Self connect: benefits and risks

The practice of self-connecting is becoming increasingly popular, giving passengers a great deal of flexibility in their travels by mixing tickets purchased from different airlines. But the slightest problem can turn things into a nightmare.

Who hasn’t booked a flight on one airline and then the next on another because it’s cheaper or more convenient? It’s an increasingly common practice among passengers, who can compare flights easily online and are increasingly autonomous in booking their itineraries. But traveling with separate tickets is not without risk, and we’re going to explain the best practices to avoid ruining your vacation.

What is self connect?

Behind a name that probably means nothing to you is a very simple thing, and one that you’ve certainly used, because just about everyone has done self connect without knowing it.

It’s simply a matter of having a connection between two flights purchased on separate tickets. For example, instead of buying a Bordeaux-Paris-New York on Air France, you buy a Bordeaux-Paris on one side and a Paris-New York on the other.

Hence the name: it’s not a connection organized by the airline, but by you.

On the face of it, it seems simple, even anecdotal, but it’s not without interest.

Why do self connect?

Self connect is interesting in a number of circumstances, and may even be unavoidable in others.

Because it’s cheaper

Maybe you’ve found separate flights that cost less than the connecting flights you’re offered.

For example, take a low-cost flight to a major hub, from where you can take a long-haul flight on a traditional airline.

Because it’s more convenient

Perhaps the flight you’re offered with a connecting flight means you have to wait a long time in transit, whereas another airline offers you the chance to arrive later and wait less before taking your next flight.

Because no airline offers the entire itinerary

Sometimes, when planning a vacation with complex itineraries, it’s not possible to do everything on the same airline. Or, even more frequently, when you use an airline for long-haul flights, and once you’re there you have to use other airlines for regional flights.

For example, I’m off to Vietnam soon with Turkish Airlines, but I’ll be flying Vietnam Airlines for domestic flights. On my return, I’ll fly from Phu Quoc to Saigon on the Vietnamese airline, before flying back to Europe on Turkish Airlines. So I’ll be in a self connect situation since I’ll be connecting between two flights on different tickets and reservations.

– To take advantage of market fares

This is something you see a lot of on Travelguys’ flight reports.

To take advantage of low fares, you may have to change your departure airport. This is because the price of a ticket does not depend on the distance flown, but on other factors such as load factor (yield management) and the commercial policy of a given airline in relation to a given destination. For a variety of reasons, an airline may have very aggressive sales practices from certain cities, or, on the contrary, take comfortable margins from others. These are known as market fares, because they depend on an airline’s strategy in a given market.

For example, if I wanted to go to Australia last September, I couldn’t find a business class ticket from Paris for less than 8,000 euros, but I could find one for 3,500 from Stockholm (same airline). A few months later, I flew to Malaysia again, on Singapore Airlines, for 3,200 euros, whereas from Paris the same flight cost 7,500 euros. There are dozens of examples of this.

But choosing a departure city different from the one where you live means you have to buy another ticket to get to the departure airport…hence the self connect.

Whether you’re looking to pay less or can’t do otherwise, there are plenty of reasons why you find yourself self connecting.

And while you can see the benefits, you also need to be aware of the risks.

The risks of self connect

When we say “separate tickets” we mean things that seem obvious to us, but are not to everyone, and traveler forums are full of examples of passengers who didn’t anticipate certain risks and saw their vacation turn into a nightmare.

Firstly, this means you won’t be able to check-in your luggage from end to end.

When I arrive in Saigon on Vietnam Airlines and fly back to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, I’ll have to collect my luggage and check it in again. You need to plan ahead for this.

Some airlines do this on an exceptional basis when they have agreements, but it is by no means an obligation. For example, when I flew back to Stockholm from Australia, I had to catch a Swiss flight back to Paris. The Thai staff in Sydney checked me in all the way to Paris, but in Stockholm an SAS agent confirmed that they shouldn’t have (with a wink). Singapore Airlines also did the same as I flew from Bali to Singapore from where I flew back home on Lufthansa.

But this is something that, to my recollection, Air France almost systematically refuses to do.

You won’t always have an optimized connection path

It may be that the two airlines operate from different terminals, and that since no connections were theoretically possible…they could not be made.

Depending on the case, this may mean reclaiming and re-checking baggage (as we’ve seen), going through immigration, changing terminals, going through immigration and controls again in the other direction. Not only not convenient, but also very time-consuming, which can cause real problems if you’re running late.

A delay will be fatal

Last but not least: if you miss a flight due to a delay, your entire itinerary is ruined.

As part of a normal connection, with all your flights on the same ticket, if you miss a connection it’s up to the airline to rebook you on another flight so that you arrive at your destination as quickly as possible.

