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Welcome to the Award Travel 101 Beginner Series! Award Travel 101 is the official community of AwardWallet. During this series we'll answer the most common questions we get from award-travel beginners. 

A few times a day, almost every day, a version of the following question is asked: “I am flying from New York to Rome with a layover in London. My flight to Rome leaves two hours after I land from New York. Is that enough time?”

Minimum Connection Time

When it comes to connections, there are a few things you should know: When you book an itinerary as a single ticket, you and the airline have a contractual agreement: You agree to pay the price of the ticket, and the airline agrees to transport you to your final destination. This agreement, also known as the contract of carriage, legally requires the airline to reaccommodate you if you miss a connection.

Since a missed connection costs the airlines money, it’s in their best interest to only sell itineraries where the passenger has enough time to connect. Using data from millions of itineraries, the airlines have established a minimum connection time (MCT) for each airport. If an itinerary doesn’t meet the MCT, they won’t sell you the ticket.

As long as the flights before and after your connection were booked as part of the same ticket, you can rest easy knowing that risk-averse number crunchers working for the airlines feel good about your odds. And if something goes wrong, you’ll be on the next available flight.

One other advantage to booking an itinerary as a single ticket is that you may be eligible for additional coverage from the rewards card you use to pay for your flights (or the card you use to pay the taxes and fees on an award ticket).  Many cards offer up to $500 per passenger in reimbursements for expenses like a hotel, meals, and transportation. Our top recommendation for beginners is the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card because it earns 2x points on travel and offers excellent protection for unexpected delays and lost or stolen luggage.

Booking Separate Tickets

But for points and miles maximizers, getting the best deal often requires booking separate tickets. As a rule of thumb, you’re traveling on separate tickets if you pay for your travel in more than one transaction. If you had to get out your credit card more than once, the protections we covered in the previous section go right out the window. It’s now your responsibility to manage the risk of missing a connection.

First, let’s have a quick look at why you might book a trip on separate tickets in the first place. If you read about ways to maximize points and miles, you’ll likely find references to “booking a positioning flight.” A positioning flight is a separate ticket that gets you to the airport where an award itinerary begins (or to your final destination from the airport where an award itinerary ends). In some cases, there can be significant savings in points or cash, but you need to be informed about the tradeoffs.

Let’s look at an example using the itinerary from New York to Rome with a layover in London. Most frequent-flyer programs will require a minimum of 30,000 points for this one-way itinerary. But Virgin Atlantic, a partner of all the major transferrable currencies, charges 10,000–12,500 miles for a one-way flight from New York to London. Depending on the time of year, you can probably find nonstop paid airfare for less than $100 from London to Rome.

Award Ticket from New York to London

Separate Ticket from London to Rome

In this example, you’re saving 20,000 points by booking a separate ticket. You can safely assume that the 11-hour 50-minute connection between these flights will meet the MCT for London Heathrow, but that doesn’t mean you’re protected from financial risk if your flight from New York to London is delayed overnight. With this separate ticket, British Airways has no responsibility to get you to Rome if you fail to arrive in London on time.

British Airways has agreed to fly you from London to Rome. If you don’t get to London on time, it won’t matter if the delay was Virgin Atlantic’s fault. This effectively puts you in the same position as a person who sleeps through their alarm in their London hotel room. British Airways may put you on a later flight if you ask nicely, but they have no obligation to do so. More likely than not, they’ll ask you to buy a new ticket at full price.

Evaluating the Risks

One way to minimize the financial risk of traveling on separate tickets is to get as close as possible to your final destination on a single ticket. In the previous example, the worst-case scenario is paying for a ticket from London to Rome. Although this can still be expensive if you have to rebook last minute, it’s much better than being in a situation where you need to buy a transatlantic flight on the day of departure.

If you’re traveling from Atlanta to London, it’s far riskier to book a cheap positioning flight to New York that connects with an international ticket to London. If your flight to New York arrives late, the worst-case scenario is a last-minute ticket to London.

This doesn't mean you can't take advantage of savings from separate-ticket itineraries; it just means you should build in extra flexibility. I live in Atlanta, and if I wanted to fly from New York to an international destination on a separate ticket, I would book my positioning flight to New York the day before my international leg to ensure I had adequate time to make the international flight.

