A question that everyone wants to know when travelling, especially if they haven’t travelled before is what is a good amount of transit time?
Ultimately, this is based on your situation and how your travel will be influenced by external factors such as gate distance, security and delays. However there are certain ways to help decide if your transit time is long enough.
If you’re flying through or via an American airport, prepare for chaos. American airports haven’t expanded or managed space very well, even though passenger numbers have increased. Key areas of airports such as check in and security checkpoints are cramped and badly laid out. Since 9/11, security lines and waits have got longer and longer as more intense checks are conducted. Some of these checks may include taking your shoes, jackets and belts off as well as undergoing three to four sets of scans.
Recently I was returning home from London via Los Angeles. I had two hours to make my connecting flight to New Zealand. I should have just walked from one gate to the other. Instead, I had to pass through immigration and customs, enter the country and then leave again. I actually went to America for two hours! After spending 45 minutes going through Immigration (including a transit fast pass) to get into the country, I then had turned around and go back to security. Just as I arrived at the queue they closed the checkpoint to let some of the back log clear. This happened twice. 20 minutes before boarding, I was at the front of the queue waiting for them to re-open it, I finally got through with 15 minutes remaining.
In that case I had no choice on transit time, I could only catch one plane unless I wanted to wait till the next day. Two hours was enough time but it left very little wiggle room.
In previous experience flying to America, I’ve had layover times of three hours which also was cutting it close. The reason for this is American airports aren’t designed for the numbers of people they handle, nor have they been well adapted for the increased security checkpoints. Sometimes you’ll fly through immigration and security, other times you’ll spend hours waiting. I would recommend allowing at least three hours to have a stress free(ish) transit through America’s main airports.
Rest of The World
I signalled out America because their infrastructure isn’t designed to cope with the current numbers and they are far more strict on security. The rest of the world however is pretty good. There are a few places that in terms of infrastructure could be better and a lot of airports are upgrading or planning to upgrade.
Most hub airports like Singapore are huge but they also have design advantage in the fact that they have one secure area. That means if you are have a layover you can roam around the whole departures area of the airport. If you really want to take advantage of this you’ll need like 12 hours or more. If you are looking for a nice break between flights in Singapore, four to five hours in plenty of time. Even at rush hour, you’ll be able to move around the airport easily.
There are some airports around the world that like America, require you enter and exit the country to transit. Generally this is because the terminal isn’t built right. Johannesburg, South Africa is one such terminal. On our way from Singapore to Livingstone in Zambia we had to fly through Johnannesburg. When we arrived we had to enter the country and then leave again. We had about four hours there and it was enough time to move comfortably.
Domestic Vs International
The biggest factor in the length of transit time is based on your flights destination. Are you entering the country and then boarding a domestic flight? or are you just passing through the airport onto another country?
If you are joining a domestic flight, you’ll need to allow time for immigration, customs and maybe even check in. However if its an international connection, chances are you’ll be able to head straight to your next gate via a transit area that takes your from arrivals back into departures with or without the need for a security check.
If you need to not only enter the country but also change terminals like in Auckland or London Heathrow then you’ll need to allow time to move between terminals. Some places have transport options to move you between terminals that are quick and regular.
Others, like Auckland you’re better to walk. The domestic and international terminal are a 15 minute walk apart. Considering the bus comes every 15 minutes, if you just miss it, it’s likely you’ll beat the next one to the terminal.
Side story: I once spent 9 hours in Dublin airport. Why? I had to be out of my hotel in Belfast in the morning and my flight out of Dublin wasn’t till the evening. Just so you know, there is nothing to do in Dublin Airport.
If you are in transit, you’re probably on a ticket from A to C via B. If your first flight between A and B is delayed, you might miss your second flight from B to C. In this case, the airline is usually responsible for getting you to your final destination. However I prefer to avoid this error and the hassle of organising a new flight with the airline by allowing plenty of time at a connection.
Overall, there are many factors that can influence your transit time and journey experience. Remember that travel can be stressful, take some time out during your transit to relax and re-energise. Every airport and every situation is different, I always recommend you research airports you’ll be transiting in before you travel. Don’t go so far as to memorise airport maps but take time to know the size of the airport. A big airport might take you four hours to move around as opposed to a small airport. I aim for at least three hours in transit, that way I can have a coffee, stretch my legs and have a look around.
Watch: Flying to London with stops in Auckland & Singapore