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The Ups and Downs of Online Check-In

Now and then the airlines' inclination to automate everything, eradicate customer service interactions, and leave the traveler entirely on their own once a credit card has been dunned (am I exaggerating? You tell me...) results in win-win innovations that benefit everyone.

The recent rush to offer online check-in and printable boarding passes on the day of travel is one such serendipitous trend; the airlines seem to love it, and travelers are flocking and clicking in droves to choose seats and print out boarding passes from the comfort of their home or office.

Why, and What's in It for Me?
There is real money to be saved by airlines when large numbers of passengers check in online from home, from paper costs to personnel. If you think this isn't significant, consider this: US Airways is currently offering 1000 bonus miles to anyone who checks in online. The airlines would really like to see everyone start doing this routinely.

What is in it for travelers? The simplest and most straightforward benefit of the online check-in is bypassing the lines and hassle at check-in counters and kiosks. In the ideal situation, you must be traveling on an e-ticket, and without luggage to check. You arrive at the airport with a boarding pass in hand, which will include a bar code containing, essentially, your reservation. When you reach the airport, head directly for the security checkpoints, continue to your gate, and board -- done. The boarding pass you printed at home and your ID will gain you passage right to your seat.

However, while the benefits for easing your trek through the airport are clear, the trend does almost revolutionize one critical aspect of traveler comfort when flying -- seating assignments. When you do check in online, you get the pick of the litter with respect to seat availability at that moment. And the sooner you check, the better. As a result, the service has set off a rush of its own as travelers are blitzing airline Web sites on the day of travel to secure the best possible seats.

(There are restrictions on how far in advance you may check in; read on for more on this score.)

Is this a big deal? Let's look at a revealing test case -- Southwest. As many travelers know, Southwest keeps costs down by issuing no pre-assigned seats; it's a first-come, first-served world at the airport. However, they do assign people to Group A, B, or C, and board in that order. A recent traveler on Southwest noted that most of the folks who did not check in online before heading to the airport were likely to be in Group C, thus getting the last and worst seat selection.

Southwest permits check-in beginning just after midnight on the day of travel. As a result, the rush to get seating assignments online on the day of travel has become almost a late-night pastime of Southwest fliers.

What Kind of Tickets, What Do I Need, When Can I Check In?
In almost all cases, you must be traveling on an e-ticket to use the service. For tickets purchased directly from the airline Web site or airline reservations agent, you can check in using your frequent flier number, ticket confirmation number, the e-ticket number, or the number on the credit card used to purchase the ticket.

For bookings made elsewhere, such as with online booking engines or travel agents, you can usually do the same, although some airlines, including Delta, require that you are a frequent flier member in order to log in to use the service.

Rules on how long in advance of your flight you can check in varies considerably. Some airlines allow passengers to check-in online within 12-24 hours of departure time to as late as 30 minutes prior to scheduled departure time. Others require that check-in occur on the actual day of travel, meaning after 12:01AM on the day of travel, and may stop accepting online check-ins at 60 to180 minutes before flight time.

Since international travel usually requires that you arrive at your gate earlier than domestic travel, check-in deadlines are sometimes earlier online as well.

When traveling multiple leg trips, so long as you are flying on a single itinerary (and not one you cobbled together from several sources), you will be prompted to print individual boarding passes for each leg of your trip. Your bags will be checked through to your final destination.

In every case I have seen, if you are holding paper tickets, you cannot check in online.

Which Airlines, Which Flights, Where?
The majority of sizeable domestic airlines, offer the service, including include Delta, United, US Airways, Song, Ted, American, Northwest, Continental, Alaska, Independence, Jet Blue, Southwest, America West, Spirit, ATA, Frontier, Hawaiian -- you get the picture, it's almost everyone, if not quite -- Aloha is an exception, although I was hard-pressed to find another airline with a broad customer base that does not offer the option of online check-in.

