Get me to the airport on time!
Yes, the airlines do really want you to arrive one hour before a domestic flight and two hours before international flights. This is because they do not have enough staff at the counters to handle the number of people checking in. During peak travel times, such as holidays, I often arrive two hours before a domestic flight and then spend 1.5 hours in line.

Bring something to read or play while you are in line. You may be there for a long time, so it’s a good idea to entertain yourself rather than be impatient. I’m willing to bet that if you have a two-player game the person either in front of you or behind you would like to play. And hey – how about Tetris contests in the line?? I’d definitely rule at that!
See O’Hare Christmas for ideas on how to have fun in the airport during the waiting time. There’s no reason to sit around doing nothing.

When planning what time to leave your home for the airport, allow for traffic jams, overturned chicken trucks on the highway, tornadoes, and other delays.

The latest possible time you can check in is ten minutes before departure, at the gate. Some days, if you arrive at the gate nine minutes before departure, they’ve already given your seat to a stand-by passenger, and you are out-of-luck. Trust me on this. I’ve tested it a few times.

Taxi vs. Park
Parking is relatively cheap at many airports if you use a lot that is at least three miles away. However, there is the additional hassle of having to find a space, wait for the shuttle, haul all of your luggage onto the shuttle, drive around the whole airport before reaching you terminal and haul all of your luggage off of the shuttle. This routine needs to be reversed on your return. Add a half hour each way.

So, for a few dollars more it may be worth it to take a taxi to the airport. Not only are you saving yourself about an hour, but you are helping support the nice taxi drivers.

As an additional bonus, if you do this in Paris you will be able to learn many French swear words during the taxi ride.

Checking In
Get your ID out when you are second or third in line. If you are not e-ticketed, get your tickets out too. If you spend a lot of time rummaging around for ID and Tickets at the counter, the other people in line will be annoyed – just like you were annoyed when you watched ten people before you do it. Efficiency is the name of the game here. When it is your turn be ready, know exactly what you are going to say, and do not engage in irrelevant conversation. This way the lines will move faster.

If possible, use the self-check-in counters. These are amazingly fast.

There are three different locations you can check in at, some moving faster than others move.
In short:
At the Ticket Counter you can check in, check your luggage and get a seat assignment.
(Some Places) Self-Check-in – the fastest way to do it! You can check in, check your luggage and get a seat assignment.
At the SkyCap Counter you can check in and check your luggage.
At the Gate Counter you can check in and get a seat assignment.

Typically, if one counter is really crowded, another one will be relatively open. Try to look around before stepping into line. Your best bet is to accumulate enough points so that you move up a level with the airlines and can go in the “preferred” line. However, this requires a serious investment in money and time spent flying all over the place.
If you are flying standby, do not check your luggage. You may be able to get on the flight, but then again you may get bounced at the last minute.

An important note – when they ask you the three questions (Has your luggage been with you at all times since you packed it?, etc.) do not joke around. The agents are not allowed to joke about this, and must take every answer seriously. So, you will anger them and cause yourself some delays if you give the wrong answer, even jokingly. Just say “yes” or “no”. If you’re in a mood to be nice to the agent, prompt him or her for the questions if he or she forgets. Agents get in trouble if they do not ask these questions and can potentially be fired. There are cameras above the ticket counters.

Ticket Counter
The Ticket Counter is the only place where you can do everything you might need to do, including changing flights. It is conveniently located near the entrance to the airport. The down-side is that the ticket counter tends to be the slowest possible place to check in. The airlines have taken to seriously under-staffing these locations, causing long waits.

Self Check-In
Self Check-In counters are now available at some airports, from some airlines. The self-check-in consists basically of an ATM-type machine. These are much, much faster than any other method. I really hope they become the main method of checking in, soon! One note though – they are for experienced travelers. People who are not sure what kind of seat they want, what the luggage tag is for, etc., should use the Ticket Counter instead. If you are unsure of how the process works, stand and watch another person doing it before you try. Be sure not to stand so close to the person that you make them nervous, unless you ask “may I watch? I’ve never done this before” first.

I’ve only done this a few times, and cannot remember the exact routine. I believe I scanned in my ID, entered the flight number, selected a seat and entered how many bags I was checking. The machine printed out a baggage label that I then attached to my checked luggage, and asked me the traditional three questions. Finally, it printed my boarding pass, I handed my luggage to the waiting agent, and was on my way. Lovely!

SkyCap (Roadside) Counter
This line is often very short. There are two key things to remember when checking in road-side.
1. You can not get a seat assignment at this counter.
2. If you do not tip the skycap, he or she will cause your luggage to go to Tasmania.
Tip about $1 to $2 per bag. I once was in a hurry and forgot to tip. The skycap took my bag and slammed it into a wall. I’ve never forgotten to tip since.
If you do need a seat assignment, you can check your luggage outside, and then get your seat at the gate counter.

Gate Counter
Warrior-business-travelers like to take all of their luggage carry-on and check in at the gate counter. So, this is the place to avoid Sunday afternoon to Monday morning, and Friday afternoon. Other days the line is relatively short, and this is a good way to check in if you do not have checked luggage or checked your luggage road-side.

The Gate Counter is especially useful if you are running late. They will check you in before the flight. If you have luggage to check you can “gate check” it by asking for a tag at the counter and then leaving it at the end of the gangway by the door to the outside. If you do not get a luggage destination tag, your bag will be sent to the luggage belt at the end of the current leg.

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