You've now arrived at your local airport, ready to 'slip the surly bonds of Earth' and walk several miles to your gate. But while it may feel that airports force you to walk the vast majority of the way towards your destination, this article should help expedite and ameliorate your passage through any airport: from check-in to duty-free checkout.
This part of the guide offers extended tips for that part of your journey by air between the entrance door of the airport terminal until the time you board your aircraft.
Most international airport terminals are standardized, with similar procedures for check-in, security, immigration and customs, however, it's still worth considering the particular quirks of your point of departure. Wikivoyage has articles about many individual major airports worldwide, whilst an internet search should be able to provide any additional information that you may need for your trip.
The flight ticket does not enable you to board the plane: you must have a boarding pass. Check-in is the process of producing your boarding pass, which includes seat numbers, departure times and gates. As a general rule, you should aim to be at the airport at least 2 hours for domestic flights (3 hours for International flights) before the scheduled departure time of your flight. In the security check, only passengers with boarding passes are admitted in. You can often do the check-in yourself electronically, either online or with check-in kiosks at the airport, some airlines require you to check in only prior to their check in counters at the airport opening to avoid sometimes outrageous fees. Check-in is not to be confused with baggage drop, which requires prior check-in.
With online check-in becoming more and more the standard, some airlines no longer strictly distinguish between baggage drop and check in. If the queues are short, the agent at the bag drop counter might check you in, assign a seat and take your bag. Don't count on it though. In addition, for international flights, particularly to the United States, you may still be required to present yourself to counter staff even if you have checked in online so your passport and visas can be verified.
With some airlines you will receive a boarding pass with a seat assignment, while some do not assign seats. You will need a boarding pass to present to the security staff and later to the gate staff when boarding the flight. At this time, your checked luggage will be weighed, labelled, and handed off to baggage handlers.
The aviation industry considers a new day to start at 00:00 (midnight). For instance, if your flight is scheduled to depart at 00:10 (12:10AM) on 1st April, you have to be at the airport to check-in by 22:10 (10:10PM) on 31st March. There have been many cases of passengers missing flights due to this confusion, when they turn up at the airport at 22:10 on 1st April instead.
Landside and airside
What happens when you try to circumvent security?
On November 16, 2001, Michael Lasseter was flying from Atlanta to Oxford, Mississippi, and got past security when he realized he left his camera bag in the lobby. Leaving the secure area to retrieve it, he left his ticket with his son and brother-in-law, so he couldn't clear security again. Missing his flight wasn't an option, as he was flying to watch his favorite American college football team, the University of Georgia Bulldogs. Since he'd already cleared security once, he reasoned that he didn't need to clear it again… so he ran through the exit from the secure area down an "up" escalator, past security guards yelling at him to stop.
This being just two months after 9/11, the nation was still in a security panic. (Headlines from the day included the Senate passing a bill that would revamp airport security by creating the federal Transportation Security Administration.) The guards may have been unclear on what the procedures in a post-9/11 world were, or whether they had the authority to bodily stop someone. But once he was past them, there was only one thing to do: sound the alarms. The world's busiest airport was put on pause. Thousands of passengers were evacuated from the terminal. Hundreds of flights were delayed for hours, and huge traffic jams hit the city's roads and subway.
After pleading guilty, Lasseter's final sentence included:
Airports consist of two areas: landside with the check-in and baggage drop, and airside with the aircraft. To get airside, passengers must clear the security barrier (see below). International airports have immigration and customs controls for passengers going from airside to landside (see arriving by plane for details). In other words, passage between these areas takes time, and should preferably be done just once. To use the airside to landside passage backwards without permission is strictly forbidden; however, the opposite, passing through landside to airside security barriers backwards is not. People who forget something airside must sort it out with the security staff.
As the landside area is usually open to the public, it might be more crowded, dirty, and more exposed to pickpockets and other crime than airside. Unticketed persons are often not allowed to stay with family or friends as they go through processing to airside. Some countries may allow family and friends to accompany domestic passengers airside up to the boarding gate provided they go through security; check each country's regulations for more details.
Typically, the duty free shops and most restaurants are airside. However, some large airports have good restaurants and other amenities landside, which may be worth a visit even for non-flyers.