With few exceptions, separate tickets will also require you leave the secure part of the terminal and go through the same check-in process you'd follow if you were arriving at the airport by car. That could mean waiting for bags at the luggage carousel, standing in line to print boarding passes, rechecking luggage, and going back through security. For international connections, you'll also need to account for time to clear customs and immigration.

Airport Specifics

The final consideration has to do with specific airports. We're often asked something along the lines of, “is two hours enough time to connect in Philadelphia?” The honest answer is that no one can tell you with certainty given the randomness of airport operations and staffing. One week, you could easily make a 25-minute connection at my home airport of Atlanta, but if the “Plane Train” is out of service, you could be looking at a 25- to-30 minute walk between terminals. If asking about a specific airport, take any answer you get with a grain of salt. There are too many variables to reliably predict what you'll experience in a particular airport on your travel day.

That said, minimum connection times can give you a reasonable idea of what airlines expect for a given airport. If you're comfortable with the risks, Expert Flyer has a comprehensive resource on MCTs available to paid subscribers. They also offer a five-day free trial which should give you ample time to explore the exciting world of MTCs. Keep in mind that these times vary depending on whether your travel is domestic or international and which airlines are operating the flights on each side of the connection.

Bottom Line

Whenever possible, you should try to book all your segments on a single ticket. This offers you protection in case of missing a connection, and you don't have to stress about minimum connection times.  If you are going to take the risk of booking separate tickets, especially if they are on different carriers for international itineraries, you should consider leaving 24 hours in between your flights to give you an extra cushion in case of irregular operations.

Award Travel 101: Is My Connection Time Long Enough?
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Comments

  • Depends on the airport as well. For HKG and SIN was probably doable in as little as 1 – 1.5 hour layover.

    • Agreed. Some airports you really need almost 2 hours but I’ve made several tight connections at DEN and DFW with just 30-45 minutes.

      • MCT is always a YMMV situation. Personally, I always try to err on the side of a longer connection, doing the best I can to avoid missed connections. Plus, I uaually have access to at least one lounge, making it easier to pass the time.

    • Agree totally. Some airports are definitely more time-consuming.

  • Given how some airports are designed so badly and you must take a train, bus or via horseback to get to the next terminal for your connecting flight it’s the wise traveler that serious reviews his travel plans and allots for more than enough connection time

  • Thank you for this info. I was not aware of the contract of carriage.

  • Ever since my nearly heart-attack inducing race through DFW, I give myself more time than I need, for better or worse.

  • The Arts Traveler says:

    Very timely article for me. I was booking flights for November and the questions raised in the article were exactly the ones I needed to evaluate before I book my flights. It is especially nerve racking when you take a positioning flight that is paid and the main flight is an award flight. My policy has always been always stay the night before the position flight at the position flight city.

    My question is taking a paid morning flight from London to Dublin to catch an award flight leaving as 12:45pm to the USA. Is that just asking for disaster?

    • Obviously you can’t control all variables, but the earlier the flight, the less likely for a delay. Simply for obvious reasons (a delay in one city, creates a delay in another, and so forth). Early morning flights are typically on-time more compared to later day flights. So I’d just check the status of that flight overtime and see how it has done.

  • Even if you are booked on one ticket, you are at risk of losing part of your vacation time if you miss a connection because the “next available flight” the airline is supposed to put you on is probably only going to be one on the same airline, which may involve a long long wait depending on frequency of service and whether planes are full. Airlines won’t even put you on a partner flight, with only a few exceptions, especially if you don’t have elite status. So one has to decide if planning a longer connection time, at least for for certain trips, is worth some extra money and/or miles.

  • Elizabeth says:

    Be prepared, know your airport layout and that will help you decide how much actual time you need.

  • Alex Davidson says:

    Interesting!

  • ahollander35 says:

    I find that less than 45 mins connection time in any domestic airport is just not enough time.

  • I would never take the chance and purchase separate tickets. It’s not worth the stress involved, and with a single ticket I have the added protection of my Chase Sapphire Reserve in case something goes wrong!

  • Marlin Seevers says:

    Nice article on these ways to be frugal with airline ticket shopping. Many I have used, but I always appreciate ways to learn more.

  • Ideally my layovers would be at least 2 hours or longer….but not long to the point where I’m miserable. I don’t want to run to catch a flight ever!!

