How do Layovers Work?

Layovers are basically transitions from one plane to another on your way to your final destination.  Typically these are very simple as you’ll be asked to deboard the plane and find your next (or connecting) flight to your next destination.  

Sometimes it’ll be the same airplane but most time, it’ll be a different aircraft. Even if it is the same aircraft, you’ll still be asked to deplane since the cleaning crews have to go in after the passengers.

What is a layover?

Domestic Layovers 

A layover is a stop at an airport where you’ll have to change planes to catch a connecting flight to your destination.  For example, if you are flying from New York to San Diego, you may have to switch plans in San Francisco. That time between when your flight lands in San Francisco to the time you plane departs if your layover.  

When you first check in for your flight at your home airport, you’ll be given your boarding passes for all your flights on that itinerary.  So, if you have only 1 connection, you’ll be handed 2 boarding passes. One for each of your flights.  

Once you deboard at your layover destination, the first thing you’ll want to do is check the departures board (the set of tv screens that shows all the departures, the airlines, the gate assignments, flight numbers, and current status of that flight).  These boards won’t be difficult to find since you’ll see a group of people just staring at the screens as they try to see which gate to head to and see if their flight is on time, delayed, etc.  

From there, depending on how much time you have until departures, you can do anything you want. Grab a bite to eat, shop, read, etc.  

International Layovers

International layovers can be a bit different since each country processes arriving passengers differently.  In countries like the US, you are forced to go through immigration, exit the secure area, check in for your connecting flight, and go through security and on to your gate.  

In other countries though, you can have a layover and never leave the secure (or sterile) area of an airport.  Thus, you won’t have to go through immigration since you’re never officially admitted into the country. You’ll be transiting through that airport so once you deboard, you’ll just find the departure gate and time of your connecting flight.  Once you arrive at your final destination, you’ll have to go through immigration.  

For example, if you are flying from Los Angeles to Singapore with a layover in Seoul, you won’t have to go through immigration since Seoul allows you remain in the secure environment.  Once your plane lands, you’ll have to go through a quick x-ray screening and you’ll be back inside the departures level of the airport. Once you arrive in Singapore, you’ll have to go through immigration to get your passport stamped.  

International to Domestic Layovers

If you’re flying internationally to a country but then taking a domestic flight to your final destination, you’ll have to go through immigration upon arrival into the country then exit the sterile environment and then enter the domestic terminal for your domestic departure. 

An example of this would be flying to Tokyo on the way to Osaka.  Upon arrival from your international flight in Tokyo, you’ll have to go through immigration and get your passport stamped.  Then, you’ll have to go back into the airport and find your domestic departure flight to Osaka.  

Is there a difference between a layover and a stopover?

Technically, a stopover is used to denote a layover of significant length. Layovers and stopovers are used pretty interchangeably and the only difference is the time. On domestic travel, a layover turns into a stopover when the time is over 4 hours. So, if you’re flying from San Diego to Orlando with a 5 hour layover in Las Vegas, you’d technically have a stopover.

For international travel, a layover is anything under 24 hours. Anything over 24 hours and it’s officially a stopover. Again, this really doesn’t matter too much. Layovers are typically longer on international itineraries because there might be only 1 or 2 flights a day to your destination. Meaning if your first flight arrives after the connecting flight, you’ll have to stay in that city to wait for the next flight home.

In reality, most people (myself included) will use either term.

What about bags?

If you’re on a domestic itinerary, your check luggage will automatically be loaded (in theory) on the correct airplane and be waiting for your when you arrive at your final destination. You won’t have to do anything except hold on to your baggage ticket so you can claim it as your own as you leave the airport.  

For international itineraries, things could be different and vary country to country.  In the US, if flying INTO the US on an international flight, you will have to clear immigration, collect your bags, and recheck them at the check in counter.  But for flights LEAVING the US, your bags should be checked all the way through to the final destination.

For other countries, your bags should be checked through to the final destination. However, to be sure, you’ll want to ask the check in agent if your checked bags will go all the way to the final destination or if you’ll have to collect them along the way and recheck them.  

Do you have to go through security?

For domestic flights, no you won’t.  Since you’ll be coming from a secure environment (the plane) to another secure environment (departing gates after security), you won’t have to go back through security.  

As long as you remain in the secure area, you will not have to go back through security.  However, if you leave that area for any reason (like going outside for a quick cigarette), you’ll have to go back through security.  

Can you leave the airport?

Yes you can.  Actually, you can use a long layover as a perfect excuse to explore a city you’ve never been to.  Depending on the length of your layover, you may even have to spend the night in that city. 

However, if you have a few hours to kill and you don’t want to spend them at the airport, a long layover may be just the thing you need to visit the city, eat some local food, do a little shopping, and come back in time for your flight.  This works for international layovers as well. Some airlines will allow you to plan a layover of a few days so that you can visit that country. The only thing to remember is that visa rules will apply because you will have to go through immigration.  That said, if there are no issues with entry into the country, a layover is a great thing to utilize.  

Do you have to check in again on a connecting flight?

For domestic flights, you do not need to check in for a connecting flight.  Since you’ll be given all your boarding passes when you first check in for your flight at your home airport, you’ll be considered “checked in” for all subsequent flights on that itinerary. 

The same holds true for international connections AS LONG AS YOU DON’T HAVE TO LEAVE THE SECURE AREA.  So for countries that allow you to transit without going through immigration, you won’t be required to check in for your next flight.  However, if you have an international layover in the US, you will be required to check in for your connecting flight. This all depends on the country so unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule. 

How much time do you need?

Each airport has a minimum amount of time that’s needed for connections.  If the connection time is too short, you won’t be able to book that particular flight pair.  That said, depending on the airport, you may need more time to transit between terminals because of the distance covered.  Although there is no firm rule, I try to make sure there is at least an hour between flights if it’s an airport I’m not familiar with.  This allows me enough time to get my bearings and gives me some time to get lost in the process.  It also gives me a bit of a buffer if there are any delays.

For international layovers, I try to give myself at least 2 hours.  Many travelers will try to give themselves more time since they might have to go through security, flight delays, etc.  Ultimately, you don’t want to miss your international flight because your domestic flight was delayed.  

Benefits of the 24 hour Stopover

One of the great things about having a stopover is that it allows you to visit a country for “free”. Since you’re on the same ticket reservation, you can see a few of that city’s sites without having to buy another ticket. This could be a great way to see a new city or country that you otherwise wouldn’t have visited.

For example, every time I transit through Hong Kong or Singapore, I try to give myself a few hours stop if possible (about 6-8 hours). That gives me enough time to store my bags, go into the city, and eat at some of my favorite restaurants and have plenty of time to get back in time to catch my connecting flight. I mean, if you’re already there, you might as well stop and get some fantastic dim sum or chicken and rice.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully this answered your questions on layovers and how they work.  Domestic layovers are fairly easy and straightforward. It’s pretty much getting off the first plane and making sure you get on the next one.  

International layovers can get tricky because each country has their own rules on how they deal with transit passengers.  However, domestic travel should be fairly easy and after you go through your first connection, you’ll get the hang of it.  

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