¨Air travel reminds us who we are. It’s the means by which 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.¨
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 you leave for the airport, make sure 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 for myself because I do not have any real mobility problems).
You can request a wheelchair either when you:
- make a booking for a flight or
- 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 are booking 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, and
- 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 plan, 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 are leaving 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, 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 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 the plane without the proper passports and, in some cases, visas. I have prepared a separate course on passports and visas.
Several times I have 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 there 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.