Departures board at Cologne/Bonn airport
This article is a travel topic
Commercial airplane flight is one of the most common forms of international travel. These are some tips for making your flights safer, more comfortable, and more enjoyable.
Planning your trip
If all the following information seems terribly complex, the easiest way to deal with it is to get a travel agent to do 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 for your particular route. Travel agents can also arrange special requests (meals, baby bassinets, wheelchair assistance, etc) directly with the airline.
Finding cheap tickets
Ticket pricing is a horrendously complex and messy business, with armies of programmers working overtime to extract every last cent from passengers. It all starts to make some kind of sense when you understand the airline's basic motive: Make people in a hurry pay. To achieve this end, the plane is divided up into fare classes (or buckets), some cheap, some expensive. As a rule of thumb, the higher the ticket prices, the less restrictions there are on the ticket. The following rules determine who can use what fare class:
- Last-minute flights are expensive. Book as early as you can to get the best deals, as the cheap fare classes fill up fast. (Very occasionally, airlines do offload excess inventory at cut-rate prices at the last minute, but it's foolhardy to rely on this.)
- Quick trips are expensive. Many cheap fares require staying at least three nights, and the famous Saturday night stay requirement — designed to trap businessmen who want to return home for the weekend — is still in force in many places.
- Monday morning and Friday evening are the most popular times for businessmen to fly, which makes seats hard to find.
- Holiday seasons are bad times to fly, 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.
- Direct/non-stop flights (see box for the difference) from A to B are always 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 compete to undercut each other.
When buying a ticket, it would seem obvious to call up the airline itself, but counterintuitively this is often the most expensive way to get a ticket. Cheap fare classes are often sold to travel agents in bulk, so the airline only has the expensive ones left for itself. Again, the main exception is for last-minute flights, if an agent returns a bunch of unsold seats and the airline decides to sell them off cheap.
The frugal traveller will thus start looking early, be very flexible and explore a wide variety of options. Search engines like Expedia  and Travelocity  can help you explore your options, but note that these may not show discount airline flights and are rather North America-centric, often showing ridiculously inflated (full-fare) prices for travel outside North America.
To find a low-cost / no-frill flight it can be good to check one of the comparison tools
. For international travel, you can almost always get the best deals by booking from an agent at the starting point, like Zuji for Hong Kong  or Singapore , or No. 1 Travel  for Japan.
See also: First and business class travel, Round the world flights.
Direct vs. non-stop
In the airline world, a direct flight means that it uses the same plane, 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.
Very often, flying from point A to point B 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. However, if you're booking your flights separately, making the connection is your sole responsibility, and in most cases no refund will be provided from either party when one airline's delay makes you late for the next one.
Major airlines may consider a connection as tight as 35 minutes to be a valid connection, and sometimes it is entirely reasonable; itineraries that don't involve either clearing Customs, or exiting security between flights and then having to re-enter the secure zone, generally don't require much transit time. However, you can get unpleasant surprises at unfamiliar airports. For example, your arrival and departure 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 hours is safer). If you are not delayed, you can use this slack time to eat at the airport, where the food is likely better than what you may (or may not!) get in the air.
Many of the 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. A good, but by no means iron-clad, rule is that 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.
In considering international connecting flights, check to see if the country you will be making a connection at requires a transit visa. You are responsible for procuring all the necessary visas before you fly and you are advised to give yourself months before your scheduled journey to procure the necessary visas so as to avoid inconvenience at the last minute. For more information involving whether or not to use the US as a transit point as well as alternative transit points, please read the article Avoiding a transit of the United States.
Reservations and ticketing
From the moment you first book your flight to the moment you step on the plane, there's a lot going on in the background. The following may be helpful in understanding what is happening.
The first step is to make a reservation for your flight. This means that the airline will hold a seat for you until a given date, typically a week or so before the flight. 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.
- A seat reserved just for you will be listed as confirmed in your reservation, and will not be taken away. You can only confirm a single seat in each direction per ticket.
- Tip: If you're not sure what time you can make it to the airport, book the last flight of the day. This way you can always try to fly "standby" on earlier flights if you get to the airport earlier than expected.
- 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", meaning that somebody else cancels and you get their seat, the waitlisted reservation becomes confirmed and any previously confirmed seats on other flights are cancelled. You can usually waitlist multiple flights, but really cheap nonchangeable tickets may not allow any waitlisting at all.
Turning a reservation into an actual ticket is called issuing the ticket. An issued ticket must be paid for and, depending on ticket type, some or all of following restrictions may now apply:
- nonchangeable: you cannot change the flight time and date (at least not without paying a heavy change fee)
- 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
- nonreroutable: you cannot change to another route, even if the destination is the same
- nontransferable: you cannot sell the ticket to somebody
These various restrictions (or lack thereof) play a large role in determining the price of that ticket.
If you are still waitlisted for a flight that you would like to board, or if you would like to take an earlier 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.
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 and your ticket is forfeited, which depending on the ticket and airline may mean either total loss or, at a minimum, a hefty no-show fee if you try to rebook.
Note that many discount airlines streamline this process considerably so that no reservations are possible, only fully paid and issued tickets. Flight restrictions are typically draconian — some companies even ban standby changes — so you'll have to pay lots to make any change and have no hope of getting a refund.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
When calling an airline or travel agency to make changes, the fastest way to find your ticket is to tell the reservations agent that you will give them your PNR, and spell it out with the NATO phonetic alphabet (Alpha Bravo Charlie Delta Echo Foxtrot Golf Hotel India Juliet Kilo Lima Mike November Oscar Papa Quebec Romeo Sierra Tango Uniform Victor Whiskey X-ray Yankee Zulu). This is much easier than trying to spell out your last name, and you will gain some instant respect for sounding like a pro.
An emerging trend in air travel is the use of 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 for your flight but you can be assured that the airline already has your flight details in its database. In most cases, an itinerary receipt containing your flight details is prepared and e-mailed or printed out for your reference. The itinerary receipt contains a unique six-character Passenger Name Record (PNR), which is used to identify your booking.
In theory, an e-ticket allows you to just show a valid ID upon check-in as your name is all the check-in agent needs to access your flight details. However, due to security reasons, some airports require you to show 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 usually require proof of onward or return travel and hence, the itinerary receipt. As such, it is recommended you always bring your itinerary receipt with you for easy reference.
The major advantage of the e-ticket is that because your flight details are in the airline's computers, the e-ticket can't get lost, forgotten and stolen. With this, you won't have to pay hefty fees and prepare pertinent documentation to replace it. If ever you lose a hardcopy of your e-ticket itinerary receipt or delete the e-mail containing it, you can go to your airline's ticket office or travel agent to reprint a new copy for you or access the airline's website to view your booking at no extra cost. With an e-ticket, adjustments to your travel plans are easy: you can just call your airline's office or travel agent to make adjustments to your flight plans without presenting the itinerary receipt (depending on the fare paid, penalties may apply). Another advantage is that if the airline you are flying with offers online or self-service kiosk check-in, you can be able to use such facilities and print boarding passes for you and your entire travelling party thus saving time at the airport.
The major disadvantage is that your flight details are in one specific airline's computers, so other airlines cannot access them. This is not a problem 99% of the time, but can be a major headache if you end up flying on a different airline if, for example, your flight is cancelled. If this happens, it's best to insist on a paper ticket from the original airline as backup before heading over to the other airline's counter. Likewise, for complex itineraries involving multiple airlines (like round the world flights), you should opt for a paper ticket.
You don't have to book your flight online to have an e-ticket. This means that you can purchase an e-ticket at the airline's nearest office or at a travel agency or by calling the hotline provided by your airline. Payment methods are the usual: credit/debit cards for online and telephone bookings, and credit/debit cards, cash and cheques for physically purchasing the e-ticket at the ticket office.
Take note that not all destinations offered by major airlines are e-ticket eligible yet. But for the destinations that are e-ticket eligible, your airline may levy a surcharge if you choose to purchase a paper ticket.
Health and security concerns
- Check official government travel warnings. Whether or not you are a US citizen, you may be interested in the US State Department's travel warnings.
- Be sure you have all required vaccinations and travel documents. Photocopy important documents (such as your passport) and store copies separately in case the originals are lost.
- Airplanes fly at high altitude and cabin pressure is lower than on the ground. This can be particularly uncomfortable if your nose or ears are clogged due to a cold, so if you have to fly when sick, take a decongestant such as Sudafed at least one hour before departure. It's a good idea to avoid flying for fifteen days after surgery, or in the case that you have recently broken a bone. The air pressure can cause extremely uncomfortable swelling. Sometimes the flight attendant will have to cut open a cast because of the swelling. This is part of their training in flight school.
- There is a risk of premature labour if pregant women fly when they are over 35 weeks pregnancy or have pregnancy complications. See Tips for women travellers for more information.
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. 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.
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.
- If you collect enough points in a year you can become an elite member (often denoted as silver, gold, platinum, etc). This can give you advantages such as check-in at the business counter, early boarding, priority in waitlists, and access to airport lounges in which you can wait for your flight and relax, read newspapers, have a drink, or even enjoy a simple meal such as sandwiches or breakfast rolls. A few lounges have free internet access. Lounges are also available to holders of some credit cards: Diners Club; GlobeCard Platinum; Master Card; and American Express.
Check that your miles will be credited by giving your frequent flyer number to your travel agent. Also check at the check-in desk that the flight has been credited to your frequent flyer account. You can usually claim miles for flights up to 12 months after you've taken them, but you will need to keep your boarding pass stubs. It's easier to register your number at the time of booking.
Your airline of choice may be a member of an airline alliance, which allows you to earn and use your miles on other airlines as well. The big three alliances are Star Alliance, oneworld and SkyTeam.
You may also be able to claim points from other sources. Credit cards affiliated to a program are particularly useful, as you'll typically get miles every time you use them and this can quickly rack up to a free trip per year, but hotel stays, car rentals and even mobile phone bills may garner you points. Check your frequent flyer program for details.
In choosing a frequent flyer program, here are some factors to consider:
- The alliance which the frequent flyer program belongs to - If you have an existing frequent flyer program within a particular airline alliance, you usually don't need another one for that same alliance. Regardless of your frequent flyer program within the alliance you choose, you can earn miles as well as redeem travel awards on any other airline within that alliance as well. This is especially useful if the airline which you have are a frequent flyer member in does not operate in a particular city. Try to get 1 at most per airline alliance.
- The ground partners of the frequent flyer program. How often do you patronise them? How generous are they in offering miles for a certain amount you spend with them?
- The bonus miles awarded to first and business class travel. Some award a 25% bonus in business class while others can award upto a 100% bonus in that same class of travel.
- The requirements to attain and maintain elite status and the respective privileges of each frequent flyer program's elite levels. Some airlines offer their elite status more generously than others. Examples of privileges include complementary upgrades and level-based bonuses and some airlines are more generous than others. Some airlines offer these privileges at certain levels while others may not offer them at all.
- The existence of blackout dates for redeeming rewards (i.e. do your miles expire and if so, how long are your miles good for redemption?)
- The types of fare classes that are eligible to accrue miles. Deeply discounted as well as promotional fares may not accrue mileage on several airlines.
- Other rules and restrictions. Read the terms and conditions carefully.
For more information on collecting miles on frequent traveller programs check out:
- FlyerTalk, a busy free site dedicated to frequent flyers around the world
- DealMine.com, a comparison shopping mashup with miles and points offers from frequent flier programs and discounts from a wide variety of associations, clubs, unions, credit cards, work benefits and more
From the point of view of an airline, there are two types of luggage: checked and carry-on sometimes referred to hold and hand luggage respectively. Checked luggage is given to airline staff at check-in time and stored in the hold of the aircraft. Carry-on luggage is taken on board the flight with you. The weight and size limits for carry-on luggage are typically very restrictive; they're designed to let you take on board a few essentials for comfort and anything small and easily damaged. So usually, unless you're travelling very light or for a short period of time, you will check most of your luggage and pack a few essentials for the flight in your carry-on luggage.
However if you do not really need loads of luggage, it may be worth considering taking carry-on only . This saves time at your destination because you don't have to wait to claim your checked luggage, and certainly carry-on luggage is less prone to get lost. Check with your airline to make sure that your bag fits within their size/weight restrictions for carry-ons, and whether your purse or laptop counts toward the limit of how many bags you can carry. Also, with tight safety restrictions on what kinds of items you can take with you into the passenger compartment (particularly nothing that could be used as a weapon), a carry-on-only strategy may not be practical.
If passing through the U.S., you may want to read the Transportation Security Administration's Prepare for Takeoff guide.
How much should I pack?
- Don't take more luggage than you can carry by yourself. Airports generally have baggage carts for rent, but you have to have local currency (usually coins) to use them.
- Don't overpack. It may be tempting to take as much as you are allowed, but you may want to purchase souvenirs, duty-free items, etc. which will add to your burden on the return trip.
- Beware of luggage weight limits. The usual limits are:
- Carry-on luggage anywhere: 1 piece, maximum weight 7 kg, maximum size 20x40x55 cm (9x14x22 in.), some European lowcost airlines don't have the weight limit on it, however.
- Checked luggage on international flights outside the United States: 1 piece, maximum 20 kg (44 lbs)
- Checked luggage on international flights to the United States: 2 pieces, maximum 32 kg (70 lbs) each
- Checked luggage on domestic flights in the United States: 2 pieces, maximum 23 kg (50 lbs) each
- Not all airlines have the same weight and size requirements. Low-cost carriers in particular apply lower limits, while elite members of frequent flyer programs are often allowed more. If in doubt, check with your airline. It is quite possible to get halfway around the world with your two bags and then to discover that they are too heavy/bulky for your next airline to carry them. If you are planning a long trip, make sure that your luggage meets the strictest limit before you start.
Carry on vs. checked luggage
- Many countries impose strict limits on liquids, gels and pastes in carry-on, including cosmetics, drinking water, lens cleaner, booze, etc. Typically, you may only bring on board containers of three ounces (90 ml) or less, packed into a one quart (1L) clear, plastic, zip-top bag. Some exceptions are possible for medical or baby care items, and duty-free items purchased at the airport may be OK; check with your airline in advance if in doubt.
- Don't have any sharp or weapon-like objects in your carry-on baggage because they are highly likely to be confiscated at the airport. This includes pointed scissors, nailscissors, metal nailfiles, pocket knives, Swiss Army knives, large screwdrivers or similar tools, baseball bats, and so on. Go through your manicure kit and take them out, and stow them away in your (check-in) suitcase. Carefully pack them so they don't stab an unsuspecting baggage handler. If passing through the USA, check the list of prohibited items from the Transportation Security Administration.
- Be sure to check for restrictions on toy weapons, which tend to make security personnel nervous. "Convincing" looking toy weapons are illegal in some countries anyway.
- Pressurized containers, explosives, and hazardous materials are likely to be prohibited in the cabin or entirely. For the USA, see the TSA's guide to Transporting Special Items.
- If you are carrying any valuables, put them into your carry-on bag rather than your checked luggage. Your checked luggage will be thrown around in transit: if you have something that wouldn't survive a good solid landing from ten feet, take it in carry on. Note that some travel insurance policies will not cover fragile items in checked luggage. In some airports, security of checked luggage is also an issue, as contents may be stolen by airport personnel while the baggage is in transit to and from your plane.
- If you have a bag with an unusual amount of electronic equipment (for example, a music player, headphones, a power adapter for your laptop, and a power adapter for your cell phone), it is more likely to be opened and manually inspected. (Bombs often have electronic timing devices which your electronics may resemble under X-ray.)
- If you carry a laptop computer, make sure the batteries are not completely drained. You might be asked to turn it on. This is rare, but happens. In addition, in many countries, laptop computers are scanned separate from other carry-ons. (You will have to remove it from a bag or pouch.)
- If you have a large umbrella (not the folding kind, which you could store in a carry-on bag), either leave it home or check it. If you do check it, it may be delivered to a special baggage claim area because it will not travel well on the conveyor belt system. Due to the special handling, it may take extra time to arrive. British airlines seem especially wary of umbrellas, perhaps because of the assassination of Georgi Markov. Or perhaps just because they are long and potentially sharp. The best idea may be to get a small fold-up umbrella, or buy one at your destination. U.S. regulations allow umbrellas after they have been inspected for concealed items.
- Airline gate security may confiscate any carry-on items they feel are "suspicious", often without recourse - you will not have the opportunity to go back and put these items in your checked baggage. These may be objects that are similar to prohibited items, items that could arguably be used as a weapon, etc. When in doubt you should put items in your checked luggage beforehand.
As I'm packing my bags, any tips ?
- Pack things in plastic bags inside your check-in luggage. Bags may be exposed to the elements while waiting for the airplane to come in, and for its off-coming luggage to be unloaded. Be sure to press the air out of the plastic bags while packing as it takes up the valuable volume in your luggage.
- Put an identification tag on your bag: name, next-door-neighbor's address, telephone number, flight number, date you are travelling, point of departure, aircraft changes, final destination airport, and destination hotel. Put the same information on a sheet of paper at the top of the bag (in case the tag is lost).
- Consider customizing the outside with colored tape, so it doesn't look exactly the same as everyone else's bag when you reclaim it at the end of your journey.
- Pack items that would be rejected as carry-on in a smaller bag, inserted in a bag you plan to check in. Then if a particular airline is unable to check in the luggage and forces you to treat it as carry-on, you can easily remove and dispose of the items. This has been happening with certain European airlines. Be prepared to either have those items confiscated, or prepare a postal envelope to ship them somewhere before the security check.
- Airlines often lose just some of your bags instead of all of them. So distribute your clothes and other necessary things around all the bags you have. If you're travelling with someone, distribute your stuff across both your bags.
Locking your bags
- If traveling in or to the United States, do not lock your bags when you check them in at the airport. All bags passing through US airports must be either X-rayed or manually inspected. If your bags need to be manually inspected and they are locked, the TSA will break the lock. If you are worried about the security of your baggage enroute to the airport, unlock the case at the counter before you check it in. After inspection and xray, bags are generally 'locked' with a plastic tie so that nobody can tamper with them. However there are locks with universal keying that are available and allowed through TSA's inspection.
- Be aware that the main part of your suitcase will be tied shut with an unbreakable plastic tie when you get it back at the other end of your flight. If you're prepared you'll have a pair of nailscissors in the outside pocket of your suitcase so you can get the tie off - they do NOT usually secure this smaller outside pocket.
What to (and not to) carry on
- If travel involves the United States, place all liquids in your checked luggage except for prescription medications and any nonprescription medications listed on the current TSA guidelines at http://www.tsa.gov. Plan on discarding all cosmetics and beverages at the TSA checkpoint. Also, expect to be required to discard anything purchased in the airport before boarding the plane. Similar regulations apply for flights involving the United Kingdom and more details and information can be found at the Security control section of the BAA Heathrow Website.
- If local airport or security authorities allow you, take a large bottle of water with you (take note that after the August 2006 terror threats, most liquids, including water are not allowed to be carried on the aircraft in some countries). Airliner cabins are very dry and drinking plenty of water helps to avoid dehydration.
- Take nonperishable snacks, especially if you are hypoglycemic, diabetic, or have blood-sugar issues. Don't count on being able to buy it at the airport. If you have a tight connection and have to cross an entire airport, there is no way you'll have time to stop at the cafe as well. If you're traveling to the United States, Australia, or New Zealand, don't bring more fruit than you can eat before you arrive - these countries have strict rules about bringing food in. On longer flights there will probably be a meal or snack served (or offered for purchase), but not necessarily.
- If you have an allergy, bring decongestants to avoid discomfort from the change in cabin pressure. Cabin air can also be a problem; for example, in planes going to Australia and New Zealand, the cabin may be sprayed with pesticides.
- Keep yourself occupied. Some planes have the latest in-flight entertainment systems, music on tape, and onboard games to keep you amused, but others may not have anything at all. Twelve or fourteen hours is a very long time to be bored. Treat yourself to a good book or two for the flight.
- Take a soft jacket. This can be used as a blanket or pillow if these items are needed but not available. Sometimes the outer edge of the cabin can get rather cold (due to the very low temperature at high altitudes).
- Take at least one pair of soft foam earplugs. Even on short flights, the noise of the jet turbines or the small child sitting behind you can be fatiguing. Foam earplugs will reduce the noise level but still allow you to hear instructions in case of an emergency.
What to wear
- When you travel from a cold country to a warm one, consider leaving your winter wear with friends accompanying you to the airport--this will make your luggage smaller. Conversely, when you are traveling to a cold country, remember to carry at least a jacket in your carry-on bag, as it might be some time before you gain access to your checked baggage.
- Keep in mind that airplane interior may be cleaned not as frequently as you'd like, especially on discount airlines. Consider wearing what you won't use outside flights--and changing your clothes right after the flight.
Before you fly
Once you have confirmed your flights, be sure to let 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)
Some people request special meals even if they don't need them: while this adds extra hassle for the airline and their flight crew, the food is often handmade and of higher quality, and special meals are often served before normal ones. You can check to see what meals to expect on Airlinemeals.net .
Alas, agencies have a tendency to lose track of the many requests they get, so if it's really important it's wise to contact the airline directly and make sure the message has gotten through. Major airlines support special requests on their web sites.
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 online (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, you can see whether any waitlists have cleared, flight times have changed, your special requests are properly recorded, etc. There are a number of online services that allow you to do this; however, you'll have to figure out which reservation system was used to do the booking. This is usually printed at the top of your itinerary, but if all else fails you can always ask the agent.
Note that low-cost carrier flights will not show up in these systems.
Make sure your travel insurance is in order and that it covers the area you are going to. Also study the fine print: many travel insurance schemes will actually pay out in the event of long delays, lost baggage, etc.
For flights lasting longer than you are used to, have enough sleep right before the date of your fly--it's even worth sacrificing packing right or having done all the work you promised before going to vacation.
At the airport
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 Go to gate, which is a sign that you should promptly complete check-in and proceed through the security check, and Final call, which means that you should board the flight as quickly as possible.
Reduce stress - get to the airport a half an hour before the recommended time. (Check with your airline. In the US, the recommended time is usually 1 hour before takeoff for domestic flights, 2 hours for international.) This will ensure that you will not be stressed while standing in long queues for check-in, security, emigration, and more security. It also gives 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.
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. With some airlines you will receive a boarding pass with a seat assignment, while some do not assign seats. You may need a boarding pass to present to the security staff and later when boarding the flight. At this time, your checked luggage will be weighed, labelled, and handed off to airport staff.
The check-in staff will give you a luggage tag once your bags are processed. Keep this as upon arrival, some airports may require passengers to present these along with their luggage to ensure that the one carrying the luggage is indeed the owner. These luggage tags are also useful if you suspect some of your check-in luggage are missing.
An increasing number of airlines is implementing a self-check-in system at certain airports, although in some cases it can be restricted to passengers without checked luggage, and to passengers who do not have a paper/physical ticket. 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. It may also be possible to check-in via the internet. 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. On some airlines, particular those like Southwest that do not assign seats, passengers are allowed to board earlier if they have checked-in in advance.
If there are several flight "legs" between you and your destination, ask check-in staff if they can check your bags all the way through so that you don't have to pick them up and re-check them at every stop. It's important that you know when you will and won't have to transfer your bags yourself: some countries insist on incoming international passengers retrieving and re-checking all luggage before transferring to another, domestic flight. On the other hand, you don't want to have to wait around for your bags only to find that they were booked through.
Choosing your seat
At check-in, you'll probably be asked if you want a window or aisle seat. Both have their advantages:
Window seats are 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 seatmate or two to go to the bathroom or access any of your carry-ons in the overhead. You may also have slightly less floor space due to the curvature of the plane.
Aisle seats are the choice of some road warriors, because they make it easy to get out and off the plane. On long flights, though, it's hard to get sleep with people climbing over you, and you also run an additional risk of being hit by trolleys.
The third possibility is middle seats, which combine the disadvantages of both aisle and window seats without the advantages of either. There are some special rows too:
Exit row seats are located 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 and as a result, you can't lift the armrests. This shouldn't be much of a problem when you have occupants beside you but if there is none, you may want all the space to yourself. In addition, all your hand baggage has to go in the overhead compartment if you are in these rows since no other seats are directly in front of you. In theory, passengers in these seats are required to help attendants with the door in an emergency, so you might not be allowed to sit there 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. 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 very 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 one.
Bulkhead seats are in the first row of each section and offer not just oodles of legroom, but also no seat reclining into you. However, they're also 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 or even at the gate, but then you run the risk of sitting next to a screaming baby for your entire flight. Like exit rows, you have to store all your baggage overhead.
In most jet aircraft, seats in the tail end of the plane are exposed to more cabin noise than the front and middle. The difference in noise can be significant enough to cause discomfort, and it's one of the reasons why first class is always located in the front. However, this effect is often evened out by screaming infants, who ironically tend to be seated in the most quiet area available, in the front of the economy section. In wide-body aircraft, rear economy window seats will provide you with the best view, since the view in the front of the economy section is obstructed by the large wings.
The effects of turbulence are weakest near the leading edge of the wing - somewhere in the middle of the aircraft.
All airplanes also have 'ordinary' seats that are less or more desirable for some reason:
- seats at the tail end of the plane often have no middle seats, which gives you more room to spread out
- seats just before the exit row and at the end of a section may not recline
- seats next to the toilets may be smelly and have lots of people trooping up and down to them
However, these vary greatly between airplanes and airlines, so you'll need to consult detailed seat maps to figure out the good and bad ones. Several online sites provide detailed seatmaps for in-service aircraft and can help when choosing the best seat:
SeatGuru also helps to find out what aircraft type you'll be flying (although it gives little help beyond US airlines).
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 (usually the last passengers to arrive). "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).
Compensation for denied boarding for flights in the European Union is €250 for flights < 1500Km, €400 for 1500-3500 Km, and €600 >3500Km (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 . One way to reduce the risk of overbooking is to check-in very early, either by Internet or by telephone before arriving at the airport.
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 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.
Your boarding ticket specifies Boarding time -- which is when boarding starts (not when it ends). Usually the boarding starts even after the printed time.
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 and you are far away from it and you don't know your way around the airport.
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 these regulations.
- Above all else: Always keep your luggage with you. Airport security takes unaccompanied suitcases very seriously. If one is found and the owner is not within reach to claim it, this will almost immediately trigger an alert, resulting in the affected area closing 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 a delay, and maybe even fines or the total loss of your luggage (which might be destroyed if it appears to be a bomb). Furthermore, other people may put prohibited items when you're not looking. It goes without saying that you are responsible for your own luggage as well as bearing the penalties that come along with it if there are indeed prohibited items detected in it.
