6 reasons I deliberately planned a 6-hour layover between flights
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So far, the travel story of this summer seems to be airport chaos: thousands of flight delays and cancellations, security lines snaking out into parking lots, missed connections galore and checked baggage that shows up late … or never.
On my recent trip to New Zealand to cover the country’s reopening to international travel, I had to transit San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to catch a transpacific flight. Under normal circumstances, I’d rather dash between flights with just 40 minutes to spare. But with all those travel nightmare scenarios playing as a nonstop montage in my mind, I deliberately padded my layover time at SFO to over six hours. Here’s why — and how I spent that time.
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2 airlines, more potential complications
One of the main reasons I wanted to plan an extra-long layover at SFO was that I was flying on two separate tickets.
I was able to book an award flight on a combination of United Airlines and Air New Zealand from San Francisco to Sydney Airport (SYD) and then to Auckland Airport (AKL). But I’m based in Los Angeles, so I needed to fly up to San Francisco to catch my main transpacific leg.
To get to San Francisco, I wanted to purchase one of the cheapest, most convenient nonstop flights while also perhaps getting a little leg up on my elite status requalification for 2023. Because of that, I bought an inexpensive ticket on American Airlines (for about half what United would have charged me for a flight at around the same time) that got me into SFO around 4:30 p.m.
First, no matter which airline I took up to San Francisco, I would have two separate tickets for my entire journey and I was unsure if I would be able to combine them, even if my LAX-to-SFO segment had been on United.
Second, I was unable to check in online for my United and Air New Zealand flights given New Zealand’s strict entry requirements at the time and would probably have had to check in an additional time at SFO.
When I arrived in San Francisco, I would have to exit the airside part of the airport, walk to the international terminal, check in with United, then go back through security, so I wanted to leave myself plenty of breathing room to do so.
Granted, I was flying on a Sunday afternoon and evening, so I figured the airport might not be super busy while I was in transit. But I didn’t want to take any chances.
Time to retrieve and recheck my baggage
My trip to New Zealand would span 10 days during autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. As efficient a packer as I am, I just couldn’t get all the clothes I’d need into my small Away carry-on. Instead, I packed my rolling duffel, which would need to be checked.
That meant budgeting for extra time waiting for my bag to be offloaded from my American Airlines flight, then time to wheel it over to United’s international check-in counters. Given American Airlines barely eked out the No. 10 spot on our rankings of how well airlines handle checked bags, it still felt like a risk.
Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines both have 20-minute checked bag guarantees, which will compensate passengers if their checked bags don’t show up on the carousel within 20 minutes of their flight arrival time (with some exceptions). Unfortunately, American Airlines does not offer such a guarantee, and given the staffing issues some airports are having right now, I figured the more time I could give myself, the better.
That turned out to be a wise decision because my bag was one of the last off my flight. I had to watch three other rounds of baggage come down the belt, with the carousel stopping between each batch of bags. All told, I waited nearly an hour for my duffel, leaving me just over five more hours until my departure time.
It then took me about 15 minutes to get over to United’s check-in counters at the airport’s international terminal. I thought I might have some issues checking in for my flight so early and dropping my bags, but the friendly agent was happy to help me, verified all my travel documents, and then sent me on my way. It was rather quick because no one else was checking in, but since it took her about 10 minutes to go through all my documents, I can only imagine what wait times were like once other passengers started showing up.
Backup COVID-19 testing
When I flew to New Zealand, I needed to provide negative results from a COVID-19 PCR test administered within 48 hours of the scheduled departure of my first international flight on the way to the country, though that requirement has since been discontinued.
I had taken my test the day before in Los Angeles, well within the testing window. However, I thought I might need more recent results just in case there were any flight issues or if any complications arose because I was transiting through Australia with a fairly long layover in Sydney. The United check-in agent looked at my documents, though, and said that I was all set, so I didn’t need another test.
But at least there was a location at the airport’s international terminal offering antigen test results within 30 minutes for £61.50 ($75), express PCR tests with results as quickly as 90 minutes (£205) or 12 hours (£123) and standard 24-hour turnaround times for $90 (£74).
As more countries do away with incoming testing requirements, though, this probably won’t be a concern of mine on future trips.
Getting back through security
A combination of surging travel demand and staffing issues has left San Francisco International Airport struggling to get passengers through security checkpoints in a timely manner. Looking up TSA wait times in the days leading up to my flight, it was common to see the average time take longer than 30 minutes, though it was just over 22 minutes on a recent Sunday.
I have TSA PreCheck, but even so, those lines have been very long at airports around the country lately. And while the airport’s international terminal has two TSA PreCheck entry points, one for the A gates and one for the G gates, they are not both always open (and indeed TSA PreCheck checkpoints in terminals 1 and 3 also seem to be closed intermittently).
At around 5:45 p.m. the Sunday I flew, security lines were just starting to get long near the G gates, where I was headed. There were about 30 people ahead of me in the TSA PreCheck line, so it took me over 10 minutes to get through. That was still a lot faster than the regular security line was moving, though, so no complaints here.
All told, I had needed about 90 minutes to get from my first flight to baggage claim, check in for my second flight and through security. That left me with over four hours to kill, which might still seem excessive to some travellers. But I was just happy for the peace of mind knowing I’d make it to my big flight with plenty of time to spare.
What’s more, I had a pretty fantastic airline lounge in which to pass the time.
