Call me crazy but I am one of those people that actually studies the airport maps in the airline magazines found in the seat pockets on planes. Yes… I really do. But am I really the crazy one or have I discovered the secret to navigating the chaos that is sometimes found at the airport? Well maybe not THE secret but it certainly is one of the tactics I use to get the lay of the land, and eliminate (or at least greatly reduce) the stress and hassle of airports. Forewarned is forearmed right?
So what are some of the other tactics I have learned and keep in my arsenal for navigating my way around airports? Checking in, checking baggage, short layovers, long layovers, and passport control- I’m sharing all the tips I’ve learned over the years to deal with these with you today.
Before You Arrive at the Airport
A stress and hassle-free airport experience really starts before you even get to the airport with on-line check in. For most flights you’ll be able to check in 24 hours before the flight and it’s really in your best interest to do so to get these benefits:
- Eliminate standing in line at the check-in counter at the airport. You can skip right past this step and go to the baggage drop area (if you are checking a bag) or bypass that too and go straight to the security queue if you only have a carry-on. If you’re not sure which line is for baggage check only ask the airport employees and they’ll direct you to the right line.
- Less chance you’ll be bumped. I’ve noticed an increase of overbooked flights over the past year or so and it seems like almost every flight there are requests for volunteers to be bumped. If they can’t find enough volunteers then people get bumped IN-voluntarily. If you want to reduct the chance that will be you it pays to check in early. In this case the early bird could get the seat!
- Choose your seat. Some airlines allow you to choose a seat when you book a flight, but some don’t. Either way I always like to recheck the seat options at check-in and see if something better has opened up. At the 24 hour mark many fliers with airline status have been given complimentary upgrades so they are no longer in the economy seats and you can re-seat yourself. If you aren’t sure where the best seats are on the plane check out Seat Guru. Just enter your airline, flight number and date and it’ll show you a colour coded seat map and reviews from other fliers.
- Snap up your upgrade if you have status with the airline. As an example Silver members of United Airlines can pick an Economy Plus seat for themselves and one companion at check-in. These go pretty quickly so if you wait to do this at the airport when you check-in you might have missed the opportunity to change seats.
With on-line check in you’ll receive a copy of your boarding pass in an email and/or in your airline’s app. I like to take a screenshot of it (just in case I lose data service along the way) and sometimes I print off a copy as back-up.
At Your Origin Airport
My number one tip to reduce stress at the airport is simple- get there in plenty of time. L and I differ in our opinions about what “plenty of time” means but generally I’m most happy when I get to the airport about three hours before an international flight. I don’t mind waiting at the gate if I get through baggage check and security quickly and it gives me peace of mind to know there is a cushion if things go wrong. It seems to me the less time you leave yourself then Murphy’s Law kicks in and the lines are horrendous, but the earlier you’re there the shorter the lines.
Extra time is always a good idea when you park off-site at the airport as the shuttle buses need to drive around the whole lot several times filling up and then you might not be the first terminal they drop-off at either. If your home airport is like Houston Intercontinental then you’ll end up driving half-way back to the shuttle parking area just to turn around to get to the next terminal! It isn’t unheard of to be on that shuttle up to 30 minutes but it’s no sweat if you’ve allowed time for it. The time driving around the airport can be spent chatting with fellow travelers and tucking your shuttle ticket in a safe place (maybe snapping a quick photo of it with your phone just in case it gets lost) instead of looking at your watch in panic every three minutes because you fear you’re going to be late.
At the terminal you can head straight to baggage check (if you checked in on-line) and then tuck your bag receipt away for safe keeping and proceed to security with your ID and boarding pass in hand. I like to keep these documents together and easily accessible (in the same pocket of my bag every trip) for the duration of the flight, especially on international flights when you wil need information from both if you need to complete a landing card. Again don’t hesitate to ask employees which line you should be in if it isn’t clearly marked. Better to take a moment to ask than waste time standing in the wrong line or not taking advantage of TSA Pre-Check (in US airports) or Premier Access/ Fast Track lines for fliers with airline status.
If you’re not sure if you have TSA Pre-Check it will be indicated on your boarding pass. You may be selected at random by the TSA for the expedited security screening, you may receive it as a benefit of your frequent flier program, or you can apply to TSA for a 5 year membership. Other options to be eligible to participate in TSA Pre-Check include enrollment in U.S. Global Entry, NEXUS, or being a member of the U.S. Military
If you’re not eligible for TSA Pre-Check no worries, you’ll have to remove your shoes, belt, jacket, 3-1-1 liquids and laptop, but being prepared for it means you’ll have everything off and accessible by the time you hit the security belt. Personally I skip the jacket and belt all together (or put them in a bag until I’m through security), and wear easy slip off shoes. L says don’t forget to check your socks to make sure they don’t have holes! :-) I also like to keep my laptop and liquids as close to the top of my carry-on as possible so they are quick to take out and I don’t run the risk of losing things out of the bag from digging through it. Put everything on the belt quickly and make your way through the scanners.
If you have a choice of security lines, take a quick glance at the people. See lots of lone travelers dressed like they’re heading to work? They are likely the business travelers and this isn’t their first rodeo. They’ll know what they are doing and are usually quick and efficient about it so head to that line as it’ll likely move quicker.
Once through security I always feel like everything else is smooth sailing and you just need to head to the gate to wait. Even though the gate is marked on the boarding pass it is always worth a stop at the departures board to reconfirm that. This is especially important if you don’t have much time as you don’t want to waste what little time you do have going to the wrong gate. A quick stop to recheck that gate could save you 10 minutes (and a lot of stress) from going to the wrong gate and then needing to make a run for the right gate.
At your gate you really don’t need to see the agent for anything unless you truly need assistance or they’ve called you to the counter. Just have a seat, sit back, relax, but keep an ear out for announcements in case they make any last minute gate changes. If you have the airline’s app they’ll also send you alerts about this but listening to announcements in your gate area is the best way to stay advised. Before you know it you’ll be settled on your seat and ready to take off.
Now that wasn’t so bad eh?
“Ah but wait!” you say, “My stress isn’t over yet. I have …a layover. And it’s a short one. I’ll NEVER make my connection.” I understand. I’ve been there. And it can be stressful. So what do you do? Remember when I said at the beginning that I actually study those airport maps in the magazines in the back of the seat? Well not only do I do that but I look up airport maps and Google tips for making tight connections before I leave home too. Such a keener. But a keener that knows her way around foreign airports and that can really make a difference.
Recently we flew through Newark Liberty International Airport and had to make a really tight connection AND change terminals. I figured we would be lucky if we made it but with a little pre-trip research we learned there is a bus that goes between the two terminals which bypasses the need to go through security again and saves lots of hassle and time. If we hadn’t checked we would have assumed we had to take the train between terminals and I really don’t think we would have made it. Instead we knew exactly which gate to go to once off the plane (and I knew the directions to it by looking at the map in the magazine as we pulled up to the gate our plane was parking at), we hopped on the shuttle bus, and then knew exactly where our departure gate was in relation to where the bus was dropping us. Easy peasy. We even had time to spare to pick up a snack!
Don’t let the layover stress you out. Just be prepared with as much knowledge as possible before you leave. And don’t be afraid to ask questions when you get there.
Maybe though it isn’t a short layover you’re stressing over, but a long layover you’re dreading. Again, a little research ahead of time can uncover gems you might not know exist in the airport you’ll be in. For example did you know there is a yoga room in Chicago O’Hare airport? Or that you can use the sauna, steam room, or jacuzzi at the Hilton Hotel that is connected to the airport? If you’re a frequent flier, flying business or first class, or have particular credit cards you may have access to airline lounges but if not, some are still accessible if you purchase a day pass. Depending on your layover they may be worth the price as most include food, drinks, free WiFi, showers, and a nice atmosphere to relax or get a little work done. One site/app that can be used to find these is LoungeBuddy which includes list of amenities, reviews from other travelers, and will sell passes.
Layovers don’t have to be SO bad. They might just end up being a relaxing break in your day.
At Your Destination Airport
You’ve made it! You haven’t slept all night on that international flight (or maybe you have because you followed some of my tips to make the best of that long haul flight) and now you’ve landed and know passport control and customs are ahead. Let the chaos and stress begin again! Nah, it doesn’t have to. You’ve got this!
If you are entering the U.S. and have Global Entry or NEXUS you’ll receive expedited entry through border patrol. If you are visiting the UK they have a similar program called Registered Traveller Service that you may qualify for to expedite entry. Other countries may have similar programs that you’ll find with a little Googling ahead of time. It you’re not a member of any of these programs, or the country your visiting doesn’t have one, it’ll just take a little longer to get through the queue and you’ll be on your way too. Just be sure to pay attention to the signs directing you to the proper queue for the passport you hold.
After border patrol you’re almost done with the airport. Hooray! Just pop to the luggage carousel (where it is always a good idea to stand several paces back from the belt so everyone can see the bags coming and remove them safely) grab your bags when they come around and head through customs if you’re coming in from an international flight. Personally I also like to use the time waiting for the luggage as toilet time. Why stand in line to use the toilets up by the gates when the ones in the baggage hall are usually empty? Well unless you couldn’t wait of course. :-) I’m not even sure people realise there are even toilets in that area, that’s how empty they usually are.
If several flights arrived at the same time, and it seems like everyone is trying to be picked up outside arrivals, you don’t have to join the chaos. If you have someone coming to pick you up ask them to pick up up at departures instead. It might be less crowded and you’ll be easier to see as your drive pulls up.
Then you’ll be on your way to enjoy your trip, or home to remember your great trip- one in which the airport wasn’t actually that much of a hassle or stressful after all.