Boarding times and delays
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 at least 45 minutes. Some airlines do what is called "pre-boarding" with passengers admitted into a separated area after having their boarding passes checked in order to avoid a check when the airplane arrives. It is often possible to leave this "pre-boarding zone" only after showing the boarding pass again.
The gate closes (boarding stops) usually only 10–15 minutes before departure so give yourself plenty of time to get to the gate, especially if the airport is large, you are far away from the gate, or you don't know your way around the airport. Contact your travel agent for advice.
Delays and cancellations
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 canceled, 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. With flights operated by European Union (EU) carriers to or from the EU, passengers are entitled to cash compensation of €250 and more after a delay of 3 hours or more - unless the delay is for circumstances beyond the carriers control.
Be aware that unusual weather can cause the very strange phenomenon of being denied boarding because of weather for a flight that, nevertheless, does depart on schedule. This is usually caused by weight limits and takes two forms:
- Predicted weather may make the flight longer, and so more reserve fuel is required. 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. This is more likely on long distances, but can happen on short flights if the runway is short (heavy aircraft accelerates slower and needs longer runway).
- As it gets warmer, the take-off 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 (e.g., summer in Las Vegas or Denver), they may have to reduce weight for the plane to get safely in the air.
As a general rule, you are entitled to some form of compensation if your flight is significantly delayed or cancelled due to circumstances within the airline's control such as technical problems. On the other hand, you are usually not entitled to any compensation for delays and cancellations due to circumstances beyond the airline's control such as inclement weather.
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 meals until you can be flown to your destination.
While very rare, sometimes the airline itself suddenly fails, leading to all its flights being cancelled and causing many passengers to be stranded. When this happens, other airlines will sometimes step in with discounted "rescue fares", and in some cases there may even be government intervention to get stranded citizens home - look at news surrounding the airline's collapse to see what happens.
To volunteer or not to volunteer?
In most cases, if a flight is overbooked airline staff will first ask for volunteers to take another flight. In some cases, volunteers will receive slightly better benefits than persons involuntarily removed from a flight. Such benefits could include more monetary compensation, a bump in class, or a discount granted for a future flight. However, if you are travelling as a group you may be split apart and seated throughout the airplane or even in separate classes on your new flights. Additionally, you may be required to make more flights than planned (i.e. your overbooked flight from Paris to Atlanta may become flights from Paris to New York and New York to Atlanta). If the compensation offered is for future travel, consider if you are flying with that airline in the next 12 months.
Overbooking is the practice of accepting reservations for a flight from more people than can fit on the plane. Almost all airlines overbook their flights, as statistically some percentage of passengers do not show up for the flight.
It does happen, though, that more people check in than can fit on the plane. When this happens, the airline staff will ask passengers to volunteer, either at the checkout counter or after the plane is full, to remain behind and take another flight. If your travel plans are flexible (such as on the homeward leg of your excursion), you may wish to volunteer, to receive the compensation that airlines usually offer to get out of this predicament. If there are no volunteers, passengers will be chosen by the airline to stay behind. "Bumped" passengers are almost always offered passage to their destination by some other route or on a later flight; it is common for airlines to offer a voucher for a substantial discount on a future flight, or even cash, in compensation for the inconvenience. If an overnight stay is required, the airline will usually pay for a hotel and meals during the delay. Your rights are regulated at the country level; some airlines may offer additional compensation (but their policy on this is rarely published). Sometimes they will increase their offer for volunteers if the initial offer does not get enough interest.
If you want to avoid being bumped you should get seat allocation as soon as possible. Sometimes a travel agent can do this when reserving your flight, sometimes you can do it electronically with your reservation or by checking in early on the Internet before arriving at the airport. If you have no seat allocated to you then you are at risk of being bumped at the airport, even if you arrive a long time before other passengers who may already have seats allocated.
Compensation for denied boarding for flights in the European Union is €250 for distances less than 1500 km, €400 for distances between 1500 and 3500 km, and €600 for distances greater than 3500 km (half if the delay is less than 2, 3 or 4 hours, respectively) in addition to an alternative flight or a refund of the ticket. Consult your travel agent or the airline. If inquiring of the airline by telephone, ask for the current load factor, which is the ratio of reserved seats to capacity. Anything greater than one indicates an overbooked flight, while your chances of boarding as a stand-by passenger decline as the load factor increases.
