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Fundamentals of flying

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    This article is a travel topic

If only all flights had this much room to spread out!

Commercial aircraft flight is one of the most common forms of long-distance travel and certainly one of the safest. This is a guide to the standard procedures, rules, and other basics of travelling by air.

For some tips to making your flights safer, more comfortable, and more enjoyable, see Tips for flying.

Planning your trip

Flying and climate change
While nearly all forms of transport release greenhouse gases, aircraft are especially notorious offenders with the aviation industry being the fastest-growing contributor to the acceleration of climate change. This is not just due to the vast distances travelled, but because aircraft release greenhouse gases higher in the atmosphere, where their effects are more potent. A one-way flight from London to Singapore releases the equivalent of 4.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person, or about half the average yearly emissions of a person in the UK. Shorter flights have higher emissions than longer ones per km travelled due to the amount of fuel used taxiing, and during take off. (See: Environmental impact of aviation on Wikipedia).

Individuals concerned about the environmental effects of flying could choose to travel overland on suitable journeys or explore carbon offset schemes for travelling responsibly.

See also: Ecotourism


If all the following planning, flight trade-offs and ticket purchasing seems terribly complex, the easiest way to deal with it is to let a travel agent 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. He/she can also arrange special requests (special diets, 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 that save you money compared to booking each separately.

Safety

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.

  • Check official government sources for travel warnings. If they or news sources show potential for trouble, check with your agent, airline or airport website about your travel. Whether or not you are a US citizen, you may be interested in the US State Department's travel warnings and those by other relevant governments. Those warnings can affect departures from US or other airports to areas having a warning, and departures from such locales to your country.
  • Look at the safety record of the airline, the aircraft it uses, and airport reputations if flying into smaller airfields or less-developed countries. Also look for flight segments you've been offered under a code-sharing arrangement, where you book on a reputable airline but actually fly on a different one for any part of your trip. You may then be flying an airline or aircraft with a poorer or unknown safety record, or that has baggage capacity less than you may need for your trip.
  • Look at crime, strikes, political unrest and other risks at your en-route stops or destination(s). They might affect your flight or (more likely) your experience at your destination. Without obsessing over pickpockets, understand destinations or specific locales where travel could be complicated, or where foreigners are not welcome, at risk or often exploited. Then plan accordingly.

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.

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 (eg: 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.

Finding cheap tickets

       See also: First and business class travel

The airlines' basic motive is to fly full planes, and to get the maximum revenue it can 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 are purchasing a ticket, the ticket conditions – 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:

  • Last-minute flights are expensive. Book as early as you can to get the best deals, as the cheap fare classes fill up fast. Also, you have no claim about a special deal until you pay for your ticket(s).
  • Return (or round-trip) tickets, where available are priced lower than flights purchased separately. Especially for legacy or full-service carriers based in East Asia, single (one-way) tickets are almost always charged the full fare.
  • Monday morning and Friday evening are the most popular times for business people to fly, which increases demand and can limit the available seats.
  • Holiday seasons are times of high demand, because everybody else is also on the move. Worldwide biggies include late December to early January (Christmas/New Year and southern summer vacations) and July-August (northern summer vacations), but watch out for local holidays as well, such as the Golden Weeks in China and Japan. However, flights on the actual holiday days, such as Christmas day, are often discounted, as are flights against the peak travel flow.
  • Direct/non-stop flights (see box for the difference) from A to B may be expensive, as some people will pay a premium for the convenience and there is little competition. Transferring at point C is a time-consuming hassle, but it can save you a bundle, as there are many options and airlines are competing to undercut each other.
  • So-called budget airlines may offer attractive ticket costs. But take care with additional fees charged that may greatly reduce the cost advantage that airline may appear to have over others.
Travel Warning

NOTE: In no way should the mention of certain on-line travel sites in the article below be taken as an endorsement of their services. There are many other such sites that could have been mentioned.


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.

  • Sites such as Expedia and Travelocity can help you explore your options, but note that these may not show low-cost airlines flights, and they are rather North America-centric, often showing ridiculously inflated (full-fare) prices for travel outside North America.
  • Kayak may be an alternative. To find a low-cost/no-frills flight it can be good to check one of the comparison tools, such as flylowcostairlines.org.
  • For international travel, you may get the best deals by booking from an agent at the starting point. But try travel search sites such as Momondo and Vayama to understand costs, flight frequencies and routes. If you are a student, or under 26 or over 65, some travel sites and agents are tailored to offering low fares to you.

Connections

Direct vs. non-stop
In the airline world, a direct flight means that it uses the same plane and flight number, but there may still be a stopover along the way — this means that you may have to disembark the plane with your carry-on luggage and, in countries like the US, even go through immigration. Look for a non-stop flight if you want to get from point A to point B in one flight.


       See also: Avoiding a transit of the United States

Flying from point A to point B often involves a connection in point C, where you have to disembark, find your connecting flight and climb on board again. If both the A-C and C-B flights are on the same ticket, the airlines are responsible for broken connections and will (try to) get you on the next flight if you miss your flight. This may also be the case if you are flying the same airline or airline group (One World, etc) and you have allowed the required connection time between flights. However, if you're booking your flights separately making the connection is solely your responsibility. If you are flying on an airline or fare type that doesn't permit last minute changes you may lose your fare when one airline's delay makes you late for the next one. Paying a little more for a flexible fare on the final connection can not only avoid this risk, but can also let you catch an earlier flight if you make the connection quickly (subject to availability and you may still need to pay for any fare differences).

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 traveling 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 and possibly more affordable 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" travelers 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. You may find it easier if you can avoid passing through these destinations, particularly the United States which has the same requirements for a transit visa as for a tourist visa. 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.

Reservations and ticketing

The rather difficult-to-obtain US visa

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 (ie 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 cancelled 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 (eg: 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.

  • A seat reserved for you will be listed as confirmed in your reservation, and will not be taken away, at least not until the time limit given to you has expired. However, you can't fly yet until you purchase the ticket. You can confirm only a single seat in each direction per ticket.
  • If a specific flight is fully booked but you want to try to get on it, you can make a waitlisted reservation. If the waitlist "clears" (somebody else cancels and you get their seat), the waitlisted reservation becomes confirmed and your previously confirmed seats on other flights are cancelled. You can usually waitlist multiple flights, but really cheap non-changeable tickets may not allow any waitlisting at all.

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:

  • nonchangeable/nonrebookable: you cannot change the flight time and date (at least not without paying a heavy change fee). In cases of rebookable flights, whether there is a rebooking fee or not, you will still need to pay for the fare difference.
  • nonendorsable: you cannot fly another airline if your airline has problems (for serious cases like flight cancellations this is usually overruled by local legislation)
  • nonrefundable: you cannot get your money back if you don't fly (in North America it might be possible the unused fare may be used as credit for purchasing another ticket after a penalty/administrative fee is deducted if cancelled beforehand; in most other places though the entire fare will very well be forfeited)
  • nonreroutable: you cannot change to another route, even if the destination is the same
  • nontransferable: you cannot sell the ticket to somebody else
  • non mileage accruable: you cannot earn frequent flyer miles on that ticket
  • nonupgradable: you cannot upgrade to a more premium class using frequent flyer miles

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:

  • these websites are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (except for rare occasional maintenance) so you don't have to wait until the next business day to go down to a ticketing office or travel agency to be ticketed for a flight or even make enquiries about available flights/promos
  • a service fee is levied by some carriers for ticketing done through phone or in-person booking; you can save yourself this money by using the on-line facility instead
  • a good number of promo fares nowadays are offered exclusively online so check with them

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 your 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:

  • While a reservation guarantees you a seat, it does not guarantee the fare that was quoted. Hence the fare at the time of reservation may differ from the one given at the time of ticketing. The fare quoted is only guaranteed if you're ready to book right away.
  • Flight restrictions can be draconian — some companies even ban standby changes — so you'll have to pay (sometimes dearly) to make any change; some also do not allow refunds. Check your conditions carefully.

Choosing your seat

Standard economy seating

A few airlines do not assign seats (e.g., Southwest), but do assign you a boarding group based on how early you confirm your flight on-line within 24 hours of the flight.

As they receive your booking for a specific flight, most airlines will promptly assign you a seat. If so, consult SeatGuru (noted below) and visit the airline web-site soon after. If dissatisfied with the automatic selection, see if you can choose another inter-actively from all available seats on the plane in your cabin class. If you are checking in at the airline's counter with no seat yet assigned, you should ask if a desirable seat is still available.

What's desirable? Different seat types on a plane have advantages over others. The greatest determiner of a desirable seat will be your cabin class.

  • First Class is always at the front of the aircraft to minimize engine noise, and offers luxurious seating with generous leg-room and well-padded, wide seats. On aircraft configured for long routes, the seats often recline fully to create comfortable single beds. Each may be set within walls providing some privacy. These features, plus the superb meal, drink and services that accompany them, drive the typical cost of tickets to many times that for economy class.
  • Business Class will also be located toward the front of any aircraft, immediately behind first-class if any. Seating will also be very comfortable, often able to recline markedly if not fully. The newest seats also have walls for some privacy. These features, plus deluxe meal, drink and other services, drive the typical cost of tickets to several times that for economy class.
  • Economy Class makes up the bulk of aircraft seating. Some aircraft will have two "flavours"...a premium economy that offers greater leg-room than the other...standard economy.
    • In those flavours, seat-width and "pitch" basically determine comfort, though newer designs may have seat cushion and seat back contouring that also help. Pitch means the distance between a fixed point on one seat and that same point on the seat behind it. It basically defines the amount of legroom someone will enjoy or (possibly) suffer.
    • In standard economy on full-sized aircraft, pitch can vary from 30-32 inches, and width from 17-18.5 inches. In premium economy, seats may only offer greater pitch, perhaps 35-36 inches; on many flights, that extra legroom comes at substantial cost. On long flights, these variations can be enough to make travel comfort range from acceptable to somewhat miserable, e.g., 17 inches for the portly can force them into the space of seat mates, a 30 inch pitch can cause a tall person some pain.
    • In regional jets or short-haul propeller aircraft, widths can be under 17", while pitch can be 28 or so inches.

SeatGuru and other sites can provide seating maps/details (and other information rarely shown on airline web sites) to help you judge whether particular aircraft and seating will be comfortable for the travel you plan.

Beyond cabin class, other considerations include:

  • Window seats, popular with many flyers, as they allow you to look out the window, rest your head against it while sleeping and not be disturbed by other passengers. The major downside is that you'll have to clamber over a seat mate or two to reach the aisle for any purpose. You may also have slightly less floor space due to the curvature of the plane, and the wall can become quite cool.
  • Aisle seats, the choice of some road warriors because they make it easy to get out and off the plane, provide more leg space, and make it easier to get up and stretch your legs. On long flights, though, it's hard to sleep with people walking by, seat mates climbing over you, and the risk of your elbow being hit by a service trolley passing by. Planes usually disembark row-by-row, so a seat further forward will often get you out at your destination quicker than an aisle seat farther back.
  • A third possibility is middle seats, which combine the disadvantages of both aisle and window seats without the advantages of either, although taller passengers may still be able to see the view from the window.
  • Many double-aisle/wide-body aircraft may have just two outer seats near the windows, with four or so between the aisles. These outer seats are desirable for couples and friends who can easily "coordinate" needs to get to the aisle. The middle seats may be useful for families.

On well-equipped aircraft, some seats in each row may have entertainment electronics installed underneath. These can compromise foot room for those seated behind. Poor foot room can be a major annoyance and source of discomfort on long flights. SeatGuru/other site details can help you avoid them.

There are also some special seat rows:

  • Exit row seats are next to the emergency exit rows, and have significantly greater legroom than standard seats. You also have easier access to the aisles regardless of whether you are sitting in an exit or the aisle seat. A disadvantage of these seats is that the tray tables are tucked into the armrests on some aircraft and as a result, you can't lift the armrests between seats. This shouldn't be much of a problem when you have occupants beside you, but if there is none you may want to but can't spread out a bit. In addition, many carriers may require all your hand baggage to go in an overhead compartment; there are no seats directly in front of you under which to store items. Passengers in these seats are required to help attendants with the door in an emergency. If you are physically unable to help, if you are deaf or blind, if you are a child or supervising a child, or if you are pregnant, you won't be allowed to sit there . Because of the desirability of exit-row seats, some airlines now charge extra for them, using the name "Economy Plus" or similar. If you're quite tall, you may sometimes get these seats without paying but don't count on it. Ask specifically at check-in and state the reason you want/need one.
  • Bulkhead seats are in the first row of each section and thus have no seat reclining into you.
    • You may face a wall, and thus will have no seat in front of you to store carry-ons; like exit rows, you'll have to store all your baggage overhead.
    • Legroom can be different from other seats...sometimes better but sometimes worse.
    • They're often the only seats that can be outfitted with infant bassinets, so most airlines reserve them for families with small children. You may be able to snag one on check-in (some airlines assign them as regular seats without request) or even at the gate, but then you run the risk of sitting next to a baby or infant for your entire flight. They also have the tray table built into the armrest. Portly people can have difficulty folding the table into position for use.
    • Some bulkhead seats have a bulkhead immediately behind them. That often means the seat back cannot be reclined at all...not a problem if you always sit upright.

Those wishing to avoid airsickness should choose seats over the wings of the aircraft, near the centre of gravity. Occupants of those seats tend to feel less turbulence than passengers in seats toward the rear.

Passengers who want a bit more elbow room (even in economy class) should consider the last row of window seats on the plane. Due to the curvature of the plane, window seat passengers near the end of the plane may have a tad more elbow room on the window side...sometimes enough to fit a medium-sized totebag. However, per some notes in SeatGuru/etc.,:

  • "Window seats" in the back row may in fact offer nothing more than a blank wall.
  • If close to the lavatories or a galley, you may be bothered by waiting passengers or odours.

Paper and electronic ticketing

File:Turkmenhowayollary ticket.jpg
Ye olde Turkmenistan Airlines ticket

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. Moreover, the airline's computer systems are subject to scheduled and unscheduled downtime. In both cases airline ground staff don't have instant access to passenger bookings and will instead have to rely on paper records and hence process passengers manually. 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 extremely 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 person who gets hold of a lost print-out of an e-ticket itinerary receipt cannot use that as it needs to be complemented by a valid and authentic ID at the airport.

Health

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.

Common issues:

  • At high altitude, cabin pressure is much lower than on the ground...often equivalent to 8,000 feet/2500 meters above sea level. This can generate great discomfort if ears or sinuses are clogged, e.g., by allergies or a cold. If congested, and if your doctor has no concern about complications, consider taking a decongestant (anti-histamine optional) an hour or so before departure...an extended release form for a long flight. (If you hope to sleep, note that such potions make some people restless.)
    • As any flight descends, most people have some trouble with pressure in their eardrums. That's why babies often cry loudly, having been quiet for the rest of the flight. Pinching your nose, closing your lips and trying to exhale can relieve the pressure. Another remedy is a product called "EarPlanes," which are disposable earplugs available for US$5-10 dollars at pharmacists. The plugs are specially designed to regulate the pressure in your ears and can dramatically make flying easier for people who suffer ear pain when flying.
  • Your nasal passages can dry-out during multi-hour flights...rendering you slightly more susceptible to airborne infections. Drink plenty of liquids (without alcohol or caffeine), perhaps use a moisturising nasal spray (eg: saline solution rather than topical anti-histamine), and consider using a simple face mask on long flights to conserve lung and sinus moisture as you breathe. (Masks otherwise offer only marginal protection against airborne disease.)
  • Cabin temperature can vary, and for window seats the wall can be quite cool. Consider taking a coat, jacket or newspaper on-board. Wear warm socks, and if in a window seat, put something between you and the wall...a few layers of newspaper help considerably.
  • Contact lenses. On multi-hour flights, you should use re-wetting drops frequently, or consider wearing prescription glasses instead...especially if you hope to sleep. The very-low cabin humidity can cause dry contact complications for your eyes. (As for any long trip, take spare contact lenses and/or prescription glasses.)
  • Sanitizing wipes can be very useful on-board and in airports...to clean hands, tables, tray tables, arm rests, and key bathroom surfaces that have heavy use and unknown or (perhaps) neglected cleaning. Choose pre-wetted packets rather than bottled liquid for security-check convenience; avoid those only for hands (often leave a residue of glycerine); and choose those that contain sanitizing ingredients beyond or other than alcohol for more effectiveness.

