Air travel offers many conveniences, but spending time in an airport certainly isn’t one. On top of the long lines and wait times, navigating an airport means following so many specific rules and guidelines—some of which have serious consequences.
For instance, did you realize that certain airlines are now charging for an in-person check in at the ticket counter? Or that budget tickets often hide a lack of luggage allowance? More importantly, what to do if the TSA flags your favorite thingamajig?
We share the answers to those questions and more in the first half of our two part series teaching you to travel smarter when preparing for a flight.
What to Do 24 Hours Before Your Flight?
The hours before traveling are usually a little hectic. While you’re making your packing list and checking it twice, don’t forget to confirm when you’re supposed to check in.
You should check if you have to check-in online
Recent attempts to offer passengers even lower airfares have resulted in the unbundling of many services, such as free checked bags and onboard meals. However, some no-frills airlines, most notably United States-based Spirit Airlines and Sweden’s Ryanair, now require passengers to check in online within 24 hours of their flight.
To check whether or not you need to check-in online, visit your airline’s website and view their check-in policy. Or, you can revisit the confirmation email that includes your ticketing number. Be sure to have your passport or identification number on hand.
Granted, failing to check-in even when required doesn't mean that you’re not allowed to board. However, you could incur an extra fee. Spirit Airlines charges $10 for in-person check-in at the airport. Though, you should be allowed to use the kiosks to avoid extra charges if you forgot.
Traveling in Europe? Ryanair isn’t quite so generous. Last year, I made the rookie mistake of not checking my required check-in time. Having never flown with that airline, I hadn’t realized that doing so meant an additional $100 fee per person—on a $30 flight!
Ryanair’s airport check-in fee has proved to be so unpopular that the airline has decided to lower the penalty. However, it still starts at a hefty $50, depending on where your flight takes you.
Other reasons to check in online? It can mean extra convenience or perks: Southwest Airlines uses the time of check-in to determine boarding order, while United allows early birds to potentially pick a better seat for free. Again, benefits differ, so check with your specific airline for the rules of when to check-in.
You can potentially save big on seat upgrades
While upgrading to business or first class is undoubtedly expensive, part of the cost can be mitigated if you chance doing so within 24 hours of your flight. Airlines don’t want to see those seats wasted, and would rather recoup 40-70% of the full upgrade cost than to throw that revenue out the window.
While upgrade prices are lowest at the actual ticket counter on the day of your flight, airlines generally have a waitlist of those eager to upgrade. While each airline differs, priority is generally given to those who’ve checked-in earliest—another reason to do so online at the 24-hour mark.
Don’t wait to print your boarding pass
Many passengers who seldom travel are confused by the online check-in process and wait to do so until they have access to a printer. There’s no need—airport kiosks will be available to print your paperwork, just be sure to have a passport or identification on hand to scan.
How to Make Checking Baggage Easier?
Airlines are resorting to increasingly creative tactics, as charging for baggage is now a massive form of revenue. How much do airlines make off of your need to bring all those bags? Christopher Elliott reports:
“Domestic airlines are on track to break last year’s record of $3.5 billion in luggage fees. By comparison, domestic airlines collected only $464 million in such fees eight years ago.”
Since other means of transporting your belongings, such as overnight shipping, still cost considerably more, airlines aren’t likely to back down. While there’s no such thing as a free ride for your bags anymore, there are a few ways to avoid even higher fees.
You should know your baggage allowance ahead of time
First thing’s first, baggage allowances vary greatly by airline and by the length of your trip. For example, international flights will generally allow you to check one piece of luggage for free. When flying domestic, you’re rarely so lucky.
It’s your responsibility to research the baggage allowance for each flight—preferably before you purchase your ticket, as bargain ticket prices often go hand-in-hand with outlandish baggage fees.
You should buy an accurate baggage allowance early
Another awful aspect of unbundling is tiered baggage prices. Both WOW and Spirit Airlines use a particularly tricky structure:
When purchasing your ticket, you’re given the option to buy both checked and carry-on luggage allowances for the lowest possible price. Again, prices vary depending on the distance you’re traveling, but let’s say one piece of checked luggage is $40. Note that you are only offered this price before you purchase your ticket.
In the weeks leading up to your flight, you are still given the opportunity to purchase checked or carry-on luggage allowances. However, if you failed to do so initially, expect to tack on between $10-30 to do so now.
If you failed to purchase luggage allowances to cover each and every one of your bags, save for those your airline allows (usually one carry-on and one personal item), expect to pay almost double at the ticket counter. These fees can reach up to $100 per bag for international flights—and that’s for a standard suitcase, to say nothing of overweight bags or sports equipment.
What’s frustrating about the above fee scale is that it encourages passengers to over-buy baggage allowance out of the fear that they’ll pack too much.
There’s one sure-fire way to beat this racket, though it’s not particularly convenient: Pack a trial run before you buy your ticket. Go on, grab your suitcase, and start putting stuff in there. Estimate that you’ll add about a third to a quarter more in incidentals that will be remembered at the last minute. Then, weigh your luggage with either a luggage scale or by placing it on the one in your bathroom. It might be a pain, but you’ll be glad that you did when it’s time to check those bags in.
