¨Air travel reminds us who we are. It’s how we recognize ourselves as modern. The process removes us from the world and sets us apart from each other. We wander in the ambient noise, checking one more time for the flight coupon, the boarding pass, the visa. The process convinces us that any moment we may have to submit to a force that is implied in all this, the unknown authority behind it, behind the categories, behind the languages we don’t understand. This vast terminal has been erected to examine our souls.¨
Airport 101: Avoid Problems with Check-In, Security, Customs, Immigration, and Boarding a Plane
In my mind, the most tiring and frustrating aspects of being a Fifty-Plus Nomad happen at the airport. Sadly, everything from declining airline customer service to terrorism threats has conspired to make airports more problematic each passing year.
Fortunately, as I have learned more, the number of issues has diminished. That said, it is easy to experience problems at the airport if you are not prepared. Therefore, I have prepared the following discussion to help you avoid some of the issues I have experienced.
Typical Problems that Occur at Airline Check-In Counters
Most problems in boarding a plane will occur at the airline check-in counter. Airlines are required to deal with any issues that arise at immigration, customs, etc., before you get on the plane. As a result, airline computers will alert the agents at check-in of most potential problems. Chances are, once you are checked in, you will not have any more issues.
Here are some of my best tips for avoiding problems at check-in:
Make Sure You Know Your Correct Flight Terminal Before Going to the Airport
Before leaving for the airport, ensure that you know the correct terminal where the airline check-in counter is located.
I learned this lesson the hard way on a flight from Barcelona to Montreal on Air Transat.
I asked the cab driver to take me to the international terminal, which he did. However, when I got there, I discovered that it was the wrong terminal, and no one seemed to know where was the right terminal. (Note: AirTransat only flies this route once a week).
I waited for a shuttle to another terminal in the rain. (Note: Some airports like Cancun have no scheduled shuttles between terminals. Many other airports, like Barcelona, lack adequate signage between terminals).
The shuttle was extremely crowded. When I got to what I thought was the right terminal, I had to walk to yet another nearby terminal.
I was soaked by the time I got to the right check-in counter. Fortunately, I arrived at the airport early enough to make the flight easily. However, I wasted forty-five frustrating minutes just getting to the correct terminal.
Don’t Be Afraid to Call for a Wheelchair
If you have even somewhat limited mobility, I would suggest you ask for wheelchair assistance. (I must admit I do not call for a wheelchair because I have no real mobility problems).
You can request a wheelchair either when you:
- make a booking for a flight.
- get to the airport.
I would highly suggest calling for assistance if you have a trip with a connection. Airports nowadays are vast and very confusing. The connection times can be tight. Anything you can do to limit your stress is advisable. (I would also suggest you call for assistance anytime you book a flight for anyone who does not speak English).
Expect Fees at Check-In
If you buy the cheapest fares possible, don’t be surprised if you pay fees at airline check-in for the following items:
- Checked baggage. Usually around the equivalent of $25-$30 for the first bag and $100 for a second bag. United Airlines waives these fee if you buy your tickets with a United Chase card. American Airlines waives the fee sometimes with an AA Citibank card.
- Seat assignments. I usually do not pay this fee as a single traveler and let the airline assign me a seat. I pay the fee, generally between $25-$75, when I want to ensure that I am sitting next to my travel companion.
- Sometimes even for carry-on bags. Some budget airlines severely limit, or even prohibit, carry-on baggage. These airlines charge high fees if you exceed their stringent limits.
These fees have been a part of many flights for the last decade or so. (Especially flights in/between the US and Canada and flights within the European Union. That said, these fees are becoming more and more common on all flights worldwide).
Often airlines allow you to buy tickets that include these fees so that you can avoid paying these fees at check-in. Sometimes, these tickets will cost you less than if you bought a cheaper ticket and paid the fees at the check-in counter. (This is true with Easy Jet and Ryan Air).
Bring Your ID or Passport
Most of the time, you are not required to have a boarding pass or a copy of your electronic ticket when you check-in at the airline counter for a flight. Usually, you can get the boarding pass at the automated kiosk at the airport. That said, you can often check-in at the curb for many domestic flights if you already have a boarding pass. Also, printing the boarding pass ahead of time can save you some time.
Generally, to board a plane, you will need to present the appropriate government issue ID. (A passport is required if you are leaving the country). If you have not checked in ahead of time, the ticket agent will use your ID to find your reservation. (Note: More and more, you will be required to have your passport upon check-in, even on flights within the same country. In addition, expect to show your ID and boarding pass multiple times before you board the plane).
Some airlines, most notably budget carriers, will charge you extra to print out the boarding pass at the ticket counter.
Proof of Onward Passage
If you have a one-way ticket to a foreign country, do not be surprised if the airline check-in counter agent asks you for ¨Proof of Onward Passage¨. ¨Proof of Onward Passage¨ is an airline, bus, train, or cruise ship receipt showing when and how you leave the country.
In other words, if you bought a one-way ticket to Costa Rica, you will need to show proof that you intend to leave Costa Rica. Otherwise, you will be denied boarding on the plane. (Costa Rica strictly enforces proof of onward passage).
Increasingly, countries require¨Proof of Onward Passage¨ before boarding a flight. Therefore, please print out a copy (or have it readily available on your smartphone) of the proof of your return before checking in for any one-way international flight. You should also be prepared to show your return ticket at the immigration counter at your destination if you plan to stay more than a month or you frequently enter the same country. You can also find out if you will need ¨Proof of Onward Passage¨ from Goats on the Road.
If the lack of ¨Proof of Onward Passage¨ becomes an issue, buy a fully refundable air ticket out of the country. There is a small fee for cashing in these tickets. You can recoup nearly all the cost of the tickets when you apply for a refund. Unfortunately, the price of these tickets is high (as much as $5000 for a Transatlantic or Transpacific flight). You will need a lot of credit to cover the expense until you get a refund.
Bahamas Air once made me buy a refundable ticket because I did not have a copy of the cruise ship itinerary showing that I was leaving the Bahamas. (Ironically, I was in the Bahamas for less than two hours). The refundable ticket cost me $280. (My original flight only cost $55). I got back $265 from Bahamas Air after a couple of calls and faxes to the Bahamas. ($280 minus a $15 fee).
Make Sure Your Passport and Visas are in Order and that Your Passport Will Not Expire in the Next Six Month
You can not board a plane without the proper passports and, in some cases, visas. I have prepared a separate post on passports and visas.
I have often seen people at the check-in counter who have had problems because their passport was set to expire in less than six months. Many countries will refuse entry because they do not want you to travel on a passport that could expire during your stay. I always renew my passport eight months before its expiration to avoid this problem. (This also gives the Passport Authority two months to process the renewal).
A Few Other Possible Problems at Airline Check-In Counters
- If you are going to travel in Africa or Asia, check to see if you need a yellow fever certificate before you enter the country. If you have visited a country with yellow fever, many countries will not allow you to enter their country unless you have a certificate. You can get the yellow fever shot and certificate (which is valid for ten years) at many public health departments and traveler health clinics.
- Realize that you will need permission for minors to travel internationally either unattended or with anyone other than their parents.
Issues with Immigration and Customs Officials
Realize that these agents have a lot of power. They can (and occasionally will) make you answer many personal questions to determine if you are eligible to enter the country. You have little or no recourse if you feel that these questions are obtrusive or unnecessary.
I had this happen once when I tried to enter Canada in Montreal. The officials suspected that I wanted to overstay my legally permitted six months in Canada. They grilled me for almost an hour about my life. It was one of the worst hours of my life. I felt like I was in a Kafkaesque trial and almost decided to go home instead of entering Canada. Still to this day, I fear going through Canadian Immigration and Customs. (Note: Both Canadian Immigration and Customs Officials inexplicably grilled me).
Typical Immigration Issues
- On most flights you will have to go through immigration at the Port of Entry. (immigration reviews your passport and visas to check that you are allowed into the country). The Port of Entry is another name for the first airport when you land in another country. (In the European Union, the port of entry is your first stop anywhere in the European Union. In other words, if you are flying from New York to Palermo and have a stop in Paris, your port of entry is Paris). You will have to go through immigration even if you are connecting on the way to another country. In other words, you will go through both US and Canadian customs if you fly from Cancun to Montreal via any city in the USA. One notable exception: if you are flying from Canada to the US, you probably will go through US immigration in Canada and will not have to go through immigration in the USA. (This is because most airports in Canada have an agreement with the US ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to provide US immigration services at most ports of entry in Canada).
- Look and act like a respectable businessperson whenever passing through immigration. You will avoid attention if you look clean and dress like a businessperson. (Chinos and polo-type shirts are suitable for men). Also, when the immigration form asks what you do for a living, pick a common profession that does not arouse much suspicion. I always say that I am a teacher or businessman. (I had a friend twenty years ago who put down that she was an attorney when she tried to enter Peru. The immigration officials harassed her because they had recently had problems with a group of American attorneys involved with drug smugglers).