Less common challenges

  • If you need oxygen en-route, check with the airline to see if the type you need is feasible; if so, have your doctor, agent and/or airline arrange it well in-advance.
  • If anyone in your party is handicapped in other ways (e.g., mobility, vision), you'll want the airline to know in-advance, preferably as you book your flight. With notice, they can make appropriate seat assignments, arrange assistance in the terminal, and notify the cabin crew of your needs. Beware: not all airlines are equally accommodating.
  • If ill (especially with anything that might be contagious), you really shouldn't fly. In the close quarters of a plane, perhaps for hours, with 200 or more people going eventually to countless places, you could start or spread misery, even an epidemic. You should defer travel until you have recovered. If an airline or security agent notices symptoms, you may be interviewed...at worst denied boarding. Good trip insurance can help with the expense of delayed travel.
  • If you've had surgery or a plaster cast applied within the last 15 days or so, you'd best avoid flying. Low cabin pressure can cause extremely uncomfortable swelling. Consult your doctor.
  • If pregnant, consult your doctor for your particular circumstances. A fair introduction to these travel-in-pregancy issues.

Restrictions and advice for some of these conditions can vary by airline, flight distances/times, total times to your destination(s), and availability of quality care at each stop.

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. (See Travel insurance.)

Trip insurance

Main article: travel insurance

With the possible exception of very routine travel, you should seriously consider travel insurance. When applying for certain visas, this is also a requirement anyway. The cost may be determined by your total trip cost and duration, the age of travellers, level of coverage requested for certain problems (eg: costs of treating sickness or injury, or medical evacuation), and coverage for domestic versus 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.

Airline insurance purchased at the time you purchase your ticket may only focus only on the airline'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, eg: AAA, AA, AARP. Very-frequent travellers should consider long-term (annual) policies; coverage can be equivalent while costing much less per trip.

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), you should 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 should contact them directly or go to their website to manage your booking. Major airlines support special requests on their web sites.

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:

  • special meals (vegetarian, kosher, medical restrictions, allergies, etc)
  • special seats (exit row seats for tall people, bulkhead seats for baby bassinets)
  • airport assistance (wheelchair or unaccompanied minor)

You can check to see what meals to expect on Airlinemeals.net.

Airlines not providing meals in the price of your ticket.

With some airlines, you need to remind the crew about your special meals order 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 got through and to mention it again at check-in.

Important documents

An Armenian passport

To board your flight, you'll at least need an airline boarding pass, paper ticket (if you were issued with one), and certainly some form of government-issued photo identification (perhaps less for toddlers) - check with the carrier you are flying with to find-out acceptable identification. If your flight (or connecting flight) takes you to other countries, you'll also need a passport, often with an expiration date at least six months after the date you start the trip. Depending on countries you'll fly to or make connections in, you may need one or more visas. Check in advance with your agent or airline as well as the website of the embassy of the countries you wish to visit; without all the necessary documentation, your trip may be at risk. The credit card used to purchase the tickets may also be required to be presented for verification especially if you booked online, 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 med 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 imprisonment, and even 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 are.

Frequent flyers

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).

The frequent flyer rewards typically include:

  • Free flights and Upgrades. Once you have earned enough miles/points, you can claim a flight and/or an upgrade award. The mileage cost of the award will vary depending on your itinerary. Take note though that although the fare is free, you will still have to shoulder government taxes and surcharges collected at the point-of-ticketing.
  • Redemption of free goodies (such as consumer goods and hotel stays) on other non-flight partners.
  • If you collect enough points in a year you can become an elite member, which can include additional perks such as check-in at the first/business class counter, early boarding, priority in waitlists, complimentary upgrades, and access to airport lounges. Lounges are also available to holders of some credit cards: Diners Club [1]; GlobeCard Platinum; Master Card; and American Express.

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's simpler to be a member of one programme per alliance, at most.

Being on a frequent flyer programme of a particular carrier 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 the card and this can quickly rack up to a free trip per year, but hotel stays, car rentals and even mobile phone bills may also garner you points.

Mergers and frequent flyers

Sometimes due to the nature of the airline industry, mergers and acquisitions between carriers are inevitable. This will have implications for your frequent flyer accounts if you have one with at least one of the parties to the merger. In general, only the miles in the accounts of the carriers which are party to the merger will be affected. This means if you flew one of these carriers but had your miles credited with the account of another carrier, such miles won't be affected; but conversely if you credited mileage activity from other carriers, hotels into the frequent flyer accounts of the parties to the merger, such will be affected. The following scenarios usually apply:

  • if you have frequent flyer accounts with both parties to the merger, the miles in both accounts will be consolidated into the frequent flyer programme of the new/surviving carrier; it is possible that you may be assigned a new account number
  • if you have a frequent flyer account only with the acquired party to the merger, a new account will be created and all the existing miles in your previous frequent flyer account will be transferred there
  • if you have a frequent flyer account only with the surviving party to the merger, your frequent flyer miles should remain unaffected; however you may still be assigned a new account number
  • if you accrued miles from flights with both carriers but had the miles in each occasion credited them to the frequent flyer programmes of their respective partners (not involved in the merger of course), your miles with the latter should remain unaffected

When your account is affected in any manner by the merger, the carrier will contact you (at least through email) with details about how the merger affects your account and what you need to do to protect/use the miles in your account (it is hence essential that your contact details are updated). Alternatively, when a merger is imminent, the carriers will usually set-up a micro-site detailing the procedures as well as providing FAQs on how the merger affects the frequent flyer programme members from both carriers and what members may need to do to protect/use the miles in their accounts.

Packing

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, eg: a medium backpack or small roll-on suitcase. The weight and size limits for it can be restrictive and can vary by airline (eg: 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.

  • Never put high-value or irreplaceable items in your checked luggage. Somehow you need to personally carry all your official/valuable papers, cash/bank cards/passports and high-value items (e.g., jewellery, electronics, Rx or irreplaceable medications) with you. Most insurance policies and airlines will not cover these items when placed in checked luggage. Moreover, emergencies may happen unexpectedly during the course of your journey, and you may need immediate access to some such items.
  • Understand what liquids you're allowed to carry on-board, eg: see the TSA 3-1-1 rule, with metric equivalents adopted worldwide. This includes foods made with syrups/gels/pastes, eg: peanut butter, jams, jellies. If you consider packing such, keep them within the 3-1-1 Rule.
  • You may want or need to include some comfort items (discussed below).
  • For vacations, you'll likely want a camera, perhaps a laptop. (Their support accessories can go in checked bags because not valuable per se, so not interesting to thieves.)

Fortunately, cameras, laptops, "purses" and outer garments may fall under separate allowances to give you some relief and packing options, e.g., in addition to a backpack/small suitcase,:

  • You'll probably be allowed to carry on a modest camera bag.
  • The purse allowance doesn't specify gender.
    • Women can choose one that is rather generous...but not outrageous.
    • Men may be allowed a modest shoulder bag or small backpack.
  • Some travel-item sellers offer coats and vests with many pockets, able to hold many small items. You may already have one.

All may help 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.

Carry-on Limits/Suggestions

IATA guidelines apply the 3-1-1 limits (in metric equivalents) to all international flights. They impose 100 mL (or 3.4 fluid oz) limits on all liquids, gels and pastes in carry-on baggage. This includes aerosols, toothpaste, deodorant/antiperspirant sticks, all drinks (including water), etc that you try to carry through the personal security check.

  • All containers for those liquids must fit in a single clear bag/pouch smaller than 20 cm x 20 cm (or 1 quart). Each container inside must meet the 100 mL limit, (eg a 250 mL toothpaste tube with only a small amount of toothpaste left is not allowed). If you want to fill your personal quart bag to the max, freezer bags hold slightly more than sandwich bags and are more sturdy as well.

These restrictions are usually enforced at terminal security checks. If you want your own water on-board, take empty bottles through security and fill them from an air-side drinking fountain. Some exceptions are possible, eg: for medical necessities or baby care items. Sanitizing wipes individually sealed in packets are allowed and highly useful in-flight. (Bottled or in packets, sanitizers designed for hands tend to contain large amounts of glycerine to help prevent drying skin. They should not be used on other surfaces...will leave an undesirable residue.)

Duty free items purchased within the secure area of any airport that exceed the 3-1-1 limits may be allowed on-board. But be careful of en-route aircraft/terminal changes where you may have to re-check through security. Though sealed in a tamper-proof sack, containers of liquids originally bought "airside" may not be allowed through "re-check".

Place all medications and liquids you may need en-route where they can be easily seen at security check. Ensure all medications are clearly labelled and kept in small bottles wherever possible. Place all other liquids not meeting the 3-1-1 Rule in your checked luggage. You may be required to demonstrate the harmlessness of any liquid you're carrying upon request by security officials.

Expect to discard all liquids and gels you carry through the security checkpoint that don't meet that country's regulations. Details for the United Kingdom can be found at the Security Control section of the official BAA Heathrow website.

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 many countries.

  • This includes pointed scissors (however small), pocket knives, Swiss Army knives, screwdrivers or similar tools, baseball bats, martial arts weapons, and so on.
  • Pack sharp items in your checked bags in ways that don't create risk for baggage inspectors.
  • If passing through the USA, check the list of prohibited items at TSA.

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 will be seized, and may generate a 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. If you have a tight connection, you may have no time to buy what you need en-route to your gate...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.

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.

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 visuals presented on a small-screen TV. Others may have little or nothing. Visit your airline's website or SeatGuru to check. You'll need earplugs or earphones to hear entertainment audio. For long flights, some carriers offer earplugs...often for a fee. If you plan to use 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 warmth, consider a light jacket, vest, wrap or small blanket; if clothing, wear it aboard (won't be counted as a carry-on item) then remove it as you take your seat if not needed. If you have a window seat, have something to shield your legs from the cool wall.
  • For sleep on longer flights, you might want a neck pillow or something that keeps your head upright.
  • For very long flights, savvy flyers bring something to pad the small of their backs (e.g., cushion or roll) and slippers.

For your consideration...

  • If not interested in entertainment audio, consider a pair of foam earplugs. Even on short flights, engine noise or a restless small child near you can be bothersome. The announcements can also be annoyingly loud, because they have to be clear even with engine noise. They'll reduce the noise level but still allow you to hear instructions in an emergency...or
  • If you're a frequent-flyer or going on a very-long flight, consider quality noise- cancelling headphones or earplugs. They can help much more than foam earplugs. Choose carefully for long-term comfort.
  • Sanitizing wipes: If you'll be using your seat tray-table, use sanitizing wipes on your tray, armrests and hands. Also use wipes on key surfaces before you use the aircraft bathroom. Several may be needed on long flights. Again, avoid using hand-sanitizer on hard surfaces.
  • Lightweight blanket...many airlines no longer offer them...especially for flights less than 5 hours or so.
  • Newspaper...for reading, and to insulate against the cabin wall if needed.

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 be easily seen. In most countries, laptops are scanned separately from other carry-ons; you'll have to remove yours from any bag/luggage holding 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 item they feel is "suspicious", often without recourse - you'll be unable to put those items in checked baggage because its by then inaccessible...waiting to be loaded aboard your aircraft.

In some airports, security of checked luggage has been an issue; contents have occasionally been stolen while checked bags await loading on your plane. Such thieves focus entirely on valuables, not support items. So carefully maximize what you can wisely put in checked luggage within weight and size limits, minimize your valuables as much as possible, and be cautiously creative about satisfying the limits for carry-on. (Note also discussion below on securing your bags.)

Choosing luggage

Modern carry-on luggage: one "personal item" and one size-restricted rolling suitcase per person

As you choose any case for travel (at home or at purchase), mind its empty weight, dimensions, ease to carry and apparent durability, eg: well-made rollers and comfortable handle.

  • Lighter cases allow you to pack more.
  • Very large pieces (even lightweight) tempt packing too much or violating size limits.
    • Experts recommend large cases with lengths of 25-26 inches to minimize accidental overload when fully-packed. Fixed-shape designs from major brands will be dimensioned to meet standard airline restrictions. Better designs include expansion capabilities on trips when weight or size aren't limited.
    • For greatest ease of carrying, you might choose fixed-shape wheeled luggage. Two quality wheels should track well and last the life of the bag. Four wheels eliminate carrying any weight while rolling the case.
      • Some luggage makers offer capabilities to pull two wheeled bags in-tandem as one. However, negotiating stairs, escalators, even ramps can be challenging.
  • Carry-on luggage must fit in overhead bins or under the seat in front of you. To preserve your foot room (crucial on long flights), you'll want to put as much in the overheads as possible.
    • Fixed-shapes from quality brands will be sized precisely to fit "standard" overhead bins, eg: for large Boeing and Airbus aircraft, up to 22 inch long roll-ons.
    • Many flights within Europe and elsewhere use "regional" jets with small overhead bins and little room under seats. The "official" "Euro" standard is 20 inches, but even that may not fit in their bins.
    • Soft, partially-full bags may fit in smaller or nearly-full bins where fixed-shape luggage can't. Pack them carefully to protect contents.

How much should I pack?

       See also: List of airline baggage limits
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/small children or the elderly.

  • Airports generally have baggage carts for rent, but you'll need local currency (usually coins) to "rent" one. In some countries (e.g., the United Kingdom), you cannot take these carts through security checkpoints into secure/airside areas.
  • Some airports offer free carts...more often in areas for arriving flights.
  • Nearly all airports and hotels have porters, usually working for tips.
  • Elsewhere, you'll likely be entirely on your own. Too many bags or too much weight can become a major burden.

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 is rarely sufficient to change the way baggage handlers take care.

Large Items

If you have a large/long item (eg: not easily carried on or checked), you'd best leave it home unless essential to your travel, e.g., 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

  • Carry-on luggage most anywhere: 1 piece (in Europe, maximum weight 7, some airlines 12 kg), maximum size 20x40x55 cm (9x14x22 inches)...in Europe, often 20 inches length.
  • Checked luggage on international flights outside the United States: 1 piece, maximum 20 kg (44 lbs).
  • Checked luggage on international flights to/from the United States and within the United States: 1 piece, maximum 23 kg or 50 lbs.

Checked Baggage Fees

  • If you're travelling domestically in the United States, keep in mind all airlines (apart from low-cost carriers JetBlue and Southwest and a few regional commuter airlines) charge, eg US$25 for the first checked bag and US$35 for the second. Originally confined to itineraries wholely within the lower 48 states, fees for each checked bag are now assessed on virtually all itineraries that do not cross an ocean: still plan on paying if you're flying to Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, some South American destinations (usually flights to "deep South America" i.e. Argentina, Brazil, and Chile get at least one bag for free.)
  • Elite frequent flyers are usually permitted between one and three bags free of charge, depending on airline and tier.
  • First and Business Class passengers may be allowed three bags for free.
  • Air Canada charges checked bag fees on "transborder" flights to or from the United States. Unlike US carriers, they do not assess bag fees on Canadian domestic itineraries, or flights to Mexico, the Caribbean, or other destinations in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Some European low cost carriers (eg: Ryanair) have no free checked luggage allowance and charge per kg.
  • On any airline, you'll be charged if your bags are over weight or over sized. Low-cost carriers in-particular often have lower limits, higher fees for overages.

Other Concerns

The smaller "carry-on space" on regional jets may force you to check an item at the counter, gate or aircraft entrance that you can usually carry on-board other aircraft. This creates increased risk of theft if it contains valuables. If in doubt, check in-advance with your agent or airline about all flights and aircraft types on your itinerary. "Extra" airline fees can sometimes be punitive.

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.

Dealing with overweight luggage

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.

  • As above, weigh your luggage before you leave home (or, at least, before you approach the airport check-in counter). Once you place your bag on the scales at check-in, some airlines will not allow you to take out contents, and even if they do, it's an embarrassing hassle.
  • For carry-on luggage, weight is usually only checked at the check-in counter, if at all. Once you pass the check-in, you'll have to look suspiciously overweight to have your hand luggage checked.
  • If you were close to the allowed weights outbound, make sure you wear the same (kinds of) clothes back home. If you go to a tropical isle wearing jeans and jacket, and return wearing flip-flops and shorts, with checked bags holding the heavy clothes, etc., you could have luggage weight problems.

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 online can come with discounts.

You might consider shipping luggage as cargo, also known as unaccompanied baggage. Many airports have companies that will arrange this for you, and aggregators like xsbaggage [2] can find one for you. This has its trade-offs:

  • Fees charged can be quite high.
  • Your bags will be shipped separately...necessarily a few and perhaps several days earlier. Instead of claiming them at your destination airport, you'll have to arrange collection or delivery somewhere else, e.g., pre-arranged with the hotel where you'll stay. For international locations, you may also need to do Customs declarations/claims for your unaccompanied bags, which can be a hassle.

Tips As You Pack

For contents of your to-be-checked luggage, pack as much as possible in resealable plastic bags (2-5 gallon except for bottles of liquids).

  • They will greatly help security inspections and repacking your luggage. And they'll protect contents if your checked luggage is exposed to the elements while waiting to be loaded or offloaded at your aircraft.
  • Before you seal them, thoroughly press out all air ("burp them"); otherwise, at altitude the bags will burst.
  • They are equally useful returning, plus they keep soiled items separate from other content.
  • Use burped and sealed, resealable gallon, litre or quart-size bags for bottled liquids in-case bottles leak during flight.

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 (eg: 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.

  • Rugged, well-attached luggage tags are crucial...at least name, address, phone. Those that have a flap to cover your identity are preferred.
  • Copies of your trip itinerary inside and in an outside pocket can be equally useful. Pertinent information should include: name, address, telephone number, e-mail address, flight number(s) and date(s) you are travelling, point of departure, aircraft/airline changes, and all en-route/destination airports, hotel names/address(es) and dates/times of stay. This information can prove crucial for airlines or others to locate you or forward your luggage if your tag or the airline tag comes off (called a "tag off") or the luggage gets miss-routed.
  • If packing a box, put your name, address and phone numbers in big block letters and numbers on at least 2 opposite sides, plus an itinerary sheet inside.

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 hr.) Take a photo of all your checked baggage so you won't have to verbally describe it. This is especially important where language barriers might be a problem. Lost and delayed luggage is more common if you depart from a larger airport than a smaller one. This includes any transfers, but the size of your arrival airport doesn't matter. Non-stop flights also help minimize the chance of luggage hassles.

  • As a last resort, airlines can search a worldwide database of the contents of bags that have been misdirected...based on passenger declarations of contents at lost-luggage offices. They do not catalogue each item inside a bag, so declare one unique, easily-seen item in your bag to help the airline find it.
    • All the more reason to place copies of your itinerary inside and outside your checked bags.

You should consider reinforcing your to-be-checked luggage so it won't break open due to rough handling. Two ways include:

  • Tightly applying brightly-coloured security straps. Ensure any strap-ends are well-secured/tucked-in so they won't be snagged in handling. The colours will help you find your checked bags at baggage claim. Otherwise, consider customizing the outside of your checked luggage with brightly-coloured tape/ribbons/etc. so bags don't look the same as hundreds of others at luggage claim.
  • In major airports, you may find a luggage-wrapping service. If so, for a fee, they will wrap any piece of luggage in multiple layers of clear, tough plastic sheeting. (Such wrap is not permitted if your baggage will go through US and some other countries' security screening; they must be able to quickly inspect contents manually.) Wrapping occurs before you present the luggage at the airline counter to be checked. So, make sure the weight of the wrap doesn't make the item overweight. Also make sure your name tag is clearly visible...preferably outside the wrap.

If the number of your outbound checked bags doesn't reach the limit, and you know you want to purchase items for return, consider packing a soft bag in your checked luggage. You then use it to pack unbreakables as an extra checked bag for return.

Securing your bags

Plastic wrapping and locks are common, but not terribly effective security measures

The probability of having items stolen from your luggage is very low. But it does happen. Lost or pilfered bags or items can be quite serious for you, especially as you begin a long or important trip. Other discussion about luggage tags and printed itineraries help avoid mis-routing. A few steps can help deter damage and thieves.

All bags passing through airports receive either electronic or manual security inspection, perhaps both. If you're not sure about all airports you'll use, consult your agent or airline for details. All checked bags to/from or within the US receive electronic scanning at least once. This is also common within nearly all developed countries. As noted above, for security/protection of film:

  • Electronic scanning of checked bags usually includes x-rays strong enough to reveal objects in relatively thick luggage. Those rays will ruin any unprocessed photographic film.
  • Electronic scanning of carry-ons uses low-power, less damaging radiation. Unprocessed film may not be damaged by one or a few such scans. But repeated scanning may cause some fogging. Professional film photographers often pack film in pouches designed to protect it; when seen, the pouches often generate hand-checking, but most examiners have seen them before.

If any bag needs to be manually inspected, it must be opened. If locked by other than approved locks for that country (e.g., by TSA for the U.S.), inspectors must cut or break them (and perhaps the zipper-pulls they're applied to) to get inside. If you will check hard-shelled luggage with "built-in" locks, consult the airline or your travel agent for usability.

  • After manual inspection, bags are re-packed and re-secured by inspectors, with your lock, your luggage strap and/or a strong plastic tie joining the zipper-pulls, all so that later tampering becomes difficult. If so tied, you'll need a knife, finger nail clippers, scissors or such to cut the tie after claiming the luggage. Put one in an outside pocket of a checked suitcase - the "rules" allow them there.
  • You may see such ties as you claim your luggage. If contents were manually-inspected, you'll often see a paper inside to that effect when you first open the luggage.

You may also be directed to check one or more bags (that you expect to carry-on) at the ticket counter, aircraft gate or as you step board. Reasons can include:

  • You've over-packed one or more of them, or have too many. (On budget and some international airlines, this can involve a major fee.)
  • Part of your journey is on a regional jet that lacks in-cabin space to store them properly. (May also involve a fee.)
  • If after you've boarded a full-sized plane, the cabin staff realizes that no more in-cabin space is available. They will then make the "dreaded announcement"...that those not yet seated must allow nearly all their carry-ons to be taken to the hold; they will receive special tags. This shouldn't apply to carry-ons you can fit completely under the seat in front of you (if there is one).

Because carry-ons are much more likely to contain valuables, they are more subject to thievery. You should lock them (or be ready to) any time after passing the personal security check. If not practicable, snugly applied luggage straps will generate complexity for thieves. You'll usually see all checked luggage at the regular baggage claim; for smaller aircraft you may have gate-checked carry-ons returned as you depart the aircraft.

Some travellers take extra precautions with checked bags...at non-trivial costs:

  • To quickly locate their bags at luggage claim, they may fasten flashers/beepers to the outside that they can trigger by a device they carry.
  • Others may place GPS tracking devices inside their luggage that indicate its location...helpful if lost or misrouted.

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.

  • For cabin comfort, you might use a soft jacket for warmth or as a blanket or pillow, especially since such items may not be offered on-board. The cabin wall can get quite cold from outside temperatures; if you have a window seat, you'll need something for insulation against the wall...even a few sheets of newspaper can help remarkably. Warm socks/slipper-socks can be useful especially if you wish to doff your shoes on a long flight.
  • To/From Disparate climes
    • When leaving a cold country/region for a warm one, consider leaving major winter wear with friends if they'll take you to the airport and pick you up on return; this can also lighten your luggage.
    • For travel to a cold region from warm, carry at least a lined jacket; it might be some time before you gain access to warm clothing in your checked baggage.
  • Aircraft interiors may not be cleaned as frequently as you'd like, especially on budget airlines. If important to you, consider wearing something in-flight that you can doff soon after de-planing, to clean it later.
  • If travelling for business, don't put all work wear in checked bags. If any goes missing, you should have one complete outfit between what you wear on-board and your carry-on luggage...to conduct business well-dressed despite trouble with checked bags.

Before you fly

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 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 online 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.

  • Abacus/Sabre [3]
  • Amadeus [4]
  • Apollo/Galileo [5]
  • Though Worldspan also offers such information, it now is accessible only to those with a valid Worldspan server installation, and ready to use ID and GDS for sign-on.

Low-cost carrier flights often will not show up in these systems.

In cases of terrible weather (e.g. blizzard, fog) or recent airport closures, 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 for which you are waitlisted. You should check occasionally to learn of any progress.

Getting to the airport

Especially in cities which are served by more than 1 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 Airport 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.

You need to arrive at airports well before your flight as 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.

Checking in

Check in at Brasilia's airport

The flight ticket itself does not enable you to board the plane; for this, you need a boarding pass. Check-in is the process of producing your boarding pass, which includes seat numbers, departure times and gates. In the security check, only passengers with boarding passes are admitted in. You can often do the check-in yourself electronically, either on-line or with check-in kiosks at the airport. Check-in is not to be confused with baggage drop, which requires prior check-in.

Check-in is handled by the carrier's ground staff or its representatives. Some airlines allow (or sometimes require) you to check in on-line, 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. On-line 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 travelling to the airport.

The first thing you will need to do at the airport is check in for your flight. 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 (eg: silver, gold) and sometimes those who checked-in through remote methods (eg: 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.

  • You may face the same challenges in lines/queues for the personal security screening. If time is short, use the same methods as for check-in to get help.

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 is missing or similar to other luggage. Before the ticket agent attaches the new luggage tags for your upcoming flight, be sure:

  • You've removed any old airline tags.
  • Your new tag(s) reflect your destination airport...checked-through as below.

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 travelling 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 on-line, 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.

Electronic check-in is possible only in routine cases; if there are special needs or inconsistencies with the tickets (such as mismatches with names), only manual check-in at the counter is possible.

Overbooking

To volunteer or not to volunteer?
In most cases, if a flight is overbooked airline staff will first ask for volunteers to take another flight. In some cases, volunteers will receive slightly better benefits than persons involuntarily removed from a flight. Such benefits could include more monetary compensation, a bump in class, or a discount granted for a future flight. However, if you are travelling as a group you may be split apart and seated throughout the aircraft or even in separate classes on your new flight(s). Additionally, you may be required to make more flights than planned (ie your overbooked flight from Paris to Atlanta may become flights from Paris to New York and New York to Atlanta. If the compensation offered is for future travel, consider if you are flying with that airline in the next 12 months.

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. Consult your travel agent or the airline. If inquiring of the airline 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.

Meals and Delays

Departures information displays in Houston

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. Beware: the selection at airports may be poor.

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, which is not the fault of the crew.

Flight cancellation/delay

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).

Be aware that weather can cause the very strange phenomenon of being denied boarding because of weather for a flight that does depart on-schedule. This is usually caused by weight limits and takes two forms:

1) Predicted weather may make the flight longer, and so increase required reserve fuel. Most planes can't take a full load of passengers and full fuel; if they must fill the tanks more than expected, they might have to leave some people behind.

2) As it gets warmer the takeoff roll increases (the air is less dense and so decreases wing lift as it slightly decreases engine thrust) but the runway doesn't get any longer. If the air temperature gets hot enough, they may have to reduce weight for the plane to get safely in the air.

Occasionally flights are delayed...for other reasons, e.g.:

  • The aircraft may have a maintenance problem.
  • Weather or other conditions at your destination or an en-route airport may have made one of them unusable.

Airlines never unnecessarily cancel or delay flights...it costs too much, in money, perturbs many other flight schedules, and generates poor public relations. When they do delay or cancel, they usually go to great lengths to arrange seats on another flight, sometimes even on another airline. 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.

Boarding time

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.

Security check

Security check

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.

  • You must present identification (perhaps except for toddlers) and boarding pass(es) for your flight. Keep your ID and boarding passes with you throughout the process.
  • You'll be instructed to:
    • Remove all bulky outer garments (e.g., sweaters, jackets) and (often) your shoes...and place them in a bin/tub going through separate electronic scanning or manual inspection.
    • Place all carry-on bags/purses/laptops and the clear bag of liquids in tubs/bins on the line for separate scanning...laptops separated from any case and its accessories. Put the clear bag of liquids on top where it can be easily seen/inspected.
      • This is your last opportunity to avoid delays, by placing all metal or electronic items (e.g., cell phones, coins, keys) into a bin/tub.
    • Proceed to a nearby point for personal/body screening...electronic and/or manual. Any metal object will generate an alarm. You'll be directed to return to the carry-on scanning line and place "offending" items in a bin/tub for separate screening.

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 proactively avoid delays or stoppages at the screening...

  • Don't wear hiking boots or shoes with large metal loops or steel plates in the soles.
  • Choose footwear that's easy to slip on and off; wear socks to avoid dirt/organisms on the floor.
  • Avoid wearing unneeded, bulky items you'll have to remove before inspection.
  • Avoid wearing a metal belt-buckle...or use one that's easy to take off.
  • Put small metal/electronic items in garment pockets or hand-carried luggage.
  • Remove items that create bulges from trouser/pant pockets...just an unnecessary way to generate inspector questions.
  • You may be required to show that any electronic device functions. Make sure their batteries are charged and inserted for a brief demonstration.
  • You may be subject to a more rigorous security check. Depending on the country and airport, this can be random or based on some suspicion. It can involve luggage search, swabs for explosive chemical traces and/or personal body searches. Officers may offer an information sheet explaining your rights, but the chance of your reaching your plane without submitting to the check is low.

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 don't know what's yours versus others, so won't notice if someone "lifts" your bag (or something in it) or loose belongings.)

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 its 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.

General notes.

  • Always keep your luggage with you until you've checked your large pieces, and carry-ons before and after personal security check. Security officials take unattended items very seriously. If one is found and the owner is not within reach to claim it, it may trigger an alert, resulting in the affected area being "locked-down", and inspection of the suspicious piece of luggage by experts. The result will be serious inconvenience for a lot of people, and for you perhaps fines or the loss of your property (it may even be destroyed).
  • Never make jokes about bombs, weapons, or other security threats. There is no room for humour on this topic; rather than relying on their individual subjective judgement, security personnel are required to take any such joke as a serious statement. You will be checked more thoroughly and/or escorted off the premises in some cases. Jokes may even be treated as a criminal offence, with charges filed against you.
  • At busy airports, you may have to wait in a long queue to pass through security. If so, if you don't think you'll make it through security to the gate in time, if your flight status changes to "Boarding", or (particularly) if your name is paged as being late for the flight, tell security staff. They will usually allow you to move to the front of the queue for a prompt security check.

