Timing of connecting international flights within the US
August 22, 2011 11:42 PM   Subscribe

Connecting international flights in the US -- apparently airports in America don't do 'sterile transit'? I may have to fly back to Canada at short notice, and I've never transited through the US (in the trip I'm looking at, SFO).

My mom's going in for some emergency heart surgery soon, and being the only son, I've got to fly back to Canada.

The cheapest option by far ($500 cheaper for one stop than direct) is to go Incheon -- San Franscisco -- Vancouver, but all the flights I'm seeing have relatively short layover times between flights at SFO (on the order of 1.5 hours).

Normally, I'd think that was OK, but this is telling me that 4 hours is the safe minimum time to transfer from international flights to further international flights at US airports -- that it is necessary to go through customs and immigration at the US layover when connecting to another international flight (in this case, to Vancouver).

Is that the indeed the case? In past, I can't remember having to do this (outside of the US) -- international transit didn't involve anything other than going from international arrival area to international departure area.

Does four hours seem like the correct minimum time frame I might expect to get from a flight arriving from Incheon to a flight departing for Vancouver?

It's going to be an exhausting trip, so on the balance beam between having to worry about maybe not making a connection and having to sit around for a longer time but be 'safe' I'm much inclined toward the latter. I could wait.

The first leg of the flight may end up being on or around September 11th, unfortunately, 10 years on, so I'm assuming security might be even higher than usual in the US, which adds an added level of difficulty (and probably delay).
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total)
Response by poster: This, on the other hand, says 120 minutes INTL-INTL.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:09 AM on August 23, 2011

I don't know any U.S. airport that doesn't require you to clear customs and immigrations immediately, whatever your onward journey. This has been the case throughout my (post-9/11) adult life.

Four hours is probably more than you need though, and certainly more than the airlines are obliged to give you (they can't sell you an "impossible connection"). I've had tickets for (and made) connections around 90 minutes before (mostly at O'Hare, which is far worse than SFO for transit).

Depending on your arrival time, my experience is that customs and immigration is rarely more than an hour even for non-citizens, and it's sometimes rather less. Maybe one time in ten it runs longer (although when it does run long it can go very long). SFO is a pretty sane airport to transit in, so call it another 30-40 minutes to reclear security and get to the gate (less if you don't dawdle).

So, 1.5 hours is ambitious but not impossible. But assuming you're travelling on a single ticket, the airline obviously think it's possible, and they're on the hook to rebook you or provide accommodation and next-day travel if it's not.
posted by caek at 12:10 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't what passport you carry so you may wish to look into transit visa requirements. I needed a transit visa once for sitting on a plane that sat in Montreal airport between London and Pittsburgh.
posted by infini at 12:22 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

London, UK
posted by infini at 12:22 AM on August 23, 2011

Response by poster: Oddly, this says 50 minutes INTL-INTL for SFO.

infini, I'm a Canadian citizen (with Korean permanent residency), so I'd be all good on the Canadian passport with the visa waiver arrangement.

But assuming you're travelling on a single ticket, the airline obviously think it's possible

Even after all the international travelling I've done (most of it decades ago, though), I'm still a little vague on this. Buying the ticket online directly from United.com (through a Kayak search) means that they think the connection is doable, even though it's about 85 minutes, I guess, you're right!

If they're wrong, and I can't make it after buying the ticket from them, who would be on the hook to get me to Vancouver?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:27 AM on August 23, 2011

Response by poster: Whoops, sorry, I see you answered that!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:28 AM on August 23, 2011

stavros: Canadian passport actually isn't part of the visa waiver program.... unlike most of the rest of the world, it has a specific immigration policy with the US. Canadians don't get photod/fingerprinted or have to fill out the "green" form. They're processed just like Americans, at many airports often in the same line.
posted by TravellingDen at 12:55 AM on August 23, 2011

Response by poster: Ah, OK. Even better, then!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:01 AM on August 23, 2011

I think 1.5 hours will be tight (though I only have experience with EWR and IAH), I've both made and not made the connection in that time. I usually take those legs with a US passport carrying friend and we average the same time in immigration (I have a EU passport).

Keep in mind that your flight might get in later, which eats up the connecting time. When I missed my connecting flight (on the same ticket), the airline put me on the next plane but sometimes those can be full, too. So if you do go for a tight connection, look how many flights are there to Vancouver after the one you're supposed to get on.
posted by marais at 1:14 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

If it were me, and I have been hopping around the globe quite a bit these past few years on an Indian passport (requiring a visa for a sneeze), I'd go with the 4 hour layover even though its a pain.

