Those in the travel industry call a planned break during a commercial flight one of two things:
- A stopover drops off and picks up passengers but does not require a change of planes.
- A layover requires that you change aircraft. It generally has a longer connection time than a stopover. Airlines use this period to consolidate passengers in a hub who arrive from less-dense spoke trips, change crews who are at the end of their workdays, among other reasons.
Despite the technical differences, travelers like yourself often use the terms interchangeably. Consider the following factors before answering the question, “How long should my layover be?”
How long should a layover be?
Layovers have no prescribed length but they vary in practice according to the type of flight:
- How long should a layover be for domestic flights? Because trans-national schedules are typically shorter, layovers usually only last from one to four hours. Experienced travelers prefer domestic stops of at least 60 to 90 minutes.
- How long of a layover do I need for international flights? Not surprisingly, longer international trips have longer stops that can last over 24 hours or more. International travelers prefer stops of at least two or three hours. You’re more likely to encounter more than one stop when traveling to foreign destinations.
Keep in mind that no matter how long your layover turns out to be, the only person responsible for making the connecting next flight is you. If you don't board in time, the plane can leave without you.
How long of a layover do I need to change planes?
Without a change of planes, a stop can be as short as it takes for the airline to deplane passengers and to board new ones. If you’re asked to deplane, you may receive a temporary card to confirm that you’re a passenger on the next flight.
If you stay near the boarding gate, you should have no problem re-boarding again by handing the card back to the flight attendant.
How far away is the gate of the next flight?
If the gates of both flights are next to each other, you should be able to board quickly and easily. If the gates are far away from each other or located in different terminals, you’ll need to have enough time to walk from one location to the next.
If your next flight is at another airport or in a different city, you may need to allow several hours or a full day to comfortably reach the next location.
How do I get from one gate to the next?
If the airline provides transportation to your next gate, whether through a transport cart to another terminal or a shuttle bus to the airport of your connecting flight, it assumes responsibility if you don’t make the flight. They will also usher you quickly from one gate to the next.
If you’re in charge of getting to the next gate on your own, even if it’s in the same terminal, you must add time to find the gate, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar airport or in another country. You could easily get lost or be unable to read or ask for directions in a foreign language.
Do I or anyone that you’re traveling with have mobility issues?
If you or anyone in your party has difficulty moving, you’ll need to factor in extra time to get around. Taking a trip with the elderly or young children can add complications.
If you ask the airline for help when you book your next flight, they can often provide mobility aids such as a wheelchair or a transport cart that can fit your entire group.
What are the boarding procedures?
When you go from one gate to the next in a layover, you have to show a boarding pass. Typically, you’re given all the boarding passes that you need when you check in and show your ticket at your initial departure point. Your luggage is transferred to the new flight, so you never have to worry about it.
Some locations demand that you go through security and immigration checks once more as though you were checking into your flight for the first time. They may also require that you retrieve your luggage from the plane, have it inspected at customs, and check it in once more.
One example: international flights that connect in the United States must undergo all these procedures.
Do I want to take advantage of the layover?
Layovers represent a chance to experience a new environment without spending extra time and money. You get a break from sitting for long hours and can stretch your legs as you explore the shops and eateries at your terminal.
In addition, adding an hour layover usually makes your flight cheaper because airlines want to compensate you for the inconvenience of lengthening your journey.
A stop of several hours or a day may give you a chance to explore a city or sights that are within convenient public transportation from the airport. You can also take free tours that are often sponsored by the airport, which guarantees that you return to your connecting flight on time.
For overnight layovers, some airlines even offer free hotels as long as you meet certain qualifications.
Are layovers safe?
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, airline travel entails some risk. However, wearing masks on the planes, empty seats for social distancing, and the high-efficiency air filter systems on planes have proven effective in curbing the spread of the virus to other passengers.
Some medical authorities believe that layovers increase the risk because you’re exposed to a new population in an environment where filtration systems are not as efficient.
Others say that staying on a non-stop flight increases the risk because you are in a closed environment where the virus can contaminate onboard bathrooms and other surfaces. This environment is normally disinfected between flights.
In the end, you have to judge for yourself whether your layover is safe.
How do I calculate the length of my layover?
Try the following to calculate the length of your layover:
- Start with a baseline of an hour layover for a domestic flight and two hours for an international one.
- Look up your intended flight on a travel site or the airline website. It typically lists the length of the layover. If it does not, phone the airline directly.
- While you’re on the phone with the airline, ask for more specifics, such as the designations of the connecting gates. Look for an airport map to figure out how far they are from each other. For the distance between gates in different airports, check Google maps for their distance. Add to your baseline the time it takes to go between the gates.
- Ask the airline what the boarding procedures are for layovers and how early you have to check in for your next flight. Add at least an hour if you have to go through immigration. Add one more hour if you have to retrieve your luggage, go through customs, and check it in again.
- If you intend on spending extra time at the airport, such as to work out or eat at a restaurant, or want to visit a nearby city, add that extra time.
- Make sure that all the time that you’ve added up is less than the scheduled layover time. If it’s not, look for a new flight with the appropriate layover time.
A layover on your flight can prove to be a chance to stretch your legs and experience a new environment.
Figuring out the best length of this stop depends on the location of the connecting gate, re-boarding procedures, mobility issues in your party, and whether you want to take advantage of any sightseeing.