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In the ever-changing world of air travel, it can be difficult to know what to expect when you arrive at the airport 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 what surprises await you at the airport security checkpoint?
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.
Airport Security Screening
The TSA has recently made major changes to its airport security screening process with the introduction of new 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.
For more information about the new security measures (and the controversy they've caused), see From Pat-Downs to Full Body Scanners: The TSA Firestorm.
TSA Rules for Carry-on Luggage
For travelers who like to simply carry on and go, packing has gotten a little trickier in recent years. The TSA requires that 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.
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 $20 - $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. Get the scoop in our Airline Baggage Fees.
For 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, allow even more time at the airport -- perhaps an extra 30 to 60 minutes.
Check with your airline for its recommended arrival times, as these may vary depending on where you're flying. For instance, American Airlines suggests allowing three hours for flights to Mexico and a whopping three and a half hours for flights to Delhi, India.
You may also want to check FlightStats.com for airport information such as security wait times, flight delays and other information that could affect your trip.
Most airports are equipped with self-service kiosks that make the process of checking in speedier. Even better, you can usually use your airline's Web site to check in online and print your boarding pass at home up to 24 hours before your scheduled departure time. This 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 an advance 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.
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 Web sites 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 in Long-Term Airport Parking.