Some major international airlines also feature online check-in, including Air Canada, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, although at present, given variations in international law and airport presence, not all international airlines have adopted the system, and those that have cannot offer it on all flights. For example, Lufthansa, SwissAir, Virgin, Qantas, Air France and others have no online check-in as of press time.

Further, the service is not available on all itineraries, and it isn't always perfectly clear which those might be, as they vary by airline and international law. Some flights to Caribbean and European destinations may be ineligible; some airlines (including American and Delta) have simply limited the service to domestic flights to the 50 US states, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Continental limits the service to flights originating in the US or Guam. Clearly policies vary by airline; most airline Web sites maintain a FAQ list clearly outlining policies and restrictions.

For international flights, you may be required to supply a passport number; have this at the ready.

Checking Bags
Most airlines that offer online check-in also offer quick bag drop-off counters. In some cases airlines have installed self-service check-in kiosks that will scan your home-printed boarding pass -- and follow the procedure for checking bags. You can also use curbside check-in.

No Printer? No Problem
Printing out a boarding pass from your home computer at 12:01AM the day of travel is easy enough; printing out a boarding pass from your laptop in your hotel room on the day of your return trip is a different challenge. This doesn't mean you can't check in and, most importantly, select your seats as early as possible. It turns out that you can still enjoy some of the benefits of the early check-in without actually printing out your boarding pass.

In this case, you simply proceed through the online check-in process, including selecting your seats. When your computer prompts you to print the document, you simply click cancel or otherwise move on. When you arrive at the airport, you will have to go to the check-in counter or a self-service kiosk to obtain a "duplicate" boarding pass, but your seat selection or group status should have survived the process.

Exceptions, Caveats
The timing of your check-in, as well as the nature of your itinerary, could trip you up in some cases. This could happen in any number of ways, so I'll let this traveler's description of a Southwest itinerary serve as a case study for what could happen.

"Yesterday I was flying to Manchester and back in the same day on Southwest. Boarding passes can be printed out starting at 12:01 a.m. As I had an early morning flight, I didn't want to wait up until midnight just to print my boarding pass, but did so around 7 a.m. and got into group A -- barely. I did run into a snag though -- as I was flying up and back on the same day, I wasn't allowed to print my returning boarding pass. I think it was because my first flight hadn't actually taken off yet. I did not have time to check-in in Manchester after arriving and thought, not a problem, I have to be back early -- which I was, two hours early for a very small airport. Very few folks were already there for my return flight, but even so, when I got my boarding pass I was in group C."

For straightforward itineraries, the process is exceedingly simple. As you introduce some complexity, as above, all kinds of arbitrary, inexplicable, and computer program-driven slippage can intrude.

Particularly when checking bags, I have found that the actual events at the airport vary by airline, airport, even by flight. On a recent roundtrip on Continental, at the outbound airport, my printed boarding pass got me all the way to the plane, while on the return trip, the agent who took my checked bags issued me a new boarding pass. As the service is relatively new, you can probably expect some variation in how things play out at the airport.

Be a Seat Slayer
Here is the best way to get the best seat when using online check-in:
A) Open two browsers: 1) your airline Web site, and 2) seatguru.com
B) On Browser 1, call up your reservation on the airline Web site, and figure out what type of plane you are flying
C) On Browser 2, navigate to that aircraft on seatguru.com
D) Back on Browser 1, proceed through online check-in to seat selection
E) Consult seatguru.com for the best choice among the available seats, and grab it.

See related article Get the Best Seat.

Remember, you're not the only one jockeying for seats, so make it happen sooner rather than later. On a recent flight I took that included a large group of college students, the gate was buzzing with a discussion of just this procedure. Soon enough, it won't be only the savvy and the young and fleet who are throwing virtual elbows for seats; get in the game!

Have other ideas for stretching your money? Send them in and I'll add the best to this article, or post them on the Traveler's Ed Message Boards.

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
TravelersEd@aol.com
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler

Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns SeatGuru.com.
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