Is your flight “nonstop” or “direct?”

(Contrails over Amsterdam. Photo: Keempoo / Flickr)

Given a choice between a nonstop or a direct flight between SFO and New York, which one would you take? What if an option for a connecting flight was thrown into the mix?

Your choice could have a big impact on the price, length and comfort of your journey.

I’m frequently amazed at how many travel agents, airline employees, frequent business travelers and even fellow travel writers tend to think that direct and nonstop are interchangeable terms when referring to flights. They are not.

If you are wondering which type of flight is best for you, consider these definitions:


A nonstop flight is just what it says: a single flight between two airports with no stops. Business travelers favor nonstop flights because they are the fastest, but they are frequently the most expensive.


While a direct flight might sound like a nonstop flight, it’s not. A direct flight makes at least one intermediate stop along the way to its final destination, but has only one flight number.

For example, if you choose a direct flight between SFO and New York you’d fly on one plane the whole way to New York. But that plane would make a stop in, say, Chicago or Milwaukee or Atlanta, where it would drop off and pick up more passengers, like a bus. Due to these stops, direct flights can add an hour or more to your total travel time.

I recently flew Southwest Airlines flight #1618 from Oakland to Phoenix for a meeting. My flight from Oakland to Phoenix was a nonstop. However, the plane continued on to St Louis. The passengers who stayed on the plane in Phoenix and continued flying to St Louis on the second leg of flight #1618 were on a direct flight.

Often, direct flights are less expensive than nonstop flights, but not always. If you have a choice between a direct or a nonstop and the price is the same, take the nonstop!


A connecting flight means it will take at least two different planes with two different flight numbers to reach your final destination. For example, a connecting flight from San Francisco to New York on United Airlines would mean flying from San Francisco to Denver, or Chicago, where you would then disembark and board another plane for another flight to New York.

Connecting flights are almost always less expensive than nonstop flights, but they are not always the best option for travelers who place a premium on time.

Why? First, you’ll have to schlep hand luggage on and off the plane multiple times in each direction. Connections often mean landing in one concourse, then having to take a train or a long walk to another concourse. When you take off and land, you double your chances of encountering delays due to weather or air traffic control. Connecting flights can also take significantly longer than direct or nonstop flights due to long layovers. For these reasons, connecting flights are always the least desirable in terms of convenience… but the most desirable in terms of price.

Were you aware of the difference between direct and nonstop flights? What type of flight will you be taking next time? Be sure you know before you book!

– by Chris McGinnis


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  1. back when I was naive youngster just out of college, circa 1986, I once took a flight on Southwest from SFO to Midway Airport (Chicago) that was direct, but strangely took over 6 hours. I was only looking at price in those days, and the price was a nice $158 RT. I didn’t realize that the flight made SIX stops. San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso, Houston Hobby, Wichita, and St. Louis before MDW. That was my first experience with Southwest and other than the total time, I was thinking though that every stop was 20 minutes, and people were getting in and out pretty fast. On the way back, it was a bit better, IIRC it was just St. Louis and Phoenix. I wonder nowadays if they would ever allow such a crazy routing.

  2. Eric P. Scott says:

    SFO to New York is something of a special case. A “perimeter rule” limits most flights in or out of LaGuardia to 1,500 miles, i.e. daily nonstops aren’t allowed. Hence, you’ll only find connecting (or direct) flights to Manhattan’s nearest airport.

    United, the dominant carrier at SFO, uses a three-class “premium service” configuration for nonstops to JFK. They don’t have any “economy minus” seats on this equipment, so it manages to support an upscale fare structure. An effective lack of competition allows other carriers to keep their nonstop prices high. Plus, there’s just not that much capacity on connecting flights.

    Your best options pretty much look like (1) pay through the nose to fly nonstop to JFK (2) accept some “inconvenience” and use LGA (3) lower your standards and pick EWR (ew!).

    The question would be fair for, say, SFO to Chicago, however.

    Ticket prices for connecting flights can be significantly higher due to mandated taxes / nonstops are a better value because you’ll pay less for your TSA groping.

    To frequent travelers, direct is often the least-desirable option. Loyalty programs tend to treat them as nonstops, diminishing mileage accrual, and usefulness for elite (re)qualification.

    TR described a Change of Gauge. Search: “14 CFR 258″

  3. Heh. Makes me think of a similar pair of words that have burned me: ‘adjoining rooms’ vs. ‘connecting rooms.’ I was under the impression that they were the same, but have twice ended up in a hotel where there were no connections between any two rooms and managers who swore that side-by-side is all that ‘adjoining’ actually means.

  4. Hey RD: I think it was probably airlines who thought they could pull a fast one on us…. “direct” sounds so much better than a “one stop” flight. ;)

  5. What idiot decided that “direct” was a good term for such a flight?

  6. I definitely knew the difference between non-stop & direct and regularly correct friends, family, & co-workers when they say direct instead of nonstop.

  7. Kim Williams says:

    I seem to be flight shopping by plane type these days rather than considering non-stop, direct, or connecting. I’m going to KOA for Thanksgiving and have chosen to fly on United’s 777 to HNL, connecting on to KOA instead of the nonstop from SFO to KOA. I’ll take a 777 any day over a 757.

  8. While these definitions are true in theory, some airlines (UA in particular) have so-called “direct” flights with a stop along the way that also change planes at that stop. IOW, it says SFO-JFK on flight 123 but it stops in ORD and will arrive gate C7 on a B777 and leave B22 on a CRJ. I made up the specifics but not the pattern. A consumer’s only choice is to read very carefully when booking and hope things don’t change

  9. G Pickholz says:

    In Europe and Asia, direct means nonstop. This only adds to the confusion of American travelers.

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