The days of arriving at the airport three hours before your flight leaves to queue up for hours at the check-in desk are numbered. With so many different ways to check-in you don't always have to spend time in line. However, with so many check-in options, it can be tough choosing the best method. Use this guide to find out the pros and cons of each method and to choose the one best for you.
Online check-in allows you to complete the process yourself on the airline's website. Typically, this can be done between 24 hours and 90 minutes before the flight is due to depart. When you check-in online you'll need to verify all your flight details, choose a seat if you have not already selected one, choose meals if applicable and confirm that you are planning to take the flight. Some airlines will then allow you to print out your boarding pass using your own printer; others will require you to pick up your boarding pass from a self-service kiosk at the airport. If you have bags to check-in there is usually a bag drop-off point in the airport. Bags will need to be dropped off here at least an hour before departure.
Pros: The quickest and easiest way to check-in, you can do it from the privacy of your own home or office, avoid queues at the airport, and save on time before you fly.Cons: If the airline expects you to print the ticket yourself, you need access to a printer. Photocopies of boarding passes are not accepted. If travelling in a group, each passenger often needs to check-in individually.
Self-service kiosks are available for most of the large airlines in most of the major airports. Though you still have to get to the airport before you check-in, as you would at the desk, lines are normally shorter as the process is much quicker, and bags to check-in can be dropped at baggage drop point. You normally need to have an e-ticket or a paper ticket with a magnetic strip. The machine will often read your passport for you and ask you to select the destination of your flight. It should then automatically bring up the correct details. Kiosks are typically open between 24 hours and 90 minutes before a flight departs.
Pros: An efficient way to check-in at the airport. As kiosks open for flights many hours before check-in desks, lines are almost always shorter. If you live close to the airport, it's also possible to check-in up to a day before your flight leaves. This can be particularly useful if you have a very early morning flight, for example.Cons: Not all airlines or airports operate self-service kiosks, and those that do may have restrictions. It is important to check with the airline before you plan on using this method, and check that it is available for your specific route as well. Some airlines will only let you use self-service kiosks if you are travelling with hand luggage only. Children travelling as unaccompanied minors are normally not allowed to use self-service check-in.
To check-in with your mobile, visit the airline's website. Select check-in and retrieve your booking with your booking reference. Click on the "check-in" button and you'll receive a SMS with a boarding pass. Bring this to the airport with you.
Pros: Makes checking-in a breeze, all the benefits of online check-in on the go.Cons: If you forget your phone or the battery dies, you'll need to dash to a computer or self-service machine (at the airport) to print out a boarding pass. As mobile check-in is in its early days, not all terminals are able to process these types of boarding passes.
The traditional method of check-in is to arrive at the airport (usually between three hours and one hour before the flight departs, depending on the airline and your destination) and get in line at the desk to receive your boarding pass and hand over your luggage. Check-in times are normally earlier for international flights, while some domestic routes may only require check-in 45 minutes before departure.
Pros: Human contact at the desk means that this is the least confusing option. If you've got any special requirements, you'll need to check-in at the desk. There's also a (very slight) chance that you may get an upgrade if you're there in person. If you want to get bumped from your flight, then you'll need to be there.Cons: This can be the slowest and most tiresome way to check-in. If you're unlucky, queues can be long, and there's no option of arriving just before the flight leaves.
Some airlines offer very attractive options for check-in from certain resorts. Virgin Atlantic, for example, will let you check-in at some hotels in the Caribbean, from Downtown Disney in Orlando or at the airport train station in Hong Kong. Staff can check you in, give you a boarding pass and even take your bags to the airport. This is perfect if you want to spend a bit more time on the beach... Check with the individual airlines for details regarding other no-hassle check-in choices.
For specific airline details and check-times, take a look at our airline information pages.
Now that you have more time at the airport, take a look at our guide to airport amusements for the best ways to spend it.
Updated May 2014