I would be willing to wager that most of the traveling public simply buys whatever airfare suits them best to get from Point A to Point B, and probably back to Point A. Whether it be the ever-popular nonstop, the obvious geographic connection, the shortest connecting time, and/or simply the lowest price, most people don’t really think outside the box when it comes to booking tickets. The carriers rely on the fact that customers will simply select from among the first few options they see when booking online; as such, there have been PR battles and even lawsuits over what order online travel booking sites list certain fares and airlines.
What you may not know is that fare rules (you know, those long-winded, multi-page things full of legal mumbo-jumbo you never read before clicking the box saying you agree to them and purchasing the ticket) many times have built-in flexibility that’s just waiting to be utilized for maximum effect, even on the cheapest fares…
Before finalizing your next ticket purchase, it may be worth checking out whether you can stay in your connection city on for a few days (known as a “stopover”), especially if it’s a city you enjoy or have never been to before. Even if a stopover isn’t allowed, sometimes a long layover is permitted. There are things to keep in mind to better understanding the process.
Embracing the Connection: Basic Rules
While each fare between different cities, on different airlines, and even on different days will have different rules, there are general rules that apply to many, if not most, fares, especially on the “traditional” carriers (low-cost carriers such as Spirit, Ryanair, easyJet, and Air Asia tend to break this mold, so we’ll leave them out of this discussion). Also, this discussion will admittedly be U.S.-centric, but the general principles apply everywhere.
The first important distinction is whether you will be flying an international or domestic trip, especially from a U.S. airport. This changes the definition of the second important concept: a layover versus a stopover. Layovers don’t increase the fare price because it’s considered part of a single ticket, whereas stopovers will break the fare into two separate tickets.
- On a domestic fare, airlines will allow customers four hours at a connecting airport to catch the next flight and still consider it a layover and not a stopover. Note that there are other rules regarding allowed routings, next available flight, last-in/first-out situations, etc., but we’ll save that for another discussion.
- On international itineraries (anything with a flight to a foreign country along the way), the airlines allow up to 24 hours for the passenger to connect to their next flight, whether or not that next flight is another domestic flight or an international segment.
To illustrate the above concepts, let’s take a hypothetical trip from Los Angeles (airport code: LAX) to Miami (MIA), with a typical connection in Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW). This is a domestic trip and thus once you arrive in DFW, you are allowed four hours to connect onto a flight to MIA, giving you a decent range on whether you’d like to rush to the next flight or relax a bit, but either way you’re not likely to leave DFW airport.
However, on a different hypothetical trip from LAX to London-Heathrow (LHR), but also connecting at DFW, you are given up 24 hours to make the connection. Of course, there are nonstop flights between LAX and LHR, and on the connection you’d likely choose to take the next available DFW-LHR flight within a couple of hours to minimize total travel time. However, if you choose spend the night in Dallas and take a flight the next day (within 24 hours of arriving), your base fare won’t change (with small changes to taxes and fees). For many frequent flyers, spending a night in the Dallas may not sound so great, but for someone who’s never been to Dallas, has friends in Dallas to visit or grab a meal with, or some other reason to spend more time in Dallas, this may be a great opportunity. And this opportunity applies for any connection city, not just Dallas.
Given the additional flexibility of international fares, we’ll continue our discussion focused on those. The next concept is one of those fancy business school terms: scalability. To better understand how you can scale your connection(s), it’s easier to illustrate it using real-life examples.
Embracing the Connection: A Real-Life Demonstration
Being based in the U.S., I primarily fly American Airlines, especially to get to an Asia gateway airport on my way to visit friends and relatives in Vietnam. I scale up the 24-hour connection rule by intentionally adding more connection points, both in the U.S. and abroad. So long as I spend 23 hours, 59 minutes or less at a given connection airport, the base fare will remain unchanged.
I’ll illustrate with an actual airfare search using ITASoftware, which is the more primitive precursor to Google Flights. Say you are starting at DFW and connecting in Tokyo-Narita (NRT) on your way to Saigon (SGN), a typical sample itinerary may look something like this:
A standard round-trip, with same-day connections — nothing out of the ordinary — prices out at $873.
Now, say you wanted to stop in Los Angeles for whatever reason; this is what happens when I price the itinerary with an overnight layover at LAX:
Notice that I’m scheduled to spend about 21 hours in Los Angeles, starting in the late afternoon and overnight, giving me enough time to pick up my rental car, head to the beach for a couple of hours, grab dinner, get plenty of sleep, go for a run along another beach, and have a decent breakfast, all before heading back to LAX to hop on my onward flight to NRT… all this for the fare price of $890, or a mere $17 increase from the original boring itinerary, which is just the difference in taxes and airport fees. If you’re lucky, AA may even check your luggage all the way to SGN, so you don’t have to deal with it on your long layovers.
This is what happens if I decide to spend a few extra hours in Tokyo (on top of my jaunt through Los Angeles) before heading to Saigon:
Instead of a 1.5 hour connection in Tokyo, I now have nine hours to visit, and it only added $12 to the original total. Granted, there’s a change in airport, but nine hours is plenty of time to be able to get a feel for the city before heading to Haneda Airport (HND), which is situated much closer to the central city areas.
Embracing the Connection: Let’s Get Crazy
Finally, if you wanted to go all crazy on both the outbound and return legs, this is an example of what you can do:
As you can see here, on the way home to DFW, I added a layover just shy of 24 hours in San Diego, and a 23-hour, 19-minute layover in Chicago, all for a mere $51 increase from the original boring itinerary! In fact, you can get even more creative, since connections do not have to be at the hubs, but can be at outstations that two hubs both service – e.g., instead of flying DFW-LAX direct, you could connect in Denver, Phoenix, El Paso, Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Austin, and so on, since all those cities have direct flights to DFW as well LAX… and yes, the 24-hour connection rule apply to those connections as well.
Obviously, this type of trip isn’t for everyone. I personally enjoy having the opportunity to visit cities I’d otherwise pass through. I figure if I’m going to fly hours to get to some city, why not leave the airport for a little bit?
There are a few caveats to be aware of:
- Most international tickets have a “maximum permitted mileage” restriction, or the maximum distance you can fly between the two points. Some backtracking is usually okay; going the long way around the globe is usually not okay.
- There may also be a limit on the number of connections, e.g., two per direction, but otherwise, it might also be unlimited.
- The same fare class (indicated as a “Q” fare class in the examples above) must be available on each of your flight segments for the base fare to price out.
- Individual fare rules dictate layover maximum, number of connections allowed, etc.
- Remember to keep it at 23 hours, 59 minutes or under. If you hit the 24-hour mark, your connection becomes a stopover, which may trigger a stopover fee or break the fare into two separate (and usually more expensive) fares.
- You’ll actually have to price and ticket this itinerary either by manipulating AA.com or another travel site, using the “multi-city search” feature, or by having an AA agent (phone or airport) ticket what you want. Having a real-life agent involved will likely incur a fee.
- Remember that this layover “trick” exists on many other airlines as well, though your experience may vary.
If you know the rules, you can fully maximize your trip potential without adding much cost. It’s a great way to experience new cities, or revisit favorite ones.
And FYI, all the photos you see in this piece are of places I visited using the under-24-hour connection!