Before boarding

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.

  • If you are a first or business class passenger or an elite member of a frequent flyer program and will wait some time, consider using a lounge associated with your airline. You'll often find refreshments, periodicals, internet access, even showers.
  • If not, you may also get lounge access and enjoy its privileges by paying up front or joining programs like PriorityPass which offer pay-per-visit and unlimited visit plans...usually at independent lounges. A few lounges may be found before security check.
  • If your flight is long, consider using such a lounge at an en-route or destination airport.

Your flight will have an associated gate number where you'll board. This is indicated in your boarding pass and the overhead monitors.

  • Find the gate where you are boarding: be there no later than 30 minutes before the flight's scheduled departure, and preferably a little earlier.
  • At the gate, airline staff will check your boarding pass...just as you board, perhaps earlier; they may also want to see photo ID. Once done, you will be counted as being on-board the flight.

While waiting, ensure you miss no change or announcement about your flight, eg: 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 programs) 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!

On board

Helping the Cabin Crew

Flight attendants on a Germanwings flight

While you'll receive especially attentive service in first- and business-class, flight attendants 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...

  • Don't ask them to put your carry-ons in overhead lockers/bins.
  • Put your items in those bins or under the seat in front of yours so they take minimum space, eg: wheeled luggage wheels-in or out, not sideways if at all possible; good pieces are designed to fit perfectly in standard overhead bins.
  • Close any nearby overhead bin once full.
  • Take your seat promptly after you've stored your carry-ons.
  • Don't block aisles as others try to reach their seats, nor with any item while in-flight.
  • Don't use the call-button unless you need assistance only they can provide.
  • Take care with food and liquids as you enter, get seated, eat and drink (best delayed until airborne at cruise altitude).
  • Make sure your seat belt is visible to them by fastening it over your blanket/jacket/coat, especially if you plan to sleep while airborne...otherwise they'll wake you to check.
  • Use the lavatory facilities only in your own cabin and only when the seat belt sign is not illuminated.
  • Follow crew instructions promptly and immediately.

This will free them to do truly essential flight tasks.

Before the flight

  • Count the number of seat backs between your seat and the emergency exits, keeping in mind that your nearest exit may be behind you. If you ever need to evacuate an aircraft in an emergency you may need to do it in a darkened cabin that could be full of thick black smoke. If the aisle is full of people you will at least know the number of seats you need to climb over to get out in that one in a million emergency.
  • Switch off your mobile phone before you board the plane. Using a phone on board while the aircraft is taxiing, climbing or descending is a violation of air travel safety laws; in some countries switching the phone off is mandatory during the passenger's entire stay in the aircraft. Switching the phones off facilitates clear, effective and essential communication between pilots and the air traffic controllers. The crew will instruct everyone to turn off phones at least before the plane's doors close; if you do not comply you will be escorted off the plane. If you need to make a call while at altitude, your aircraft's telephone carrier partner may provide in-flight service. Consult your in-flight magazine, especially for details on charges...normally no less than US$5/minute (plus connection charges) even if you are directly above the place you are calling. SMS on these in-seat handsets may also be available.
  • Read the emergency instructions and watch the safety briefing even if you have ridden on the airline before as safety features may vary per aircraft and airline. It may be boring but if an emergency happens you will remember what to do, rather than having to read the safety card then and thereby saving precious time.
  • Place anything containing items you'll often use under the seat in front of you to eliminate obstructing the aisle...or if they are small, in the seat pocket facing you. This will minimize disturbance caused to those sitting in aisle seats. If you later need the leg/foot room, and overhead space is available, you can then move there what you no longer need.
  • Keep within sight anything you put in overhead bins that contains valuables. Though you may sleep, potential thieves (yes, on flights) usually won't risk your casual glance toward your belongings. Otherwise put them at your feet.
  • Once seated, and if you have it, use sanitizer/sanitizing wipes to clean your hands, seat-tray, arm rests and (when convenient) the handles on overhead bins.

During flight

Some airlines now offer seatback entertainment consoles, offering movies, music, tv shows, and information on the current location of the aircraft.(seen here in a Delta Airlines Boeing 767 between Atlanta and Paris)
  • In cases of an open flight in economy class when nobody is beside you, feel free to put-up the armrests (except in exit rows where the armrests can't be lifted) to claim the extra space to yourself. On wide-body aircraft, you can sometimes get a middle block to yourself and turn this into a flat bed of sorts.
  • Wear your seat belt at all times while seated. Though it doesn't happen often, more people are injured (a very few even killed) by failing to use "belts" than from all other causes of flying injuries. Severe air turbulence can occur without warning even in clear air, and can violently throw you and others about. When the seat belt sign is off, it only indicates that you'll be reasonably safe to move about the cabin briefly.
  • If you are using a coat/jacket or blanket to stay warm, fasten your seat belt on the outside so the cabin stewards can see that you're using it without disturbing you.
  • Seat Courtesies: Especially when others are sleeping or eating...
    • If you want to lower your seat back, you'll likely be taking space of the person behind you; so check first, eg: if they're eating, you could otherwise create a mess.
    • When getting up from other than the aisle seat, ask seat mates to let you out, and try not to disturb people behind or in front of you.
  • Drink lots of liquids without caffeine and alcohol. Otherwise, you'll dehydrate at a faster pace, which can worsen jet lag and may induce headaches. Don't hesitate to ask the cabin crew for more water, or to walk up to the galley to get it. Some airlines, such as Emirates and Qantas offer self-service water fountains at each galley for passengers to fill their own water bottles. If sanitation is unknown, ask for bottled water if available.
  • Don't sit completely still...your body isn't designed to stay that way for hours.
    • Adjust your body position occasionally (you do this in your sleep anyway). On long flights especially...
    • Stretch, flex knees, move your feet in circles...anything you can do in your seat. Some airlines now periodically show video programs showing how to exercise in your seat. Follow them, or do your own thing (or both). By changing position, and moving around a little, you make sure every part of your body gets the circulation it needs, eg: to avoid deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Consider walking around the aircraft occasionally during very long flights.
    • Remove your shoes if convenient. On very long flights, better airlines offer slippers, but you'll also need warm socks.
  • With the exception of some private charters, smoking is not allowed on any commercial flight worldwide. Do not smoke at your seat, in the lavatories or tamper with the smoke detectors in the lavatories - at minimum you'll be in trouble with the airline and in some jurisdictions subject to prosecution. In US "flagged" aircraft (and many others), federal law prohibits tampering with, disabling, or destroying smoke detectors in aircraft lavatories...it's a felony and violation can lead to fines of thousands of dollars and a prison sentence.
  • Stow any loose items before landing. Put magazines and books in the seat pocket. Don't leave any lying on an empty seat or loose under your feet. Under heavy braking on landing, even light articles can travel quite far forward. They can be difficult to find, and before you find them may be accidentally damaged by exiting passengers.
  • Always follow the instructions of flight attendants, as well as lighted and posted signs...they there for your safety and for that of all passengers.
    • Flight attendants are trained to be responsible for your safety. Do not argue with them. Resolve any conflict you may have with their orders on the ground.
    • If an "unruly passenger" becomes a serious problem, the captain of the plane may make an unscheduled landing, and the passenger will be taken off the aircraft under arrest.
    • Flight attendant instructions are often backed by law, eg in the US, disobeying a flight attendant is a felony. Short of that, you still face severe fines and costs.
  • Most airlines (including all US flagged carriers due to local civil aviation law) prohibit the use of mobile phones in flight, unless placed into "flight safe mode" or "aircraft mode" before departure. A few carriers (e.g. Emirates and Virgin Atlantic on some aircraft types) are now permitting the use of mobile data and even voice calls while airborne. Keep in mind that you'll need an international roaming contract with your carrier and rates tend to be very high (US$3-5 per minute or kilobyte is fairly standard). If voice calls are permitted, be courteous to your fellow passengers and keep conversations brief.
  • Other electronic devices are usually permitted once the aircraft is at cruise and the seatbelt sign is switched off. Rules regarding when and which devices can be used varies by country and airline:
    • In Australia and the United States, airlines typically list categories of devices that cannot be used on the safety card (cell phones, TV's, remote controlled toys, etc...) with anything not falling into those categories being permitted once the seat-belt sign is turned off.
    • In Canada, however, aviation law requires a more precautionary approach. No electronic devices are permitted unless a crew member individually checks and authorizes their use.
      • Laptops are the only devices that are explicitly stated in safety briefings as being allowed - as long as you check with a flight attendant and any mobile data capabilities are disabled before use. In the past, Air Canada used to state that the use of external laptop accessories (such as hard drives, mice, printers, etc...) was prohibited. The current safety video doesn't mention this, but always check first.
      • Other devices such as tablets, iPods, and game systems are at the crew's discretion but are almost always permitted if you ask.
    • Hong Kong does not allow the use of portable CD players in flight.

