If you're a first-time flyer, or you fly infrequently, an airport can be a daunting and disorienting place. People are everywhere, for starters—in fast-moving shuttles, in badly parked cars, in overcrowded lines—and the rules for getting from the entrance to a plane are not exactly obvious. To make matters worse, there are small details involved with flying that can complicate the process even further. Are you allowed to bring a regular-sized bottle of shampoo on to a plane? When does a plane typically start boarding? Wait, how much is a bottle of water at a newsstand?
Although an airport may be in your hometown, visiting one as a novice jet-setter might as well be like flying into a foreign country: There's a culture to it that gets easier to understand with either help or time. Scott Keyes, the co-founder of Scott's Cheap Flights, has spent countless hours researching the best plane fares before navigating the world's maze-like terminals, and he can be the expert you need to understand the ins and outs of airport etiquette. Let's start with an easy but vital question: How early should someone arrive at an airport?
"Domestic flights typically begin boarding 30 minutes ahead of time and with final call around 10 minutes before departure," he says. "For those flights, arriving at the airport two hours ahead of time is a good rule of thumb. That'll give you plenty of buffer time in case there's a line at security or you need to check a bag."
"As for international flights, those typically begin boarding 45 minutes ahead of time and have a final call around 10 minutes before departure," he continues. "For those flights, arriving at the airport two-and-a-half or three hours ahead of time is a good idea, especially if it's your first international flight. The stakes tend to be higher for international flights since there are fewer flights to get rebooked on if you miss a flight."
Now that you know when to get to the airport, Keyes has provided more insights into navigating check-in, staying on top of flight changes, and other vital moves so that you can look and feel like a travel expert without actually being one. Most of the time, that can make an airport a much more manageable place.
When should someone check in to a flight?
"If you're flying Southwest, best to check in as close to exactly 24 hours before your flight as possible because that's how they determine seating priority," Keyes says. "But if you're not flying Southwest and you're not checking a bag, then it's best to check in online before arriving at the airport. By doing so, you can get a mobile boarding pass and go straight to security when you arrive at the airport, rather than having to stand in line at the airline desk. If you are checking a bag, checking in ahead of time doesn't really matter because you'll need to go to the airline desk regardless, where they'll also check you in."
What should someone do after they're checked in?
Watch the people in front of you in the security line. "It's hard to remember what to do with your shoes or laptop, for instance, so just follow what the people in front of you are doing," Keyes says.
Download movies or TV shows for the flight ahead of time. "Although free, most airport WIFI speeds are dicey at best, so if you're planning on watching something on your phone or tablet, download it ahead of time," he notes.
Make sure to fully charge your phone at home. "Electrical outlets are typically in high demand at airports, so you can't always expect to be able to charge up before your flight," Keyes continues.
What else should someone do to prepare the day of a flight?
Enable text messages or push notifications about the status of your flight. "You don't want to be caught spacing off at Gate D12, unaware that your flight has switched gates and is now departing from Gate D35," Keyes says.
Bring an empty water bottle. "Though you can't bring water through security, there are plenty of water fountains past security where you can fill up before the flight," he continues. "There's no sense in buying a bottle of water."
Notify your banks if you're traveling internationally. "Let banks know you'll be using a debit or credit card in another country," Keyes notes. "That will prevent the bank from thinking those new charges in Paris are fraudulent and putting a hold on your card."
If you're traveling internationally, take a photo of your passport. "This is for safekeeping in case it gets lost," he adds.
If you're checking a bag, set aside one change of clothes to pack in your carry-on. "It's not common for checked bags to get lost and arrive a day or two late, but it isn't rare, either," Keyes says. "And if that happens, you don't want to be stuck wearing the clothes you traveled in for 48 or more hours."