If you are lucky, overbooking can sometimes lead to a free upgrade to first or business class, as seats in the premium cabins tend to be oversold less commonly than those in economy. In general, your chances of being upgraded are higher if you bought a more expensive ticket, if you have elite status in the airline's frequent flyer programme (or that of an airline in the same alliance), and/or if you are travelling alone or in a small group.
You may face the same challenges in lines/queues for the personal security screening. If time is short, use the same methods as for check-in to get help.
If you want to reduce stress, get to the airport at least an hour before the recommended minimum check-in time. Check with your airline for recommended minimum check-in times. This can be as little as 20 minutes for domestic flights from small airports if having hand luggage only, to as much as 3 hours for an international flight to or from the US or Israel where getting through security can take more time.
Depending on your mode of transport to the airport and the distances involved you should add another hour of buffer on top of that. This extra hour will also give you a buffer for delays on the way to the airport. If your airport is served by a light rail train, a disruption of train service during a busy hour will easily eat up that buffer. When the disruption is announced, all passengers along the route will start to hunt down a taxi, and they will all be taken in seconds.
If for some reason you are delayed and you're worried about missing your flight or if 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. 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 alone, but it might wait if you're one of 50 connecting passengers on a delayed flight. Some low cost airlines however are notorious for not even waiting for late connecting flights of their own airline - that's why most of them don't let you book connecting flights in the first place.
Even in cities with extensive public transportation, getting to the airport can be difficult. Some urban rail systems omit the airport; it might be far from the city center. Given its remoteness as well as the captive market, trips to the airport often cost more than normal trips inside the city. This can range from the trivial to the substantial (e.g. Denver to Denver Airport is US$9, Munich to Munich airport is €11.20). Expect to pay an even higher premium for "express" services that connect the airport with a downtown rail station with few or no intermediate stops as can be found in London or Stockholm.
Especially in cities which are served by more than one airport, you must know the name of the airport and your specific departure terminal within that airport. 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 arrive at the right terminal too. (Fortunately, large, modern airports have many forms of "people movers" that link separate terminals and reduce actual walking required.) The name of the airport and that of the terminal you will use should be 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. Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5). An airline may operate from more than one 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 not be enough.
If you are asking for airport limousine or shuttle service, giving the flight number is usually all the telephone operator needs as they know which airlines fly out of which terminal.
The same cautions apply if you use rail service to reach your airport. Some airports have such an array of terminals that metro lines, subways or railways may have more than one station.
You need to arrive at airports well before your flight as there are a number of procedures you need to complete before boarding: check in, security check, and perhaps immigration control. Airlines will typically have departure boards (displays) indicating a flight's status. The most important status indicators are Boarding or Go to gate, which is a sign that you should promptly complete check-in and proceed through the security check, and Final call or Last call, which means that you should board the flight as quickly as possible.
In large airports, passengers often need to walk considerable distances. If you have some motion disability, you should consider ordering a wheelchair.
Multi-terminal airports might not be walkable in a practical way, though many modern airport facilities have built automated people-movers to shuttle travelers who need to reach their connecting flights at different terminals. Shuttle buses between terminals may also be available. In either case, access to them may be either landside (prior to going through security) or airside (after going through security) and differ between airports - check to see what options you have and where they are located.
Check in consists of three main parts, which used to be performed at the same time but can now be done separately:
- The actual check-in, i.e. confirming to the airline that you will take the booked flight and that the airline should expect your arrival... and possibly, look for you should you not arrive at the gate on time (depending on specific airline policies)
- Handing your hold luggage to ground handling staff (checking it in), who will tag it for your ticketed destination, and take care of it on its way to your airplane's luggage hold
- Getting your boarding pass to enable you to continue further
Check with your airline - increasingly you will have to pay - sometimes substantial amounts - if you haven't checked in online in advance. Checking in online when and where possible also has other advantages, such as often giving you better seats and a higher likelihood of not being "bumped" in case of overbooked flights.
The first thing you will need to do at the airport is check in for your flight. This entails proceeding to a check-in desk allocated for your airline or flight. Present your passport or other photo ID (national ID card in Europe or driver's license in North America), and a confirmation of your ticket if asked, to airline staff at your flight's designated check-in counter or at the common check-in counter, depending on your airline. You will also need to present your visa to staff if this is required for your destination.
