Travel Guide: Unprotected Self Connection Flights -Why I hate them but often use them.

Unprotected self connections are something that are not uncommon in the travel space. And while I don’t like booking or flying them, I do still use them. There are some risks and then some advantages. This is certainly a more advanced topic. I have booked lots of unprotected self connections. I hate when I book self connections, but I keep doing it anyway. I mostly book unprotected connections because of cost, but there can also be some schedule advantages.

I’ve had both good and bad experiences with unprotected self connections, and if you’d like to see an example of this all going very wrong, here’s our trip on ITA from 2021.

Anyway, let’s get into unprotected self connections.

In This Guide

What is an unprotected flight connection?

Unprotected connections or self connecting flights is when you book two, or more, separate flight connections on different reservations. As an example, you book a flight from CLT-JFK with American Airlines, then on a separate reservation you book an onward flight from JFK-FRA on Singapore Airlines. This is also sometimes called a positioning flight.

Even though there’s a connection in JFK, this is on two separate tickets with two separate airlines. The passenger is responsible for making this transfer themselves. There can also be self connecting flights where all of the flights are on the same airline. Some airlines will consider this as a protected flight, others will not. It all comes down to the airline and their policies.

Self connecting flights are often called positioning flights when dealing with award travel. You book an award ticket from a gateway that has ticket availability then book a cheap cash fare to the gateway for the departure. This is a self connection and does carry the same risk of other unprotected self connection flights.

Why would I book an Unprotected Self Connecting Flight?

People book unprotected self connecting flights all the time for many reasons. The most common reason is cost. For those of us who live in smaller airport markets, flights are often very expensive or award availability is poor. To overcome this, booking a flight out of a major market like New York, Washington, or Toronto can have a serious cost savings. Then a separate cheap flight can be booked to tie the trip together.

This sounds great, but does come with risks. Unprotected self-connections can be a little risky, after all, they are called unprotected.

What Happens at the Airport for a Self-Connecting Flight?

In the best case situation, a self connecting flight is just like any other layover. Your first flight lands right on time, you walk right from that flight to your second flight, it leaves just as scheduled, and you land at your destination as expected.

Where this can cause issues is dealing with immigration, baggage, terminal transfers, and sometimes even airport transfers. If you do the research and homework, it can be a non-issue. However this is entirely dependent on the flights being on-time.

During the connection, if making a stop in a 3rd party country, you will often follow the same rules as you would if you had a single ticket, but not always. This will depend on the connecting airport’s layout and the country entry rules. Airports like LHR make it easy, you don’t have to enter the UK to make a connection. Other airports like YYZ Terminal 3 you will need to enter Canada.

What Are The Risks of an Unprotected Flight Connection?

The risks of a self connection are as the name implies, it is unprotected. This means that if your first flight is delayed, and you miss the second flight, the airlines are under no obligation to help you. This has bitten me in the past, a few times actually. Some airlines, even if both flights are on the same carrier, won’t protect you across separate tickets. Others will, again, you’ll need to check with the induvial carriers.

Another risk that needs to be accounted for is entry requirements during a layover. Without entry rights into a country, some airlines won’t allow you to board the flight. As they cannot insure you can enter the country, they might deny boarding. This is especially prevalent during Covid with some countries allowing connections on single tickets and don’t allow self connections.

How Long of a Layover on a Self-Connecting Flight.

The absolute minimum connection time you should allow on a self connecting, unprotected flight is the airport minimum connection time. This would consider considerable risk and would not be something I would be willing to attempt. Airlines publish minimum connection times, I would never book a self-connection to get around these requirements. Those connection times are what airlines will sell on a single ticket for a reason.

If I have the ability, I will leave 24 hours between flights. An overnight allows plenty of time to deal with delays or unexpected issues that occur while traveling. It does carry the extra cost of a hotel and a potentially longer trip, but it seriously reduces the risk involved with unprotected self connecting flights.