Typical Customs Issues
- While there are some exceptions, you will also have through customs upon arrival at the Port of Entry even when you are making a connection. To go through customs, pick up your baggage, then pass through customs or exit the airport. (Usually all you do is walk by the officials. They will stop you for further inspection at their discretion. Officials normally only stop me when I am coming from a country with poor relations with the US). If you are making a connecting flight, redeposit your luggage on the other side of customs. (Remember just after passing through customs to pack any liquids or metal item bought in duty free into your bags. Otherwise, when you will pass through security these items will be confiscated).
- To avoid problems, I would suggest that you eat, or throw away, any food or water that you got on the plane or at the departure airport before going through customs. I would also suggest that you do not bring on the flight any non-commercially wrapped foodstuffs.
Good Boarding a Flight Strategies
Fifty-Plus Nomads particularly should anticipate and develop strategies to avoid problems when boarding a flight. When we are blessed to travel around the world and live abroad for long periods, we tend to forget about life’s inconveniences. However, believe me, problems with simple things like boarding a flight can eat away at your spirit and occasionally cost money and hassle. Here are a few simple strategies to consider to avoid problems.
Check Monitors Frequently
I would also recommend checking the monitors for your gate number at the airport frequently up to one hour before departure. Airlines love to change the departure gate. Some airports, like Cancun, do not announce the departure gates until one hour before the scheduled departure to avoid gate changes. Airlines usually announce the gate changes over the Public Announcement (PA) System. However, please don’t count on it. Occasionally, you cannot hear the announcements. (LAX has a terrible PA system).
One time the airline changed the departure gate on me four times over five hours. Another time, in Miami airport, the airline changed the gate to the opposite end. It took me almost 45 minutes to arrive at the new gate. Thankfully, I caught the gate change while I had time to get to the new gate before departure.
Boarding a Flight
Increasingly airlines begin boarding the plane somewhere between thirty and forty-five minutes before departure. While you do not have to board when the airline calls your group, it is best to do so that you can put your carry-on baggage on the plane quickly. I have Delta, American Airlines, and United Airline Credit Cards. One perk of these cards is that I can board the aircraft before many other passengers to avoid finding a place for my carry-on baggage. (This benefit is less valuable on flights between two airport hubs, like Denver and Houston on United, because there are numerous Frequent Flyers).
A Final Note
While I have not had the chance to use it myself, I recommend that Fifty-Plus Nomads consider using fast passes to ease their way through US Security, Immigration, and Customs.
Some Additional Posts About Air Travel
- Why Alliances are Essential to Travel Providers. Are they Good or Bad for Consumers?Travel industry alliances are essential to the business´s survival. However, alliances have both good and bad implications for consumers
- Extra Fees: What are Ancillary (Extra) Fees and Why Are They Increasingly Becoming A Travel Industry Lifeline?More and more the travel industry depends on the sale of other products to expand and maintain its profitability. Expect to be bombarded with hints to buy other things (ancillaries) on your next cruise, flight, etc.
- The Internet Has Changed the Face of the Travel Industry More than Any Other Major IndustryThe internet has changed the travel industry probably more than another industry. This article discusses how these changes affect the consumer.
- Travel Industry Cost Saving Techniques: The Good, the Bad, and the UglyThe travel industry has made several changes to save costs in recent times. Some like using more fuel-efficient planes do not affect consumers that much. Others like reducing staff have made the experience worse for consumers.
- Business Travelers Versus Leisure TravelersThe travel industry gets most of its clients from leisure travelers. However, it makes more money from business than leisure passengers. The airlines put up with us leisure travelers because they couldn’t survive without us. However, they don’t hide their preference for business travelers.
- Why Are There So Many Connecting Flights? A Discussion of Why Airlines Love the Hub-Spoke Model More than ConsumersUnbeknownst to most consumers, the cause of most of our airline-related complaints is the hub-spoke model. Unfortunately, however, the hub-spoke model is also essential to the airline industry’s financial viability.
- Airline Schedule Changes: Why Don’t Airlines Keep their Promises?Learn why airlines change their schedules after you buy your tickets and what you can do about it.
- How Many Taxes, Fees, and Other Charges Do Consumers Pay For Airfare, Hotels, and Other Travel Services?The amount and number of travel taxes, fees, and other charges added to your bill will probably surprise you. Many are hidden and like everything else, taxes keep going up.
- Airline Consolidation: What Are the Disadvantages and Advantages For the Consumer?The airlines have consolidated so fast in the USA and Canada that only 5 players dominate the market. Learn what this means for consumers.
- The 3 Reasons Travel Prices Are So Radically Different than Other Products: Perishability, Capital Costs, and Yield ManagementHave you ever wondered why travel products seem to be priced so crazily? Learn the three economic factors that contribute to the pricing of travel products: perishability, high capital costs, and yield management.
