Fundamentals of flying
This article is a travel topic
Taking a commercial flight is one of the safest ways to travel long distances. This is a guide to the standard procedures, rules, and other basics of travelling by air. For some tips to make your flights safer, more comfortable, and more enjoyable, see Tips for flying.
Planning your trip
If all the following information seems terribly complex, the easiest way to deal with it is to get a travel agent to arrange it for you. You may pay a small premium, but it may be worth it to avoid the hassle of finding and booking the best tickets by yourself for your particular route. Some travel agents can also arrange special requests (meals, baby bassinets, wheelchair assistance, etc) directly with the airline. Moreover, travel agents can advise you of packages that also include accommodations, airport transfers and guided tours hence also saving you some money compared to booking flights alone.
If your travel is other than routine, consider your well-being throughout your itinerary. This includes at least airline reputation, airport stopovers, destination safety and your basic health.
If you have health issues, consult your doctor and ensure the airline knows about any condition that might be problematic for flying well before the start of the trip...even before you pay for tickets. Airlines can often help you if you have physical limitations or some medical condition.
Finding cheap tickets
Airlines prefer to fly full planes, getting the maximum revenue for each flight; then supply and demand, yield management and competition take over. The result can be large variations in airfares, depending on the time and date, how far in advance you purchase a ticket, the ticket conditions and even the time and day of the week you book and pay for them.
You are likely to pay less for a ticket if you are flexible in your travel times and routes, and you are happy to have restrictions on changes and ticket refunds. Keep in mind:
The Internet offers opportunities for finding better airfares. Many airlines guarantee the cheapest airfares on their website, and independent agents may charge a fee for their services. Don't buy a fare without checking the price on the airline website as well as through at least a few travel search sites.
Major airlines may consider a connection as tight as 35 minutes to be valid, and if you don't have to clear Customs or exit and re-enter secure zones between flights, and the arrival and departure gates are near each other, this may be reasonable. However, you can get unpleasant surprises at unfamiliar airports. For example, your gates could be at opposite ends of the building, or even in separate terminals. If you're travelling through an airport you don't know well and travel time is not critical, consider allowing at least an hour and a half to make each connection, particularly if it involves clearing Customs (in which case two and a half hours is safer). If you are not delayed, you can use this slack time to eat at the airport, where the food is likely better than what you may (or may not!) get in the air.
Many on-line travel arrangers show statistics on how often a given flight arrives on time. Use this information to help you decide whether to risk problems with tight connections, etc. Generally, the last flight of the day into a given destination will be delayed more often than earlier flights, as the airlines use that flight to "sweep" travellers whose inbound connecting flights run late. Of course, the statistics alone won't tell you whether your particular flight is likely to be delayed, but it's still useful data.
With international connecting flights, check to see if the country you will be making a connection at requires a transit visa to go through their airport. Some countries, such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom require all passengers to go pass through customs and immigration even if they are just transferring between international flights. Others, such as Hong Kong and Australia will require certain nationalities to obtain a visa even if they plan to remain in the sterile area. You are responsible for procuring all the necessary visas before you fly; request them as early as possible. For more information about using the U.S. as a transit point as well as alternative transit points, see Avoiding a transit of the United States.
Reservations and ticketing
From the moment you first book your flight to the moment you step on the plane, there's a lot going on in the background. The following may be helpful in understanding what is happening especially if you intend to book flights the old school way (i.e. physically going to a carrier's ticketing office or your travel agency).
The first step is to make a reservation for your flight. This is done by contacting the carrier or your travel agent by the phone. No payment is necessary at this point. When making a reservation, the airline will hold a seat for you until a given date, typically a week or so after the reservation. If you do not pay up before the expiration date, the booking will be canceled and somebody else can grab the seat. Reservations can be changed and cancelled freely. This is useful if you are awaiting the outcome of certain procedures (e.g. approval of a visa for your destination). You will be given a six character-long alphanumeric code called the passenger name reference or PNR which you may quote when you're ready to purchase the ticket.
Turning a reservation into an actual ticket is called issuing the ticket or ticketing. An issued ticket must be paid for with cash/credit/debit card or redeemed with frequent flyer points/miles and - depending on ticket type - some or all of the following restrictions may now apply:
These various restrictions (or lack thereof) play a large role in determining the price of that ticket. As mentioned in the section finding a cheap ticket, a rule of thumb is that higher prices mean fewer restrictions.
Take note that if you intend to book a flight on-line (either through the carrier's website or consolidator websites like Travelocity and Expedia), the reservation and ticketing happen at the same time. Hence payment (usually by credit/debit card) or redemption (if using miles) is required immediately. However there are some advantages to booking on-line:
If you are still waitlisted for a flight that you would like to board, or if you would like to take an earlier or later flight than you're booked on, you can try to fly standby. This means simply showing up at the airport check-in counter and asking to be put on the next flight. If there is plenty of space, you'll be checked in right there. However, if the flight is looking full, you will have to wait until the flight is closed (typically 30-60 minutes before departure) and the airline can count how many seats it has left. Don't count on any special ticket savings if you fly standby and conversely, don't count on flying standby if you're ticket is highly restricted.
If you don't check in by closing time, you will be declared a no-show. Your seat can now be given to somebody on standby. The result depends on your ticket restrictions and conditions, which can be either total loss of your fare, or on some flexible tickets you can just book onto the next flight.
Here are other important notes regarding reservations and ticketing:
Paper and electronic ticketing
Most airlines today exclusively use electronic tickets (e-tickets). An e-ticket is an electronic record of your booking details which is stored in the airline's computers; you will not receive a paper ticket, which consists of a booklet of flight coupons. In most cases, an itinerary receipt containing your flight details is prepared and e-mailed or printed for your reference. The itinerary receipt contains a unique six-character Passenger Name Record (PNR), which is used to identify your booking.
While an e-ticket itinerary receipt has a lot of the features of a basic itinerary, it has added features such as a ticket number, baggage allowance, computation of the fare and surcharges, mode of payment, etc. It also comes with the conditions of carriage which includes your rights in case something happens to the flights you are booked with.
In theory, an e-ticket allows you to just show a valid ID upon check-in, as your name is all the agent needs to access your flight details. However, for security reasons, some airports require you to show a print-out of the itinerary receipt as proof of your booking before entering the airport and/or upon check-in. In addition, when travelling to another country, immigration authorities often require proof of onward or return travel. So always bring a print-out of the itinerary receipt with you for easy reference.
Due to concerns of credit card fraud, when you purchase e-tickets over the Internet with a credit card, some carriers require you to show the credit card used to purchase the tickets at the airport or their ticketing office for verification. Take note of this especially if the credit card holder is not part of the travelling party - they need to see the credit card, not the authorised signature of the credit card holder. Failure to do so may lead to re-issue of the ticket with the same (or higher) fare, and refund for the original ticket after many weeks or even months (if refundable; refund fees may apply).
In the rare event that you are issued with a paper ticket, you must present it when checking in for your flight. Look after your ticket; you cannot check in without it. If you lose the ticket, expect a lot of paperwork and/or hassles: you may be required to buy another ticket for the flight and have to apply for a refund later, or pay a re-ticketing fee. Not to mention that some jurisdictions will require you to file a police report. Hence if you're afraid of losing or forgetting your paper ticket, request for an e-ticket whenever possible. When you lose or misplace a print-out of the itinerary receipt, you can always freely and easily print another copy out from your email or request the carrier/travel agent to email it to you again.
The following issues and remedies are for those travellers with extra concerns about some conditions. Most people do just fine with a bottle of water, and perhaps a neck pillow and an eye mask for sleeping. For very-long flights, extra measures may be useful...as noted below.
Less common challenges
Restrictions and advice for these conditions can vary by airline, flight distances/times, total times to your destination(s), and availability of quality care.
Without your doctor's consultation, even good travel insurance may not cover you, especially if you fail to notify the insurer and airline. The insurer may levy a surcharge for special coverage, or may not cover for premature childbirth, pre- or post-natal complications or medical evacuation. The insurer and some airlines may also require written assurance from your doctor.
If your trip starts to gain complexity or substantial cost as you plan it, or you are less than an experienced traveller, you should seriously consider trip insurance. Its cost will basically be determined by your total trip cost, the age of passengers, level of coverage requested for certain problems (e.g., costs of treating sickness or injury, or medical evacuation), and coverage for domestic or international travel. Many insurance sources will cover pre-existing medical conditions if the insurance is purchased within a very few days of booking your trip; they may not if bought later.
Travel experts consistently recommend getting insurance from other than airlines (or cruise lines). They often focus only on the line's responsibilities, while a quality policy will cover your end-to-end trip. You may obtain better rates by buying a policy through or from an association you belong to, e.g., AAA, AA. Savvy, very-frequent travellers often consider long-term (annual) policies; coverage can be equivalent while costing much less per trip.
See travel insurance.
Amending Trip Details and Special Requests
Sometimes trip plans fall through for whatever reason or you may have additional requests (e.g. seating or meal preferences). If you purchased your ticket from a travel agency or a consolidator website (such as Travelocity or Expedia), please contact them or visit their website first before getting in touch with the carrier directly. This is especially the case if you purchased your ticket as part of a package (which includes accommodation and other tours). If you purchased your ticket directly from the carrier (through its ticketing office or website), you may contact them directly or go to their website to manage your booking.
Once you have confirmed your flights, be sure to let the carrier or your travel agent know if you have any special requests. Typical examples include:
You can check to see what meals to expect on Airlinemeals.net .
With some airlines, you need to remind the crew about your special meals order at some point before the meals are served, to save them from browsing the passenger list and finding you in the cabin (or even finding your special order after serving you regular meals). Travel agencies have a tendency to lose track of the many requests they get, so if it's really serious it's wise to contact the airline directly and make sure the message has gotten through, and to mention it at check-in. Major airlines support special requests on their web sites.
To board your flight, you'll at least need an airline boarding pass, paper ticket (if you were issued with one), and certainly and some form of government-issued photo identification (perhaps less for toddlers). If your flight (or connecting flight) takes you to other countries, you'll also need a passport ...quite often with an expiration date of at least six months after the date you start the trip and in some cases a visa. Check in-advance with your agent or airline. The credit card used to purchase the tickets may also be required to be presented for verification so bring that as well.
Any authority looking at airline tickets, boarding passes, passports or other identification will examine names carefully. TSA and other security authorities often require that key papers precisely reflect your full name. This applies to all persons in your travel group, e.g., spouse, children. This starts by making sure that whoever books your trip accurately enters each full name on the reservations and later-generated tickets.
Have convincing documentation that all medications belong to you, e.g., labelled bottles, copy of the doctor's prescription. (Take no more than will be needed on your trip.) If any medication contains a controlled/narcotic ingredient, make absolutely sure you will not violate any law of any country you'll enter...even as a through flight passenger. This may include having the country's written permission to carry the medications within its borders. Otherwise, the consequences can be severe, eg: immediate confiscation, possible prison, perhaps execution in a few jurisdictions if quantities are substantial.
And if you bought travel insurance, bring something describing the coverage, policy number and how to contact the insurer wherever you will travel.
Many airlines offer a frequent flyer loyalty program, rewarding patrons who fly regularly with them or who fly long distances. The loyalty schemes work on a segments or miles basis: you get rewards after you fly a certain number of trips ('segments') or after the total distance of your flights exceeds a certain amount. Business and first class passengers may receive bonus miles for each journey; sometimes there are available credit card and hotel bonuses for economy class tickets as well. If you are not a member of a frequent flyer program, consider joining one - especially if you travel to an intercontinental destination or plan to take additional trips. You may get something out of it, at the price of having your data profiled and used for advertisement. To join a frequent flyer program, brochures are handed out at the airport, an airline's lounge or an airline's ticket office. Submit them to the ground staff and your frequent flyer number becomes effective immediately. You can also join on-line. Most frequent flyer programmes don't charge a fee to join but some such as Cathay Pacific's Marco Polo Club do (in exchange for a few perks such as dedicated check-in counters and priority boarding at the base level).
Frequent flyer rewards typically include:
Not all fares are eligible to earn miles so ask the ticketing agent or read the fare rules at the time of booking. You can usually claim miles for flights up to 12 months after you've taken them, as long as you were a member when the flight was taken, but you will need to keep your boarding pass stubs. It's easier to log-in using your frequent flyer number prior to booking.
Currently only Travelgrove's  meta search engine is showing the miles that can be earned for each flight. In cooperation with MileBlaster, extras like Credit Card bonuses, Hotel bonuses, special offers are also available, and the results can be ordered by the percentage of the free flight that can be gained by booking the given flight, so it is definitely a good choice for frequent flyers looking to collect enough miles for a free flight.
Your airline of choice may be a member of an airline alliance, which allows you to earn and use your miles on other airlines in the same alliance as well. The big three alliances are Star Alliance , oneworld  and SkyTeam . With the many frequent flyer programmes out there, it will be ideal to be a member of one programme per alliance at most.
Being a frequent flyer programme of a particular carrier somehow makes it more convenient to make bookings with that carrier. When you log-on using your frequent flyer number and book a flight, your details (such as name, passport details etc.) are automatically filled-in whether the flight is mileage accruable or not.
You may also be able to claim points from other sources. Credit cards affiliated to a program are particularly useful, as you'll typically get miles every time you use them and this can quickly rack up to a free trip per year, but hotel stays, car rentals and even mobile phone bills may garner you points.
For flying, there are two basic types of luggage: checked and carry-on sometimes referred to "hold" and "hand" luggage, respectively, even "cabin baggage". Checked luggage is usually given to airline staff at check-in time and, after electronic or hand screening, transported by airport crew to temporary storage and loaded into the hold of the aircraft. Luggage limits for both types are discussed below.
Carry-on luggage is taken on board the flight with you. The weight and size limits for it can be very restrictive and can vary by airline (e.g., budget versus major carrier) and size of aircraft. Some may let you carry little more than a few essentials for comfort and small, easily damaged items. There the challenges start.
Fortunately, cameras, laptops, "purses" and outer garments often fall under separate allowances that may give you some relief and packing options, e.g.,:
All increase what you can carry-on, and (except for budget carriers) probably won't be protested or result in a fee unless you over-do it.
Pressurized containers, explosives, hazardous materials and weapons (or items that look like weapons) are prohibited entirely. For the USA, see the TSA's guide to Transporting Special Items . Note also "Carry-on Contents" below.
So carefully maximize what you can wisely put in checked luggage within weight and size limits set by the airline, minimize your valuables as much as possible, and be cautiously creative about satisfying the rules for carry-on. (More discussion follows.)
As you choose any case for travel (at home or at purchase), mind its empty weight, dimensions, ease to carry and apparent durability, e.g., well-made rollers and comfortable handle.
How much should I pack?
Once you have booked your flight(s), go to the airline's web site to fully understand its baggage limits and fees. Most legacy US carriers and low-cost carriers outside the US levy fees for checked bags; at least one airline also charges for carry-ons. Fees paid on-line in-advance may be slightly less than when paid at check-in.
Don't take more luggage and contents than you can carry/roll by yourself...to include items needed for infants and small children.
You may be tempted to take as much as you are allowed. But purchases can make your bag(s) overweight when you return...resulting in airline fees beyond those for starting the trip. This can greatly increase the real cost of even the best buys. Some experienced travellers with shopping plans even take and use some presentable but older garments, then donate or discard them before returning home.
Checked luggage is often thrown about in transit. If you have something that might not survive such handling, and it's allowed on-board, carry it on-board. Otherwise, leave it home. Travel insurance often will not cover fragile items broken in checked luggage. Placing a FRAGILE sticker provided by the carrier may not be sufficient to notify the baggage handlers that the contents are actually fragile.
If you have a large/long item (e.g., not easily carried on or checked), you'd best leave it home unless essential to your travel, such as sports equipment. If you do check it, there may be additional fees involved and it may be delivered to a special baggage claim area...perhaps some distance from where your regular luggage appears. It may also take extra time to be ready to claim.
Weight and Size Limits
Checked Baggage Fees
Check the packed weight of each "to-be-checked" case before leaving home; it will likely be different from any previous trip. For follow-on or return flights, you might take a hand-scale with you or ask hotel staff at destination if they have scales.
See also List Of Airline Baggage Limits for further discussion.
Dealing with overweight
For checked luggage, every kilo over the limit is paid as some fixed fee or a percentage of the airfare. This can get very expensive.
If you know your bags will be definitely overweight but you need to take so much, consult your airline. For a price, it may offer baggage "upgrades" before arrival at the airport for less than excess-baggage fees at the airline counter. Pre-booking excess baggage on-line can come with discounts.
You might consider shipping luggage as cargo, also known as unaccompanied baggage. Every airport has a company that will arrange this for you, and aggregators like xsbaggage  can find one for you. This has its trade-offs:
Several countries, including all EU countries and the US, now impose 100ml or 3.4oz limits on liquids, gels and pastes in carry on baggage. This includes aerosols, toothpaste, deodorant/antiperspirant sticks, all drinks (including water), lens cleaner, etc.
Due to new IATA guidelines, the above limits on "liquids, aerosols and gels" for carry-on baggage now apply to all international flights. See TSA .
Place all medications and liquids you'll need en route where they can be easily seen at security check. Ensure all medications are clearly labelled (especially prescriptions) and kept in small bottles wherever possible. Place all liquids not meeting the 3-1-1 Rule in your checked luggage.
Expect to discard all liquids and gels you carry through the security checkpoint that don't meet that country's regulations. Basically similar regulations apply for flights departing the United Kingdom, United States and continental Europe, e.g., more details for the United Kingdom can be found at the Security control section of the official BAA Heathrow (www.baa.com) website.
You may be required to demonstrate the harmlessness of any liquid upon request by security officials.
Pack no sharp or weapon-like objects in carry-on baggage; if seen (likely), they will be confiscated. Even "convincing looking" toy weapons are illegal in some countries.
Food/water: If your flight goes to the United States, Australia, or New Zealand, take no more fresh or un-packaged food than you will eat before you arrive. Those countries have strict rules about bringing-in food. It may be seized, and may generate a major fine. On longer flights there will probably be a meal or snack served (or offered for purchase) anyway. Check at least before boarding, if not sooner.
If you are hypoglycaemic, diabetic, or have blood-sugar issues, you might take a few non-perishable packaged snacks. Again, don't count on being able to buy such items at any airport without checking in-advance. If you have a tight connection, you may have no time to then buy what you need en route...even if a shop has it.
If you feel need for your own bottled water while flying, you might purchase it after you pass through personal security inspection (but check the airport description in-advance to ensure such a shop is available), or you might bring an empty bottle and refill it after security check.
Insecticides. Fifty countries worldwide, including China, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand require that insecticides (usually residual types) be used on planes. If the airline (e.g., Hawaiian Airlines) does not use residual insecticide, the plane may be sprayed in-flight before arrival in those countries. If you might be sensitive to such chemicals, ask in-advance what is used so your doctor can determine if it will affect you.
Amusements. Unless you sleep easily on flights, you might want to keep yourself occupied, especially on long flights. Five "empty" hours may be tolerable, but much longer can go beyond boredom. Some planes have the latest in-flight entertainment systems, recorded music/movies/TV episodes, and on-board games...with all visuals presented on a small-screen TV. Others may have little or nothing. Visit your airline's website or seatguru.com  to check. For long flights, some carriers offer earphones...often for a price. If you plan to plug-in your own headphones/earplugs, ensure you have plug adapters. The airline's web site should list permitted electronic devices; on-board, look in the in-flight magazine. Perhaps even better, treat yourself to a good book.
Comfort items (some mentioned elsewhere):
For your consideration...
If you put electronics (e.g., music player, headphones, laptop, cell phone) in your carry-on bag, electronic screening is more likely to generate manual inspection; so pack them to make inspection easy. In most countries, laptops are scanned separately from other carry-ons; you'll have to remove yours from any bag/luggage having other items. Make sure its batteries are charged at least enough to "boot" it up for a simple demonstration.
Most regulations allow you to carry on an umbrella if it fits in your bag, the overhead bin or under your seat. If you must have a type that won't fit, consider putting it in your checked luggage or buying one at your destination.
Airline gate security may confiscate any carry-on items they feel are "suspicious", often without recourse - you'll not be able to put those items in checked baggage because all checked pieces are by then inaccessible...awaiting loading aboard your aircraft.
Tips As You Pack
For contents of your to-be-checked luggage, pack as much as possible in resealable plastic bags (2-5 gallon).
Place heavy items toward the bottom of any to-be-checked bag (as it stands upright), and avoid putting any heavy item in the same bag with anything fragile. Any content likely to trigger a manual inspection should be placed where it will be quickly seen as the bag is opened.
For significant liquid quantities in your checked luggage (e.g., shampoo), choose rugged screw-capped bottles with tops not designed to pop open...even if you must buy them separately and manually fill them at home. Otherwise, use new/unopened bottles of product still sealed, and tape any pop-open cap tightly to the rest of the container as well as the opening. As above, put such bottles in separate, burped and sealed plastic bags to protect other luggage contents. If you are weight-constrained and can conveniently purchase such items at your destination, consider buying them there rather than packing them.
Never put any kind of unprocessed film in checked luggage. Any existing exposed images, and any ability of the film to be later exposed, will be completely and permanently destroyed by the x-rays used in scanning.
Place identification on both the outside and inside of your bag.
If an airline loses bags, it will often lose one rather than all (except for major delays and flight cancellations). So distribute clothes and other necessaries for everyone in your group among all the bags you have. Delayed baggage coming in on a later flight is far more common than truly "lost" baggage (over 24 hrs.)
You should consider reinforcing your to-be-checked luggage so it won't break open due to rough handling. Two ways include:
If the number of your outbound checked bags doesn't reach the limit, and you know you'll make some purchases, consider packing a soft bag in your checked luggage. You then have it as an option to pack unbreakables in it as an extra checked bag for return.
Locking your bags
All bags passing through major airports receive either electronic or manual security inspection, perhaps both. If you're not sure about the airports you'll use, consult your agent or airline for details. All checked bags to/from or within the US get electronically scanned at least once.
If to be manually inspected, they must be opened. If locked by other than approved locks (e.g., by TSA for the U.S.), inspectors must cut or break them (and perhaps your zipper-pulls) to get inside.
Consider also that snugly applied luggage straps or wrapping can create enough complexity to deter most thieves, thus reducing the need for locks.
Items to wear on-board
In-flight cabin temperatures can be unpredictable and may vary during flight. Experienced flyers dress in layers that they adjust to need for comfort.
Before you fly
Most international airport terminals are standardised, with similar procedures for check-in, security, immigration and customs. English is the standard language of aviation.
Reconfirming your flight
In general, it is no longer necessary to call the airline to reconfirm flights, as reservation systems are fairly reliable. Instead, just check the reservation on-line (see the next section) and call the airline only if there are problems.
The main exceptions are when you are flying way off the beaten track on an airline that doesn't (or looks like it doesn't!) do computerized reservations, especially when there won't be another flight for a week. Off the beaten track in Indonesia, for example, it's wise to reconfirm not just once but twice — although you may still get bumped off if a VIP and his harem show up at the last minute.
Checking your reservation
It's always good to double-check that your itinerary is still correct before you fly. Not only can you check that everything is order, but also you can see whether any waitlists have cleared, flight times have changed, your special requests are properly recorded, etc. Most major airlines offer several convenient routes for checking, such as website, smartphone app, and telephone. Check in in good time, as in case of flight cancellation or overbooking an earlier flight may still be available. If your carrier makes any changes to the itinerary they or your agent will try to contact you but they may not reach you in time. There are a number of on-line services that allow you to check reservations; however, you'll have to figure out which reservation system was used to do the booking. This is usually printed at the top of your itinerary, but if all else fails you can always ask the agent.
Note that low-cost carrier flights will not show up in these systems.
In cases of terrible weather (e.g. blizzard, fog) or recent airport closures, it is always advisable to get in touch with your airline before you leave home to see if your flight will push through as scheduled or if it is delayed or cancelled. If your flight is cancelled and you have been put on the waitlist for a future flight, don't come to the airport until you have received confirmation from the airline that you will be able to fly on the flight which you are waitlisted for.
Getting to the airport
If you want to reduce stress get to the airport at least an hour before the recommended minimum check-in time. There are a number of procedures you need to complete before boarding: check in, security check, and perhaps immigration control. Airlines will typically have departure boards (displays) indicating a flight's status. The most important status indicators are Boarding or Go to gate, which is a sign that you should promptly complete check-in and proceed through the security check, and Final call or Last call, which means that you should board the flight as quickly as possible or the aircraft will leave without you.
If for some reason you are delayed and you're worried about missing your flight or the flight status indicates that you are in danger of missing your flight, find a member of your airline's staff or talk to staff at the security gate. If you are really in danger of missing your flight, they can arrange for speedy check-ins and for you to be moved up in queues. But they won't notice if you don't tell them. Calling for late-passenger instructions while you are on your way to the airport can also help. The plane will not wait for you; but it might wait if you're one of 50 connecting passengers on a delayed flight.
(Check with your airline for recommended minimum check-in times. This can be as little as 30 minutes for domestic flights from regional airports in countries such as New Zealand that do not have security screening to as much as 3 hours for an international flight to or from the US where the security theatre can be extensive and time consuming. This extra hour will also give you a buffer for delays on the way to the airport.)
Especially in cities which are served by more than one airport, you must know the name of the airport and the specific terminal within that airport you are departing out of. Keep in mind that if you arrive at the wrong airport, it can take an hour or so to go to the correct airport. Terminals can also be far away from each other so be sure to be at the right terminal too. The name of the airport as well as the terminal you will use are detailed in the itinerary prepared for you by the airline or travel agency.
When asking the taxi driver to take you to the airport, don't just mention the city name and then the word airport (e.g. London Airport), mention the name of the airport and the terminal (e.g. London Heathrow Terminal 5). Keep in mind that an airline may operate from more than 1 terminal, particularly if it has domestic and international flights so telling the taxi driver you want to go to the terminal where a particular airline operates may probably not be enough.
If you are asking for airport limousine/shuttle service, giving the flight number is usually all the telephone operator needs as they know which airline flies out of which terminal.
The same cautions apply if you use rail service to reach your airport. Some airports have such an array of terminals that metro lines, subways or railways may have more than one station.
At the airport
Some airlines allow (or sometimes require) you to check in online, often within 24 hours before scheduled departure, and some no-frills carriers such as Ryanair will even charge you a hefty fee if you fail to do so. Online check in can often be done through the airline's website, or sometimes by smartphone app. Apart from the booking reference or e-ticket number you also identify yourself by frequent-flier or credit card number or by giving personal details. Upon completed check-in you will often be sent a boarding pass to print out by yourself; again, failing to do so may result in surcharges from some low-cost carriers. If you enter the correct information but are denied check-in, your flight may have been cancelled or the reservation modified by the airline; in that case it is wise to contact the airline immediately, preferably before going to the airport.
If you have been able to check-in and print your boarding pass before hand and have no baggage to check you can just proceed directly to your gate and flight with your printed boarding pass. However, some carriers insist that they inspect and verify your travel documents before allowing you to go through security. If you have hold baggage to check, drop it at the bag drop lane. Removing old route tags from your bag before proceeding to the bag drop will speed up this process and avoid redirection.
If you have not been able to print your boarding pass before hand, you will need to check in for your flight with the carrier's ground staff or its representatives. (Some carriers already charge a fee for using traditional check-in counters). Present your ticket (if you don't have an electronic ticket) and some form of ID (passport if travelling internationally) to airline staff at your flight's designated check-in counter or at common check-in counter, depending on your airline.
You will typically have to queue before check-in: on very full flights and very busy days this alone could take more than an hour, particularly for international flights. There are usually separate, and much shorter, check-in lanes for first, business class passengers, upper tier members of the airline's frequent flyer program (e.g. silver, gold) and sometimes those who checked-in through remote methods (e.g. on-line check-in). If the queue is long and your flight is leaving within the hour, your flight status is already showing "Go to gate" or you are approaching the check-in deadline for your ticket, let airport staff know as they will often allow you to go to the front of the queue and check in immediately. Sometimes they will specifically ask for passengers for a flight that is about to close to make themselves known so that they can check them in right away, but sometimes they will not. Discount airlines have the strictest check in deadlines and some will not allow you to check in after the deadline even if you made it to the end of the queue in time.
With some airlines you will receive a boarding pass with a seat assignment, while some do not assign seats. You will need a boarding pass to present to the security staff and later to the gate staff when boarding the flight. At this time, your checked luggage will be weighed, labelled, and handed off to baggage handlers.
Some airports offer curbside check-in, which allows you to check-in your bags before entering the terminal. These are normally available on domestic US flights and do what the standard check-in counters inside do except that they will not issue boarding passes to you. You will have to obtain them inside if you haven't done so from on-line check-in. Curbside check-in is offered nowadays for a fee levied by the carrier, sometimes on top of prevailing check-in baggage fees. Moreover, tips for the staff are expected.
The check-in staff will print a bar-coded luggage tag once your bags are processed; the longer part of it will be attached to your luggage while the shorter part will be given to you. Keep this, as upon arrival, some airports may require passengers to present these along with their luggage to ensure that the person carrying the luggage is indeed the owner. These luggage tags are also useful if you suspect some of your check-in luggage are missing or similar to other luggage. Before the ticket agent attaches the new luggage tags for your upcoming flight, be sure:
In case your journey for the day involves several flights, you may want to request to have your baggage checked-through. Check-through is when your baggage will be tagged all the way until the last leg of your journey and in most cases, you do not need to claim your baggage in your intermediate stopovers any more (especially for international-international or domestic-domestic flights on full-service carriers; does not apply to international-domestic connections). You need to inform the check-in staff of the flights which will be covered by check-through for a particular journey as they can't assume that's your preference. However, check-through is not always possible, make sure you inquire of the check-in staff. You may check the section "Making a connection" below and are advised to contact the carriers concerned for more information on when check-through may or may not be possible.
An increasing number of airlines are implementing a self-check-in system at certain airports. In most cases this option is available to passengers with or without check-in bags. These systems involve small kiosks in which you can enter your booking reference, swipe/insert the credit card used to make the booking or swipe/insert your frequent flyer card (if it has a magnetic strip) to access your record and print out a boarding pass for you and your traveling party. You may have the opportunity to change your seats when checking in; in particular, many airlines do not open the exit rows until the day of the flight. In recent times though the self service check-in kiosks of some carriers have been extended to include features that allow passengers to check-in baggage by themselves.