  • I think the airport is the key factor: LHR, for example, is unworkable unless your connection is in the same terminal [or, as you say, on the same carrier]; MAD is another nightmare. In fact, most airports with international “connections” are rarely set up for smooth connections. Going through an xray, for instance, even though you just got off a plane and are just getting onto another. BTW Casablanca has unbelievable, repeated, relentless “security checks” – at least 5 !!! So there is no rule of thumb about connection times: better safe than sorry.

  • Leave extra time at Schiphol (Amsterdam) if making an international connection. There are often multiple lines to clear which can take a long time.

  • 3 hour is the minimum I give myself for any major international airport. The European ones are worse and I would need 5 hours to be comfortable.

  • Once I did have an airline book me on a connection that I thought was too tight and they changed it later. I ha e booked myself on separate tickets that caused me problems due to delays, etc. One time Delta totally screwed up and reimbursed me for everything and then some, but another time in Central Asia I was SOL. Either way, it was too stressful the day of and a hassle later, so I won’t do that again.

  • You might as well add a new destination if you are going to have two separate award destinations.

  • Much better to have too much time in the terminal. Get a credit card with club and lounge access and you can relax. Especially in the nicer overseas lounges, even Priority Pass ones.

  • In my personal experience, I’ve found American airports more willing to accommodate missed connections on separate tickets than European carriers.

  • Steven William Van Meter says:

    Man, when you race for connections you really see the value in reductions

  • Anyone know of a list of the policies of different airlines, in terms of the ability to make changes to award flights?

  • Very good article! If you’re booking individual tickets, you’re better off to travel with only carry-on. It’s too time consuming to wait for the luggage and then have to go through the whole process of exit and re-enter and recheck luggage again!

  • Booking all flights under one ticket is very important in case things go wrong.
    Last year I had purchased two separate tickets where the connection time was more than enough, but my first flight got canceled at the airport due to a mechanical failure.
    This caused major problems and I missed my second flight as well without any protection.
    Obviously I lost a lot of time and money.

  • In most of the world’s airports, they have the concept of a transit area, so if you land in a country just to change planes before your final destination in a third country, you do not have to go through customs and border control.
    Unfortunately, US does not have this concept, so if you’re just transiting USA you need to spend time going through passport and luggage control twice.

  • Connections that are too tight are something that I see often with novice travelers. Now that I take into account opportunities to lounge-hop and have learned to travel in premium cabins with points, I treat the travel as part of my vacation and I don’t feel the need to book the shortest connection time. It definitely lessens the stress during delays.

  • I’ve heard that this isn’t the case with Ryanair where if you missed your flight due to a delayed Ryanair connection, you’re required to purchase another ticket?

  • If one is concerned about connection times, even while having 2 segments, make sure the 2nd segment is not the last flight of the day. Then you have a reasonable chance to get on a later flight. Otherwise you’ll have to wait till next day.

  • A tutorial on how to read the MCT tables available online, for example, at EF, would be appreciated.

  • I always prefer to leave more time rather than less. Helps to avoid a high-stress level when traveling.

  • It helps with reducing guessing when it is a single ticket. I’ve had the same concerns, over time realized what is said in this article.

  • This is useful information, thanks!

  • Just a thought – what if flight tracking apps could also predict trends in connection times and connection snafus?

  • Patrick B. says:

    This is an excellent article! i recently booked some flights for upcoming international travel under similar conditions, involving multiple connecting flights between my origin and destination, and made sure that the connecting time between flights was at least 3.5 hours to minimize the possibility of missing one due to delay, times involved in getting through busy airports, security screenings, washroom/food breaks, etc. Even though i was aware f the risks i was assuming, i’m hoping for a positive outcome and a fun journey, and i’ll definitely take the tips here into account for any future travels!

  • Depends entirely on the airport. Any airport that requires you to take a tram sets off alarm bells for me for a tight connection. I would rather have a longer layover than risk losing any of my vacation time at my destination.

  • I always get nervous when getting back into the states when I have less then 1.5 hours, but United seems to like to do that I’ve noticed.

  • RoseMarie says:

    The real problem comes in when you are flying on 2 different tickets. On one ticket you are protected, but still a nuisance if you miss your second flight.

  • Unless its united…. I’ve been delayed on every United flight I’ve ever taken

  • The_Bouncer says:

    My rule of thumb is 24 hours if I’m “connecting” to a trans-oceanic flight. For the price of an airport hotel, I don’t need the stress.

