In most cases, you’ll have to switch to another plane, but sometimes (rarely) if the plane you are on is continuing to your next destination, you’ll stay in your seat.
In most cases, when you check in for your flight, you’ll be issued boarding passes for all of your flights.
If you’re entering the US from abroad, you will need to go through customs (which also means picking up checked luggage, rechecking it, and going back through security) when you first land in the country. If you’re connecting abroad, you typically won’t have to go through customs (though this can vary by destination) but you will need to go through immigration at your point of entry.
Your checked bags will be automatically sent to your final destination if you are flying domestically or straight through to an international destination. In some cases, if the layover is very long or overnight, the airline may give you the option to reclaim your bag during the layover.
When you’re entering the United States you’ll have to get your bags at the first US airport you fly into, go through customs, and then re-check everything if you have another domestic flight.
This varies by airport. In general, you won’t have to go back through security for domestic flights—unless you have to switch terminals and the terminals aren’t connected post-security. If the terminals aren’t connected, you’ll need to go back through security in the other terminal.
If you decide to leave the airport for any reason, you will have to go through security to get back in.
Depending on how much time you have between flights, you can choose to leave the airport; just make sure you give yourself enough time to get back, check luggage if necessary, and go through security.
Generally speaking, it’s good to give yourself a buffer of at least one hour for domestic flights and at least two hours between international flights. It’s not always something you can control, however. An airline won’t sell you a ticket with a connection that doesn’t meet their minimum connection time, but just because the amount of time for a connection is technically possible, it doesn’t mean the experience will be without stress. If possible, book a flight with a longer layover so you don’t stress about missing your second flight due to a delay on the first.
Sometimes it’s cheaper to book a ticket to a point beyond where you actually want to go. In that case, some travelers will book the ticket and get off at the layover point. This is called hidden-city ticketing. Airlines would rather you not do that, and will cancel the rest of your flights if you miss a segment. So if you want to make your layover your final destination, go for it, otherwise, you’ll want to be in your seat for all the flights.
Layovers can range from 30 minutes to a full day or more. Longer layovers (generally at least a day) are also called stopovers—and they’re a great way to see another destination on one trip. If you find yourself with a stopover, you may want to take advantage of the time and leave the airport to go sightseeing.
As a general rule, airlines will only offer itineraries that have layovers less than 24 hours. If there's no legal connection (that is, a layover under 24 hours) then most airlines won't show a ticket for sale. However, if you notice that your route includes a stopover, you may want to push out your next flight by a day or two so that you can spend more time sightseeing. Many booking websites offer roundtrip, one-way, and multi-city booking options, so if you notice a stopover on your proposed itinerary when looking at flights, choose the multi-city option and add in your next flight for a couple of days later. Sometimes (depending on airline and route) the cost will be similar to the option with the shorter layover.
Some airlines, like Icelandair and TAP Air Portugal, let you build in free or cheap stopovers of multiple days.
While you definitely want to give yourself enough time in between flights just in case of delays, if you find yourself with a layover of three to five hours, you find yourself wondering how to pass the time. It’s not really enough time to leave the airport, but more than enough time to travel between gates.
Here are a few ideas for how to pass the extra hours on a long layover at the airport:
Last but not least, set an alarm. Even if you’re paying attention to the time, setting a reminder to get to your gate will allow you to enjoy your time more and worry less.
First, make sure you have enough time for it to be worth it—and give yourself extra time in case of delays. It's wise to double the amount of time you expect to spend returning to the airport. So, for example, if you're an hour away from the city you want to explore, assume 2-3 hours of travel back and forth, plus you'll want to arrive back at the airport at least 2 hours before your flight, which means that with a layover of less than 7 hours it probably isn't worth leaving the airport as you'd get less than 2 hours in the destination.
If you do decide to head out to explore, check out our handy layover guides to destinations such as Istanbul, Helsinki, Doha, Mexico City, and many more.
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