Air Travel: The Risks of “Connecting” on Separate Tickets

You’re planning your vacation. Maybe a trip to Europe from the USA and you see a cheap return ticket to London. All you need to do is get another flight from London to Rome a few hours after landing to start your vacation. Or, you see a cheap return London to Bangkok, and all you need to do is buy another ticket down from Edinburgh. Is three hours enough time to connect, or will you need four, or could you get away with two and a half?


You need to stop, and think. What you’re looking at doing is “connecting” on separate tickets, which is very risky and could leave you with a big hole in your bank balance.

Note - This also applies if you are looking to travel onward by train. For example you book a flight to London Heathrow or Gatwick and then want immediately travel onward to Paris or elsewhere in Europe on Eurostar, or even elsewhere in the UK using a cheap advance ticket.

 

What Can Go Wrong?

If you book all your flights on one ticket, say Chicago to Rome via London Heathrow, you are protected if any of the flights delayed or canceled. The airline(s) concerned have contracted to get you all the way to the final destination on that ticket (Rome). That means if the first flight is delayed or canceled and you miss the connection, the airlines will rebook you onto the next flight with available seats at no charge. Furthermore, your bags will be checked all the way to the final destination meaning (except for when law comes into play such as US Customs) you won’t need to pick them up en route. You may arrive late, but you won’t have to pay any more to the airline(s).


On separate tickets, you don’t have any of that protection, because there are two separate contracts. And as such, you have to present yourself on time at check in, bag drop and boarding for the flight on the other ticket. You are carrying ALL the risk of not making those deadlines, and if you do miss them for any reason (including a delay on the inbound flight) you‘d be classed as a no show. And unless you have the most expensive fully flexible ticket, your ticket will be canceled. Not only will you miss the flight, but you would have to buy a new ticket at the walk-up fare, likely much more expensive than the one you just lost. And note that if your ticket is canceled that applies to all remaining flights on that ticket. If you have a return or multi-city ticket, it's not just the one flight you would lose. You can't 'make good' by just buying a single fare and using your return or intermediate portions later, because when you miss the outbound, the return and any other flights are automatically cancelled.

Furthermore

  • Your luggage will normally not be checked through, meaning you will have to collect it at the intermediate airport and take it yourself to the other airline’s check in desk (which may be in another terminal).

  • If the first ticket is an international flight you would need to clear immigration and customs at the intermediate airport in order to collect your bags.

  • You will also need entry clearance for the country where you switch tickets, possibly including a visa. Even if you have carry-on bags only, the first airline will check for entry clearance as that is the final destination on their ticket, and if they’re not satisfied you could be denied boarding for your first flight.

  • Finally, if there is a schedule change on either ticket that means you don’t have enough time to change flights, you would be on your own and have to change at least one of the flights yourself.

 

What Can I Do?


There are several things to consider before buying your tickets. And the first thing is to look at ways of avoiding separate tickets. And there are a number of options you can consider.


Firstly, consider Open Jaw tickets. If you’re visiting two or more places, an open jaw allows you to fly from your home airport to the first city, and from the last city back home (HOME-CITY 1, CITY 2-HOME). And open jaws are priced as returns, not one ways. You could then travel between your destinations on other tickets (separate tickets are okay if you have several days between your flights). You book open jaw itineraries using the Multi-City option on an airline’s flight search engine.

Secondly, if you cannot get a decent fare from an airline and/or its code share partners, you could contact a travel agent. They may be able to find multi-carrier (or interline) tickets using airlines that don’t partner (and so don’t advertise through tickets with each other) but still have interline agreements between each other. With a multi-carrier ticket you could get both flights on the same ticket and have all the protection against a missed connection or a schedule change. If you do use a travel agent, it’s advisable to use a reputable full service agent (with someone who can help you plan these flights) rather than an online booker.

 

I Have To Use Separate Tickets – What Can I Do?

 

There are cases where separate tickets are unavoidable. If you do have to book separate tickets, you need to minimize the risk of missing the onward flight or a schedule change. To do that think about building contingency into your plans.

Contingency doesn’t mean just time. It means asking “If my first flight is badly delayed or canceled, how else can I get to the intermediate airport for my flight on the other ticket?” In short, you need to look at having (at least) a Plan B and C.

There is no one answer for getting your plans B and C. It could depend upon the frequency of flights, whether or not you’re an elite member of the airlines’ frequent flier programs and the fare basis of your ticket (elites and more expensive tickets will likely get a higher priority for rebooking on later flights). But some options for contingency can be -

  • If there are multiple daily flights to the intermediate airport, book your inbound flight to be the first flight of the day, and your separately ticketed onward flight to depart several hours after the scheduled arrival time of the third or fourth inbound flight. That would give you two or three alternative/backup flights to get you to the intermediate airport. For example if your airline has four daily flights from Chicago to London and you are booked on the first of those, book your onward flight for a few hours after the third or fourth Chicago-London flight is scheduled to arrive.

  • If there aren’t enough daily flights to point B to give you contingency, then consider spending the night in the intermediate city, and book the onward flight for the next day.

  • The lowest risk option is to assume a full 24 hour delay on your inbound flight, and to book the onward flight from around 27-28 hours after your scheduled arrival. Invest some of your savings from the flights on a hotel, spend the night at the intermediate city and take the remaining time for a bit of sightseeing. If you’re badly delayed, it’s the short stopover you miss, not an expensive flight

  • You can buy a flexible ticket for your onward flight or train journey. These are more expensive than the cheapest inflexible fares (sometimes much more) but if you were to miss the onward flight or train you can be rebooked onto the next one (with available seats) at no extra cost.

  • Travel Insurance may also help. Some policies will cover “missed onward travel” and will cover a new ticket to get to your final destination. But read the policy carefully before booking flights. They will invariably have conditions, including either a minimum stopover between flights (say 6 hours) and/or a minimum delay to the inbound flight (say 3 hours) and with sufficient time to check in for the onward flight built into your original schedule. Remember however that insurance will not buy another ticket up front; you would have to buy any new ticket yourself and then claim the money back. So it’s still better to have contingency in your plans, with insurance as a safety net.

 
And remember, it’s not just the outbound flights you need to be concerned about. Attempting to “connect” on separate tickets for the return can be just as risky, especially if the second flight is a long haul flight home. One way long haul flights are often more expensive that returns.
 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

Q: Does this mean I have to book all flights for my holiday on the same ticket with the same airline?
A: No, you just need to avoid “connecting” on separate tickets or flying on a separate ticket when there’s a risk that you'll miss the onward flight. If for example you want to travel to London and Rome, you can book a separate ticket between those cities if your onward flight is several days later. In that case there’s no (or very little) risk of your not being able to check in for the onward flight.
 

Q: If I book separate tickets with the same airline, or airlines within the same alliance, do I get protection?
A:  It depends, but the general rule is NO. Some airlines will through check baggage onto separately ticketed flights, but some won’t (even if both tickets are with the same airline). Some airlines will take pity if your delay is due to them, but others don’t. You will need to know in advance of booking your flights whether the airline will protect you. If you book flights and then discover that the airline won't link/join bookings then you would be left with two separate tickets and all the risks involved.