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What to Expect at the Airport

Flying for the first time, or haven't flown in a while? In the ever-changing world of air travel, it can be difficult to know what to expect at the airport when you arrive for your flight. Will you be able to check in quickly or will the line stretch out the door? Will your flight be delayed? And what surprises await you at the airport security checkpoint?

man at airport window

We can't guarantee you a hassle-free trip to the airport, but a little preparation can go a long way to helping you know what to expect. Read on for our useful guidelines to help you sail smoothly through the airport on your next flight.

What to Expect at Airport Security

In the last few years, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration has made major changes to its airport security screening process with the introduction of full body scanners and "enhanced" pat-downs. While traditional metal detectors are still in use in many security lines, some travelers will now find themselves in line for a full body scanner, which uses millimeter wave or backscatter technology to create an image of a person's body (similar to an X-ray).

You may opt out of the machine and submit instead to a pat-down from a same-gender security officer. Pat-downs are done with the fronts of the officer's hands and include all parts of the body, including the chest and groin areas. You may request that your pat-down be carried out in private.

At U.S. airports you will need to take off your shoes as well as jackets, belts and anything in your pockets before going through security. Laptops also need to be removed from their cases and put in a bin for screening. (Smaller devices such as tablets, phones and cameras can be left in your carry-on.)

For travelers who like to simply carry on and go, packing requires a little strategy. Toothpaste, shampoo and other liquid/gel/aerosol items be stored in individual containers of 3.4 ounces or less if you want to put them in your carry-on. All containers must be placed inside one clear, quart-sized plastic bag. Need to bring more than that? You'll have to put it in your checked luggage.

Learn more about the rules in our comprehensive Airport Security Q&A, and don't miss 7 Things Not to Do When Packing a Carry-On Bag.

Fees for Checked Baggage

As if the TSA's rules for carry-on bags weren't enough, you may also want to think long and hard about your checked bag as well. Most airlines charge passengers a fee -- typically $25 - $30 each way -- to check a single bag on a domestic flight. Checking a second bag will cost anywhere from $30 to $50. Many airlines are now charging fees to check bags on some international flights as well. Learn how to avoid such charges with 7 Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees.

Checking In

For U.S. domestic flights, you should be at the airport at least two hours before your flight is scheduled to leave if you're planning on checking luggage. If you're bringing just a carry-on, allow at least 90 minutes. If you're flying to Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands or an international destination, arrive at least two hours early. During peak travel times such as holidays, allow even more time at the airport -- perhaps an extra 30 to 60 minutes.

On the day of your flight, check FlightStats.com for airport information such as security wait times, flight delays and other information that could affect your trip.

Most airports have self-service kiosks that make the process of checking in speedier. Even better, you can usually use your airline's website to check in online up to 24 hours before your scheduled departure time. Then you can either print your boarding pass at home or download it to your phone. Checking in early is not only is a time-saver but can also mean a better selection of seats.

Beware: Even if you have already checked in for your flight, an airline can cancel your reservation if you are not at the departure gate on time, and your seat may be given to another passenger even if you have a boarding pass or an advance seat assignment. Similarly, if you do not check your baggage in sufficient time for it to be loaded on your flight, the airline is not responsible for any delay in the delivery of your baggage to your destination.

Airport Parking

If you're driving yourself to the airport, be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to find a parking spot and get from your car to the terminal (which can literally be miles away). Some airports offer real-time parking information on their websites so you can check how full their lots are before you leave. Keep in mind that airport lots fill quickly at peak travel times, so you may want to reserve a spot ahead of time in an off-airport lot. Learn more with our guide to Long-Term Airport Parking.

passport and boarding pass

Got Your ID?

For U.S. domestic flights, a driver's license or other government-issued photo ID is all you need to show at check-in, security and boarding. If you're flying outside the country, you will need a passport -- even if you're traveling to places like Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean, where driver's licenses were once accepted.

If you do not provide appropriate identification, you may be denied boarding or removed from a flight at any time.

Amenities at the Airport

Airport amenities vary widely from one city to another. Large international airports offer huge food courts, duty-free malls, spas, Internet access, art exhibits, gardens, even swimming pools -- while small airports may offer little more than a couple of small shops and eateries. (Should you grab food at the airport? Check out our Guide to Airline Meals and Snacks.)

Visit your airport's website ahead of time to see what you can expect.

Delays and Cancellations

Before you leave for the airport, double-check the airline's website to be sure your flight is leaving as scheduled. You can even set up flight status alerts to be sent straight to your cell phone (many airlines provide this service, or you can use the aforementioned FlightStats.com).

Keep in mind that airlines are not required to compensate passengers for delayed or canceled flights. Each carrier differs in its policy, and there are no federal requirements. Most will book you on the next available flight. If your plane is delayed, the airline may pay for meals or a hotel stay, so ask.

Some will offer no amenities if the delay is caused by bad weather or other conditions beyond their control. Compensation is required by law only if you are bumped from a flight that is oversold (discussed below). Although it is not required by law, many airlines are beginning to inform passengers about the causes for delays in their flights, through their own programs.

For more information, see Airport Delays: Six Ways to Cope.

Overbooking and Bumping

Overbooking is legal, and most airlines do it. They are, however, required to ask people to volunteer to be bumped from a flight if there aren't enough seats. If you are bumped involuntarily, you must be given a written statement describing your rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't, and you may keep your ticket and use it on another flight.

If you choose to make your own arrangements, you can request an "involuntary refund" for the ticket. You are also entitled to compensation, with a few exceptions. For example, if the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, you get nothing.

For more details, read our comprehensive guide to bumping and overbooking.


Lost or Delayed Luggage

If your bags are delayed, airlines usually agree to pay "reasonable" expenses until they're found. The amount is subject to negotiation, and you may have to fight for it. If your bags are not found, you must file a claim, which takes some time to process. It is normal to wait six weeks to three months for reimbursement, although some airlines are much more efficient than others. Beware of deadlines! If you miss the check-in deadline, the carrier is not responsible for your bag if it is delayed or lost.

Liability limitations for bags lost on international flights are governed by various international treaties. Learn more with our guide to lost luggage.

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--updated by Sarah Schlichter

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