- Why Pack Light Advice Doesn’t Work for Me (and May Not Work for You Either)I have had more problems because I packed too light than too much. Packing light advice is mainly geared toward people who are going on a whirlwind trip through Europe independently. I usually travel for long periods and stay in only a few places often with great climate variations. I also hate washing my own clothes.
- Some Hard-Learned Packing Tips From My 5 Years Traveling Round the WorldWhile I do not always follow packing light tips, there are many other tips that I use all the time. This post outlines the tips that were most useful during my 5 years traveling around the world.
- 3 Simple Baggage Tips to Avoid Wasting Time, Money, and TroubleA series of simple steps to avoid problems with your bags such as making your bag stick out from the others on the carousel and finding the most durable bag.
- Get an Upgrade to Avoid Uncomfortable Air TravelI have frequently managed to score business class seats either as an upgrade or for a modest additional fee. Learn how I did it and how you may be able to follow in my footsteps.
- Airline Bumping: What is it REALLY All About? Why It is Often a Blessing?Airlines routinely sell more tickets on a plane than there are seats. They expect no-shows. Most of the time this causes no problems. If there is trouble, often they can find volunteers who will receive some compensation to take a later flight. Once in a rare while, airlines have to involuntarily bump someone. This explains your rights if this happens to you and why I am glad I have volunteered to be bumped a couple of times.
- Round the World Tickets 101: Are They Worth the Trouble or Not?Once in my life, I bought a round the world ticket. My experience was favorable but I think the number of times these tickets are useful for most travelers is fairly limited for the reasons outlined in this post.
- Flight Schedule Changes: Simple Tips to Keep Flight Changes from Destroying Your TripIn the last ten years, I have spent nearly half of my life traveling around the world. One of the few unexpected changes is the sheer number of times airlines have changed my itinerary significantly. Sometimes it has worked out to my advantage. Other times, not. This post tells you what you can do if this happens to you.
- Why Buying the Cheapest Airfare is Often a Big MistakeI am surprised how often I can get significant improvements in convenience and comfort when I don’t buy the cheapest ticket. Often, for example, I can fly in business class from the US to Cancun for only $20-40 above the cost of the cheapest ticket. Often for a few dollars, I can get much more convenient flights as well.
- Top Tip: Eliminate International Flight Connections StressProbably the worst type of flights involve having to make a connection in a foreign country. Here are some tips to make these connections as stress-free as possible.
- Are Budget and Traditional Airlines Really that Different? Why Occasionally You Should Avoid Budget AirlinesOften nowadays there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between budget and traditional airlines (legacy carriers). However, unless the difference in ticket prices between budget and traditional airline is above 15%, I would recommend choosing traditional airlines for the reasons outlined in this post.
- Finding the Cheapest Flights 101: A Simple GuideA synopsis of my experiences with finding the cheapest flights and using search engines. The article also covers many tips for finding the cheapest flights, some of which are not discussed that widely elsewhere.
- Airfare Bundle Tickets: Advantages and DisadvantagesI often buy tickets with a mid-price range of bundled services attached. I often think the few extra dollars are worth it. You may or may not choose to follow in my footsteps after reading this post.
- Travel Hacking: How to Exploit Frequent Flyer and Loyalty Programs for Your Own BenefitHere are dozens of tips to hack your way toward low-cost flights and hotel rooms using frequent flyer and other travel loyalty programs.
- Frequent Flyer Miles: A Lazy Man’s GuideThis is a synopsis of my use of frequent flyer miles during my round the world travels from 2011 to 2015. It should help you to see how the programs have changed in the 2010s and give you some ideas how you can design a frequent flyer strategy that works for you.
- Airport 101: Avoid Immigration, Customs, Airline Check-In, and Security ProblemsWithout a doubt, one of the most frustrating parts of living as a fifty-plus nomad is dealing with airports. In my five years traveling around the world, I encountered several issues I did not anticipate including finding the right terminal, not having proof of onward passage, and unexpected fees. This post helps you avoid some of my mistakes.
- Frequent Flyer Miles: How to Master the Art of Redeeming MilesOnce you earn frequent flyer miles, you then have to figure out how to redeem them efficiently, Here are some tips from my own experience and that of experts.
- Earning Frequent Flyer and Other Travel Loyalty Points Without Leaving HomeI used frequent flyer points to pay for 40% of all my flights during my five-year trip around the world. It was easier to do in 2011-2015 when I traveled; however, it is still a good way to help pay for your travels. Here s a guide to how you can earn miles without traveling by using credit cards and buying affiliated products.
- Getting to the Airport Trouble-Free: 6 Simple TipsGetting to and from the airport and airport parking will be easier if you follow the six simple tips in this post.