First time flyer: How and where to check in

Check in counters at Athens International Airport

Image credit: Leonid Mamchenkov June 2007

Not very long ago I had a passenger who, despite being well on time, kept phoning from the airport to report that he had missed flight after flight.  This was deeply mysterious.  After he had missed three successive flights we realised that he did not know that he had to check in!  He was an absolute novice flyer, but could not bring himself to admit that he did not know what was going on and ask either us or the airport staff for assistance.

Here is what to do if it is your first time.

You will need:

  • Your eticket, if you do not have your boarding pass
  • A print of your boarding pass if you have checked in online, or at a self-service kiosk at the airport
  • Photo-identification (according to local regulations and airline requirements: driver’s licence or national id. or passport for domestic flights, passport for international flights)

Check in online before you leave home

We strongly suggest that you check in online ahead of time.  You can usually reserve your seat and obtain your boarding pass online (our handy links are here or at a kiosk at the airport, but you will still need to have your luggage weighed in.

If you have your boarding pass and only carry-on luggage, that’s it – you’re done!  No need to go to the check-in area.  Go straight to security.

Find your check-in area

Unless you are at a terminal that only serves a single airline (such as Heathrow terminal 5 serving BA, or New York JFK terminal 5 that serves Jet Airlines) you must first locate the check-in area serving the airline you are travelling on.

For a flight operating on a code-share, where members of an airline alliance issue tickets on other member’s flights, you may need to check in at the area run by the airline operating the flight.  This information will be on your eticket, usually in the format of a statement saying “Airline A, operated by Airline B”.  Then you should know to go line up at Airline B’s counters.  If they do not state that, then you probably just need to go to your airline’s counter, even if they are not operating the flight.  In other words, Not your problem.

The name of the airline is usually on a board (nowadays on a screen) above the desk.  There are usually further indications of the class of passenger (viz. already checked-in online, first class, business class, frequent-flyer members, etc.).  Make sure that you are in the correct queue so that you do not get directed to queue again, at the back of the next queue.

At the check-in counter

  • Your eticket or boarding pass will be verified.
  • If you have not checked in online your seat will be assigned.  You may have seat choices, some of which may cost a premium on some airlines.  It sometimes happens that the seat that you have reserved online (or that your travel agent has reserved for you when booking) is reallocated at this time.  If you are lucky you could even be upgraded, as recently happened to me on a long flight within Europe.
  • Your luggage destined for the hold will be weighed and taken into care.
  • Your boarding pass will be issued unless you have printed it yourself.  A certain airline charges absurdly large amounts if you have not printed your own boarding pass prior to arrival at the airport!  If you are travelling in a group this omission can cost you dearly.  Sometime the boarding pass will be replaced, if you have been re-seated by the airline.
  • For international flights your passport will be verified.

Be early

The earlier you check in for your flight the less likely you are to be bumped and the more likely you are to get a seat that you desire, be it leg room, a window seat , an aisle seat, position in relation to the wing, or proximity to toilets.  If you are sufficiently late you will be denied boarding altogether.

The usual latest recommended check-in is an hour prior to departure for domestic flights and two hours for international flights.  However, this may differ according to the airport and the airline concerned.  El Al security is particularly tight and you should plan to be there three hours prior to departure for international flights.  Any international flight to the USA will also have particularly stringent (some say unnecessary) security and the long queues that this causes make it advisable for you to give yourself an extra 30 minutes to an hour.

Luggage limits

You should check with your airline what your luggage weight limit is, the size (for carry-on, cabin luggage), the number of pieces permitted, as well as what can and cannot be carried at the time.

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