Fundamentals of flying
This article is a travel topic
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
If your travel is other than routine, consider your well-being throughout your itinerary. This includes at least airline reputation, airport stopovers, destination safety and your basic health.
If you have health issues, consult your doctor and ensure the airline knows about any condition that might be problematic for flying well before the start of the trip – even before you pay for tickets. Airlines can often help you if you have physical limitations or some medical condition.
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:
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 or the carriers involved have no interline ticketing agreements, 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 Web sites 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.
When connecting through a country other than your destination, always determine if that country will allow you to walk directly from your arriving flight to your connecting flight (see the "After landing" section below), and whether that country requires you to obtain a transit visa and/or pass through immigration and customs. Some countries, such as the United States and Canada require all passengers to always pass through immigration and customs, even if they are merely transferring between international flights and will not remain in the country. You may find it easier to avoid a connection through such countries, particularly the United States which imposes the same strict requirements for a transit visa as for a tourist visa. Others, such as the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and Australia 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
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.
Turning a reservation into an actual ticket is called issuing the ticket or ticketing. An issued ticket must be paid for with cash/credit/debit card or redeemed with frequent flyer points/miles and - depending on ticket type - some or all of the following restrictions may now apply:
These various restrictions (or lack thereof) play a large role in determining the price of that ticket. As mentioned in the section finding a cheap ticket, a rule of thumb is that higher prices mean fewer restrictions.
Take note that if you intend to book a flight on-line (either through the carrier's website or consolidator websites like Travelocity and Expedia), the reservation and ticketing happen at the same time. Hence payment (usually by credit/debit card) or redemption (if using miles) is required immediately. However there are some advantages to booking on-line:
If you are still waitlisted for a flight that you would like to board, or if you would like to take an earlier or later flight than you're booked on, you can try to fly standby. This means simply showing up at the airport check-in counter and asking to be put on the next flight. If there is plenty of space, you'll be checked in right there. However, if the flight is looking full, you will have to wait until the flight is closed (typically 30-60 minutes before departure) and the airline can count how many seats it has left. Don't count on any special ticket savings if you fly standby and conversely, don't count on flying standby if 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:
Choosing your seat
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.
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:
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:
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.,:
Paper and electronic ticketing
Most airlines today exclusively use electronic tickets (e-tickets). An e-ticket is an electronic record of your booking details which is stored in the airline's computers; you will not receive a paper ticket, which consists of a booklet of flight coupons. In most cases, an itinerary receipt containing your flight details is prepared and e-mailed or printed for your reference. The itinerary receipt contains a unique six-character Passenger Name Record (PNR), which is used to identify your booking.
While an e-ticket itinerary receipt has a lot of the features of a basic itinerary, it has added features such as a ticket number, baggage allowance, computation of the fare and surcharges, mode of payment, etc. It also comes with the conditions of carriage which includes your rights in case something happens to the flights you are booked with.
In theory, an e-ticket allows you to just show a valid ID upon check-in, as your name is all the agent needs to access your flight details. However, for security reasons, some airports require you to show a print-out of the itinerary receipt as proof of your booking before entering the airport and/or upon check-in. In addition, when travelling to another country, immigration authorities often require proof of onward or return travel. 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 just 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). This may be overcome by enrolling your credit card in Verified by Visa or MasterCard SecureCode; contact your bank/credit card company for more information.
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.
The following issues and remedies are for those travellers with extra concerns about some conditions. Most people do just fine with a bottle of water, and perhaps a neck pillow and an eye mask for sleeping. For very-long flights, extra measures may be useful...as noted below.
Less common challenges
Restrictions and advice for 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.)
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:
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.
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.
Countries that do not require visas from your nationality for short visits may require you to apply for some form of electronic travel authorisation. These countries include Australia (ETA or eVisitor), Canada (eTA), and the United States (ESTA). You may need to do this days in advance of intended travel. Without this, your carrier will not accept you for travel. Qualifying nationals can obtain this directly from the website of the host country's immigration authority. Unless more information or referrals are needed, the applicant will find out the outcome almost immediately.
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 (middle name or mother's maiden surname is usually optional and for two given names, spaces between them are not needed). In other words, the name in your boarding pass must precisely match your photo ID. 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.
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:
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, car rentals, credit card points, etc into the frequent flyer accounts of the parties to the merger, such will be affected. The following scenarios usually apply:
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.
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.
Do not carry over your experience of baggage allowance from one carrier to another. Each carrier has different policies as to how much weight your hand or hold luggage should be (in fact, even within the same carrier the amount of hold luggage allowance allowed depends on the fare or ancillary fee you paid).
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.
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,:
However, this may not be always the case, especially if you fly with low cost carriers. Before giving your payment card details, make sure you find how much baggage allowance is included in your base fare and whether personal items (e.g. laptop bag, small backpack) are counted against hand luggage allowance. Especially for low cost carriers, you will be given the opportunity to purchase additional baggage allowance online, and it's usually cheaper to do it here than at the airport.
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.
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.
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.
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 your consideration...
If you put electronics (e.g., music player, headphones, laptop, cell phone) in your carry-on bag, electronic screening is more likely to generate manual inspection; so pack them to 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.)
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.
How much should I pack?
See also: List of airline baggage limits
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.
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.
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
Checked Baggage Fees
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.
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  can find one for you. This has its trade-offs:
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).
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.
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.
You should consider reinforcing your to-be-checked luggage so it won't break open due to rough handling. Two ways include:
If the number of your outbound checked bags doesn't reach the limit, and you know you 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
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:
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.
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:
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:
Items to wear on-board
In-flight cabin temperatures can be unpredictable and may vary during flight. Experienced flyers dress in layers that they adjust to need for comfort.
Before you fly
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.
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.
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.
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. You are ultimately responsible for arranging a timely arrival at the airport. DON'T wait until just minutes before the flight's scheduled departure to act. Check-in or baggage drop closes approximately 40-60 minutes before departure and if you have not checked-in by that deadline for whatever reason, you may no longer be accepted for travel. Conditions affecting ground transport (e.g. heavy traffic, transport strikes, fog) are not valid reasons for missing a flight and expect limited relief from airline staff if these happen. You should consider these scenarios beforehand. Moreover, please do not argue with staff on trivial issues that you were supposed to be responsible for in the first place, particularly punctuality and required documents.
It is also important to understand that requesting for check-in, boarding or even departure to be extended by just a few minutes is not a simple matter for airport staff to deal with. It has wide-reaching implications. Airport staff need ample time to sort out all issues and paperwork for a particular flight to ensure everything is in order. Last minute check-ins can even mess-up the flight plan (including amount of fuel required). That is not all: a few minutes of delay may cause a flight to miss its take-off slot, and it may take some time - possibly several hours - to secure a new take-off slot. The airline and/or its ground handling agent face hefty fines and if this habitual, can lose their contract. All the other passengers who were responsible enough to come to the airport on time will unlikely be happy when any of these will happen.
Over the past decade, the check-in process has evolved from a traditional (over-the-counter, face-to-face) check-in to remote (e.g. internet-based) check-in. It basically entails a passenger coming into contact with the carrier. This is to register one's intention to use the ticket purchased and happens shortly (i.e. a few hours to a few days) before the flight. The actual opening and closing deadlines of check-in depend on the specific carriers as well as the local/national regulations (e.g. US regulations require that flights to/from the US only open check-in at most 24 hours before the flight).
Traditional check-in still exists for most carriers. In here, airline staff (or their representatives) will assist passengers; ask routine questions; input information in the system; inspect baggage, documents, etc; print a boarding pass for the passengers; and receive any hold baggage. Special lanes are set-up for premium passengers (i.e. those who are travelling on the upper classes as well as passengers who are on the upper tier of the carrier's frequent flyer programme) to reduce queues. When using traditional check-in, be reminded that you must queue at the designated counter before the check-in deadline ends, otherwise you may not be accepted for travel. You must also be ready with your travel documents (e.g. passport, visa, photo ID). When you have a connecting flight, make sure you request that your bags be checked-through to your final destination but in some circumstances, this may not always be possible (see the making a connection section). Before handing over your bags check to see that any bar-coded tags from previous flights have been removed.
In case you have excess or odd-sized baggage, proceed to the counter designated for that. This is whether you previously arranged for them or not.
Other carriers, especially those based in Europe are turning their counters at the airport to exclusively function as baggage drop points. This requires that you have performed a remote check-in or a check-in using an electronic kiosk.
In order to use remote check-in you will need the booking reference code or e-ticket number. If you have a log-in ID or frequent flyer account with the carrier and linked them to your flights you can also use those to access online check-in. Just follow instructions and be ready with your other travel documents too especially as the online check-in process may need to collect information required by certain authorities. In most cases, you will be issued a boarding pass which must be printed. If not, you will be given a confirmation that you have done so. In either case, depending on the flight, you may be given additional instructions on what to do when you arrive at the airport to complete the process.
In case you have no access to a printer, some (but not all) carriers may allow you to save a screen shot of what was supposed to be a printout of your boarding pass into your device. You can "print" the boarding pass as a PDF, email it to yourself and open the email on your phone. Contact your carrier first to see if this is allowed. If not, go to the check-in counter to have staff print your boarding pass (except if you are Ryan Air where you will be charged a hefty fee for not having one previously printed out). Alternatively, major hotels allow guests to have boarding passes printed free of charge. Even if you are not a guest, you might be able to go to a major hotel and use the public computer to get your boarding pass free of charge.
Most of same procedures will also be done when using a mobile phone. An increasing number of carriers are making mobile phone check-in possible by either providing a mobile-friendly website or a downloadable mobile app (usually for iPhone/iPod touch and Android devices). Depending on the carrier, the airports involved and your device, getting a mobile boarding pass is possible. It involves a mobile barcoded boarding pass being saved into your phone. There is no need to print the boarding pass out, but make sure your device has enough battery until you board the plane ready to show to any staff requesting to see it.
At the airport, some carriers provide kiosk check-ins. It will be similar in process to online and mobile check-in. At the end of the process, the boarding pass will be printed for you by the machine.
In some airports, check-in kiosks may also come embedded with self-service baggage drop facilities. In this case follow instructions carefully, particularly those pertaining to how to properly attach tags to your bags. Make sure the baggage tag reflects your final destination though sometimes a check-through may not always be possible.
If you have already checked-in remotely and traditional check-in is still available, a dedicated lane is usually provided for you to use. This is distinct from the traditional economy class lane in the sense that fewer procedures will be done. Even if you have no bags to check-in, it is possible that the carrier may still ask you to proceed to these counters before going any further in order for check-in staff to verify documents, debit/credit cards, etc. When in doubt, contact the carrier before going to the airport.
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
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 and expensive but considerably more reasonable than what is on-board.
On-board meals for some airlines may be brought in from one of its base or hub airports rather than from a local source. This takes considerable time. Meals kept too long for any reason may have to be discarded due to safety. Scheduled meals may then be limited to packaged snacks/cookies and drinks, which is not the fault of the crew.
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.:
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.
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 boarding calls are posted on the flight monitors so keep an eye on them. Oral announcements should NOT always be expected and relied upon.
The gate closes (boarding stops) usually only 10-15 minutes before departure. No passengers are accepted after this cut off. Even if you have until 10 minutes before departure to board, be considerate nonetheless to the ground handling staff. Passengers who do not show up early can cause unnecessary anxiety and concern for the gate crew. Moreover for security reasons, planes cannot travel with bags of missing passengers and it takes time to reopen the doors, locate the bags and close them again. As mentioned in the Punctuality section, all staff work under extremely tight timetables to get the plane out of the gate and into the air on schedule. Hence, 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: don't wait until the last minute so that the ground staff can attend to other important matters.
Aviation security is no laughing matter. Even before the airliner attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, most countries took it very seriously, but since then security regulations have been tightened, and airport security personnel will be very strict in implementing them.
The Process. You'll usually check any luggage with the airline at the ticket counter. It will be at least electronically screened for security as it goes to a holding area to be loaded on your flight.
Then, as you walk to your gate, you and your carry-ons must go through personal security screening. It involves the following basic steps.
If you have any kind of metal in your body for any reason (e.g., pace-maker, artificial joint, combat wound), be prepared for the alarms as you go through body scanning. Your doctor may help you obtain some form of proof for TSA or other security inspectors. This may avoid an unnecessarily invasive pat-down.
Hints. To proactively avoid delays or stoppages at the screening...
After body screening, you may be told to go with a screener to hand inspect your belongings...usually because electronic screening cannot identify an object. Otherwise, go to the end of the "line" electronically screening your luggage, etc., claim your possessions and exit "security" into the "airside" terminal.
As you are going through this procedure, try to have someone you know keep all belongings in-view to avoid loss if someone else picks up a wrong item or tries to steal yours. (Security personnel are focused on keeping the terminal area secure. They 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.
After you pass through security you'll usually be able to reach (without more checks) one or more departure areas or wings of the terminal... possibly quite large, some with up to fifty gates. Beyond security, you are in the secure area (finally!), sometimes termed airside. Even casually leaving it will require that you go through security processing again. Lacking any essential papers, you may be in some difficulty.
Secure Area/Airside Depending on the airport, the area may be bare, with a few services, or full of shopping and entertainment. If your schedule means you'll spend some time there, go to your departure airport's website before leaving home to learn which facilities and services you'll have while waiting to board, as well as how to get around the airport. (If you have an extended layover en-route, check on that airport as well.) Prices of items and services tend to be higher than common stores/restaurants. Major airports also offer lounges for frequent flyers, et al.
Your flight will have an associated gate number where you'll board. This is indicated in your boarding pass and the overhead monitors.
While waiting, ensure you miss no change or announcement about your flight, 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!
Helping the Cabin Crew
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...
This will free them to do truly essential flight tasks.
Before the flight
Making a connection
Direct flights continuing on to another destination
Direct international flights with a domestic leg
In this case, there are 3 main scenarios on when you clear customs and immigration.
Make sure you follow instructions carefully and ask the 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
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.)
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.