Checking 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: conforming to the airline that you will take the booked flight.
- Handling your luggage to ground handling staff. They 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
This three step check-in process will finalize with 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.
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. 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.
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
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.
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