What to expect when connecting from an international flight

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What to know about customs, rechecking your bag and going through security

When Jeff Blaustein flew from Anguilla to Boston recently, he already knew what to expect when he connected from his international flight through Miami.

“A long line at customs,” says Blaustein, a retired professor from Amherst, Mass. “And an even longer line at TSA.”

But he says many of his fellow travelers didn’t know what awaited them. He watched them fidget nervously in the customs hall, wondering whether they would make their connection. He saw them running to catch their flights after needing to have their checked luggage rescreened.

I feel for them; an international-to-domestic connection can lead to an “Oh no!” moment. I forget I have to go through customs and recheck my luggage. Then my heart misses a beat, because I’m not sure I’ll be able to make my connecting flight.

Don’t let that happen to you. Switching between an international and domestic flight has always been a little confusing. But now, travelers also complain that it’s slower than ever. But there are ways to speed things up.

Do you have to go through security for a connecting international flight?

Transferring between an international and domestic flight is more complicated than a domestic-to-domestic connection. Here’s what you’re expected to encounter:

  • If you checked a bag, you’ll have to collect it from baggage claim from the international flight.
  • You’ll need to clear customs and immigration.
  • Next, you’ll recheck your luggage for the domestic flight.
  • Finally, you’ll need to go through Transportation Security Administration screening. This may include a physical inspection of your luggage and personal items with a metal detector or a full-body scan.

There’s an exception to these rules, which I’ll get to in a minute.

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Can you avoid rechecking your bag and getting screened again?

It depends on where you’re flying from. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) screens some airline passengers at its preclearance facilities before they arrive in the United States. You can get screened early in several Canadian cities, plus Aruba, Abu Dhabi, the Bahamas, Bermuda and two airports in Ireland.

Linda Singleton-Driscoll, a market researcher from Richmond, recently flew from Dublin to the United States via a connecting flight. She said that, once she passed through the preclearance center, it felt like a domestic flight.

“They checked my bags through to Richmond without me having to recheck them,” she says.

CBP is expanding its preclearance facilities, so it’s worth checking to see whether the airport on your return flight has a facility before booking your next ticket.

What’s changed since the pandemic

Experts and frequent air travelers say there’s good news and bad news for air travelers now making these connections.

Some airports are adding self-service kiosks at immigration, as my colleague Andrea Sachs recently reported. “That has sped up the process considerably,” says Bob Bacheler, managing director of the medical transport service Flying Angels.

But some airports remain short-staffed as the pandemic winds down. “The wait time to get assistance is much longer,” says Sharon-Frances Moore, an etiquette expert and frequent flier who recently missed a flight connection.

How to handle an international connection like a pro

  • What to know about minimum connection times

Airlines calculate your minimum connecting time, which determines whether you can make your next flight. These calculations usually factor transit times through the terminal and time spent getting through customs.

But it may not be enough. If you booked a flight sequence with the airline’s minimum connection time, ask your airline to unbundle your flight and request a later connecting flight, or book one with a longer connection right from the start. That will increase your chances of making your scheduled connecting flight.

How to pull off a tight connection

But if you have two separate tickets, it’s up to you to determine how much time you need. You can get a rough idea of wait times at customs by consulting the CBP’s average wait times page. But the times don’t include time needed to retrieve baggage or navigate through the airport. Check out an airport terminal map and factor in at least a half-hour to get your bags and go through customs.

  • What to do with your checked luggage
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Sylvia Lebovitch, a travel adviser with OvationNetwork, says luggage is one of the biggest concerns for transferring passengers. If you have a through-fare — one ticket that connects through two or more airports — your airline will tag your bags for their final destination. After you pick up your bag and go through customs, you can quickly recheck them without having to stand in a long line. Is there a way to expedite the process if your connection is tight? Yes, Lebovitch says. She said to ask if the agent can tag your bags as “priority,” so they come off the belt first, so you can make the connection.

  • Where to sit on the plane

Cara Whitehill, a technology investor based in Cincinnati, says every minute counts when you’re making a connection. “Sit as close to the front of the plane as possible, so you can disembark quickly,” she advises. “Getting to the front of the queue at baggage recheck and security will save a ton of time.”

Pick your plane seat wisely. It matters in a tight connection.

  • Apply for Global Entry

Blaustein says Global Entry was his favorite strategy for dealing with an international connection. Global Entry is a program that lets preapproved travelers skip some of the customs lines at select airports by using a kiosk. “We passed by long, long lines of people waiting to get through customs,” he says. “But we just walked up to a machine that scanned our face, and we were done.”

You asked: Are PreCheck, Global Entry or CLEAR still worth it?

  • Fly nonstop

The only way to ensure you won’t find yourself sprinting through the terminal at the massive Dallas Fort Worth International is to avoid a connection altogether — unless, of course, your final destination is DFW. That’s the advice of Scott Jordan, a frequent traveler who is the CEO of a clothing company in Idaho. He recently flew from Salt Lake City to Johannesburg, and on the way back had multiple stops and delays. “The fewer stops,” he says, “the better.”

What if you miss your connecting flight?

Fortunately, I’ve never missed a flight because of the customs and TSA bottleneck. But I’ve heard from plenty of readers who have. Curiously, the biggest obstacle to making a connection is often the sprawling airport terminal and the amount of time it takes to walk from customs to your gate. That can affect travelers with mobility challenges or those who are burdened by a lot of carry-on luggage.

Many travel insurance policies cover flight disruptions, according to Elad Schaffer, CEO of Faye travel insurance. “Typically, they’ll reimburse up to $200 when you miss a connection and are delayed by six consecutive hours or more,” he says.

A flight disruption is usually a flight delay, tarmac delay or cancellation, but broadly applies to anything that stops you from reaching your destination. You would have to be delayed a significant amount of time (usually six hours) for your insurance coverage to apply.

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Your airline should take care of you if you fail to make your connection. If you have a ticket on one airline with a connection, then your carrier should rebook you on the next available flight at no charge, and, if necessary, it may cover your lodging and meal expenses. But if you’re connecting to a different flight — with separate reservations — and you miss your flight, your airline may mark you as a “no-show,” and you will have to buy a new ticket.

That’s a situation air travelers should avoid, if possible. Ana Gloria Garciga, a senior air and product manager at Embark Beyond, advises erring on the side of caution when making these types of connections.

“Make sure when booking a connecting flight to do it with no less than two to 2½ hours, in case of delay or cancellations,” she says. “That will allow some time to make the connection, get the bags and recheck them if necessary.”

On second thought, better make that three hours.

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