Non-stop vs. Direct – What’s the Difference?

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Spend any time in an airport and you’ll hear the terms “non-stop”, “direct flight” and “connecting flight” used constantly. However, many people, including those who travel frequently, often use the wrong terminology. So what are the correct definitions of these three terms? Are they interchangeable?

First, let’s be very clear – these terms are NOT interchangeable and do, in fact, mean very different things.

Let’s start with the easiest:


This one seems pretty simple and in fact, it is. A non-stop flight is just as it sounds – a flight that goes from one city to another without stopping or landing anywhere else.

Now, let’s tackle the two that are a bit more confusing.


A connecting flight is when you use two or more planes during a single trip. Here’s an example:

You might want to fly from San Antonio to New York’s La Guardia airport. However, none of the airlines offer a non-stop option for this route. So what do you do? You have to connect through a hub city. United, for example, would probably route you from San Antonio to Houston, then have you change planes for a flight from Houston to New York. They do this because Houston is one of their hub cities, as are Chicago, Newark and a few others. American’s main hub is in Dallas so if you flew with them you’d likely fly Houston to Dallas to New York. Delta’s main hub is in Atlanta so you’d likely route through that city.

Regardless of cities involved, it can only be a “connecting” flight when you leave one aircraft and board another in each city.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room.


You’ll often hear travelers say, “Yeah, I’m flying direct” when they’re really flying non-stop. What’s the difference? Here’s an example to explain:

Many aircraft do not simply fly back and forth between cities. In one day, a plane might fly Houston to Dallas, Dallas to Newark, Newark to Orlando, Orlando to Houston and then Houston to LA. Sometimes, these flights may have the same flight number. For example, the flight from Orlando to Houston and then the flight from Houston to LA might both be flight #100.

So let’s say you’re traveling from Orlando to LA and your flight has a stop in Houston but YOU DO NOT GET OFF THE PLANE. This would be a DIRECT flight. The majority of people who fly “direct” are flying via Southwest Airlines, although it does happen on other carriers as well. If you change planes, the flight is no longer direct and is, instead, a connecting flight.

Now you’re “in the know” on a set of terms that often confuse even the most seasoned travelers.