Another tip? If you’re going on vacation and think there’s the chance of finding great souvenirs, beat baggage fees by preemptively buying one extra baggage allowance for the trip back.
Don’t assume that they’ll make an exception for your bags
Several years ago, I was working as an English teacher overseas. I’d traveled to Nepal in between contracts, schlepping along with me everything I owned—including hiking gear and a professional wardrobe fit for another year-long position.
When you agree to teach overseas, your employer typically pays for your flight to and from the destination country. This particular employer decided to cut corners by purchasing a series of separate “hops,” or short flights, instead of buying the whole journey in one ticket.
This turned out to be a big problem, as shorter flights allow for much less baggage than their longer counterparts—something I hadn’t considered until arriving at the airport. How much to transport my 80 pounds of luggage? And, because each ticket was purchased separately, I was going to be charged luggage fees for each flight, which came out to almost $1000.
So, I did what every passenger hopes they’ll never have to do: I put it all on. I sat for six hours in dozens of articles of clothing, just sweating and miserable in a fat suit fashioned out of polyester workwear. Don’t be that person, it’s not fun.
While it’s unlikely you’ll be hauling all your worldly possessions on vacation, know that it’s downright unheard of for airline agents to make an exception for your baggage.
We’re not just talking extra bags here, either. Overweight bags, stuff you shouldn’t bring on board, oversized luggage—it’s not going to slip by unnoticed, so be sure you’ve read the rules ahead of time.
How to Get Through TSA Unscathed?
You don’t want to be there, the person in front of you doesn’t want to be there, the agents sure look like they resent each and every passenger—how can you possibly make going through security slightly less painful?
Having spent several years as a flight crew, I’ve served my time in security lines. (And yes, even flight attendants and pilots get pulled aside for extra screening and wipe downs!)
It never ceases to amaze me how many travelers get upset that their prohibited items are confiscated. I remember one man, in particular, was walked away in cuffs after throwing a fit over an agent who spotted his heirloom pocket knife. Why even try to sneak it on a plane?
Other stuff isn’t quite so obvious: I recently had a skate key confiscated since it fell under the category of tools.
Sure, it’s disappointing to have your possessions taken away. But you can avoid the hassle by checking the TSA’s list of prohibited items before packing. If you’re flying internationally, be sure to check the rules and regulations for any airport you’ll be flying in and out of.
Not sure about an item? Bring a self-addressed, stamped envelope with you just in case. Some airports have mailboxes to help travelers send home those items that they didn’t realize weren’t allowed.
Pro Tip: Many travelers don’t realize that solid foods, such as sandwiches, are allowed through security. A handy bit of knowledge if you’d like to save a few dollars by brown-bagging snacks instead of paying sky-high airport terminal prices.
You can set an example to make the line move faster:
You’re still several people back from the conveyor belt, but can start untying shoes, removing your belt and jewelry, and checking your pockets now.
Once those bins are within reach, grab two ASAP—you don’t need to wait until the table is within reach. Grab one for the person behind you, too. They’ll appreciate it.
Pull out your laptop. All the way out, not just peeking out of your bag, either. Take it out of the protective case, too. Then, place it in the bin in your hand. (The second bin should be nested underneath for easy carrying until for now.)
Once you get to the table preceding the conveyor belt, place the bin containing your laptop and electronics, and only your electronics, on the table. Remove the second bin from underneath, and place it in front of the bin with your electronics.
Put your shoes (they should already be loosened), belt, sweater, scarf, basically any loose clothing that could hide a weapon, into the empty bin. You’re letting this bin go first because it’s quicker to have your bag ready when the computer comes through, and safer to keep an eye on your valuable electronics for as long as possible. Additionally, should the person in front of you have sticky fingers, agents are more likely to notice if they reach over a bag that isn’t theirs to grab your electronics, than if those come out before your bag.
Place your transparent bag containing all liquids in with your personal belongings, not your electronics, and ensure that it’s laid flat for easy viewing. If needed, grab a third bin to do so.
Keep your passport in your hand. Put loose change and anything else in your pockets in the bowl.
Step through as told. If you’re questioned, be open and honest with the security agent. Same for if your bags are marked for a check. It’s awful to have people go through your things, but it’s just as uncomfortable to be the one looking. Try your best not to be offended and move along.
There is one exception to step eight, and it’s a growing concern: There have been multiple reports of TSA agents inappropriately groping both male and female passengers during security pat-downs. This has lead to the TSA revising their pat-down procedures, outlined in this blog post.
Passengers should know their rights regarding TSA pat-downs before entering security, which include:
- Pat-downs to be conducted by same gender officers
- All passengers have the right to request private screening at any point during the screening process
- Anyone has the right to have a traveling companion present during screening in the private screening area
If you feel like a TSA agent has violated your rights, note the agent’s name and speak to a supervisor immediately.
You’re Almost Through
Travel is taxing on the brain. Often, we’re so worried about who’s going to feed Fido, whether or not all the essentials are packed, or if we double checked that the oven is off and the garage door closed that even the most basic rules and common sense can fly over a traveler’s head.
Use the above checklist to help you gather your thoughts before your next trip, and hopefully, you’ll avoid incurring extra fees, having that heirloom pocket knife confiscated, or otherwise ruining the first leg of your trip due to an easily-avoided oversight.