- Depending on current procedures, you may be more likely to get a supplemental personal security check (being taken aside and examined with a handheld metal detector) at U.S. airports if you are travelling alone, buy a one-way ticket, pay cash, buy your ticket at the last minute, or change destinations on the day of the flight. This might take an additional 15 minutes or so at the security checkpoint.
- Be proactive to avoid making unnecessary delays or getting stopped by security. Before you enter the queue for the checkpoint:
- Take off your jacket; it will need to be X-rayed.
- Take out all the metal in your pockets (including phones, keys, change, etc.). Instead of fumbling with the provided plastic bins, put loose metal objects (especially change) in a bag or jacket pocket that will go through the X-ray machine.
- Remove any large objects from your pockets that create a suspicious bulge. They will probably be uncomfortable to keep there on the plane anyway.
- Don't wear a belt with a large metal buckle or other metal ornamentation, or if you do, take it off.
- Shoes that can be easily removed and put back on are a good idea, because you may be asked to remove them for inspection. Don't wear hiking boots or other shoes with large metal loops or steel plates in the soles. American security is especially wary of shoe bombs after the Richard Reid incident.
- If in the US, get ready to unload your laptop if you're carrying one. It will need to be put through the X-ray machine by itself.
- While your bags are being checked through security, keep an eye on them at all times, especially if you have put valuables inside. Security personnel are supposed to allow you to watch the entire inspection process, so even if you or one of your bags is being searched, any other bags you might have should be within sight. Security personnel are focused on keeping the terminal area secure. They won't necessarily notice if a stranger grabs your bag or takes something out of it, especially since they may not notice who it really belongs to.
- Don't make jokes about bombs, weapons, or other security threats. There is no room for humor on this topic; rather than relying on their individual subjective judgment, 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. In addition, it may be treated as a criminal offence and charges may be filed against you.
- It is important to note that depending on the country, taking prohobited items to the security checkpoint even by accident may be considered an offence as the items concerned are not just subject to confiscation.
After you proceed through security you will reach the departure area. Depending on the airport this may be either bare or full of shopping and entertainment. Your flight will have an associated gate number where it is boarding.
- Find the gate where you are boarding: be there no later than 15 minutes before the flight's scheduled departure, and preferably a little earlier. At the gate, airline staff will check your boarding pass and may also want to see photo ID. At this point, you will be registered as being on-board the flight. The departure area may be quite large: some contain up to fifty gates.
- Switch off your mobile phone before you board the plane. Using a mobile phone on board is a violation of air travel safety laws in some areas, even during boarding when the plane is still on the ground. The crew will ask you to turn off your phone, and if you do not comply you will be escorted off the plane. Current regulations in the United States allow use while the cabin doors are not secured for flight, but individual carriers may have their own policies.
During 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.
- Read the emergency instructions and watch the safety briefing even if you rode 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 there.
- If you are originally seated in an exit row, you are required by most countries to assist the cabin crew in performing emergency procedures should an emergency arise. This inevitably means reading the safety card carefully and being alert for crew instructions. If you do not wish to be seated in an exit row and perform emergency procedures, just inform the flight attendant before the flight commences and he/she will reseat you somewhere else. You don't have to explain why you don't want to sit in an exit row. Children below a certain age are not allowed to sit in an exit row.
- Wear your seatbelt whenever you are sitting in your seat. While you may not think you need it in smooth level flight, aircraft can make sudden unexpected maneuvers even at cruising altitude. Air turbulence can occur without warning even in clear air and can throw you from your seat. Unexpected turbulence is the most common cause of serious injury in the air.
- Drink lots of water, and avoid caffeine and alcohol. Otherwise you will dehydrate at an alarming pace, which worsens jet lag and can induce splitting headaches. Don't hesitate to ask air crew for more water, or to walk up to the galley to request more; this is especially important since water and other liquids are not allowed to be brought in by passengers if departing from certain countries.
- Don't sit completely still. The human body isn't designed for sitting completely still for many hours. Try to adjust your seating position as often as possible (you do this in your sleep anyway). Try to stretch, move your toes in circles, anything you can do in your seat. Some airlines will now periodically show video programs you can follow to get some exercise in your seat. You can 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 get the circulation it needs. And you'll feel better. Consider walking around the aircraft every now and then during long flights.