If I need to book a same day unprotected connection, I’ll leave myself 3 hours for the connecting. This is assuming it’s at an airport that is decent for connections. I’ll also always make sure I can do some sort of online check-in so that I don’t need to waste time with going to a desk and seeing an agent. I also will avoid a checked bag.

When looking at these options, I also consider worst case situations. If my first flight is canceled, is there another one later in the day I could change to. Can I book a backup flight as a refundable fare, then I have something to fall back on, just in case. Is there alternative transportation options like a train or even driving. On the outbound to a vacation, I tend to play things a little more safely. I don’t want a missed connection to kill an entire vacation, but on the the return, if I miss a connection it’s not nearly as bad.

How to Avoid Unprotected Flight Connections?

Avoiding unprotected self connections is easy, just book all of the flights on one reservation. I always book my flights with the airline directly, never through an OTA(Online Travel Agent). So just go to the airline’s website and book the whole trip from origin to destination. You’ll receive one PNR and ticket number and this insures that you don’t have any unprotected self connections.

Some OTAs will sell you an unprotected self connections. I think this is really misleading and another reason why I won’t book with OTAs. It’s always easier to deal with the airline directly rather than a middle man OTA.

What Isn’t an Unprotected Flight Connection?

There are many times that booking a flight will included multiple airlines on a single reservation. This is not an unprotected self connection. Airlines have partners that they use to reach all over the world, they sell these tickets all on one reservation. Because it’s all on one reservation, it doesn’t carry the risks of an unprotected flight.

Self-Connecting Flight Baggage Rules.

Baggage is often a large sticking point for booking an unprotected connection. Some airlines, by policy, will through check luggage on separate reservations as long as they have an interline agreement with the other airline. Yet some other airlines won’t even through check luggage on two separate tickets on their own airline. You would need to exit security, claim your luggage, recheck the bags, then clear security a second time. This is obviously a pain to deal with.

If you’re booking separate self connecting reservations, I recommended not checking bags. It’s just another thing that can go wrong and another situation where a slight delay can cause major issues. If you know for sure that the airlines in question will check your luggage through the connection, there’s not much risk at all. To through check baggage on a self connection, simply present both itineraries to the check in desk and they can tag the luggage to the final destination. This of course depends on the interline agreement between the airlines. This is all published by the induvial airlines.

Are Self Connecting Flights Safe or a Bad Idea?

I won’t ever say that a self connecting flight is a good idea, but I understand the desire. It can often offer a huge cost savings on both cash prices or award prices. I would never recommended a self connection for a novice traveler or my in-laws, just too much risk. But if you can arrange lots of connection time, preferably 24 hours, it can be a great way to save some money or fly on more desirable flights.

When it works out, a self connecting flight is perfect, we’ve had several examples of this working out just fine and without issue. On the other hand, we’ve had some truly terrible experiences because of missing an unprotected flight. So I wouldn’t say that an unprotected self connecting flight is bad, but it’s certainly not safe.

Final Thoughts on Self-Connecting Unprotected Flights

Self-connecting unprotected flights are not inherently bad, but they do carry some risk. The largest risks are delays, checked baggage, and immigration issues. If you’re an experienced traveler, these issues can be solved with a little planning. If you’re not as comfortable with these topics, a 24 hour layover is an easy way to solve all of these problems, assuming you have entry rights into any country that you’re stopping in.

While I’ve been burned in the past and I don’t much like self connecting flights, I do still book them. Some times it’s the only way to get the schedule and destination that I want. I never attempt a connection below the published minimum connection time and if possible, I book a 24 hour layover. If I cannot do that, I give myself several hours as to not get burned. I also fly carry on only so I don’t have to deal with checked luggage on an unprotected self connection.

Self connections are certainly a more advanced topic and not for the novice, they are not uncommon for experienced travelers. I wouldn’t encourage it and truly don’t enjoy booking them, I do end up using them.

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