One of the most common air travel questions I get from new parents looking to travel with babies, toddlers, and young kids is whether they should take a non-stop or a connecting flight. For those of us based on one coast with family on another or for anyone traveling overseas, the question is a very good one. When non-stop flights are 5 or 6 (or many more!) hours long, it makes sense to question whether to break up your journey. And of course, price differences are always front of mind for most travelers in evaluating their options.
Depending on where you are going, you may not always have the option of a non-stop flight. But when you do have choices, I strongly believe that (most of the time) non-stop flights are the better option when traveling with kids. But there are exceptions to that rule as well.
Here are the factors families should consider when choosing between a non-stop or a connecting flight for any given trip.
Why Non-Stop Flights with Kids are Usually Preferable
First things first – why are non-stops usually the smarter choice for travelers, particularly those with little ones?
With non-stops, the logistics of flying with kids are so much easier. All those things that take time and effort with children (especially babies and toddlers) are done once: get through an airport to a gate once, board once, gate check the stroller once, install the car seat once, unpack your carry-on distractions once, deal with ear pressure issues once, etc. Sure, the flight is longer, but if the wheels come off with your tyke, at least you have the peace of mind of knowing you will be done with the trip as soon as you land. And your trip is quicker overall!
Another increasingly important factor to consider in favor of non-stop flights is the risk of flight delays, cancellations, misconnects and lost baggage. When we first started traveling both of our kids, airlines were pretty reliable across the board all things considered. Since the world has started traveling again in 2021 and 2022, the wheels have really come off with nearly every airline everywhere, domestic and international. Cancellations and delays are now common, as are lost checked bags (see our family’s summer 2021 odyssey that involved a three day flight delay).
Until things settle considerably and airlines and air traffic control staff up to necessary levels, there are real risks in adding more stops along your air travel journey. This is particularly true if you are traveling at a peak holiday travel period where there are few extra empty seats to accommodate stranded travelers. Re-accommodating one passenger is often doable for the airlines, but finding extra seats together for a family of multiple people after a cancellation or misconnect is a different challenge altogether.
When To Consider Connecting Flights with Kids
Of course, there are exceptions to this general principle that non-stop flights are better. So when might a connecting flight make more sense or be at least more worth these risks and pitfalls?
1. When the connecting flight is a whole lot cheaper
As with all things in travel, we are all limited by our travel budgets. So cost is probably (and rightfully!) the first thing parents consider when comparing non-stop vs. connecting flight choices.
I’ll pay a premium for a non-stop flights to save time and stress, but sometimes that premium is just too much. When you are buying tickets for 3, 4, or more people as families do, those little price differences do really add up to a lot of money. On occasion, you just have to go with the cheaper option.
But if the price difference is small, consider what price you would put on your sanity and act accordingly. Because sometimes that’s what you are paying for!
2. When you have toddlers
The age of your kid really matters when it comes to how challenging flying with kids can be. I’ve written extensively about the best and worst ages to travel with kids. At some ages (roughly 1-3 but it depends on the child of course), your child may simply be too active to be able to survive a long-haul flight. When kids feel cooped up, tantrums can really escalate at this age.
If you break what might be a 5-6 hour journey into roughly equal parts, you can often use the layover to let your toddler run around and burn off that excess steam. Airport play areas or more extensive restaurant choices in a layover airport can provide a welcome distraction from the confining airplane cabin environment.
Of course, I think this really requires that you know your child’s personality. Our older daughter was mostly okay during this age window, but we did have one terrible flight at 17 months with her where a connection would have been a life saver. With our more mellow son, this would not have been necessary at all at any age.
3. When connecting flights leave/arrive at much better times
If your non-stop choices leave or arrive at times that really mess with your child’s sleep schedule and connecting options are at more humane hours, then that is a time to seriously consider a connecting flight.
I know from experience that it is really hard to get a young toddler on a fairly set sleep schedule to an airport for a 6:00 am departure. Similarly, a redeye can be a nightmare if you have a kid who can’t stay up much past bedtime without melting down or who won’t sleep on airplanes (my daughter didn’t after she was a small infant until the age of 3+).
I have found that mid-morning flights and/or flights that are timed right around regular nap times often work best. So if your only option for a reasonable departure time is on a connection, give it serious thought.
4. When you can take a connecting flight into/out of a better airport
In some instances, it might make sense to opt for connecting flights if you can make the logistics of your trip easier by using a more convenient departing and/or arriving airport.
For example, we live just 12 minutes from the Oakland airport (OAK), but over 45 minutes away from San Francisco International (SFO). (Related: Complete guide to San Francisco Bay Area Airports.) There are many times when we’d rather fly out of Oakland where parking is easy and security lines are short instead of risking traffic nightmares going into San Francisco, even if it means taking a connection. When we go to visit family in southern Connecticut, the choice is doubly easy because we can use more convenient airports on both ends — OAK to Hartford on connecting flights beats a non-stop flight from SFO to New York’s JFK any day!
If any of your flights are in to or out of major metropolitan areas with multiple airports, evaluate the choices carefully.
5. When you can fly a more family-friendly or better airline
Last but certainly not least, consider carefully whether taking a connecting flight can get you aboard a airline with a nicer or more family-friendly experience. All airlines are not created equal. Flying some low-cost carriers can really be a trap for the unwary for family travelers, full of hidden fees and seat separation sagas. And sometimes these carriers can strand travelers for days because they don’t have redundancy in their schedules to move passengers when things go awry.
Is it worth taking a connecting flight on United to dodge a non-stop on American? Probably not. These airlines offer pretty roughly equivalent experiences even though many travelers have have their preference between the two or maybe even a travel horror story on one or the other over the years. But is it worth taking a connecting flight on Southwest to dodge a non-stop on Spirit? Perhaps.
Similar considerations can come into play if you are purchasing seats in premium cabins. It might be worth a short connection if it means you can get a lie flat business class seat for the long-haul portion of an international trip. Be sure to compare the products the airlines offer (my favorite site is Seat Guru to help with that).
Also consider carefully whether you should brave a connection if it means you get to fly on an airline where someone in your family has elite status. This can also result in a better in-flight experience – upgraded seats, free checked bags, lounge access, or help via a priority line if things go awry.
Do you usually book non-stops or connections when traveling with your kids? Leave your thoughts below in the comments.