times with CX to AA.

  • Anonymous

    I have no scientific basis for doing so, but my personal rule has always been a minimum of 2 hours between domestic connecting flights, and 3 hours between a domestic and international flight or two international flights. It’s worked great for me; in 15+ years of flying, I’ve never suffered a misconnection. Yes, I end up with a lot of time on my hands when nothing goes wrong – but what’s the worst thing that can happen if you end up with a long layover between flights? The peace of mind is worth being bored for an hour or two. I proved it to myself when me and my sister were flying back home from India on year. Our flight from AMS to DTW was delayed by a little over an hour. While a large number of people on our flight were dealing with the rebooking line upon landing at DTW – on New Year’s Eve, no less – we even had time for lunch before our connecting flight because we had 3+ hours.

  • Mark

    Jeff below is very correct. I flew from Baltimore to Berlin Germany on Delta in April of 2011. I was to have a 5 hour layover at JFK which turned into a 30 minute layover because JFK would not let the the little Delta jet from Baltimore land and we had to fly back to Baltimore because while circling we might run out of fuel if we didn’t. When we finally were able to take off from Baltimore at were parked at the gate at 6:15p at JFK (Flight to Berlin was leaving at 7), we had to wait on board for all the carryons to be offloaded from the cargo hold even if you didn’t have one. We got to the Berlin plane (3 of us at 6:58pm). Door closed and they pushed back. No one there from Delta to help those passengers who could still make flight and no one to help many or direct them to where they could be helped. WOW I’m thinking up new customer service ideas no one must have thought of before. Delta wants to rule but they suck. Fly international from you’re airport if you can and if you get stuck in London, Frankfurt or even Iceland it would be better than JFK.

  • baasbaas1

    You are right on.

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