On some airlines, you will need to present the original credit card that was used to book your ticket (e.g. EVA Air, Korean Air) (and possibly sign a form) if you bought the ticket directly from the airline's website. When you purchase your ticket the airline should inform you prior to payment. This condition is also noted on your ticket. If you are unable to present the card, the original card used for payment will be refunded and you will be required to pay again.
Check-in is handled by the carrier's own ground staff or third-party agents representing them. If you have luggage to check, they will print tags with your name and "checked destination" and apply them as they take the luggage for transport to your plane. They'll also generate boarding passes that you'll need not only to board, but to process through security to reach airside. As discussed below, well-equipped check-in areas may have automated kiosks before the lines begin. They can trigger the production of your boarding passes and luggage tags at the check-in counter. Staff will help you use them.
You will typically have to queue before check-in: on very full flights and very busy days this alone could take more than an hour, particularly for international flights. There are usually separate, and much shorter, check-in lanes for first, business class passengers, upper tier members of the airline's frequent flyer program (e.g. silver, gold) and sometimes those who checked-in through remote methods (e.g. online check-in). If the queue is long and your flight is leaving within the hour, your flight status is already showing "Go to gate" or you are approaching the check-in deadline for your ticket, let airport staff know as they will often allow you to go to the front of the queue and check in immediately. Sometimes they will specifically ask for passengers for a flight that is about to close to make themselves known so that they can check them in right away; sometimes they will not ask. Discount airlines have the strictest check in deadlines and some will not allow you to check in after the deadline even if you made it to the end of the queue in time.
If you have to check-in manually, be prepared for longer queues. Have your documentation ready before you get to the counter. If other methods of check-in are made available, avoid using the traditional check-in counters unless you have special requests. Some carriers already charge a fee for using traditional check-in counters.
- See also: Planning_your_flight#Online_check-in
Automated check-in at the airport
An increasing number of airlines are implementing a self-check-in system at certain airports. In most cases, this option is available to passengers with or without check-in bags. Especially in Europe, this is one of the only ways (aside from online check-in) for passengers (especially those travelling on economy) to check in as staffed reception desks are increasingly relegated as 'baggage drop only' desks. These systems involve small kiosks in which you can enter your booking reference, swipe or insert the credit card used to make the booking or swipe/insert your frequent flyer card (if it has a magnetic strip) to access your record and print out a boarding pass for you and your travelling party. You may have the opportunity to change your seats when checking in; in particular, many airlines do not open the exit rows until the day of the flight.
The self-service check-in kiosks of some carriers have been extended to include features that allow passengers to check-in baggage by themselves. You will be given detailed instructions on the monitor how to weight and label your bag. Make sure to fix the adhesive label as shown, and check that it won't come loose. Some labels have additional bar-code stickers that you can peel off and stick to a different part of your bag. Should the main label be ripped off, the bag can still be scanned.
If you checked-in via kiosk or online, the airline usually provides a special lane for you where the rest of the check-in process will be expedited. At this counter, please provide the information and documents that were given to and/or requested of you. Some carriers require passengers who used self-check-in to proceed to designated check-in counters to have documents verified, even if they do not have check-in bags.
Electronic check-in is possible only in routine cases; if there are required document checks (e.g. visa), special needs or inconsistencies with the tickets (such as mismatches with names), only manual check-in at the counter is possible.
- See also: Flight baggage
Dropping hold baggage
Some airports offer curbside check-in, which allows you to check-in your bags before entering the terminal. These are normally available on domestic US flights and do what the standard check-in counters inside do except that they will not issue boarding passes to you. You will have to obtain them inside if you haven't done so from online check-in. Curbside check-in is offered nowadays for a fee levied by the carrier or by a third-party baggage handler sometimes on top of prevailing check-in baggage fees. Moreover, tips for the staff are expected.
The check-in staff will print a bar-coded baggage tag once your bags are processed; the longer part of it will be attached to your baggage while the shorter part will be given to you. In a few cases, the shorter part may resemble a thermal receipt. Keep this, as upon arrival, some airports may require passengers to present these along with their baggage to ensure that the person carrying the baggage is indeed the owner. These baggage tags are also useful if you suspect some of your check-in baggage is missing or similar to other baggage. Before the ticket agent attaches the new baggage tags for your upcoming flight, be sure:
- You've removed any old airline tags.