- Most airlines offer smoke free flights. Do not smoke, especially in the lavatories. Doing so in the lavotories will set-off the smoke detector alarm and possibly cause fire. Moreover, an attempt to tamper or disable the smoke detectors is a criminal offence in most countries.
- Ensure you stow any loose items before landing. Put magazines and books in the seat pocket. Do not leave them lying on the empty seat beside you. Under heavy braking on landing, even seemingly light article can travel the length of the plane--even if you don't care about safety of people around you, it'll be difficult to find under seats, and before you find you'll pray nobody step onto it.
- Timing of different phases of flight varies, but normally descending and landing takes 20 minutes.
- Always follow the instructions of the flight attendants, as well as the lighted and posted signs found around the aircraft as these are for your safety and the safety of your fellow passengers. Flight attendants are not simply waiters, they are responsible for your safety and are trained in the said field. Do not argue with them. Any conflict or object you have to their service should be resolved on the ground. If an "unruly passenger" becomes a serious problem, the captain of the plane will make an unscheduled landing, and the passenger will be taken off the airplane. In many juristictions, flight attendant instructions are backed up by law; in the US, for example, disobeying a flight attendant is a felony offense!
- Using laptop computers is normally allowed after take-off and until landing; some airlines ask to not use CD players or compact printers (no restrictions for standalone CD players, however). Internet access may only be used if it is WiFi capable and if the airline offers it.
- In case you need to make call during the flight, some airlines offer dedicated telephones. The airline's inflight magazine has the details on the charges and instructions on how to operate the phone. Fax facilities may also be provided.
- Notify the cabin crew if you need wheelchair assistance. There are airport crews with wheelchairs waiting at the gate. Wait until everybody else disembarks and they will come to you.
- Double check your seating area to ensure you leave none of your belongings behind. In some countries, unclaimed items may be confiscated.
- Exercise caution when opening the overhead compartment to claim your items stowed there as luggage may have shifted during the flight and fall out.
Back at the airport
Making a connection
- Check if you have a boarding pass for your next flight. If you don't, you may not be considered checked-in for that flight yet so proceed to a transfer desk immediately to obtain a boarding pass for your next flight.
- Ask if your luggage is checked-through by presenting your luggage tag. If not, you will need to go to the arrival hall to claim your luggage and re-check them in.
- If you came from an international flight and are continuing on to another international flight, you may need to clear security again before proceeding to your next flight.
- 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 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 going to the main departure halls to check-in your luggage there.
- Check the monitors for the status of your next flight.
- Use the overhead signs and terminal maps to locate your the gate of your next flight.
- If your next flight is located in a different terminal, inquire at the transfer desk on how to transfer to that terminal. Depending on the airport, shuttle buses or trains may be used to transport you to the terminal of your next flight. Give yourself a lot of time as you may be required to clear security again upon entry into the next terminal.
Arriving at the final destination
- In case your luggage didn't emerge at baggage claim, proceed to the designated lost luggage counters immediately. Present the luggage tag which corresponds to the missing luggage given to you at check-in and be ready to describe what your luggage looks like (include any colours of the tags, nameplates that are tied to the luggage) to the staff at the counter. To help you describe your luggage, the staff may provide picture samples of what most check-in luggage would look like, you should point to the one which looks closest to your lost luggage. If they are unable to locate it within an immediate time span, you will have to provide your contact number and address so they airline can deliver the luggage to you when they are found. They will give you a contact number and a reference number, use these to track the progress of your missing luggage.
- If you believe that you left something on board the aircraft you were flying with, please get in touch with your airline or proceed to the designated counter/booth/office at the airport that deals with lost items. Returning to aircraft yourself is normally not allowed after you enter the terminal.
Jet lag is not caused by flying per se, but is a form of disorientation and fatigue caused by abruptly switching to a different sleeping/waking schedule and different daylight hours. Some people are affected more than others, but it tends to happen when crossing two or more time zones in a single flight (which first became commonplace with the development of commercial jet air travel, hence the term).
One way to avoid jet lag for short stays is to ignore the difference in time zone, and maintain the same sleeping schedule as you would according to the time "back home", perhaps keeping lights on to simulate daylight and pulling shades to simulate night. This is less practical for longer stays, or when travelling several time zones from home which would place you far out of synch with local hours.
The impact may be diminished by gradually adjusting your sleep schedule in advance of a long-distance trip. For example, before flying from California to Germany, you might start a week ahead of time, going to bed and waking up an hour earlier each day. By the time you actually made the trip, your sleep schedule would be almost in synch with your destination.
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