I used to live in SFO and now there's all these random security checks and what not and its best to err on the side of caution. That 50 mins is a dream regardless of which passport. Its the security lines which are the uncertainty.
posted by infini at 1:35 AM on August 23, 2011

You may also wish to see if they will check bags all the way through on your ticket or are you expected to pick up baggage while passing through customs and immigration and then rechecking them (basically they're just dumped on another conveyer belt right after immigration). The stress of waiting and knowing you have another flight just isn't worth it.
posted by infini at 1:38 AM on August 23, 2011

It is definitely do-able. The most recent flight I had which is similar to yours was London -> Houston -> Guadalajara. And that was me (US citizen) traveling with my wife (EU citizen).

The connection there was 2 1/2 hours. I know it was enough time because I recall we had a sit-down meal at one of the restaurants there.

Anyways, if I were you I'd take the existing flight. Also because your reasoning is off about September 11th. I've flown twice on September 11th recently because the flights are cheapest (thats why you are doing it too, I guess!) because people are superstitious about flying on that day. What that means is that security, ticketing, everything was faster because there are fewer people at the airport.
posted by vacapinta at 1:42 AM on August 23, 2011

You will have to pick up checked bags for customs and re-check them.
posted by deeaytch at 3:33 AM on August 23, 2011

I've had an about 2 hour connection through O'Hare. It felt much tighter than it actually was. I got to the gate 10-15 minutes before boarding started. The most frustrating part was trying to get out of the international baggage claim, which was full of confused people. Somehow they managed to slow down the usually fast customs line. (I don't have access to the itinerary, but looking at the current AA timetable, there's an ORD-MSP flight 2h10min after the MAN-ORD flight lands, which is being replacing by one that'd be a 1h50min connection. So it was probably about 2 hours when I did it.)

At SFO (and most places in the US), flights to Canada don't leave from the international terminal, they leave from a domestic terminal (as you somehow clear Canadian customs and immigration in the US). If you can avoid checking baggage, that'd be the way to go, as you have to retrieve it and recheck. At SFO, it will be quicker to walk to the United terminal than mess about waiting for the little train. International arrivals is in the basement. If you go up the right escalator (to your right when you come out of arrivals, I think), you end up near the entrance to the BART station (it's on left). Walking away from the BART station (with it behind you) will lead to escalators going down to a hallway/walkway to Terminal 3, where United is. This is signed once you get upstairs from international arrivals. The tricky bit about signs at SFO is that some are meant to lead you places on foot and some are meant to lead to AirTrain, and it's not always the easiest thing to tell which are which if you don't already know. (For instance, I'm convinced it's always faster to walk to the BART station through the international terminal than take AirTrain, but it took me multiple trips to SFO to even discover BART was accessible from the international terminal rather than only via AirTrain.)
posted by hoyland at 4:16 AM on August 23, 2011

If you only have carry-on luggage and can move quickly this will probably work. I would not try it with checked baggage, though. If your flight is delayed at all you will likely be screwed if you have to then go collect your checked luggage, go through customs, re-check your bag, and then go through security again.

I've done this many times and sometimes 1.5 hours is plenty of time for the connection and sometimes it isn't. If the gamble is worth it to you then you can minimize the risk by foregoing checked baggage, getting the biggest carry-on bag you can find and stuffing it. Pick seats as close as possible to the front of the plane and be ready to get off that plane once it lands.
posted by Polychrome at 4:28 AM on August 23, 2011

Anything less than 2 hours and you're pushing it. I've lost a connection once with 1h30 in MIA, and came close with 2 hours in several other occasions. Remember that if the airline sells you the ticket and you miss the connection because of immigration and customs, it's not their problem. They will book you on the next flight, but you won't get free accomodation if you need to stay overnight. Go for the 4hr layover.
posted by gertzedek at 4:55 AM on August 23, 2011

I've had 6-hour connections at Dulles where I was rushing to the gate because of the lines at customs. Similarly, I've easily made tight international connections in the US sometimes, even when having to change terminals and go through security again. Give yourself at least 2 hours to be sure, 3 if you're checking baggage.

