This is Part 2 in my 3-part series on Surviving the Airport Process Stress-Free! If you have not read Part 1: How to Make it to the Airport on Time, and don’t currently have a plan to do that, please go back and read!
Awesome, you made it to the airport! The race continues, with your ultimate goal to make it on that flight and depart to your destination for pure vacation bliss.
Unfortunately, you still have many steps ahead of you, but the good news is that I am here to guide you. Below are the steps of the departures process.
Check In For Your Flight & Check Your Luggage
Once you arrive at the airport, you need to find your airline’s designated check-in counter. This means look for the signs above the counters with your airline’s name. If you can’t locate the right counters, there are plenty of airport representatives floating about that can direct you. Don’t be afraid to ask. They will probably come up to you if you stand in one place for long enough.
It’s important here that you queue at the right lines, for the appropriate counters, depending on how you are flying. Since most of you will be flying economy class, make sure that you don’t get in the priority line – the folks in that line will be quite perturbed at you.
Hint: If you see another line at your airline counter that is quite long and you wonder how you got so lucky in this short line, you are probably in the wrong line. (I’ve done it.)
The check-in process is essentially you telling the airline “hey, I’m here and I intend to board my flight, so don’t you dare give my seat away.” If you do not check-in at the required time before your flight you risk losing your seat to a passenger on the standby list. Each airline and flight has a different required check-in time, so check what your confirmation says. It is generally 2 hours before international flight, and 1 to 1.5 hours before domestic flights.
The check-in process will also vary by airline and airport, but it typically goes in one of two ways:
- A self-service kiosk
- A staffed check-in counter
Especially at busy airports and in peak travel times, there will be multiple self-service check-in counters for you to use to check-in, print your boarding passes, and potentially print your luggage tags. Don’t be afraid by these kiosks, but do be prepared!
These machines are essentially touch-screen computers, so you will press the buttons on the screen to submit your responses to the questions asked. The kiosk will guide you though the following:
- Identifying yourself and your reservation
- Confirming your flight details
- Confirming or choosing your seats
- Indicating if and how many bags you will be checking
- Printing your boarding passes and luggage tags
You will need some identifying number to type into the machine to tell the kiosk who you are and what flight you are checking in for. These numbers may be the confirmation number of your reservation or your frequent flier number, if you have one with the airline. Since you likely will not have this number memorized, be sure to have it handy on your phone or on a printout.
If you are flying internationally, you will also need your passport at this stage. Some kiosks may prompt you to scan your passport into the machine. Follow the instructions on the screen for how to place the photo page of your passport face-down on the glass for scanning.
Once the kiosk has located your reservation, you flight details will display. This will show your departure and arrival city, as well as all names that are part of the reservation. That means if you are a family and purchased all tickets as part of one reservation, you only have to check in once for the entire reservation. However, if you are traveling with a group, but you purchased your tickets in separate transactions, each person will need to check in separately.
Next you will have the option to either confirm the seat assignments that you chose online or select them at this time. Note that if you have not selected seat assignments online, seats will automatically be chosen for you, but you can change these if your reservation allows. If you really want to take control of your seat assignment, you should check out the exact seat map of your aircraft and make a selection online as early as possible.
The last step will be to tell the airline whether you will be dropping off luggage with them to place under the plane for the duration of the ride, i.e. checking your luggage. The kiosk will prompt you to indicate how many bags per person you intend to check and verify that they are not over the weight limit of 50 pounds or carrying harmful items. In many cases these days, there is a one-way fee (generally $25 – $50) per bag and you will need to pay for these fees by using the kiosk to pay via credit card.
Once you are nearing completion of the check-in process, you will need to wait for several things to print from the machine. Don’t step away from the kiosk – for risk of an eager or impatient person swooping in too soon — until you have reached the finish screen, and you have the following in your hand:
- Boarding passes – if you have a connecting flight, be sure that you have boarding passes for all flights you will be boarding for your reservation. If there are multiple people part of your reservation, make sure that EACH person has ALL boarding passes.
- Checked baggage receipts – if you checked luggage, you may need to show the receipt to the representative when you drop your bag. Also, these machines aren’t perfect, so you want to make sure that the machine doesn’t try to say that you haven’t paid and end up paying more than once.
- Luggage tags* — some kiosks will print the luggage tags for you and you will need to tag your bags yourself; however, some luggage tags will print at the check-in counter and they will tag the bag for you. Just look around and see what is happening with people in front of you in line.
So you’ve still got this heavy suitcase that you just paid to check. Where does it go? Look in front of you towards the counters and you will likely see others taking their luggage to representatives. You place your luggage on the scale to verify the weight does not exceed the allowed amount and then representatives will whisk your bag away down the conveyor belt to [hopefully] make it on your flight. If you did not have your luggage tags printed from the kiosk, the airline representative will do this for you and provide you the tag receipt.
