With airports busier than ever, airline staffing reductions creating longer lines at check-in and airport security wait times that can be entirely unpredictable, the old airport "two-hour" rule often leaves just minutes to spare to buy a magazine, grab a snack or hustle your kids into the bathroom. Saving a few extra minutes here and there along the way can add up in your favor; here are 16 tips to get you from your front door to your seat on the plane as quickly and painlessly as possible -- as well as some ideas to keep you moving no matter what is going on with your flight.
Get Ahead of the Game
1) Sign up. The TSA's PreCheck, a trusted traveler program, has spread to more cities across the U.S. and is now available at some 130 airports. Members of the program are pre-screened and can then whiz through security without having to take off their shoes or remove laptops from cases. The U.S. Customs Department's Global Entry program (see GlobalEntry.gov) is another shortcut for frequent international travelers, especially as the federal government immigration and customs lines potentially get longer.
2) Gear up. Personally, I have found that buying more stuff is not always the best solution to travel problems, as one of the most serious travel problems for many people is having too much stuff in the first place. But there are a few items that are useful enough away from the airport to justify buying mostly for the airport, including slip-on shoes, clear zip-shut sundries bags and TSA-friendly laptop cases to help speed you through security.
Before You Leave Home
3) Check flight status. I feel like this tip is almost so obvious that I should not even include it, but I find that even in my own travels, I often fail to do this one simple but critical thing. Then this summer, I almost got burned. A very early morning flight for my son and me was canceled; luckily, I have a TripIt account, and found out about the cancellation before anyone else in the house was even awake. Had that not been the case, I am certain that in the rush to leave before dawn, I would not have checked flight status, and would have gotten a ride to the airport with all our stuff, waved goodbye, headed into the terminal, stood in line and only then discovered the cancellation. So -- check flight status.
I recommend doing the same before abandoning your ride or your car just before you head to the terminal; flight status updates change by the minute, so a last-second check is always a good idea.
Most airlines will text you flight status updates if you sign up on their websites, and sites like FlightStats.com and TripIt.com will do the same by text, on the Web and through smartphone apps.
4) Check in online. Especially if you are not checking bags, this can save you a heap of time. I have found that when checking bags, having the pre-printed boarding pass in your hand doesn't help all that much, and check-in agents often end up reissuing another boarding pass when you check your bags -- but it sure doesn't hurt. Plus, it's the best way to secure the seat you want onboard the plane.
5) Before you leave for the airport, put your ID, credit card and boarding pass (if applicable) in an easily accessible part of your wallet or bag. There are two reasons for this: one, by going through this exercise, you make sure that you don't leave home without these crucial items. Two, you don't waste your (and other people's) time fumbling around for them at the moment you need them.
6) Pack everything else out of reach. Clutter is the enemy of smooth passage through the airport; pack out of reach and sight anything that you will not need between your front door and your airplane seat.
7) Check the airport parking situation online. Knowing ahead of time where to park, which lots are open and how far they are from the terminal can save you a lot of anxiety on your drive in, as well as keep you safer as you navigate tortuous and almost always poorly marked airport ring roads. Additionally, during peak travel periods, lots fill up quickly, so you will want an alternate parking plan.
Many airports are adding parking lot status updates to their websites, while others have automated telephone information. While too many airports are doing the bare minimum in this regard, particularly with a service that is so essential to their business and often so confounding for travelers, consulting the info they do post can still often save you headaches when you arrive at the airport. As a side benefit, parking prices are usually displayed, so you can save money as well. At the very least, check the maps so you know where you are going; these also typically show the location of cell phone waiting lots, which can be useful to folks picking you up.
Off-airport lots are also worth considering, both for the ability to reserve a spot in advance and for price savings in many cases.
8) Check the airport maps, hotel shuttle info and rental car counter details for your destination airport. If navigating your home airport is relentlessly confusing, it will be even worse at an unfamiliar airport at your destination. Flight status updates frequently include the likely arrival gate, so checking the maps at your destination airport can help you get through the baggage pickup, find the rental car counters or shuttle pickup locations, and find rendezvous spots for shuttles to your airport as available. If someone is picking you up, you can also pre-arrange a pickup location so he or she can find you without too much hassle.
At the Airport: Before Check-In
9) Prep your documents. Before you get in line to check in, or at least before you get to the front of the line, dig out and have in hand all the items and documentation you will need to check in. Having this stuff out makes everyone happy -- you, airline agents and the people behind you in line who appreciate your efficiency.
10) Weigh your bags. Many airports are installing scales in front of the check-in areas; if you suspect your checked bag might be overweight, weigh it before you get in line, and do any swapping between your bags before you reach the check-in counter. This also avoids any scrutiny from the check-in agents about your carry-on bag starting to swell (another topic altogether, which I won't go into here).
If you are really serious about baggage weight, you can even weigh bags at home -- buying your own luggage scale is inexpensive and will prevent surprises at the airport.
Between Check-In and Security
11) Stow everything except your ID and boarding pass in your carry-on bag. This way, when you get to the front of the security line, you are not finding stuff in random pockets, messing with your phone, dropping credit cards and keys (or losing them -- I have seen it happen), spilling crumpled cash all over the place and generally ticking off everyone behind you. By the time you get in the security line, you should be as close to ready to go through the actual security machine as possible.
12) Take inventory of what you will need to do when you get to the front of the security line. Do a quick mental review of everything you are wearing that you will need to remove (such as shoes, jewelry, watch, jacket), and what you have inside your carry-on bag that might need to be taken out (liquids, electronics). When you get to the front of the line, blast through your mental inventory and make it happen. Done well, you can go from fully clad for winter weather, with laptops and iPads in your bag, to a T-shirt, pants and socks, and all your sensitive electronics in their own bins, in seconds.
On the Other Side of Security
13) Check the flight status boards again. Unless you are really early, your actual flight time is getting close, and this is when you will start to see gate changes and more reliable departure time estimates.
14) With that said, though flight status boards are your first stop for directions, go directly to your gate for any breaking information. The official system updates sometimes lag behind reality, so you want to check in at your gate to make sure nothing has changed. Beyond finding out your flight status, by showing up at the gate you will get a sense of how crowded the flight is, figure out what kind of terminal amenities there are and more.
15) Program airline 800 numbers into your phone. If you get stuck due to a delayed or canceled flight, you are going to want to be proactive in figuring out your options, as airline folks are typically understaffed and under siege in these situations. If you have the phone numbers of airlines that fly your preferred route programmed into your phone, you will get a lot farther a lot faster than if you don't.
16) Download apps that help. When the previously mentioned flight with my son was canceled, TripIt notified me very early on, and also gave me access to a list of other flights on the route for that day, both on my original airline and on other airlines. When I called my airline armed with this info, I was rebooked in minutes, and we went to the zoo for the morning.
The Independent Traveler