A good number of carriers also offer checking-in via mobile phone either by visiting the mobile website or downloading a specific app on your smartphone. At the end of the process, some carriers may give you the option of being issued a mobile boarding pass depending on your origin and destination, though carriers that offer them usually don't do so for international flights. You don't need to print your mobile boarding pass, just present it to security staff.
As mentioned earlier, if you checked-in via kiosk or online, the airline usually provides a special lane for you where the rest of the check-in process will be expedited. At this counter, please provide the information and documents that were given to and/or requested of you. Some carriers require passengers who used self check-in to proceed to designated check-in counters to have documents verified, even if they do not have check-in bags.
Overbooking is the practice of accepting reservations for a flight from more people than can fit on the plane. Almost all airlines overbook their flights, as statistically some percentage of passengers do not show up for the flight.
It does happen, though, that more people check in than can fit on the plane. When this happens, the airline staff will ask passengers to volunteer, either at the checkout counter or after the plane is full, to remain behind and take another flight. If your travel plans are flexible (such as on the homeward leg of your excursion), you may wish to volunteer, to receive the compensation that airlines usually offer to get out of this predicament. If there are no volunteers, passengers will be chosen by the airline to stay behind. "Bumped" passengers are almost always offered passage to their destination by some other route or on a later flight; it is common for airlines to offer a voucher for a substantial discount on a future flight, or even cash, in compensation for the inconvenience. If an overnight stay is required, the airline will usually pay for a hotel and meals during the delay. Your rights are regulated at the country level; some airlines may offer additional compensation (but their policy on this is rarely published). Sometimes they will increase their offer for volunteers if the initial offer does not get enough interest.
If you want to avoid being bumped you should get seat allocation as soon as possible. Sometimes a travel agent can do this when reserving your flight, sometimes you can do it electronically with your reservation or by checking in early on the Internet before arriving at the airport. If you have no seat allocated to you then you are at risk of being bumped at the airport, even if you arrive a long time before other passengers who may already have seats allocated.
Compensation for denied boarding for flights in the European Union is €250 for distances less than 1500 km, €400 for distances between 1500 and 3500 km, and €600 for distances greater than 3500 km (half if the delay is less than 2, 3 or 4 hours, respectively) in addition to an alternative flight or a refund of the ticket . If inquiring by telephone, ask for the current load factor, which is the ratio of reserved seats to capacity. Anything greater than one indicates an overbooked flight, while your chances of boarding as a stand-by passenger decline as the load factor increases.
When a flight is cancelled, the reason given is usually some kind of technical or weather-related problem. Sometimes the real reason is that so few passengers have checked in that it is cheaper for the airline to cancel the flight and rebook the passengers on a later flight, or even on another airline. If a flight is cancelled, the airline is obligated to get you on the next available flight to your destination, but interpretations of "next available" vary and, for some low-cost carriers like Ryanair, this may mean a long wait indeed. Unlike with overbooking, passengers are not legally entitled to any compensation except the unplanned expenses of food and hotels. Within the European Union, the same compensations like denied boardings apply, unless you have been informed more than 14 days in advance or the airline claims they're not at fault like weather conditions (which they typically do).
If a cancellation has been caused by them, they are required by law to pay you certain compensations and/or arrange lodging and/or meals until you can be flown to your destination.
Your boarding ticket specifies Boarding time -- which is when boarding starts (not when it ends). Usually the boarding starts even after the printed time, but for short flights at least 30+ minutes before departure...for international flights on large aircraft, sometimes 45+ minutes.
The gate closes (boarding stops) usually only 10-15 minutes before departure so give yourself plenty of time to get to the gate, especially if the airport is large, you are far away from the gate, or you don't know your way around the airport. Contact your travel agent for advice.
Aviation security is no laughing matter. Even before the airliner attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, most countries took it very seriously, but since then security regulations have been tightened, and airport security personnel will be very strict in implementing them.
The Process. You'll usually check any luggage with the airline at the ticket counter. It will be at least electronically screened for security as it goes to a holding area to be loaded on your flight.
Then, as you walk to your gate, you and your carry-ons must go through personal security screening. It involves the following basic steps.
If you have any kind of metal in your body for any reason (e.g., pace-maker, artificial joint, combat wound), be prepared for the alarms as you go through body scanning. Your doctor may help you obtain some form of proof for TSA or other security inspectors. This may avoid an unnecessarily invasive pat-down.
Hints. To pro-actively avoid delays or stoppages at the screening...
After body screening, you may be told to go with a screener to hand inspect your belongings...usually because electronic screening cannot identify an object. Otherwise, go to the end of the "line" electronically screening your luggage, etc., claim your possessions and exit "security" into the "airside" terminal.
As you are going through this procedure, try to have someone you know keep all belongings in-view to avoid loss if someone else picks up a wrong item or tries to steal yours. (Security personnel are focused on keeping the terminal area secure. They won't notice if someone "lifts" your bag (or something in it) or loose belongings because they don't know to whom it belongs.)
Depending on the country, taking prohibited items to the security checkpoint even by accident may be considered an offence, and the items concerned are not just subject to confiscation. UK airports may limit their gate security scans to one item per person but with little regard for carry-on size limits; you may need a large, soft bag to hold all carry-on items just for that check; find out before you begin your trip.
