At the airport

Airside at Heathrow's Terminal 5.

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 standardised, 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 a simple internet search should be able to provide any additional information that you may need for your trip.

Get in

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 the security theater can be extensive and time consuming. This extra hour will also give you a buffer for delays on the way to the airport.

If for some reason you are delayed and you're worried about missing your flight or 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; 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.

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 actually walking required.) The name of the airport as well as 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). Keep in mind that 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/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.

Landside and airside

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 is strictly forbidden. People who forget something airside need to to sort it out with the staff.

As the landside area is usually open to the public, it might be more crowded, filthy, and more exposed to pickpockets and other crime than airside.

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.


Checking in consists of three main parts, which used to be performed at the same time but can now be done separately:

  1. 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)
  2. 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
  3. Getting your boarding pass to enable you to continue further

Checking in

Check in at Brasilia's airport

Traditional check-in

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 traveling internationally to or outside the Schengen area or similar agreements) to airline staff at your flight's designated check-in counter or at the common check-in counter, depending on your airline.

Check-in is handled by the carrier's ground staff or its representatives.

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.

Online check-in

Check-in for domestic flights can usually be done on the airline website up to 24 hours in advance of departure. If you have no baggage to check you can just proceed directly to your gate and flight with your printed boarding pass. However, some carriers insist that they inspect and verify your travel documents before allowing you to go through security. If you have hold baggage to check, drop it at the bag drop lane. Removing old route tags from your bag before proceeding to the bag drop will speed up this process and avoid redirection.

While online check-in is also available for most international flights these days, airlines will often also ask you to present yourself in person so they can verify your passport and visa. This is particularly strictly enforced for flights to the United States.

A good number of carriers also offer checking-in via mobile phone either by visiting the mobile website or downloading a specific app on your smartphone. At the end of the process, some carriers may give you the option of being issued a mobile boarding pass depending on your origin and destination, though carriers that offer them usually don't do so for international flights. You don't need to print your mobile boarding pass, just present it to security staff.

Some airlines allow (or sometimes require) you to check in online, often within 24 hours before scheduled departure, and some no-frills carriers such as Ryanair will even charge you a hefty fee if you fail to do so. Online check in can often be done through the airline's website, or sometimes by smartphone app. Apart from the booking reference or e-ticket number you also identify yourself by frequent-flier or credit card number or by giving personal details. Upon completed check-in you will often be sent a boarding pass to print out by yourself; again, failing to do so may result in surcharges from some low-cost carriers. If you enter the correct information but are denied check-in, your flight may have been cancelled or the reservation may have been modified by the airline; in that case it is wise to contact the airline immediately, preferably before travelling to the airport.

If you can't check-in on-line, the check-in kiosks at the airport are much the same, and issue a boarding pass for you. You then need to go to the bag drop if you have more than carry on luggage.

Automated check-in at the airport

Alitalia's automated check-in kiosks at Firenze 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. These systems involve small kiosks in which you can enter your booking reference, swipe/insert the credit card used to make the booking or swipe/insert your frequent flyer card (if it has a magnetic strip) to access your record and print out a boarding pass for you and your travelling party. You may have the opportunity to change your seats when checking in; in particular, many airlines do not open the exit rows until the day of the flight. In recent times though the self-service check-in kiosks of some carriers have been extended to include features that allow passengers to check-in baggage by themselves.

As mentioned earlier, 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 special needs or inconsistencies with the tickets (such as mismatches with names), only manual check-in at the counter is possible.

Boarding pass

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

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.


Dropping hold luggage

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, sometimes on top of prevailing check-in baggage fees. Moreover, tips for the staff are expected.

The check-in staff will print a bar-coded luggage tag once your bags are processed; the longer part of it will be attached to your luggage while the shorter part will be given to you. Keep this, as upon arrival, some airports may require passengers to present these along with their luggage to ensure that the person carrying the luggage is indeed the owner. These luggage tags are also useful if you suspect some of your check-in luggage is missing or similar to other luggage. Before the ticket agent attaches the new luggage tags for your upcoming flight, be sure:

In case your journey for the day involves several flights, you may want to request to have your baggage checked-through. Check-through is when your baggage will be tagged all the way until the last leg of your journey and in most cases, you do not need to claim your baggage in your intermediate stopovers any more (especially for international-international or domestic-domestic flights on full-service carriers; does not apply to international-domestic connections). You need to inform the check-in staff of the flights which will be covered by check-through for a particular journey as they can't assume that's your preference. However, check-through is not always possible, make sure you inquire of the check-in staff. You may check the section "Making a connection" below and are advised to contact the carriers concerned for more information on when check-through may or may not be possible.

Excess baggage

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 luggage 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.

Luggage delivery services provide an alternative. Luggage 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 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.


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 flight(s). Additionally, you may be required to make more flights than planned (ie your overbooked flight from Paris to Atlanta may become flights from Paris to New York and New York to Atlanta). If the compensation offered is for future travel, consider if you are flying with that airline in the next 12 months.