After landing

Making a connection

  • When your journey involves multiple time zones, the flight purser will usually announce the local time at your port-of-arrival. The local time at your destination is also available from the flight path/airshow channel of your in-flight entertainment system if your flight is equipped with it. Adjust your watch to the time announced to avoid confusion with the timetables at the airport, especially if you have a connecting flight.
  • Check if you have a boarding pass for your next flight. If you don't, you are not considered checked-in for that flight yet so proceed to a transfer desk immediately to obtain a boarding pass for your next flight. You can avoid this by checking-in on-line and printing the boarding passes, if your carrier offers these.
  • If you came from an international flight and are continuing on to a domestic flight, you will need to clear passport control, possibly claim your luggage (even if it is checked-through to your final destination) and clear customs and eventually check-in your luggage again to ensure its loading into your next flight. If you checked-through your luggage to your final destination, some airports may provide a special lane where you can simply drop-off your luggage instead of doing so at the main departure hall.
  • There are a few scenarios when baggage will have to be collected at intermediate stopovers and checked-in as usual for loading onto the next flight. In this case, you will need to undergo the usual visa application, clear formalities (ie passport control and customs) if at least the first leg is international. Some of them include the following:
    • either your first or next leg involves a low cost carrier
    • you booked both flights separately
    • you are booked on different carriers for each flight where the carriers have no interline ticketing agreements
    • you are transferring from an international to a domestic flight where you need to clear passport control and customs (even if the bags are tagged for the next flight)
    • your next flight is at another airport or a terminal with a considerable distance and there are no facilities that make transfer of bags between such terminals feasible
  • If your next flight is in a different terminal, go to that terminal first and then eat or shop if you have time. It can take a long time to go between terminals at major airports.
  • If your transit point is a large city (eg: London, Tokyo, Toronto, New York, Shanghai, Taipei etc.), you might need to transfer between different airports. Make sure your flight arrangements allow plenty of time to make the transfer; take into account possible traffic jams, especially if you need to make the transfer during peak hours. Don't forget the appropriate visa for your transit point if it is applicable to your nationality. If you can afford the time, try to book an overnight stay in the city so you don't have to be stressed about making the transfer.
  • If you have a boarding pass for your next flight, your baggage is checked-through to the next flight, and you have plenty of time between flights, you may be able to enter the country of your stopover, leave the airport and take a city tour or dine at a nearby restaurant. You can take advantage of this provided you have valid and appropriate travel documents for your stopover city (e.g. passport, visa, landing permit if applicable). A 6 hr or longer layover is advised depending on traffic and distance to place(s) of interest. While tours are usually organized by operators to take these factors into account, you are still responsible for making sure that you have enough time and ability to return for your next flight.
  • In some cases of a tight connection at different terminals, especially in Asia, airline staff may be waiting outside the gate holding-up a board with details of your next flight. They will help passengers on a tight connection to make their next flight more quickly. This can happen when both flights were booked at the same time and the airline is aware that passengers on a certain flight are coming from a previous flight that has a tight connection. Please go to those staff.
  • Just like in the first leg, regardless of what you need to do between flights, be at your boarding gate at least 30 min before your next flight commences.

Direct flights continuing on to another destination

Baggage claim at Paris' Charles-de-Gaulle Airport
  • Depending on the airport or airline, you will have to either stay in the aircraft, wait in a transit or holding area or choose between the aforementioned options.
    • If you are asked or choose to stay in the aircraft, remain seated to enable the ground staff to clean the aircraft more quickly.
    • If you are asked to stay at the transit area and allowed to explore the airport, please do not stray too far from the gate especially if the terminal is big as you may miss important announcements regarding your flight. Some of these announcements may be broadcast only at the gate area and not to the entire airport. The ground time of an aircraft is usually less than 2 hours, which may not be enough time to familiarise yourself with a big terminal.

Direct international flights with a domestic leg

In this case, there are 3 main scenarios on when you clear customs and immigration.

  • In some countries like China and the United States, you will have to get off at your first stop and pass through customs and immigration there before continuing to your final destination (eg: If you flight is from Los Angeles to Shanghai via Beijing, you will have to get off at Beijing to pass through customs and immigration).
  • In other countries such as Australia and Japan, you pass through customs and immigration only at your final destination (eg: if your flight is from Hong Kong to Adelaide via Melbourne on one flight number, you will disembark only into the sterile/holding area at Melbourne and go through customs and immigration at Adelaide).
  • For flights with a mere re-fuelling stopover (eg: Philippine Airlines flights from the US west coast to Manila via Honolulu/Guam), you will be asked to stay in the aircraft only and not allowed to disembark.

Make sure you follow instructions carefully and ask the airline staff 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

  • At baggage claim many bags look similar. Remember to find the marks which distinguish your bag from others, look for the tags you attached, and match the tags the airline attached to them to the tags given to you at check-in to ensure that it is indeed your luggage. Ribbons and stickers on your luggage, and coloured straps, can identify it, and ensure that someone else doesn't accidentally walk off with it.
    • If you checked a very large or long item, you may find it in the special claim area instead of the regular baggage claim.
  • If your luggage doesn't emerge at any baggage claim position after some reasonable time, go to the designated lost luggage counters immediately to ask about it. Be sure to have ready the airline luggage tag stub for your missing luggage that you received at check-in. If not quickly located, be ready to describe what your luggage looks like with as much detail as possible (include colours of the tags/markings/luggage, and especially name tags you applied and printed itineraries inside) to the staff at the counter. (A photograph helps considerably, especially with any language barrier.) If still missing after adequate search, file a written claim for it.
    • Do not fail to make this claim before you leave the airport.
    • In most countries, the airline has the responsibility for delivering any misplaced/lost, checked luggage to you once it has been found...not just to the airport where it was first discovered missing, but to you during your travels or at home. By placing a copy of your itinerary (with dates and specific places you'll stay, eg: hotels) in each piece of checked luggage, you greatly enhance the probability of receiving it while on your trip.
  • If you believe that you left something on board the aircraft, check with the airline's gate-agent. If no results, proceed to the designated counter/booth/office at the airport that deals with lost items. Returning to the aircraft yourself is normally not allowed after you enter the terminal.

You'll soon need some currency usable in that country. Unless you already have it, plan to withdraw some (eg: using an ATM) while in the terminal... sometimes not at the very best conversion rates available, but quite decent. You may only immediately need enough for taxi fare and incidental tipping. But fixed fees also charged for your withdrawal can amount to a substantial percentage of the cost for a small withdrawal, eclipsing any excellent rate you may get for a large withdrawal later. (See Money for details.)

Unaccompanied minors

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 online 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.


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