If you get to the passport control line and it seems like you aren't going to make it, call over one of the line-wranglers, show them your connecting boarding pass and see if they'll help you out. The several times I've done this they have to pretend there's some sort of 'problem' with your passport/claims form so as not to offend anyone (particularily Americans, who are often batshit insane about queue-jumping), but they'll take you right to an officer.

You'll have to pick up your bags and recheck them- usually nothing more than transferring them from one belt to another.

Have you considered transiting through another Asian city? Beijing, Hong Kong or Tokyo might be good options from Seoul to YVR.
posted by t_dubs at 5:00 AM on August 23, 2011

Just dropping in to confirm that flights to/from Canada on United at SFO arrive and depart from the domestic terminal, not the international. SFO is fairly small, as airports go - nothing like O'Hare or Heathrow - and pretty easy to navigate. Ninety minutes is tight, but doable if your flight comes in on time (and, knock wood, you shouldn't have fog troubles in September). And nthing letting the line-minders know that your connection is tight - I've seen them help lots of people jump the line.
posted by rtha at 6:16 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've done a lot of connections like this. For SFO, 90 minutes is tight but fine. If you were doing BOS or JFK, however, you'd be screwed most of the time.
posted by kaszeta at 6:45 AM on August 23, 2011

What makes it a lottery is that you can't predict the number of staff who'll be available, or the composition of incoming flights and the potential processing time they'll require. Coming back from Europe into ATL in January, even the citizen/LPR lines were swamped, and while I had a long layover, people who'd allocated a couple of hours were set to miss their connecting flight.

But as others have said, SFO isn't one of the big east-coast hubs or the horror-show that is LAX, so I'd say 90 minutes is tight but not impossible, 2-3 hours will keep your blood pressure down, and four hours is ample. Travelling light helps a lot.
posted by holgate at 8:16 AM on August 23, 2011

Even though people are saying this is tight but doable, I'd slap on at least another two hours because you don't know if your first flight will be delayed. What if it is delayed an hour or even two? Then it goes from tight but doable to Shit out of luck.

A delay is not unreasonable give wx in Seoul in September, still the rainy/stormy season I believe with the occasional typhoon threat thrown in.

I'd rather wait longer for my connecting plane and read a book than panic that I won't make my connection and then knock old ladies down trying to make it.

Hope your mother makes a speedy recovery.
posted by xetere at 8:24 AM on August 23, 2011

I'd take it. Book both flights as a single ticket directly through United. Best case: You get through immigration and customs in a timely manner, then board your flight and all is well. Worst* case: You spend too much time waiting at immigration and customs, miss your flight, United puts you on a later flight.

*clearly not the worst case imaginable, but probably the worst you can reasonably expect to encounter
posted by thirteenkiller at 8:49 AM on August 23, 2011

There are six United non-stop SFO - YVR flights. If you miss your connection, your airline will just put you on the next one. I wouldn't worry about it.
posted by halogen at 10:16 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had the first leg of a United flight delayed last time I flew with them. They automatically re-booked me on the next flight while I was in the air and left a message on my cell to let me know. There are SFO-YVR flights at 6:40PM and 8:19PM, so worst case you end up sitting in the airport for 7 or 8 hours and get in to Vancouver late.
posted by IanMorr at 11:43 AM on August 23, 2011

Response by poster: Well, I've booked it. Just can't countenance paying an extra $500, and I prefer to have things booked. If indeed the airline is on the hook for putting me up or finding me alternate transportation if there's a problem, then fair enough, I reckon.

Thanks for the advice, all. Wish me luck!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:48 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I guess I got here late, but next time, you might want to try booking a ticket to SFO, and then another separate ticket from SFO to Vancouver.

The airline won't be on the hook if you miss your connection, but it'll also likely be a lot cheaper for you, and have more options available.
posted by schmod at 3:18 PM on August 23, 2011

For what it's worth, several of the large companies I work with have travel restrictions in place for their employees on 9/11 (for some reason that isn't particularly clear to me). That likely means fewer business travelers right around that time, which will actually make it easier to travel on/around that date rather than harder.
posted by gemmy at 5:12 PM on August 23, 2011

Response by poster: Just for future reference if people have the same question, a United rep emailed me and said they wouldn't let me connect INTL-INTL in under 1hr 45min at SFO, despite the fact that their system let me book it.

So I rebooked with a stop in Narita then SFO then on to YVR. It's going to be grueling, but it give me 3 hours in SFO, which is plenty of time, and the ticket actually turned out 50 bucks cheaper.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:32 AM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

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