Overbooking is the practice of accepting reservations for a flight from more people than can fit on the plane. Almost all airlines overbook their flights, as statistically some percentage of passengers do not show up for the flight.

It does happen, though, that more people check in than can fit on the plane. When this happens, the airline staff will ask passengers to volunteer, either at the checkout counter or after the plane is full, to remain behind and take another flight. If your travel plans are flexible (such as on the homeward leg of your excursion), you may wish to volunteer, to receive the compensation that airlines usually offer to get out of this predicament. If there are no volunteers, passengers will be chosen by the airline to stay behind. "Bumped" passengers are almost always offered passage to their destination by some other route or on a later flight; it is common for airlines to offer a voucher for a substantial discount on a future flight, or even cash, in compensation for the inconvenience. If an overnight stay is required, the airline will usually pay for a hotel and meals during the delay. Your rights are regulated at the country level; some airlines may offer additional compensation (but their policy on this is rarely published). Sometimes they will increase their offer for volunteers if the initial offer does not get enough interest.

If you want to avoid being bumped you should get seat allocation as soon as possible. Sometimes a travel agent can do this when reserving your flight, sometimes you can do it electronically with your reservation or by checking in early on the Internet before arriving at the airport. If you have no seat allocated to you then you are at risk of being bumped at the airport, even if you arrive a long time before other passengers who may already have seats allocated.

Compensation for denied boarding for flights in the European Union is €250 for distances less than 1500 km, €400 for distances between 1500 and 3500 km, and €600 for distances greater than 3500 km (half if the delay is less than 2, 3 or 4 hours, respectively) in addition to an alternative flight or a refund of the ticket. Consult your travel agent or the airline. If inquiring of the airline by telephone, ask for the current load factor, which is the ratio of reserved seats to capacity. Anything greater than one indicates an overbooked flight, while your chances of boarding as a stand-by passenger decline as the load factor increases.

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.

Security check

Security check

Aviation security is no laughing matter. Even before the airliner attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, most countries took it very seriously, but since then security regulations have been tightened, and airport security personnel will be very strict in implementing them.

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. More information can be found at Border crossing and Arrival Customs.

The process

You'll usually check any luggage with the airline at the ticket counter. It will be at least electronically screened for security as it goes to a holding area to be loaded on your flight.

Then, as you walk to your gate, you and your carry-ons must go through personal security screening. It involves the following basic steps (depending somewhat on whether the flight is domestic or international and the country's detailed policies).

In general, you will not be allowed to carry any sharp objects (eg. knives, scissors, razor blades) or firearms 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. Also note that for flights to the United States or Australia, you may only purchase duty free liquids (i.e. liquor, perfume, etc.) 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.

How to avoid unnecessary delays

To pro-actively avoid delays or stoppages at the screening...

Golden rules

Express/expedited security lanes

To avoid the delays associated with normal security checks, some airports offer express security lanes for frequent travellers who have pre-registered, or sometimes for passengers who have paid an additional fee. In cases of heightened security, the expedited security check lanes may be suspended or closed.

Subsequent Security Checks

Flying to distant destinations can involve more security checks. They may be induced because:

Boarding times and delays

Departures information displays in Houston

Your boarding ticket specifies Boarding time, which is when boarding starts (not when it ends). Usually the boarding starts even after the printed time, but for short flights at least 30+ minutes before departure...for international flights on large aircraft, sometimes 45+ minutes.

The gate closes (boarding stops) usually only 10–15 minutes before departure so give yourself plenty of time to get to the gate, especially if the airport is large, you are far away from the gate, or you don't know your way around the airport. Contact your travel agent for advice.

Delays / 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 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. With flights operated by European Union (EU) carriers to or from the EU, passengers are entitled to cash compensation of 250 Euros 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:

Airlines never unnecessarily cancel or delay flights; it costs too much, in money, perturbs many other flight schedules, and generates poor public relations. When they do delay or cancel, they usually go to great lengths to arrange seats on another flight, sometimes even on another airline. If a cancellation has been caused by them, they are required by law to pay you certain compensations and/or arrange lodging and/or meals until you can be flown to your destination.


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.

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 stay landside until your flight is nearly ready to board. Also take care about what you eat and drink before boarding. Examples: Some foods/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. Prices of items and services will also tend to be higher than in stores/restaurants near home.

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

While waiting, ensure you miss no change or announcement about your flight, 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.

Lounge access

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 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.

You may have access if:

If you don't have access for these reasons, some airlines allow one-day lounge entry for a fee.

Internet access

Most airports provide some kind of Internet access for visitors. This may be free or for charge. A couple of tips to make sure you can take advantage of what is on offer.


The order of boarding may be specified by the gate attendant, often:

  1. Passengers in First class
  2. Passengers with special needs (such as physically handicapped, elderly and those with young children)
  3. Passengers in Business Class and those passengers holding top tier cards of an airline alliance's Frequent Flyer program
  4. 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:

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, usually no amount of pleading will see you on that plane.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, January 17, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.