- Your new tags reflect your destination airport, checked-through as below.
If your journey for the day involves several flights, you may want to request to have your baggage checked-through. Check-through is when your baggage will be tagged all the way until the last leg of your journey and in most cases, you do not need to claim your baggage in your intermediate stopovers any more (especially for international-international or domestic-domestic flights on full-service carriers; does not apply to international-domestic connections). You need to inform the check-in staff of the flights which will be covered by check-through for a particular journey as they can't assume that's your preference. However, check-through is not always possible, make sure you inquire of the check-in staff. You may check the section "Making a connection" below and are advised to contact the carriers concerned for more information on when check-through may or may not be possible.
If you find you are taking more baggage than allowed, check with the airline to see what the cheapest way of carrying it is. Sometimes additional baggage allowances can be pre-purchased, especially online where discounts may be given. Excess baggage fees are heftier if the excess weight is detected at the airport than if pre-arranged and pre-purchased.
Many airlines offer discounted cargo rates to passengers, but this must be arranged prior to departure, and destination of the goods your want to ship as cargo must match the destination on your ticket. You will need to deliver your excess bags to the cargo terminal, and you may incur duties and other charges.
Postal services or sea freight can be much cheaper than air freight or excess baggage charges. But check rates thoroughly. It may be a good way to get some baggage back home when you don't need it any longer, or even to send some baggage ahead for longer trips. However, see individual country listings for information on reliability and shipping times of such services.
Baggage delivery services provide an alternative. Baggage is delivered by a specific date, normally between 48 hours and 5 days, with door-to-door service to an address you specify. You don't have to go to the cargo terminal before or after you drop-off or pick-up your checked luggage. All paperwork is provided to you and customs procedures are managed. The price is cheaper than airline cargo rates, but still expensive.
If you have a lot of baggage, consider flying business class or even first class. Domestic tickets may not cost that much more. International flights will cost considerably more and may not be recommended. With most airlines, those seat classes will allow you to get a larger luggage allowance.
Oversize or special luggage
There is a size limit for normal luggage, but it is usually possible to bring special oversize luggage. This might include sports equipment such as bicycles or golf bags. This will cost extra and should be pre-booked for all legs of the journey. The airline can deny non-booked special luggage if there is no room for it. Allow extra time for dropping it at the airport. When booking small children, it is normally allowed to have a pram/stroller checked into the flight without extra charge.
Aviation security is no laughing matter. Security regulations are tight, and airport security personnel are very strict in implementing them. This check takes place between landside and airside.
In some countries, before boarding an international flight, you may not only be required to pass a security check, but also a customs and immigration screening.
Airports with an elevated need for security (such as Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel) might have early checkpoints; at the road to the airport, or at the building entrance. Officers might request documents and/or a scanning of travellers and their baggage.
International airports usually have a high level of surveillance which is justified as being there to prevent crime, illegal immigration and smuggling, at the cost of visitors' privacy. In and around airports, staff might use harsher methods than in civilian locations, against unattended baggage, loitering and drunkenness. The civil rights implications of all this - and whether any given "security" measure actually works are sometimes subject of public debate. Plenty of time margins, papers in order and good behavior are the best methods to deal with excessive security measures.
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.
Limits on liquids
All international flights, as well as domestic flights in some countries including the United States and the European Union, restrict the quantity of liquids, gels, and aerosols allowed in your carry-on. A typical restriction is that each container must hold 100 mL (3.4 ounces) or less, and all the containers must fit in one clear sandwich-sized resealable plastic bag per passenger. Anything exceeding these limits should be put in your checked luggage. Exceptions are made for baby food and medications (bring a doctor's note).
The definition of "liquids, gels, and aerosols" is broader than you might imagine—it includes peanut butter, toothpaste, glow sticks, and shaving cream, for instance. The limits are enforced on the size of the container, not the amount of liquid inside, so a 150mL container that's less than a third full is still likely to be confiscated. If you accidentally bring a bottle full of water with you into the security line, you have three choices: drink it all while you're waiting in line, relinquish the bottle, or pour the water out (there may be designated bins for pouring out liquids) and hopefully refill it after security.
