Direct, nonstop, connecting?
Time and budget determine how long you will be in the air. (Jeff Overs/BBC)
Given a choice between a nonstop or a direct flight between New York and Houston, which one would you take? What if an option for a connecting flight was thrown into the mix?
Your choice could have a big impact on the price, length and comfort of your journey.
I'm frequently amazed at how many travel agents, airline employees, frequent business travellers and even fellow travel writers tend to think that direct and nonstop are interchangeable terms when referring to flights. They are not.
If you are wondering which type of flight is best for you, consider these definitions:
A nonstop flight is just what is says: a single flight between two airports with no stops. Business travellers favour nonstop flights because they are the fastest, but they are frequently the most expensive.
While a direct flight might sound like a nonstop flight, it's not. A direct flight makes at least one intermediate stop along the way to its final destination, but has only one flight number.
For example, if you choose a direct flight between New York and Houston you'd fly on one plane the whole way to Houston. But that plane would make a stop in, say, Baltimore or Atlanta, where it would drop off and pick up more passengers, like a bus. Due to these stops, direct flights can add an hour or more to your total travel time.
I recently flew Southwest Airlines flight #1618 from Oakland, California to Phoenix, Arizona for a meeting. My flight from Oakland to Phoenix was a nonstop. However, the plane continued on to St Louis. The passengers who stayed on the plane in Phoenix and continued flying to St Louis on the second leg of flight #1618 were on a direct flight.
Often, direct flights are less expensive than nonstop flights, but not always. If you have a choice between a direct or a nonstop and the price is the same, take the nonstop!
A connecting flight means it will take at least two different planes with two different flight numbers to reach your final destination. For example, a connecting flight from San Francisco to New York on United Airlines would mean flying from San Francisco to Denver, or Chicago, or any major airline hub, where you would then disembark and board another plane for another flight from that city to New York.
Connecting flights are almost always less expensive than nonstop flights, but they are not always the best option for travellers who place a premium on time.
Why? First, you'll have to schlep hand luggage on and off the plane multiple times in each direction. Connections often mean landing in one concourse, then having to take a train or a long walk to another concourse. When you take off and land, you double your chances of encountering delays due to weather or air traffic control. Connecting flights can also take significantly longer than direct or nonstop flights due to long layovers. For these reasons, connecting flights are always the least desirable in terms of convenience... but the most desirable in terms of price.
What type of flight will you be taking next time? Be sure you know before your book!
Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel.