At the airport
This article contains extended tips for that part of your journey by air between the entrance door of the airport terminal, and the boarding of the aircraft. See Fundamentals of flying and Tips for flying for more general advice. See also On the aircraft.
Most international airport terminals are standardised, with similar procedures for check-in, security, immigration and customs. English is the standard language of aviation.
If you want to reduce stress get to the airport at least an hour before the recommended minimum check-in time.
(Check with your airline for recommended minimum check-in times. This can be as little as 30 minutes for domestic flights from regional airports in countries such as New Zealand that do not have security screening to as much as 3 hours for an international flight to or from the US where the security theatre can be extensive and time consuming. This extra hour will also give you a buffer for delays on the way to the airport.)
If for some reason you are delayed and you're worried about missing your flight or the flight status indicates that you are in danger of missing your flight, find a member of your airline's staff or talk to staff at the security gate. If you are really in danger of missing your flight, they can arrange for speedy check-ins and for you to be moved up in queues. But they won't notice if you don't tell them. Calling for late-passenger instructions while you are on your way to the airport can also help. The plane will not wait for you; but it might wait if you're one of 50 connecting passengers on a delayed flight.
Check-in for domestic flights can usually be done on the airline website up to 24 hours in advance of departure. If you have no baggage you can just proceed directly to your gate and flight with your printed boarding pass. However, some carriers insist that they inspect and verify your travel documents before allowing you to go through security, do this but there is usually a special lane provided for you. If you have baggage, drop it at the bag drop lane. Removing old tags from your bag before proceeding to the bag drop will speed up this process and avoid redirection.
If you can't check-in online, the check-in kiosks at the airport are much the same, and issue a boarding pass for you. You then need to go to the bag drop if you have more than carry on luggage.
If you have to check-in manually, be prepared for longer queues. Have your documentation ready before you get to the counter. If other methods of check-in are made available, avoid using the traditional check-in counters unless you have special requests. Some carriers already charge a fee for using traditional check-in counters.
See also choosing aircraft seat.
Travellers might need to pass several security checkpoints at the airport, even before transfer.
Express/expedited security lanes
To avoid the delays associated with normal security checks, some airports offer express security lanes for frequent travellers who have pre-registered, or sometimes for passengers who have paid an additional fee.
In cases of heightened security, the expedited security check lanes may be suspended or closed.
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).
Beware 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 many reasons, e.g.:
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.
The order of boarding may be specified by the gate attendant when the time comes; often:
Budget airlines often board passengers who have paid extra for priority boarding first, followed by those at the back of the plane.
When no order for boarding is given it may help if those seated at the back were to board first, but this doesn't usually happen, and aisle blockages are common. To estimate where your seat is, check your airline's website for seat maps or ask staff at the gate. Regardless of the boarding order given, you are always free to remain in the boarding lounge until the final call for the plane. If you choose to spend the least time possible in a cramped aircraft cabin, just wait in the boarding lounge until you see the last person at the gate, and join the end of the queue. Just remember, the boarding gates close 10-15 minutes before departure and no announcements will be made outside the gate area.
If you arrive at an international terminal for transfer to another international flight, you usually do not need to pass immigration or customs (exceptions include the United States and Canada). However, passing security might be required.
Spending time at an airport
At a transfer stopover, or if you arrive very early for your flight, you might find yourself with hours to spend on an airport. Here are some activity tips:
Even if you don't hold a first/business class ticket or are a member of the premium tiers of your frequent flyer program, there are ways for you to obtain lounge access:
If a traveller, for some reason or another, wants to leave an international transit area, they need to pass immigration and customs. This includes travellers who need to board a flight at another terminal, or another airport in the same metropolitan area.
Immigration is usually the first stop, before getting to baggage claim, and then the customs station.
Passing immigration booth can take long time. Have your documents ready (passport, visa if required, completed immigration/customs arrival card, onward/return ticket and hotel documents), and listen carefully to official instructions. Officials might require a photo or fingerprints.
After your flight, you'll get your bags after your leave the plane (on domestic flights) or after you clear immigration (on international flights). Note that you don't need to go through baggage claim if you only brought in your carry-on or hand luggage or nothing or in other cases your bags are delivered to the place that you'll stay. After your flight, your flight attendant or captain may tell you where you can get your bags.
Some airports have duty-free shops just before the customs station.
Customs procedures vary by country. Some countries (e.g. the United States, Canada, Australia) require travellers to fill out a customs form and submit the form to a customs officer, who then may conduct an inspection of the traveller's bags. Some countries (e.g. most European countries) have no customs form, instead making travellers to walk through one of two parallel passageways ("channels"): nothing to declare (green channel), or goods to declare (red channel). Some EU airports have an additional blue channel for intra-EU arrivals. Customs officers may conduct random spot checks on travellers regardless of the channel used.
Goods that need to be declared include alcohol and tobacco products exceeding the personal duty-free limit, overseas purchases exceeding a certain limit, currencies above a certain amount, certain food products, and prohibited or restricted items.
Whether you fill out a customs form or walk through one of the channels, you are making a legal declaration. When in doubt, always declare the item in question and a customs officer will be able to advise you. Failure to declare or making an incorrect declaration is an offence. In mild cases this may lead to confiscation of the item and/or an on-the-spot fine; in more serious cases this may lead to an arrest and/or a notice to appear in court.