A few weeks ago I was scheduled to take a work trip. I work in oil & gas which means I visit our field operations a handful of times per year. Most oilfield locations are in somewhat remote locations which can make traveling to these sites a little bit more difficult. In my case, there are no direct flights from Houston to Williston: I have to layover either in Minneapolis or Denver.
Right now, only Delta and United fly into Williston. I fly United more often so, for status reasons, I prefer to fly United which means I have to layover in Denver.
Let’s start with talking about DIA. DIA is HUGE:
DEN is twice the size of Manhattan Island, and is larger than the city boundaries of Boston, Miami, or San Francisco. The four busiest airports in the United States – Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles International, and Dallas Fort Worth – could collectively fit into DEN’s property.DEN Overview – https://www.flydenver.com/about/press_kit/den_overview
Twice the size of Manhattan Island?! Almost unbelievable, until you arrive in Terminal B at Gate 20-something and have to book it to Gate 90-something, literally half a mile away, with a 40 minute connection.
And this is where our story starts.
The IAH-DEN-ISN flight plan starts off with a classic Boeing jet, usually a 737. No big deal! But this is usually accompanied with a 40-90 minute connection, across Terminal B, where you’ll board an Embraer. This means the plane is small, boarding is quick, and alternative flights don’t exist.
So why does this all matter?
Well, in mid-June I was traveling with a coworker and two interns to reach Williston. We scheduled our flight to depart from Houston on a Sunday evening so we could settle in to Williston and be ready beginning Monday morning. Mother nature had another plan for us, however.
They called for boarding and I could see lightning in very near distance. I just knew they were going to delay our flight. Shortly after calling for boarding, I was right: they announced a 15 minute delay.
Well, 15 minute delays almost always spiral into much more significant delays. And this is a problem if you have a tight connection.
In the end, our flight was delayed so significantly that it was impossible to make our connection. Re-booking was hard because almost all of the upcoming DEN – ISN legs were completely sold out, so it would’ve been next to impossible to make it beyond Denver, even once we made it. This was further complicated by the fact that our luggage was already aboard the aircraft.
Long story short: myself and the interns didn’t make it to Denver OR Williston. My colleague made it to Denver, but couldn’t get a connection to Williston. But all of our luggage round-tripped to Williston without us.
This situation quickly spiraled into a trainwreck but it could’ve been prevented with some forethought and planning. Don’t make the same mistakes I did – here are some rules of thumb when flying with a layover.
My Cardinal Rules of Flying
1. Afternoon and evening flights are more prone to being delayed.
If you have a tight connection, try and take a morning flight – you’re less likely to be delayed, and therefore less likely to miss your connection.
2. Short layovers are riskiest.
Airports have a thing called a “minimum connecting time”. Really efficient airports will have shorter MCTs (think Lufthansa ran airports, like Munich or Frankfurt). 90 minute layovers are generally a good number but it depends on a lot of factors (discussed more below).
3. Layovers are a chance for your luggage to get lost or misrouted – pack anything of VALUE or anything you NEED in your carry-on.
What might be valuable? Cameras, laptops, and jewelry make my list.
What might you need? Medicine. Phone charger. Extra baby supplies.
And what you NEED may change depending on how long your luggage is lost, if it gets lost. You may discover you need underwear, socks, an extra outfit, makeup, or a hairbrush. You should generally be prepared to live out of your carry-on for a day if you have a layover.
Other Things to Consider
Is your layover after an international arrival?
If your layover is in a different country than where you departed, you may have to go through customs and border control. Depending on the country, it may be as small as just getting your passport re-stamped and as time consuming as full on CBP – passport stamping, getting your luggage, possibly getting searched, and re-checking your luggage. Give yourself more time!
What’s the on-time performance of your first leg?
Use FlightAware to look up all legs of your flight plan. You may find out that your first leg leaves late more often than not. That could make a 45 minute connection stressful at best, impossible at worst.
Call customer service the moment it looks like you may not make your connection.
A real powermove is to go stand in line at customer service while you’re on hold with customer service. This puts you in two lines at once and will get you helped sooner.
Why do you want to be proactive and not just wait to be rebooked?
Well, if your connection isn’t a common leg, it may get sold out and you may be stranded for hours or, worst case, days – like myself and my colleagues going to Williston.
First come, first served when it comes to airport customer service. Be proactive and take action.
Your flight departure time is not the time you need to be at the gate!
It’s obvious for the seasoned traveler, but easy to forget. Remember, boarding is usually ~30 minutes before departure and they doors are closed about 10 minutes before your departure time. Once the doors are closed, you can’t board!
If your layover is 45 minutes, that means boarding will begin 15 minutes after you land – assuming you’re arriving on time.
And, don’t forget – it takes time to get off your plane.
Imagine a 45-minute layover where you’re arriving in a large plane, seated in the back, and everyone ahead of you is moving like molasses. No thank you.
Where in the airport do you arrive, and where do you depart?
Combine all the above scenarios: you’re seated in the back of the plane, arriving in Terminal B, and you’ve just reached the gate. You get a text that boarding has started at your next gate… in Terminal E… and you still need to go through passport control.
How far apart are the two terminals? Do you have to walk? Do you have to take a train? Research it before you book your flights.
Are you going to be hungry during your layover?
You can always buy food once you’re on the plane, but if your flights are straddling a common meal time for you, it’s best to allow time to eat something comfortable.
It’s generally a good rule of thumb to have some kind of snack, however – check out my post on snacks to pack in your carry-on if you need some inspiration!
Lost or Separated Luggage
Somehow you’ve become separated from your luggage or the airline has lost it outright. How can you become reunited with your bags?
Well, first things first: always keep your little bag tag receipt. I used to throw those out because they seemed wasteful. Don’t do that! If your luggage is lost, you need the info on that receipt to track your luggage.
Call baggage handling customer service to start a claim on your luggage. This will allow the airline to notify you when the baggage is found at it’s next airport and they can begin the process of routing it back to you.
Be prepared to describe your bag. Color, size, wheeled or not – any identifying features will only help you. You may be asked to describe what is in your bag, too. For bonus points, take a picture of the inside AND outside of your bag!
And, finally, be available to receive your luggage. United, at least, allows for delivery scheduling of your luggage. Be around and have your phone on ring. If your bag is lost internationally, you’ll need to find a way to receive calls. Check out my post on staying connected abroad if you need help with that.
I’ve traveled a lot and only rarely had issues with layovers and connections. A little bit of forethought and planning is all you need to help ensure your trip gets off to a good start.