For non-US resident travellers flying to (or through) the USA, the hiccups that commonly occur with connecting flights often come as a shock. In this post, we provide 10 tips for surviving USA flight connections.

Hopefully, these tips will save you some money, time, energy and the temptation to pull out your hair in frustration.

10 Tips for Surviving USA Flight Connections

“Oh no not again!”, I exclaimed, as unprintable expletives in a half Nigerian, half British accent floated through my head.

My latest connection debacle was a determined but futile attempt to travel to Denver, Colorado from London Heathrow connecting via Chicago O’Hare International. Yet again, the ‘dark forces’ of air travel in America had left me with my enthusiasm in tatters and with tears of frustration smearing the polished floors of yet another US airport.

For this trip, I had made ‘excellent’ preparations. In my head, all I had to do was collect my luggage, catch the airport transit from one terminal to another, check-in and board the next flight. Easy right? Wrong! Everything went wrong.

10 Tips for Surviving USA Flight Connections

By the time my inbound London flight taxied to the gate and disembarked passengers I knew I was in trouble. Long security control queues, luggage collection delays, baggage re-checks and further security checks for my connecting flight all combined to mess up yet another ‘perfect’ travel plan.

To avoid spending hours sitting around a US airport in frustration, here are our top 10 tips for surviving USA flight connections.

 

Tip 1: Fly direct!

10 Tips for Surviving USA Flight Connections

If you’re able to afford the extra dollars it usually costs to fly directly to your destination, go for it and save yourself the connection hassle.

Unfortunately, for the majority of travellers, avoiding connections isn’t always possible. The practicalities of air travel means that sometimes, connecting flights offer more affordable options.

Even more challenging is the fact that it isn’t always possible to fly direct to some US cities when travelling internationally from some countries. There just aren’t that many direct options from Dakar, Senegal to South Dakota or from Port Harcourt, Nigeria to Philadelphia.

 

Tip 2: Choose a well serviced transit airport

10 Tips for Surviving USA Flight Connections

Except you’re flying private jet (in which case you probably don’t need these tips), when planning your flights to (or through) the USA, be sure to consider airports with a high number of flight connections.

Most major US airports have multiple daily flights to the same destination (depending on the day of the week). Find out the number of outbound flights from your entry airport to your final destination and plan for the worst case scenario.

Build in time buffers to avoid unforeseen circumstances. When choosing flights to your final destination city, aim to connect with one that leaves at least 3 hours after you arrive in your entry city. If you miss that one, you should still have a few options (even if it means you have to change airlines).

Airports like New York’s John F. Kennedy, Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental and Chicago’s O’Hare International are notorious for security queues. However they offer multiple flights per day to many US cities.

 

Tip 3: Prepare for US Border Control

10 Tips for Surviving USA Flight Connections

The best laid plans can easily go up in smoke when faced with US Customs / Border control.

As a dual national, I’ve experienced the ‘joys’ of flying with two passports. Some countries on the US government ‘naughty list’ tend to attract profiling (cue extra security checks). Don’t be deceived into thinking that your ‘top 10’ passport will guarantee you quick passage through US Border Control.

Firstly, security queues (even outside holiday season) can be horrendous. When you do manage to get through to a control officer, don’t expect that your subtle hints, harassed look or frantic glances at your watch will get you processed faster.

I’ve found myself stuck at border control (cue windowless rooms) being drilled with questions such as where I worked, who I worked for and whether I was planning to claim asylum in the USA. This ‘warm’ welcome to the USA of course meant…you guessed it, I missed my connecting flight!

There are no shortcuts here. The only suggestions I can offer are:

(1) Ensure your immigration forms are filled out correctly;

(2) Make sure you’ve replayed your travel itinerary in your head including where you’ve come from and your return dates; and

(3) Smile and try to look less harassed (they don’t care if you have a flight to catch).

 

Tip 4: Travel light

10 Tips for Surviving USA Flight Connections

Say goodbye to that extra pair of heels you were planning to bring. Challenge your definition of ‘travelling light’!

If this is at all possible, pack all you need for your trip into your hand/carry on luggage. This of course means you’ll need the skills of a Jedi to be able to squeeze days worth of stuff into one sub-20 kilogram hold-all (depending on your airline policy).

The process of collecting your luggage from your inbound flight, passing through US Customs and re-checking your bags into your connecting flight CAN take over 1 hour. It helps when you can grab your bag from the overhead luggage compartment and head directly to your next flight.

This tip is also helpful in the unfortunate event that you find yourself stranded and have to spend the night in your entry city (hopefully not on a cold airport bench). At least you’ll have your own toothbrush in the morning.

 

Tip 5: Avoid the ‘chicken soup’

10 Tips for Surviving USA Flight Connections

Still on the subject of luggage, avoid carrying anything that might flag you for additional baggage checks in-between flight connections.

