Know Before You Go: Direct vs. Nonstop Flights

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If given the option, would you choose to take a direct flight or a nonstop flight when traveling from Los Angeles to New York? Is there even a difference? The straight answer is: Yes!

Your choice can affect the length and cost of your journey.

It seems that airlines are being a little sneaky in hiding this fact from their customers. I asked 10 people, all whom travel regularly for both business and pleasure, if they knew the difference between a nonstop and a direct flight. It was not surprising to discover that, like me, not one of them did. So what is the difference?

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We’re here to tell you.

A nonstop flight is exactly what it sounds like: a single flight that travels between two destinations with no stops in between. Because it is the most efficient, this option is popular with business and frequent travelers — and it is usually the most expensive choice.

A direct flight is a little different. The official definition of a direct flight, according to the U.S. Department of Transport, is a “flight with a single flight number that can have one or more intermediate stops.” Unlike nonstop flights, these planes stop at one or more locations during the journey, and usually involve the same plane stopping to let off or pick up passengers.

For example, it could be a flight from LAX to JFK that stops in Salt Lake City.

Such flights are usually, but not always, cheaper than nonstop flights, but can increase your journey time considerably. It is always worth comparing the prices, especially if your flight times are flexible. These flights can also be referred to as “through” flights.

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Direct flights can also cause problems for frequent flyers and point counters. Airlines calculate frequent-flyer mileage based on the direct flight numbers, not on the specific flight segments, meaning that you won’t always earn the actual miles you flew.

For example, if you fly direct from LAX to JFK via Houston, you would expect to earn the 1,382 miles for LAX to HOU, plus the 1,427 for HOU to JFK, totaling 2,809 miles. But instead, you only get the 2,475 miles, as if you had taken a nonstop flight.

A connecting flight requires you to change planes and have at least two flight numbers to complete your journey. For example, you might fly from Los Angeles to Chicago via Denver, where you would disembark and board a separate plane with a new flight number for the second leg from Denver to Chicago. Connecting flights are very common if you are flying internationally. Do airlines have to distinguish between a direct flight, a nonstop flight, and a connecting flight when selling their services? Not really. All they have to do is list on the flight itinerary how many stops the flight will make. The reason they do this is to make it appear that they have service available, in cases where they might not. To establish whether you have a direct or connecting flight, look carefully at the “Stops” column and the departure and arrival times, in order to determine whether the flight suits your travel plans.

Many airlines also allow you to specify whether you want a nonstop flight when making your reservation. To put it in really basic terms: All nonstop flights are direct, but not all direct flights are nonstop.

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