Five European Airports to Avoid for Flight Connections

by Zach Honig 
Posted Mar 16th 2011 12:01 AMUpdated Mar 16th 2011 08:52 AM



Zach Honig

For business travelers, paying a few extra bucks for a direct flight is seldom an issue, but tourists often book flights with cost in mind, choosing to fly multiple segments to reach their destination if the price is right. If you think connecting at an airport in the U.S. is inconvenient, try gate hopping at London Heathrow, Madrid Barajas, or our other picks for airports to avoid in Europe.

1. London Heathrow (LHR)

It's no surprise that Europe's busiest airport is also the most inconvenient for transfers. A hub for British Airways, BMI, and Virgin Atlantic, London's Heathrow Airport offers direct flights to nearly every major city on the globe, but the airport's enormous size and confusing security procedures make for a very complicated, and time-consuming transfer. For several years, Heathrow also had a single carry-on bag policy in effect, allowing only one bag per passenger to pass through security checkpoints regardless of airline policy. This carry-on restriction was lifted in 2008, and is now at the individual airline's discretion. Several of my personal air travel records were made at Heathrow, including most expensive bagel breakfast (about $15 with orange juice), and longest gate-to-gate connection time, at over two hours in 2007.

In addition to being a major airline hub, LHR made news when it became a hub for stranded passengers in 2010, for nearly a week in April during the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland, and again just before Christmas, after heavy snowfall resulted in all flights being cancelled for several days. If you have no choice but to connect at Heathrow, allow at least two hours for your connection, especially if you need to transfer between terminals.

2. Paris Charles De Gaulle (CDG)

Years before I visited the city of Paris, I had several opportunities to breathe the crisp winter air outside the French capital's largest airport–Charles De Gaulle–thanks to its bizarre overuse of air stairs and secure-area buses. Rather than utilizing jet bridges, many passengers are transported from their arriving aircraft to the terminal, and back to their departing aircraft by bus, but only after passing through immigration and walking a mile or two between terminals, of course. On one occasion, I was driven from my arriving aircraft to one terminal, then driven from another terminal to my departing aircraft, located just a few feet from where my first flight had pulled in several hours before.

3. Madrid Barajas (MAD)

If you're flying into Madrid on Iberia or another One World airline, chances are you'll arrive in terminal 4, which Barajas airport boasts as being one of the largest in the world. Unfortunately, enormous terminals and seamless connections don't go hand in hand, so allow plenty of time for a connection at Barajas. And then add another hour, just in case. Ceiling-mounted signs guide passengers from gate to gate in terminal 4, which, based on its size, should really be divided into several smaller terminals linked together by a rail system. MAD may just drive you mad, as it did during my first visit in 2006. I missed my flight, despite having over an hour to make my connection. Fortunately, Iberia agents in the secure area of the airport rebooked me on the next flight to Barcelona without issue, but my bags didn't arrive until the day before my return to the U.S. - apparently a common complaint among MAD T4 passengers.

4. Milan Malpensa (MXP)

A hub for European airline giants Lufthansa and EasyJet, passengers flying from one European destination to another are more likely to make a connection at Milan's Malpensa airport than those flying from the United States. If you're planning to connect at MXP, pack a sandwich or two - restaurant options are incredibly limited after your pass through security, and food is overpriced, if you're even able to find something appealing. Common complaints include overcrowded terminals and dated, poorly maintained restrooms - depending on the terminal, you may even find your in-flight lavatory to be more comfortable and sanitary. Milan may be the design capital of the world, but its largest airport is in desperate need of a makeover.

5. Moscow Sheremetyevo (SVO)

Moscow may seem an unlikely city for connections in Europe, but as a hub for Aeroflot, tourists visiting cities in Eastern Europe and the Middle East from U.S. cities served by the Russian airline may find themselves connecting at Sheremetyevo. Like the even less desirable airports to the west, connections at SVO should be avoided, unless you happen to stumble upon an unbeatable airfare on Aeroflot. The airport suffers from a terrible layout, confusing signs, and an unhelpful staff. Transfers within the same terminal are less painful than those between terminals, since you'll need to pass through Russian immigrations to change terminals, which requires a transit visa for citizens of most other countries. Additionally, because of visa requirements, visits to Moscow are impractical during long layovers or delays.

What do you think is the worst European airport for connections?

Filed Under: Air Travel, Tips & Tricks

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I question how recently the author has visited Charles De Gaulle. I used to call CDG the ninth circle of hell (I live in Italy and often connect there), but in the last two years it has improved so far as to be unrecognizable. It used to be the kind of place that was so maze-like that you suspected it was trying to make you miss your flight, but the last time I found only clear and easy-to-follow signage. The bus transit has improved enormously as well, with a helpful fluent English-speaking employee who asks you if you have any doubts while you're waiting, and only two stops (it goes back and forth between the two terminals). The new terminal is BEAUTIFUL--like a wood-panelled hangar, with cushy seating. Generally I've always left a good 2.5 hours to make a connection and have come close to missing it, but the last time I ended up waiting at my gate for 2 hours as a result--could have made the tight connection comfortably. And Air France's transatlantic flights (complimentary champagne, tasty food, personal TVs, wide seats) is the most comfortable I've found (though I've heard that Swiss is pretty nice as well).
And I swear they're not paying me! Just thought that real change for the better should be noted and rewarded.

May 13 2011 at 2:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

charles de gaule is the most aggravating airport i have ever been in .

April 30 2011 at 10:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Regarding Heathrow for transfers you have to keep in mind that if you fly British Airways and arrive at Terminal 5 the transfers are easy once you know where the gate is you are transfering from. However do not ask the BA workers e.g maintenance etc for help with luggage as they are rude and either ignore you or refuse to by making excuses. They do have shuttle buses that are easy to come by right outside the terminals to transfer to other terminals or to hotels.
Food is expensive but it is at every airport

March 24 2011 at 2:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ferienhaus tossa de mar

Thanks for sharing this news,In future i keep all this in my mind and avoid all these airports which are explained in the post. don't even aware about these airports to be avoided

March 17 2011 at 5:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Paris' CDG isn't bad at all. Chicago's ORD and JFK in New York are worse. Definitely need longer layovers in those. I also didn't mind Milan's airport.

I did not, however, like Amsterdam's. It gave me a bad impression of the city, just inside the airport (which is unfair).

March 16 2011 at 2:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply