Types of Flights

So what is the difference between non-stop, direct, and connecting flights? And why does this matter?

People are probably most familiar with non-stop flights, which as the name implies, takes you from point A to point B without stopping. For most people, these are the flights they try to find since they want to get to their destination in the most efficient way possible. For example, American Airlines operates non-stop flights to many cities in the Caribbean and South America from their Miami hub.

A direct flight is a flight between point A and point B, but it has one stop along the route at point C. Airlines list these flights under one flight number, and passengers may or may not have to change aircraft at the intermediate location. For example, Singapore Airlines operates a direct flight from New York JFK to Singapore Changi with a stop in Frankfurt, Germany. Both segments of this route are listed under the same flight number (in this case SQ 25 eastbound and SQ 26 westbound), and passengers do not have to change planes in Frankfurt. Another example is Delta Air Lines flight from Washington D.C. to Johannesburg, South Africa, with a stop in Atlanta (DL 200). In this case, passengers do change planes in Atlanta, but keep the same flight number for the entire journey.

Connecting flights differ from direct flights in that the segments of the journey have different flight numbers. This usually happens when you need to get from one city to another and have to pass through one of the multiple hub cities that airlines have. The 3 major airlines in the U.S. have multiple hub cities throughout the country. For example, if you travel on United from Orlando to Paris, you will most likely connect through Newark Airport, and the two segments of the trip will have separate flight numbers. Also, sometimes, but not always, a trip with connecting flights is cheaper when compared to a non-stop flight. Why? Airlines know people want to get to their destination as quickly as possible and will raise the price of a non-stop flight as a business tactic. A lower price on connecting flights will help fill smaller planes and make those flights more cost effective. It also has to do with inventory management since fares fluctuate constantly, and it pays to monitor your desired trip prior to booking it.

Why does this distinction between direct and connecting flights matter? It matters for people who are trying to earn elite status with a specific airline. To earn Silver Medallion with Delta, one of the two tasks you have to complete within a calendar year is either to fly 25,000 miles or take 30 flight segments. While this requirement can be met by flying 15 round trips in one year, it can be achieved quicker if you opt for connecting flights on a given route. For example, if you want to go from Los Angeles to Miami on Delta, you have the option of choosing a non-stop flight or a connecting flight through Atlanta. Where the non-stop option 

would earn you 1 flight segment, the connecting option would earn you 2 segments. In addition, there can be more than 1 connection on a particular route. Another example is Orlando to Hanoi on Delta connects in Detroit, Seattle, and Seoul, giving you 4 flight segments on the outbound and another 4 on the inbound flight. Are there quicker ways to get between Orlando and Hanoi? Yes, but if elite status is your goal, you may opt for multiple connections in order to achieve that goal faster.

Airline Loyalty Programs

Airline loyalty programs offer consumers rewards such as free flights and free upgrades depending on how many miles one has earned and one’s status level. But the most difficult decision is which one to choose. There are many factors that can inform such a decision, but ultimately you will have to fly in order to accumulate miles and to reap the rewards.

For the casual traveler who flies once or twice a year, it takes a long time to earn enough miles for reward travel, especially if the flights taken are under 500 miles. There is also the issue that miles will expire if you don’t travel frequently enough. Depending on the airline, some miles expire after 18 months of inactivity; others are more generous with a 36 month window. This means that if you don’t take a qualifying flight within this timeframe, all the miles you have earned disappear forever.

There are ways to retain your earned miles without flying. This involves applying for and being approved for an airline-branded credit card. Each of the major U.S. airlines has at least one branded credit card, some have multiple, which allow you to earn miles for daily purchases. While most of these do carry an annual fee, you should consider this fee the cost of doing business. The fee is usually less expensive than if you had to buy more plane tickets to make up for the expired miles.

The decision of which program to join can seem daunting, but there are some significant factors to consider. First, is your home airport (the one from which you will depart most) a hub for any of the major carriers? For example, if you live in or around Atlanta, you might choose Delta. If you depart from Denver, you might choose United. Some cities, like New York and Los Angeles, are hubs for multiple airlines. Thus, you have a choice in those cities. If your home airport is not a hub or you choose an airline whose hub is elsewhere, chances are that you will need to connect to get to where you are going. And depending on the airline, that’s not always a bad thing as it allows you to earn more miles and segments flown.

Second, which airlines fly to where you want to go? Not all airlines serve all airports. There’s no reason to pick an airline if it doesn’t fly to the cities you want to visit. Within the U.S. this is rarely a problem, as the majority of airports are served by at least two airlines. International travel is another story. While all major carriers serve the main international cities, some airlines specialize in certain regions. For example, American has many flights to Central and South America, while United has many flights to the Asia Pacific region.

Once you decide while loyalty program fits your needs best, you should maximize your daily spending by getting the airline-branded credit card that corresponds to your airline. Most of these credit cards offer one mile per dollar spent and two miles for every dollar spent on airline websites. I say websites because airlines, in addition to booking travel, will also allow you to book hotels and rental cars on their websites. Therefore, eligible purchases made directly with the airline and paid for with the airline-branded credit card count for double miles. As always, check with the credit card company for its current offerings and terms. The miles earned

with these credit cards count toward reward travel, which is the ultimate goal of many travelers. These miles, however, do not count toward elite status, which is solely earned by flying.