At most airports, liquids obtained after going through security are not a problem. The soda you bought or water bottle you filled up near the gate within the secure area should usually be fine. But be careful: some flights at some airports will check for and confiscate large liquids when you're boarding the plane. When making a connection, if you have to go through security again, then any large liquids you have with you will be confiscated all over again.
Then, as you walk to your gate, you and your carry-ons must go through personal security screening. It involves the following basic steps (varying based on individual countries' policies and on whether the flight is domestic or international).
- You must present identification (perhaps except for toddlers) and boarding passes for your flight. Keep your ID and boarding passes with you throughout the process.
- You may be instructed to:
- Remove bulky outer garments (e.g., sweaters, jackets) and/or your shoes... and place them in a bin/tub going through separate electronic scanning or manual inspection.
- Place all carry-on bags, purses, laptops and the clear bag of liquids in tubs/bins on the line for separate scanning. Depending on the country and the airport, items such as laptops, other electronics, umbrellas, chargers, and liquids may have to be placed separately. Put the clear bag of liquids on top where it can be easily seen and inspected.
- This is your last opportunity to avoid delays, by placing all metal or electronic items (e.g., cell phones, coins, keys) into a bin/tub. At airports that use backscatter X-ray machines, you'll need to remove everything from your pockets, metal or not.
- Proceed to a nearby point for body screening: electronic, X-ray, and/or manual. Any metal object will generate an alarm. You'll be directed to return to the carry-on scanning line and place "offending" items in a bin/tub for separate screening. If this happens, be careful not to leave them behind when grabbing your bags!
In general, you will not be allowed to carry any sharp objects (eg. knives, scissors, razor blades), firearms, or other possible weapons (hammers, golf clubs, baseball bats) onto a flight, and these items must be put in your check-in baggage. There is also a restriction on the amount of liquids, aerosols and gels that you may carry for flights in the United States and European Union, as well as all international flights. For flights to the United States or Australia, you may only purchase duty free liquids (e.g. liquor, perfume) at the stop before your final leg. In other words, if you have any stopovers, you should not purchase duty free items at the beginning of your journey, and should only do so at your final stopover.
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.
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. You may be subject to a more rigorous security check. Depending on the country and airport, this can be random or based on some suspicion. It can involve luggage search, swabs for explosive chemical traces and/or personal body searches. Officers may offer an information sheet explaining your rights, but the chance of your reaching your plane without submitting to the check is low.
Otherwise, go to the end of the conveyor which takes your luggage out of the screening machine, claim your possessions and proceed 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 offense, 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.
According to the letter of the law the limit on liquids can be avoided by freezing. You can try it with a low value liquid and some people have reported getting stuff through security that way that would've been disallowed in the liquid state. Some security personnel even take it in good humor and it might brighten an otherwise dull day. However, when the liquid is even partially molten, they can and might point out it's a liquid now and not admit it on the flight. ICAO regulations also allow passengers to carry up to 2.5 kg of dry ice in either their hand or checked luggage (provided it's labeled properly) which you might employ to keep frozen stuff frozen. Maybe get that pint of ice-cream home after all?
How to avoid unnecessary delays
To avoid delays or stoppages at the screening:
- Don't wear hiking boots or shoes with large metal loops or steel plates in the soles.
- Choose footwear that's easy to slip on and off; wear socks to avoid dirt/organisms on the floor.
- Avoid wearing or carrying unneeded items you'll have to remove before inspection.
- Avoid wearing metal objects, like a belt-buckle or use ones that are easy to take off.
- Put small metal and electronic items in external garment pockets or hand-carried luggage (so that you do not have to perform extra moves to take them off you)
- Remove items that create bulges from trouser/pant pockets - just an unnecessary way to generate inspector questions.
- You may be required to show that any electronic device functions. Make sure their batteries are charged and inserted for a brief demonstration.
- Join a queue with what looks like experienced travellers. They probably know the ins and out and prepared accordingly, which can make the process proceed much faster than usual.
- Always keep your luggage with you until you've checked your large pieces, then carry-ons before and after personal security check. Security officials take unattended items very seriously. If one is found and the owner is not within reach to claim it, it may trigger an alert, resulting in the affected area being "locked-down", and inspection of the suspicious piece of luggage by experts. The result will be serious inconvenience for a lot of people, and for you perhaps fines or the loss of your property (it may even be destroyed).