A note on checking in online:
Most airlines now prompt you via an email or text message to check-in online within 24 hours of your flight. This is a great option for saving time at the airport if you do not plan to check luggage. Checking in online means that you can essentially skip the Check In process when you arrive at the airport; however, if you are going to be checking luggage, I recommend that you simply check in once you arrive at the airport, because you will have to print your luggage tags and drop your bags in the same location anyway. If you prefer to be all digital, checking in ahead of time is the way to go so that you can have a mobile boarding pass. If you prefer to have a piece of paper in your hand, check in at the airport.
Okay, you’ve dropped that hefty bag and you are all set to head through security. At this point, you might be kind of flustered and you might have your ID and boarding pass shoved in a random purse or jacket pocket. Now is the perfect time to take a moment, breathe, and find your key documentation you will need to go through security, and eventually, get on that plane.
It is so easy to lose these key pieces of paper in the hustle and bustle of the moment. Place your ID and boarding pass in an easily accessible yet safe area, or opt to hold it firmly in your hand as you make your way to the security line.
Go Through Security
Check-in, done. Because you are about to go through security, you want to make sure that you and your carry-on are prepped for the experience. This means:
- Finish the water in your bottle (unless it is in a frozen state)
- Take off your coat
- Make sure your carry-on liquids are in a plastic bag and easily accessible to take out
- Take note of which electronics you may be required to take out of your bag
- And again, touch your ID and boarding pass to make sure it’s still there and handy
There are two parts to the security checkpoint: identification and screening. The people at the first part care about who you are, and the people at the second part care about what you have with you. For the identification part, there is a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer literally doing a identification check of your ID against your boarding pass and your face. For the screening part, both yourself and your belongs will move through pieces of technology that can detect harmful items.
Just like with checking in, there is an economy and priority line to go through security. If you find yourself in the shorter line, reconsider whether you are in the correct line because sometimes the signage isn’t super clear. Wait your turn to be called by the TSA officer and hand them both your ID and your boarding pass. They may ask you to state your name or DOB, they might smile at you, give a little grunt or head nod, or they might literally do or say nothing.
The second part involves more on your part because it’s the actual screening of your carry-on luggage and your person to make sure that you aren’t bringing anything harmful on board the aircraft. There are very specific TSA restrictions on what you can bring on board, and there are also very specific requirements when you go through the security screening.
That being said, they change it up all the time and depending the travel time, airport, and on the way the wind blows, so the best piece of advice I can give you is to stay alert as to what the people ahead of you in the line are doing and listen to the instructions that are being shouted by the TSA officers that are manning the security screening area.
The most common requirements are:
- Take your laptop out of your carry-on bag and place them in a separate bin
- Take your liquids out of your carry-on bag and place them in a bin
- Take your shoes off
- Take off bulky outerwear like coats and hats
As you approach the security screening area, you will see a conveyor belt moving towards a detector, as well as lots of bins flying around. You should place your carry-on bag directly on the conveyor belt, not in a bin. You should use the bins for items that you are required to remove from your bag and your person like laptops and items from your pockets.
After you’ve made sure all of your items are moving on the conveyor belt, you now will walk through the human metal detector to be cleared by another TSA officer. If you are cleared, simply wait on the other end for your carry-on items to be cleared and you are free to gather them and move on.
If something is detected on your person during your walk-through, you may be required to do some additional screening in the form of a wand metal detector or a pat-down. If you notice that your carry-on item did not make it through the screening detector, you will have to wait for a TSA officer to manually inspect the contents of your bag. Keep your eyes on your bag at all times and be sure to alert the TSA officer that the bag is yours when they ask.
The security screening process can be stressful for some, but the best thing to do is to come as prepared as possible. You don’t want to be the person that holds up the line for everyone!
Prep for Departure
You made it through security and depending on what time it is, it’s either time to run to the gate or slow down and take a deep breath. If your flight is already boarding and you are not close to your gate, sorry, but it’s time to run.
But if the airport process has gone smoothly for you, then you should be able to take a deep breath and make your way calmly to your departure gate. There you can check out what’s going on and make sure that your flight is still on time, and that the gate has not changed. You’ll probably see a lot of people just sitting with nothing happening. That’s your cue to go ahead and get your last-minute flight prep done. Get some snacks to bring on board, have a sit-down meal or drink, fill up your water bottle, and go to the restroom.
Take a peek at your boarding pass again for your boarding group number and seat assignment. Remain seated at the gate until you boarding group is called. Once called, you will make your way to the airport representative helping with boarding and hand them your boarding pass. If you are flying internationally, they will likely check your ID once more before boarding as well.
You’ve officially made it to the easiest part of the airport process. You are strapped in your designated seat and ready to get to your amazing destination.
Being on an airplane can be stifling to some, but it really is what you make it. Use this time and take it for yourself – read that book you’ve been meaning to read, binge-watch a downloaded Netflix series, or catch up on some Zzzzzzs. If you are struggling to find a way to make the most of this time, get some more ideas here.
Ready to learn what to do when you arrive at your destination? Keep reading Part 3: Arrivals, Customs and Immigration Guide.