Long gone are the days of arriving at the airport three hours early to stand in line at the airline check-in desk. With so many different check-in options available, you don't always have to spend time in line. But with options come decisions. This guide to checking-in should help you decide which method is right for you.
Online check-in allows you to complete the process yourself on the airline's website if you have an electronic ticket (or "e-ticket"). Typically, this can be done between 24 hours and 90 minutes before the flight is due to depart. When you check in online, you'll need to verify all your flight details, choose a seat if you have not already selected one, choose meals if applicable and confirm that you are planning to take the flight. Some airlines will then allow you to print out your boarding pass using your own printer while others will require you to pick up your boarding pass from a self-service kiosk at the airport. If you have bags to check in there is usually a bag drop-off point in the airport. Bags will need to be dropped off at least an hour before departure.
Pros: This is the quickest and easiest way to check in. You can do it from the privacy of your own home or office, avoid lines at the airport, and save time before you fly.
Cons: If the airline expects you to print the ticket yourself, you need access to a printer. Faxes or photocopies of boarding passes are not accepted. If traveling in a group, each passenger needs to check in individually. Some airlines will not accept online check in for passengers under 16 years old or for those over 65 traveling with a senior discount.
Self-service kiosks are available for most airlines in most large airports. Though you still have to check in at the airport, the self-service check-in lines are normally shorter and the process is much quicker. Luggage can be dropped at designated baggage drop points for your airline. You normally need to have an e-ticket or a paper ticket with a magnetic strip to use the kiosks. The machine will read your ticket, credit card or passport and ask you to select the destination of your flight. It should then bring up the correct details of your flight and ask you to confirm. Kiosks are typically open between 24 hours and 90 minutes before a flight departs.
Pros: This is an efficient way to check in at the airport. As kiosks open for flights many hours before check in desks, lines are almost always shorter. If you live close to the airport, it's also possible to check in up to a day before your flight leaves. This can be particularly useful if you have a very early morning flight.
Cons: Not all airlines or airports operate self-service kiosks, and those that do may have restrictions. It is important to check with the airline before you plan on using this method, and check that it is available for your specific route, as well. Some airlines will only let you use self-service kiosks if you are traveling with no checked luggage or traveling domestically. Children traveling as unaccompanied minors are normally not allowed to use self-service check in.
Some airlines still offer telephone check-in. The process is similar to arriving at an airline desk at the airport, except that you'll be asked to give all the details that you would usually show on a ticket. You'll need to provide your name, flight number, destination, date of travel, class of service and often your reservation number. It is normally possible to check in by telephone from around 48 hours up to about 90 minutes before the flight departs. Times vary by airline, so check before you fly.
Pros: Phone check-in is a straightforward service that you can manage from your home before you leave - or even from a cell phone on the way to the airport if you're running late. You'll also have someone at the end of the phone to talk you through everything you need to do, and sometimes that personal touch is necessary.
Cons: Many airlines are phasing out or no longer use telephone check-in services, making it the least available method. Phone check-in may not be available 24 hours, so if you're on a very early morning or late night flight, make sure you call during normal business hours. You will still need to pick up your boarding pass at the airport, so you generally need to be there an hour before scheduled departure - more if you are also dropping off luggage.
The traditional method of check-in still exists and is widely used. Travelers arrive at the airport between three hours and one hour before the flight, and then stand in line at the airline desk to receive boarding passes and hand over any luggage. Check-in times for flights vary depending on your destination. For cheap international flights, travelers are required to check in between two and three hours prior to the scheduled departure. Domestic flights require check-in at least one hour before departure.
Pros: Human contact at the desk means this is the least confusing option. If you have any special requirements, like a wheelchair or assistance from airline personnel, you'll need to check in at the desk. There's also a (very slight) chance that you may get an upgrade if you're there in person. If you want to get bumped from your flight, then you'll need to check in at the desk. If there are any problems with your flight, the airline agent at the check-in desk can reissue tickets or rebook you on another flight.
Cons: This can be the slowest and most tiresome way to check in. If you're unlucky, lines can be long, and there's no option of arriving just before the flight leaves.
Other check-in options
Some airlines offer very attractive options for check-in from certain resorts. Virgin Atlantic, for example, will let you check in at some hotels in the Caribbean, from Downtown Disney at Disney World or at the airport train station in Hong Kong. Staff can check you in, give you a boarding pass and even take your bags to the airport. This is perfect if you want to spend a bit more time on the beach… Check with the individual airlines for details regarding other no-hassle check-in choices.
For specific airline details and check-times, take a look at our airline guides.
Fill additional time at the airport with tips from our airport amusements guide.