Once upon a time, travelers received their printed airline tickets in the mail and then lined up at the airport a few hours prior to 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 in advance of your flight. But, you can still print a boarding pass at the airport and sometimes you need to see an airline agent to have your passport verified for international travel. Multiple ticket options were designed to make check-in streamlined and efficient, but honestly, the system is now just sort of 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 so you can make it to your flight on time.
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1. Download Airline Apps
You have a smartphone, right? Then take an hour or two to download the apps of all of the major airlines (United, Delta, American, Southwest, Virgin, JetBlue) and any others that you have a frequent flyer loyalty program affiliation with. 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, 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 prior to 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 you, 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 back-up to you 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.
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2. Check and Change Your Seat Assignments
Depending on your airline and ticket type, you may or may not be able 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 find 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 time. So, get online or on the app, and see what seats are available. Even if you already chose your seat, there might be a better option 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 status brought you a bump to business class.
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4. Make Sure You Have an Updated Identification Card (Requirements are Changing)
You’ve checked in, picked your seat, and paid for your bags. But if you don’t have the right I.D., you’re not going anywhere. Starting October 1, 2020, 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. You may have to plan a visit to the DMV well before you go to the airport this year.
5. Print your Boarding Pass (at the Airport)
Okay, so you have your boarding pass 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 just have technical phone difficulties at TSA or the boarding gate (the two times when you have to flash your boarding pass). Smart travelers print their boarding pass 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 back-up on their mobile device.
Printing your boarding pass is doubly important if you’re traveling with your family. Every person needs to be accounted for with a ticket in hand at security and at the boarding gate, and that’s just easier done with a piece of paper than on an app.
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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 prepared.
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