Based on perceived threats or improving technologies, details about what's allowed and procedures for scanning may change. Just follow instructions. Some security levels, airlines, or flights going to certain regions, may require additional screening at your gate as you board...usually manual.
After you pass through security you'll usually be able to reach (without more checks) one or more departure areas or wings of the terminal...possibly quite large, some with up to fifty gates. Beyond security, you are in the secure area (finally!), sometimes termed airside. Even casually leaving it will require that you go through security processing again. Lacking any essential papers, you may be in some difficulty.
Secure Area/Airside Depending on the airport, the area may be bare, with a few services, or full of shopping and entertainment. If your schedule means you'll spend some time there, go to your departure airport's website before leaving home to learn which facilities and services you'll have while waiting to board, as well as how to get around the airport. (If you have an extended layover en route, check on that airport as well.) Prices of items and services tend to be higher than common stores/restaurants. Major airports also offer lounges for frequent flyers, et al.
Your flight will have an associated gate number where you'll board. This is indicated in your boarding pass and the overhead monitors.
While waiting, ensure you miss no change or announcement about your flight, e.g., gate change, delayed departure. This also includes checking the overhead monitors since most airports don't orally announce to the entire terminal when a flight will be about to board. If you miss your flight by not heeding any, you will be responsible for making other travel arrangements, not to mention paying a "no-show" fee before being allowed to travel with that particular carrier again.
Premium passengers (ie First/Business class and elite members of frequent flyer programmes) as well as passengers needing special assistance will get a chance to board first. The rest of the economy class passengers will board by row number, usually those at the back go first. Board only when your group is called. You don't want to block the aisles so try to estimate if you will board first, middle or last within your group.
Most airlines will attempt to find passengers who are late for boarding, because for security reasons they have to go through the time consuming process of unloading checked baggage if passengers do not board. Usually they will page late passengers by name at least twice before closing the flight. If you hear your name paged, either go to the gate immediately if it's nearby or find airport staff and let them know who you are if you are not yet close to the gate. They can usually get you there before you're locked out of the plane. However, delaying a flight will not make you popular with staff or fellow passengers!
Smoking is now uniformly prohibited both inside the aircraft, as well as in airports. There are still airports, however, which have smoking lounges in the post-security waiting areas. These are few and far between and Smoking Transit  has the most comprehensive list of smoking lounges in airports around the world.
Helping the Cabin Crew
They are not waiters. Their duties require many tasks as they try to make you and all others safe and comfortable while boarding. They ensure that all food and supplies are properly delivered and stowed. But they also scan and help passengers who may be distressed, ill, unable to find seats, find their seats already occupied, behaving combatively, or even on the wrong flight. They do all this as they appear to be just standing around. You can and should help at least in these ways...
This will free them to do truly essential pre-flight tasks.
Before the flight
Meals and Delays
Scheduled meals (if any) will often be timed and typed to complement the time zone of the flight's destination. As a result, first or early servings may not match your departure time. For flights that promise no food during meal hours, consider buying something at the airport (in the secure area); most lines will allow you to carry it on-board.
On-board meals for some airlines may be brought in from one of its base or hub airports rather than from a local source. This takes considerable time. Meals kept too long for any reason may have to be discarded due to safety. Scheduled meals may then be limited to packaged snacks/cookies and drinks... not the fault of the crew.
Making a connection
Direct flights continuing on to another destination
Direct international flights with a domestic leg
In this case, there are 3 main scenarios on when you clear customs and immigration.
Make sure you follow instructions carefully and ask the ground crew if anything is in doubt. If you leave the secure/sterile/holding area when you're not supposed to, it can be very difficult to get back in.
Reaching your destination
You'll need some currency usable in that country. Unless you already have it, plan to withdraw some (e.g., using a debit/ATM card) while in the terminal (sometimes not at the very best rates available). You may only immediately need enough for taxi fare and incidental tipping. But consider that fixed fees also charged can amount to a substantial percentage cost for small withdrawals, thus eclipsing any excellent rate you may get for a large withdrawal elsewhere.
Children flying alone where the airline assumes some duty to care for them are known in airline jargon as unaccompanied minors. The airline will supervise unaccompanied minors, usually putting them in a row down the back of a plane where a flight attendant will check on them during the flight. They will disembark last, and will only be handed over to the person identified on the form you complete when checking in.
Some airlines (mainly discount carriers) will not accept unaccompanied minors, and impose restrictions on the supervision that must be provided to younger children, often that children 12 or under must be accompanied by a guardian 18-years or over.
Some airlines that do accept unaccompanied minors may charge a specific fee for the service, or may charge indirect fees by not allowing on-line booking, or not allowing child discounts.
Generally a child must be over 5 to be accepted as an unaccompanied minor. Some airlines require all children under 12 to travel this way, while airlines like KLM require it of all children under 15. Usually it remains an option for children until 15 or 17, depending on the airline.
Once a child has reached the age where they do not have to be checked in as an unaccompanied minor they fly the same as any other passenger would.
Other restrictions may be applied by airlines where the flight is not non-stop. Sometimes the minimum age for a connecting flight is 8 years or over. Airlines will never allow unaccompanied minors to transfer between different airports in the same metro area via ground transportation.
If the assigned person does not meet the child from the flight, the airline reserves the right to return the child to the origin immediately at your cost.