- Never make jokes about bombs, weapons, or other security threats. There is no room for humor on this topic; rather than relying on their individual subjective judgement, security personnel are required to take any such joke as a serious statement. You will be checked more thoroughly and/or escorted off the premises in some cases. Jokes may even be treated as a criminal offense, with charges filed against you, leading to fines and/or imprisonment.
- Make sure you leave enough time for security checks - it is your responsibility to make it through them in time to get to your boarding gate before it closes. Most airlines and airports advise how much time in advance you should arrive to be on the safe side. When you believe you may be running late anyway, make sure to indicate to the airport staff that your gate closes shortly - in some cases you may find them willing to arrange for expedited security check for you not to miss your flight. That said, all the speeding up they can do is pretty much allow you to jump the queue - the check itself cannot be sped up, and if you or your luggage are found to require extra inspection, it will proceed as usual regardless of your flight time.
Express or expedited security lanes
To avoid the delays associated with normal security checks, some airports offer express security lanes for frequent travellers who have pre-registered, or sometimes for passengers who have paid an additional fee. In cases of heightened security, the expedited security check lanes may be suspended or closed.
Subsequent security checks
Flying to certain destinations can involve more security checks. They may be induced because:
- You must change planes en route, and the change forces you to leave the secure air side area, e.g. if you must change terminals or the country doesn't allow sterile transit.
- A country you will travel to or through mandates its own security checks or standards higher than the one most other travellers go through at the departure airport - even complete arrival and departure immigration and customs processing, e.g., Japan, the US.
- Your flight or your ticket was selected (randomly or otherwise) for additional screening.
Sometimes this means going through security a second time at the gate when you're about to board. If there's a chance you may have to go through security a second time, be careful about buying water or other liquids airside, as they might just be confiscated again.
After you pass through security you'll usually be able to reach one or more departure areas or wings of the terminal. Beyond security, you are in the secure area (finally!), sometimes termed airside. If you leave the airside area, you will have to go through security processing again. Lacking any essential papers, you may be in some difficulty, and in international airside areas this may not be permitted at all.
Depending on the airport, the airside area can be as innocuous as a bus station, or a mega-shopping mall full of shopping and entertainment with up to a hundred gates. See Duty-free shopping for some of the possibilities.
As most airlines prohibit tobacco smoking on board, some airports have designated smoking rooms, for a last chance to light up.
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. At a minimum you may want to know if you can get that coffee and sandwich airside, or if you should eat before going through security. Also take care about what you eat and drink before boarding. Examples: Some foods and liquids can make you flatulent at altitude (e.g., beans, carbonated drinks), some can give you bad breath (e.g., garlic), and alcohol can dehydrate you.
Most airports will have restaurants or at least a convenience store airside and may or may not have other options landside. These are all but certain to be extremely overpriced, especially airside, so budget travellers tend to bring food with them instead.
- See also: Lounges
Major airports also offer lounges, that offer extra facilities (comfortable seating, food, drinks, computers, TV, magazines, showers, etc.) for some customers. If you have free or included access and substantial time, you should head straight there rather that waiting at the gate. Lounges are usually found airside, however, occasionally lounges may be found before security check. If landside, be sure to end your stay there in plenty of time to go through your security check and reach your gate.
You may have access if:
- If you are a first or business class passenger, except for US domestic flights.
- An elite member of a frequent flyer program, except for elite members of US frequent flyer programs on US domestic flights.
- Are a yearly member of an airline club
- You are a member of a prepaid program like PriorityPass, which offer pay-per-visit and unlimited visit plans on-line... usually for independent lounges.
- You have a premium credit card like Visa Infinite or American Express Platinum, or you have a priority or private baking account with a large bank. This can either be indirectly through complementary membership in prepaid programs like PriorityPass, or through lounges operated by those financial entities like the American Express Centurion Lounge in various airports around the world or the DBS Asia Treasures Lounge in Singapore Changi Airport.
If you don't have access for these reasons, some airlines and independent providers allow one-day lounge entry for a fee.
