Always Print Your Boarding Pass (And Other Plane Travel Check-In Advice)

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Once upon a time, travelers received their printed airline tickets in the mail and then lined up at the airport a few hours before boarding time to be manually checked into their flights by airline agents. Those days are long gone. Now, checking in for your flight can be done online, on an app, and 24 hours before your flight. But you can still print a boarding pass at the airport, and sometimes, you need to see an airline agent to verify your passport for international travel. Multiple ticket options were designed to streamline check-in, but the system is now confusing. And whether you go the electronic or in-person route, you can still run into technical difficulties, human errors, and miscommunications that can cause delays…or a missed flight. Here’s how to tackle the overly confusing world of airline check-in procedures to make it to your flight on time. 

1. Download Airline Apps

November 10, 2021, Brazil. In this photo illustration the American Airlines logo is seen displayed on a smartphone screen and in the background.
Rafael Henrique | Adobe Stock

You have a smartphone, right? Then take an hour or two to download the apps of all major airlines (United, Delta, American, Southwest, Virgin, JetBlue) and any others with which you have a frequent flyer loyalty program affiliation. The apps are free and will make your airport travel life so much easier. Not only can you check in for your flights and access your electronic boarding pass using the apps, but you can also easily keep track of your frequent flyer miles, update your profile information, and check the status of flights. The American Airlines app has a handy countdown clock to boarding — it’s an easy reference if you like to wander around the airport terminal shops or hide out in the lounge. It also tracks your bags and allows you to pre-order food from some airport terminals. More importantly, you can watch FREE movies and entertainment in-flight using most major airline carrier apps. Do yourself a favor download airline apps ASAP.

2. Check-in Online or on the App 24 Hours in Advance

Now that your airline apps are easily accessed with a few swipes on your smartphone, you can and should easily check in for your flight 24 hours before it takes off. You’ll likely get an emailed reminder from the airline alerting you that the check-in window is open. Of course, you can check in on the airline’s website or use their mobile app. Why check in online 24 hours before take-off? To keep your seats, see if there are delays, and to pre-pay for any checked or carry-on luggage. Some airlines (like Spirit) charge passengers extra for bringing bags on the day of departure, so it pays to check in and get baggage sorted and paid for ahead of time. After checking in, you’ll also get an option to have your boarding pass emailed or texted to save in your mobile wallet and use as an electronic boarding pass. We think an electronic boarding pass is a smart idea to have as a backup to your printed boarding pass — in case you lose your printed boarding pass. If you have TSA pre-check, you’ll also want to check in to your flight early to ensure your number was properly assigned. If not, now there’s time to call the airline and have it added to your reservation.

3. Check and Change Your Seat Assignments

Depending on your airline and ticket type, you may be unable to pick your seat when you book your flight. For Southwest Airlines’ open seating policy, the sooner you check in to your flight, the higher your number is for lining up and boarding the flight first to pick aisle and window seats. Dilly-dally about checking in and finding yourself in the dreaded D group (and sitting in a middle seat at the rear of the plane, by the bathrooms). Other airlines allow you to choose your seat within your economy class 24 hours before departure. So, get online or on the app and see available seats. Even if you already chose your seat, a better option might open now. You may be able to score a window seat next to an unclaimed middle seat or shuffle your family around so you can all sit together. You can also pay to upgrade and see if your status brought you a bump to business class.

Related: 17 Gorgeous Swim-Up Rooms To Book Right Now

4. Make Sure You Have an Updated Identification Card (Requirements are Changing)

Lake Elsinore, California, USA - Dec 18, 2022: Closeup of California Real ID driver license focusing on the REAL ID logo
Rix Pix | Adobe Stock

You’ve checked in, picked your seat, and paid for your bags. But you’re not going anywhere if you don’t have the right I.D. Starting May 7, 2025, every traveler must present a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license, state-issued enhanced driver’s license, or another acceptable form of identification, such as a valid passport or birth certificate, to fly within the U.S. 

5. Print your Boarding Pass (at the Airport)

Okay, so your boarding pass is saved to your phone, and that’s smart! But please also take a minute to stop by the airline’s self-service kiosk and print out your boarding pass. It’s free, fast, and might even save you time. There have been multiple cases where mobile scanners go down, cell reception doesn’t work, or you have technical phone difficulties at TSA or the boarding gate (the two times you have to flash your boarding pass). Smart travelers print their boarding passes at the airport. Don’t waste precious printer ink at home (and if the ink isn’t strong enough, your boarding pass might not scan — when’s the last time you refilled your toner cartridge?) and have a backup on their mobile device.

Printing your boarding pass is important if you’re traveling with your family. Every person needs to be accounted for with a ticket in hand at security and the boarding gate, and that’s just easier done with a piece of paper than on an app.

6. Make Sure It’s Your Boarding Pass

We once printed our boarding pass at the airport kiosk, got to TSA, and were…turned away for having someone else’s boarding pass! A passenger ahead of us had printed their boarding pass and left it in the kiosk, so we grabbed it and accidentally presented it at security as our own. Luckily, there was ample time to return to the kiosk and print the correct boarding pass before boarding. This is why you always go to the airport early and prepare.

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