I could access a fantastic airline lounge
Let’s be honest, potential transfer snafus aside, the real reason I was happy to spend several hours at SFO before my flight was because I could relax in United’s Polaris lounge.
Many other airline lounges are suffering from overcrowding and have even been turning members and eligible passengers away. However, the unique access rules in place for Polaris lounges mean they’re not as likely to be jam-packed as other such spaces. You can’t purchase a one-time pass, you can’t buy a membership and there’s no credit card that will get you in.
In order to enter, you’ve got to be either:
- Departing or connecting in United Polaris business class on a long-haul international flight.
- Departing in long-haul international first or business class on a Star Alliance member airline.
I checked flight schedules on SFO’s official website and found only 14 eligible flights were departing after 3 p.m. the day I was flying (and this number seems to vary from about 12 to 18 on most days of the week), so I did not think the lounge would get too crowded. There was also a lull between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. without many international departures on Star Alliance airlines, so I figured I’d be arriving right when the lounge was the least busy.
Turns out I timed it right because it was pretty sparsely populated when I first arrived just before 6 p.m. and got progressively more crowded throughout my time there. That said, it never felt cramped or congested.
That’s partly because United’s Polaris lounge at San Francisco International Airport is the biggest in its network at more than 28,000 square feet and with two levels. When one area got busy, I could always pick up and move to another section.
The downstairs portion of the lounge has a quiet area with chairs along the windows overlooking the tarmac as well as two back-to-back rows of semi-enclosed single seats with small side tables that you can use for eating or working by the light of accent lamps, power plugs and USB ports and a comfortable armchair.
Beyond this, there’s an area for self-serve beverages including water, juice and coffee.
Then just past that is the section of the lounge with shower suites and the quiet room with individual booths holding daybeds for travellers who need a place to rest.
The larger part of the lounge is up one level, where visitors will find more of those individual booths and chairs to one side and low-slung chairs with side tables to the other.
Past that is the main cocktail bar (where I ordered the lounge’s signature Old-Fashioned with Bulleit rye, maple syrup and black walnut bitters later on) plus more individual and group seating in what looks like Arne Jacobsen-inspires swivel chairs.
Beyond this is a casual dining area of marble-topped tables with banquettes and chairs plus more of those work booths. Walking past these brings you to the buffet with various hot and cold options like finger sandwiches and a salad bar with raw and roasted veggies.
My real destination, however, was the small dining room beyond, where you can order dishes from an a la carte menu. Knowing I wouldn’t have a full dinner until at least an hour after my 10:50 p.m. departure time, I decided to have a small meal when I arrived.
I started with a salad of baby gem lettuce with marinated hearts of palm in a roasted Sungold tomato vinaigrette then tucked into a small portion of pan-seared chicken breast with tangy lemon risotto and arugula.
I spent a couple of hours working in one of the individual booths. About an hour before boarding was scheduled to commence, I ducked over to the reception desk for the showers and asked if I could have one of them to freshen up in before my flight. There was no wait and I was shown to a recently cleaned suite, taking a moment to admire the star-like overhead lighting in the corridor.
With matte grey stone tiling, each shower suite has a single sink and vanity plus its own toilet and a glassed-in shower with both wall-mounted and overhead shower heads. The airline provides high-end amenities like Sunday Riley bath products and fluffy Saks Fifth Avenue towels, which made my brief sojourn a real treat.
Cleaned and groomed, I walked out feeling relaxed and refreshed for my flight, so I headed out of the lounge to the gate area and only had a few moments before boarding was announced.
Amenities in the terminal
If I hadn’t had lounge access, SFO’s international terminal still would have been a decent spot to pass a few hours, and that was my backup plan in case there were any time constraints on my Polaris lounge access.
The seating areas have plenty of power outlets to keep devices charged and there’s even an outdoor terrace where you can get some fresh air while planespotting. The airport offers visitors free Wi-Fi, so I could have gotten some work done. There are also some great restaurants where I would have been happy to grab a meal, like sushi at Tomokazu or the bistro fare from the airport outpost of one of my favourite Napa restaurants, Mustards Bar & Grill.
In short, even without lounge access, I think it would have been pretty easy to pass the time, though I might have aimed for a slightly shorter layover if I knew I wouldn’t be able to enjoy United’s Polaris lounge.
Although we’re still at the very start of the busy travel season, a series of airline operational meltdowns, cascading flight delays and cancellations, and record-shattering passenger numbers are already making summer 2022 look like a worst-case scenario for many air travellers.
That said, building a little extra time into your layovers can be the right step to ensure you have some leeway for unexpectedly long check-in and security lines, tricky connections and other unplanned-for events that might arise.
When booking trips, check out the amenities and facilities your layover airports might offer, look into security wait times in case you have to leave and check back in, and research what lounges are available, whether you’ll have access and if there have been any overcrowding issues. Depending on the time of day you intend to fly, it might also be a good idea to see if any nearby hotels are available just in case you end up having to overnight.
For my own recent jaunt through SFO, I thought my best plan of action would be to block out at least four or five hours to transition between separate airlines and tickets, check in for a complicated international itinerary, get through security then have some time in one of the best airline lounges in the U.S.
Although I might try to cut my layover time down to three or four hours if I were to take this trip again, six didn’t feel too long. Plus, I was much more relaxed knowing I’d make my main international flight without an issue, all while enjoying a light dinner, a quiet place to work and an invigorating shower before flying to Australia and on to New Zealand.
Featured photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy.
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