Most airports provide some kind of Internet access for visitors. Although most airports offer some form of free access, some of them offer paid access at the same time. A couple of tips to make sure you can take advantage of what is on offer:
- For airports that simultaneously offer free and paid access, the former will typically come with more restrictions. For instance, the speeds will be slower than if you use the latter option, some websites may be rendered inaccessible or inoperable, and you may only be able to enjoy it for a limited amount of time. For the latter, the price depends on how long you intend to use it or how much data you want to use. If you subscribe to services such as Boingo, premium internet may be included in your plan; check with your service provider for more information.
- If using mobile phone (set for use at home), ensure it's activated, even if you don't intend to use it. You may need to receive an SMS with your details for access, or information on cancellations and rerouting.
- Internet usage might be very expensive abroad (up to US$10/MB=$10,000/GB) considering the often high data consumption of modern smart phones. Deactivate data roaming or remove your home SIM card if you don't want to pay this. Alternatively, you can buy a prepaid/pay-as-you-go SIM card at the airport at the arrivals hall. Some providers also allow you to book a mobile hotspot in advance for a fee and claim/return it at a designated counter at the airport. See Wikivoyage's Internet access article for more information and security issues.
- Even if there is no free Wi-Fi generally available in the terminal, there may still be a signal to be found. Particularly check areas adjacent to lounges, or in food courts or coffee shops.
- Airport lounges provide their own complimentary internet access to guests in addition to what the airport offers. These may be faster than the airport's but will often require a password.
Preparing to board
Your flight will have an associated gate number where you'll board. This is indicated in your boarding pass and the overhead monitors.
- Find the gate where you are boarding: be there no later than 30 minutes before the flight's scheduled departure, and preferably a little earlier. Even if you have a few hours before your connecting flight, it's always a good idea to go straight to the gate in order to familiarize yourself with the area and ensure you're never more than a few minutes away in case you lose track of time.
- At the gate, airline staff will check your boarding pass just as you board, or perhaps earlier; they may also want to see photo ID. Once done, you will be counted as being on board the flight.
While waiting, ensure you miss no change or announcement about your flight, e.g., gate change, delayed departure. This includes checking the overhead monitors since many airports don't widely announce when a flight has a gate change or it's about time to board. If you miss your flight by not heeding changes, you will be responsible for making other travel arrangements, and for paying a "no-show" fee before being allowed to travel with that carrier again.
The order of boarding may be specified by the gate attendant, often:
- Passengers in First class
- Passengers with special needs (such as physically handicapped, elderly and those with young children)
- Passengers in Business Class and those passengers holding top tier cards of an airline alliance's Frequent Flyer program
- All other passengers. For large aircraft, you may be assigned a "group" seating designation intended to organize overall boarding.
Some budget airlines (that do not assign seating) board passengers who have paid extra for priority boarding first.
For larger aircraft with allocated seating, boarding is requested by group or row number. This may allow those furthest away from the boarding doors to board first so the aisles don't get constricted. Enforcement of this is lax, and many times the aisles become overcrowded. Regardless of the boarding order given, you are always free to remain in the boarding lounge until the final call for the plane. If you choose to spend the least time possible in a cramped aircraft cabin, just wait in the boarding lounge until you see the last person at the gate, then promptly join the end of the queue. Remember:
- The boarding gates close 10–20 minutes before departure (sometimes more) and you'll likely hear no announcements to that effect outside the gate area.
- The last boarders (especially in economy class) may find all overhead luggage space full. Any carry-ons that cannot fit underneath the seat in front of you may have to be checked with any valuables they have inside.
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 their checked baggage if they 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. Once they have made the decision to offload your bags, no amount of pleading will usually get you on that plane given that it costs the airline a lot of money to decide to delay a flight and it can take hours to find another available departure slot, hence causing chaos to the aircraft's flight schedule for the day.
There are three main kinds of boarding.
- Tarmac walk. Most common at small airports and for low-cost carriers. Passengers walk across the tarmac to the plane, exposed to weather.
- Jet bridge. Most common at large airports. A jet bridge (which in best case is sealed from outdoor air) takes the passengers directly from the terminal to the plane.
- Bus transfer. Most commonly used during peak hours at crowded airports but also used often for low-cost carriers. Passengers get on a bus, which takes them to the plane. In this case, passengers need to be at the gate in advance; as long as 30 minutes before departure.
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