  • I prefer to have everything I’m doing on one ticket. Even though it would cost me more money or miles. I do not want to have to worry about missing anything. If I split things I would be booking a day ahead or have hours between flights. I’ve done the running between gates and I hate doing that.
    When my kids were younger I always made sure to book a long layover to let them run up and down an empty concourse or around an empty gate. It helped SO much for the plane rides! Just make sure that you get all the toys!

  • Good article and warnings when looking to maximize value/minimize miles used. You can really get into a bind if you don’t think about what is discussed here. Isn’t so much the connection times, but the lack of protection if something goes haywire with the first flight.

  • Peter Finch says:

    LAX is always a nightmare. I was pull out of the line for no reason & I missed my connection as a result to NY.

    HK always efficient – very tight connections are possible. Ditto DOHA & Dubai.

  • lenin1991 says:

    If I have a high-stakes connection to an unconnected ticket, I’ll always plan for an overnight buffer. The stress is just to high otherwise, I can’t believe the folks who book tickets with just 2 hours or so…

  • good info! I try to do same tickets.. but recently booked a similar set flying to Rome thru LHR… Have a 4 hours connection window from when our other flight arrives so things nominal it should be ok.

  • Stacy Liu says:

    Great info, but also a lot of planning and multiple options you need to take into consideration and think about if it doesn’t pan through 100%.

  • Good Points, especially regarding staying on the same ticket until reaching your destination. I would add, those few times I have had separate tickets, unless I am spending the evening (or more) in a Hotel, I try to have all my luggage as carry-ons. That eliminates the need to go outside of security and then need to check back in.

  • Lately I’ve been delayed on nearly every short domestic AA flight. I recently rebooked a ticket that had a 30 min layover in PHX on a flight to LA (originally from RDU). I have another separate itinerary flight booked from LAX to TYO and was worried about missing my connection in PHX. I called AA and amazingly they let me change to a flight going through DFW with a longer layover. I’m still worried about any delayed flights but at least I have more time and AA in this case was accommodating (I am ExP so maybe they actually took that into consideration, although they usually don’t seem to acknowledge me at all for the status).

  • charles j says:

    Extra time between flights are what the lounges you can either access with, or have paid for by the right credit cards. As long as you don’t enjoy it enough to risk missing the flight.

  • I absolutely love this article. I actually never knew that this was possible or popular with people who use miles with airlines. I always thought it was just popular to save them all up for the entire trip.

    I’m wondering how often people do this. Are there any stats on it that you can share more about?

  • Not very easy to find a good trade off to decide how much time have between two flights, especially if on different tickets.
    Usually I prefer having a longer waiting time than risking of loosing the following flight.

  • Bethany F Flake says:

    How does the time of year you are flying factor into connection time? Is there a time of year when flights are more likely to be delayed? I know weather delays are probably more likely in the winter, but are there also lots of delays in the summer due to higher volume of passengers flying?

    • That’s a great point. It’s always helpful if you can avoid a connection where ice and snow can be an issue. If you must connect in a place like Chicago in winter, that makes for an especially risky separate ticket. Best to build in an extra night or book as a single ticket wherever possible. High volume summer is probably less of a concern. It might make the airport / lounges less pleasant, but winter storms are probably the biggest culprit for delays.

  • Does the contract of carriage cover layover airports where US Preclearance is in effect? I remember almost missing my connection on Etihad in Abu Dhabi when this program was first introduced and there were long lines at CBP in Abu Dhabi. I suspect MCT had not been adjusted to account for this.

  • Lucy Singer says:

    Great article! Thanks for posting it.

  • As usual, useful info in both the article and the comments. In points/miles maximizing (and most of life), the more time you invest in planning, the less stress and the greater the rewards. If you want to go after these separate ticket opportunities: check your airport’s MCT; book your flights earlier in the day; know your airport’s layout; don’t do it if it’s a trip where you simply can’t afford to miss your connection; check the on-time performance of a particular airline, airport and flight; and don’t check any bags, if you can.

  • Chenwei Liu says:

    Some great points made in this article! Some MCT times are dependent on which terminals you’re arriving/departing from like for Delta at LAX.

  • Miranda Alfaro says:

    Thank you for this information. I was not aware of the contract of carriage. I always assumed that if I missed my connection it was my fault.

  • Useful post. Thank you!

  • I now look at what lounges are in the connecting city. If there’s a lounge, I have no problem taking a longer layover to make sure I don’t miss the flight and get some free food.

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