Airport Connections Hacks To Make your Layover Work For You

Rear view of young woman checking flight time on timetable in airport
Kiyoshi Hijiki / Getty Images

Airports are generally a place of chaos and confusion for travelers, and connecting flights tend to bring feelings of stress and anxiety. Transfers always involve deplaning, navigating through the airport (sometimes to another terminal all together), boarding your second flight, and occasionally picking up and transferring your luggage and going through airport security again. Heaven forbid that your first flight’s departure is cancelled or delayed, even a little bit, in which case you’re likely going to miss your connecting flight. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes you end up with hours to kill between flights, which can leave you feeling bored and drained. While a direct flight is always more desirable, they tend to be more expensive and less common than flights with multiple connections. But airport connections don’t need to be all doom and gloom and there are many ways that you can use a layover to your advantage. Follow the hacks in this guide to ease your travel woes on your next trip.

If You Have an Overnight Stay 

Some people schedule their connections so far apart that they end up staying overnight in the area, especially on longer international trips. While this might seem like more of a hassle – you’re going to disembark, head out, then schlep back to the airport at some ungodly hour to get on another plane – it can actually be a very effective way of dealing with connections. Obviously, if you schedule a connection with a really long connection time, you’re not just going to wait around at the airport. If you have a 14-hour layover, for example, you’re going to get out of that airport and bed down somewhere, whether it’s a hostel, hotel, or a friend or relative’s house. If you’re up to it, you might even do some visiting or sightseeing, depending on where you are. Since you’re staying overnight, this actually offers you the best chance to get out and see the city before traveling on to your next destination.

While certainly not ideal for business trips or travelers with tight timelines, it can also help combat jet lag and travel fatigue. As anyone who’s ever done the longer leg of a journey second, being on a plane for a longer period of time after a shorter first flight is particularly taxing and wearisome. The overnight break can be a welcome relief! It’s also especially good for those who are traveling with children, who can become bored, cranky and tired on long journeys, which can make everyone, including parents and other passengers, edgy. As mentioned below, the airline may provide a free overnight stay if you miss your connecting flight. If this does happen to you, try to see the unexpected overnighter not as a setback, but as an opportunity. This will help make your experience a positive one and help you make the most of it.

If You Have a Long Layover

At first glance, long layovers are the bane of every traveler’s existence. You land, go through security, transfer your baggage if necessary and then sit around waiting for your next flight while trying not to spend too much money on the overpriced airport snacks. Heaven help you if your connection gets delayed or canceled, or if your smartphone happens to die while you’re waiting and you can’t find an open charging port. Airports aren’t terribly interesting places; there’s only so much airport shopping a person can do.

While a long layover means you can move through security and customs without feeling too harried, most people think it means you’ll end up twiddling your thumbs for a good while. The solution here might seem, at first, counter-intuitive: opt for the longer layover. If you have a choice between a 2-hour layover and a 4-hour layover, you’re better off to book the 4-hour layover. Why? Because you can actually use the “extra” time you have to do something. If you’re stopping off in a city where you have friends or family, arrange to grab a coffee or a meal with them somewhere near the airport. If it’s close by or in between terminals at a large airport, the airport may even have a free shuttle! If you’re on a business trip and you have business associates or if your firm has a branch office in the area, schedule a meeting or, if you have the time, visit the office.

If you’re passing through a city you’ve never been to while on vacation, opt to visit a nearby attraction or sample some of the local food at a nearby restaurant outside the airport. You can’t do this on the 2-hour layover; you wouldn’t have time once you’ve factored in getting through security and customs, and then check-in on the other end. But if you have the 4+ hour layover, you have double the time. Security and check-in will take the same amount of time, which means that you have more time to do something you want to do.

If You Have a Short Layover

Short layovers are often a traveler’s first pick, because the schedule is tighter, which means you can get in and out, which reduces your overall travel time. This is important for people on business trips or strict timelines, since you’re trying to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. For others, short layovers are ideal because it means less time being stuck in the airport and more time actually doing something they want to do. Short layovers can cause a lot of issues, however, and cancellations and delays are magnified for those with short lead-time between their connecting flights. A delay of even 10 minutes might mean you don’t catch that second flight and will have to wait for the next one.

However, this can work to your advantage. If your flight is delayed and arrives too late for you to catch your connection, or if your connecting flight is canceled, the airline is obligated to not only schedule you on the next available flight, but to accommodate you, which can mean offering you vouchers for meals and even overnight accommodations in a nearby hotel, as well as transportation to and from the airport. This is so well-known that some travelers even purposely schedule their flights so close together that there is no way they can possibly make the connecting flight, which scores them a few free hours or even an overnight stay in a city of their choice.

This can be a great opportunity, if you have the time, to see a place you might otherwise never visit. Naturally, this means that you want to pick a connection in a place that you actually wouldn’t mind seeing since you’re probably not going to be as enthused about getting a free hotel stay in rural Idaho as if you got “stuck” in Tokyo. If you do plan to take advantage of this, beware: as airlines have started to get wise to travelers picking “impossible” connections and may be more hesitant to offer exceptional service via that freebie you were hoping for. Of course, there are ways around that, if you’re willing to find them, but maybe not if you’re on company time.

Bonus: Avoid Long Customs Lines

If you choose your connecting airport(s) wisely, you can save yourself a whole lot of time in line. Some countries have an agreement, which means you don’t need to pass through the security/customs line again or are able to use an official express line. For example, if you fly from anywhere in the EU to the USA., and then on to Canada, you’ll be required to go through customs in the EU, the U.S. and again in Canada. Do a little bit of research and see if any of the airports you could connect in belong to a country that has a travel agreement with your final destination. The Euro zone countries have agreements with each other, so if you can connect in one of those countries before flying on to another EU-member, this is a better option than connecting in the U.S. The United States and Canada also have an agreement, where Canadian passport holders get priority treatment in U.S. airports, and travelers passing through Canadian ports can go through U.S. customs on the ground in Canada, which means they don’t need to go through another check when they land in the U.S. I think we can all agree that waiting in the customs line once instead of twice is much better.

So there you have it! There are ways to use connections and layovers effectively, no matter how long or short they might be. Whether you’re planning to jet right through or you’d rather spend the night and explore a new city or visit a friend or relative you haven’t seen in a while, connections don’t need to be a drag. In fact, they can often be opportunities in disguise if you’re willing to take advantage of them. If this was helpful, check out These 10 Best Airport Hacks.

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