In the case of self connect, this is not the case, even if both flights are operated by the same airline. In the latter case, it may be more empathetic, but it is not obligatory.

So if you miss a flight, not only will you have to make your own way to your destination, but your return flight will be cancelled because you’ll be a no-show on the outbound flight.

Two real-life examples (well, not from me, fortunately).

– Air France flight from Bordeaux to Paris, then United to New York.

The Air France flight to Paris is delayed, the person has to recheck his luggage etc. and misses his flight to New York. Flight missed, return flight canceled, vacation over. All this for a saving of 200 euros on a full itinerary sold with connecting flights by Air France.

– Self connect in Bangkok to go to New Zealand.

During my trip to Australia, on my way to the gate to board my flight in Bangkok, I saw a small crowd. I get closer out of curiosity. She was a Western tourist arriving in Bangkok from another Asian country and flying to New Zealand on self connect. Flight delayed at departure due to bad weather, flight missed in Bangkok, return flight cancelled from New Zealand and return flight home scheduled for a month from then. And as I understand it, her accommodation in New Zealand was already paid for and non-refundable.

It must have been a dream vacation….

These are all things you need to know, but if you take them seriously, you can minimize the risk, not eliminate it.

Self connect best practices

There’s no such thing as zero risk, and when you’re doing self connect you need to be aware of the risks involved. But there are some simple precautions you can take to avoid finding yourself in largely avoidable trouble.

Check your flight history

A site like Flightradar24 lets you check a flight’s history and punctuality. If you find that one of your flights is frequently or systematically several hours late (it happened to me….), there’s no need to plan a self-connect with a short connection.

Buy flexible tickets

Easier said than done, and very expensive. But it can’t go unmentioned. When I do my self connect in Stockholm, not only do I have a more than decent safety margin, but my ticket to Zurich and then Paris is in business, not totally but partially flexible. I can therefore change it for an extra charge if necessary. Not a panacea, but better than nothing.

Travel without checked luggage

As you can see, the big risk is the length of the connection and missing a flight. The first cause of delays: baggage. So if possible, travel with cabin baggage only: between the wait to collect it and the wait to check it back in, you’ll save at least an hour, if not more.
The difference between a failed and a successful connection.

Take safety margins into account

Above all, don’t say to yourself “with a normal connection, I’ll be fine with this length of connection”, or you’ll be exposed to certain disappointments.
With a “normal” connection, you don’t have to manage your luggage, you don’t have to leave the arrival area, return to the departure area and go through all the controls, if your feeder flight is late, they wait for you to a certain extent and then rebook you.

At Frankfurt, for example, Lufthansa often offers connections of less than an hour, even if you have to switch from Schengen to non-Schengen zones. It works. But with self connect, it’s hopeless, especially if you have suitcases in the hold.

With self connect you won’t find any of this, so plan ahead. And allow plenty of time.

So of course it all depends on whether or not you have luggage to check-in, whether or not you have immigration controls to go through in one direction or the other, or both, how complex the airport is, whether or not you’re leaving from the same terminal, but as a matter of principle I don’t do self-connect without a 5-hour margin! It’s a lot when things are going well, but if things go badly you’ll see that it can be very little….

Maximum margin on long-haul flights

If you have to make trade-offs, set the maximum safety margin on long-haul flights.

For example, when I self-connected in Stockholm to leave for Bangkok, I arrived the day before even though my flight was leaving in the early afternoon. I could have left in the morning but if the flight is cancelled or delayed I lose everything.

On the return journey, however, a 5-hour margin is enough for me. If I miss my flight to Zurich, it’s problematic but not catastrophic. If I miss my flight out of Stockholm, my trip is over.

More generally, identify your most critical flights and take a maximum safety margin. These are generally long-haul flights, more outbound than inbound. When you have a flight every hour to get from point A to point B, a problem isn’t as serious as if you only have one or two a day.

When, as is often the case, you take one airline to reach your destination and another for domestic flights to visit afterwards, try to return to your point of departure the day before, rather than arranging a risky connecting flight of a few hours.

Think about your documents

If your connecting flight requires you to re-enter a country where special formalities are required (when you wouldn’t have had to do so without baggage reclaim and check), even if only for a few hours, be sure you meet the entry requirements.

Do you need a visa? Can you get it at the airport?

Obvious? I know people who had a surprise during a self connect in Beijing…

Bottom line

Self connect is convenient and, in some cases, even mandatory. But given the impact of a missed connection on the rest of your trip, plan well in terms of safety margins and try to avoid any time-wasting constraints.

Image : Airport terminalby Shine Nucha via Shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrin
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.

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