I do not recall with any fondness my US Customs experiences where my Christmas gifts of the finest British chicken soup and sealed, boxed chocolates underwent detailed forensic examinations. In this case, I missed my connecting flight yet again!

Oh, and by the way, when US Customs unpack your stuff, they REALLY unpack. Tag on extra time for repacking your stuff once they spit you out at the other end.

 

Tip 6: Avoid changing airports and airlines

10 Tips for Surviving USA Flight Connections

Cheap flights sometimes means you may need to connect through smaller, less busy airports within the same city or even change airlines. Avoid this if possible.

When planning international connections, always consider options offered by the same airline. Also, plan to join a connecting flight within the same airport of entry rather than switching airports.

Navigating your way from one airport to another within the same city (e.g., Chicago) can throw up some nasty, time wasting, heart pumping challenges including rush hour traffic, unpredictable bus times and diverted routes for ground transportation services.

If your only choice is to connect through another local airport, then keep your fingers crossed, hold your breath and remember to take a pee before you set out (anxiety can make you do unpleasant things!).

 

Tip 7: Know Thy Gates

George Bush International Airport Map

Map courtesy of George Bush International Airport

Major US airports can often be complex spiders webs. George Bush Intercontinental Houston for example has five terminals, with almost 200 gates and Los Angeles International has 8 terminals.

It helps to understand the layout of airports and whether terminals are connected behind or outside security gates. Estimate how long it takes to transfer from your inbound to your outbound gate.

Helpful maps can usually be found at the back of in-flight magazines. Listen for in-flight announcements towards the end of the flight. Ask cabin crew what types of security checks you can expect when aiming for your connection. Not many US airports allow you to simply walk from one terminal to the other like Amsterdam Schipol!

 

Tip 8: Avoid flying ‘standby’

10 Tips for Surviving USA Flight Connections

Freebies…we all love them. Getting hooked up with ‘family and friend’ deals means that you may get to travel for a fraction of the full fare.

If you have no serious plans to get to where you’re going in a hurry then flying standby can be a great way to save money. However, if you need to be some place where the Thanksgiving turkey won’t wait for you, then this method of travel can often back fire.

Note that full paying passengers take priority over you; as well as families with young children, the less physically able, members of the armed forces and of course employees of the airline.

The possibility of being demoted on the fly list increases the closer you get to major US holidays (e.g., Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas). Overbooking is also a common problem. Our advice…avoid flying standby except you don’t have a choice!

 

Tip 9: Switch on the charm offensive

10 Tips for Surviving USA Flight Connections

The ‘universal law’ of smiling means that if you give one, you just might get one back.

I’ve often had to ever so politely ‘excuse’ my way from my cheap economy seat at the tail end of an inbound flight and then smile and beg my way through to the front of border control queues.

Not everyone will be happy to allow you through. However, I find that in the strange world of international airports, people tend to be very understanding…especially if you ‘panic with a smile’.

 

Tip 10: Make peace with a bad situation

Jetwing Blue Hotel | Sri Lanka

You may need the elasticity of a rubber band or the serenity of the Dalai Lama to cope when, regardless of all you’ve tried, you end up being stranded in your arrival city.

This brings to mind Tom Hanks in the movies, Cast Away and The Terminal (how apt!). In both films, following abandonment in weird places, Mr. Hanks eventually found ways to make peace with his predicament.

While we hope that you never find yourself spending precious travel time eking out survival from airport food stands and washrooms, you may need to prepare for yourself for the inevitable possibility that the ‘dark forces’ of US air travel will sometimes win.

Make your peace with it.

What can you do in this situation?

(1) Speak to airline staff and see what other options are possible (e.g., trying to connect through a different city);

(2) Ask if they will offer food, hotel or transport vouchers to help with an overnight stay;

(3) Ask if they can put you on the first available flight for the next day;

(4) Read the fine print of your travel insurance policy to find out what expenses you can claim back; and

(5) Asses your financial situation to see if hotels are an option for the night.

Finally, if your visa permits and you’re not already fatigued, store your bags somewhere safe and go out and explore the city. You might end up getting two holidays for the price of one!

HDYTI Tip: Last word: travelling with young children, large family groups or elderly people can make this process even more complicated. Apply wisdom and ask questions. Enjoy your travels through the US!

Is this your first time flying to the USA? Planning a trip during busy holiday season and worried about missed connections? You might also want to read the United States Department of Transportation Consumer Guide to Air Travel.

Do you have any tips and tricks of your own to share? Have you used any of these tips before? We’d love to hear your stories! Comment below or send us a Tweet 🙂

 

Co-Founders & Curators at HDYTI

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).