With airports busier than ever, airline staffing reductions creating longer lines at check-in, and airport security wait times that can be entirely unpredictable, the old airport “two-hour” rule often leaves just minutes to spare to buy a magazine, grab a snack, or hustle your kids into the bathroom. But there are still ways to get through the airport faster.
Saving a few extra minutes here and there along the way can add up in your favor; here are 16 airport tips to get you from your front door to your seat on the plane as quickly and painlessly as possible—as well as some ideas to keep you moving no matter what is going on with your flight.
Get Ahead of the Game
Take these actions well in advance of your trip.
Sign Up for a Trusted Traveler Program
The TSA’s PreCheck program has spread to numerous cities across the U.S. and is now available at more than 200 airports. Members of the program are prescreened and can whiz through security without having to take off their shoes or remove laptops from cases. The U.S. Customs Department’s Global Entry program is another shortcut for frequent international travelers, especially as the federal government immigration and customs lines get longer. It entitles you to skip long customs lines when returning from overseas and includes PreCheck membership.
Buy the Right Gear
Personally, I have found that buying more stuff is not always the best solution to travel problems, as one of the most serious travel problems for many people is having too much stuff in the first place. But there are a few items that are useful enough away from the airport to justify buying mostly for the airport, including slip-on shoes, reusable TSA-approved toiletry bags, and TSA-friendly laptop cases to help speed you through security.
Before You Leave Home
Once your flight is within 24 hours, these are the most important steps to take.
Check Flight Status
This tip is almost so obvious that I shouldn’t even include it, but I find that even in my own travels, I often fail to do this one simple but critical thing. Then this summer, I almost got burned. A very early morning flight for my son and me was canceled; luckily, I have a TripIt account and found out about the cancellation before anyone else in the house was even awake. Had that not been the case, I am certain that in the rush to leave before dawn, I would not have checked flight status, and would have gotten a ride to the airport with all our stuff, waved goodbye, headed into the terminal, stood in line, and only then discovered the cancellation. So—check flight status early and often.
Most airlines will text you flight status updates if you sign up on their websites.
Check In Online
Especially if you are not checking bags, this can save you a heap of time. I have found that when checking bags, having a preprinted boarding pass in your hand doesn’t help all that much, and check-in agents often end up reissuing another boarding pass when you check your bags—but it sure doesn’t hurt. Plus, it’s the best way to secure the seat you want aboard the plane. Learn more about online check-in.
Place Documents in an Easily Accessible Place
Before you leave for the airport, put your ID, credit card, and boarding pass in an easily accessible part of your wallet or bag. There are two reasons for this: First, by going through this exercise, you make sure that you don’t leave home without these crucial items. Second, you don’t waste your (and other people’s) time fumbling around for them at the moment you need them.
Pack Everything Else Out of Reach
Clutter is the enemy of smooth passage through the airport; pack out of reach and sight anything that you will not need between your front door and your airplane seat.
Check the Airport Parking Situation Online
Knowing ahead of time where to park, which lots are open, and how far they are from the terminal can save you a lot of anxiety on your drive in, as well as keep you safer as you navigate torturous and almost always poorly marked airport ring roads. During peak travel periods, lots fill up quickly, so you will want an alternate parking plan.
Many airports are adding parking lot status updates to their websites, while others have automated telephone information. As a side benefit, parking prices are usually displayed, so you can save money as well. At the very least, check the maps so you know where you are going; these also typically show the location of cell phone waiting lots, which can be useful to folks picking you up.
Off-airport lots are also worth considering, both for the ability to reserve a spot in advance and for price savings in many cases.
Know Where to Go
Check the airport maps, hotel shuttle info, and rental car counter details for your destination airport. Check to see if the airport has an app that puts all this information at your fingertips. Flight status updates frequently include the likely arrival gate, so checking the maps at your destination airport can help you get through the baggage pickup, find the rental car counters or shuttle pickup locations, and find rendezvous spots for shuttles to your airport as available. If someone is picking you up, you can also pre-arrange a pickup location so he or she can find you without too much hassle.
At the Airport
Once you arrive at the airport, use these time-saving techniques.
Prep Your Documents
Haven’t already checked in online? Before you get in line to check in, or at least before you get to the front of the line, have in hand all the items and documentation you will need to show the agent. This makes everyone happy—you, airline agents, and the people behind you in line who appreciate your efficiency.
Weigh Your Bags
Many airports are installing scales in front of the check-in areas; if you suspect your checked bag might be overweight, weigh it before you get in line, and do any swapping between your bags before you reach the check-in counter. This also avoids any scrutiny from the check-in agents about your carry-on bag starting to swell.
If you are concerned about baggage weight, your best bet is to weigh bags at home—buying your own luggage scale is inexpensive and will prevent surprises at the airport.
Stow Items in Your Carry-On
Stow everything except your ID and boarding pass in your carry-on bag. This way, when you get to the front of the security line, you are not finding stuff in random pockets, messing with your phone, dropping credit cards and keys, spilling crumpled cash all over the place, and generally ticking off everyone behind you. By the time you get in the security line, you should be as close to ready to go through the actual security machine as possible.
Assess Your Stuff
Take inventory of what you will need to do when you get to the front of the security line. Do a quick mental review of everything you are wearing that you will need to remove (shoes, large jewelry, watch, jacket), and what you have inside your carry-on bag that might need to be taken out (liquids, electronics larger than a cell phone). When you get to the front of the line, blast through your mental inventory and make it happen.
For more help with security, see 10 Things Not to Do at Airport Security and Airport Security Frequently Asked Questions.
Check the Flight Status Boards Again After Security
Unless you are really early, your actual flight time is getting close, and this is when you will start to see gate changes and more reliable departure time estimates.
Get to Your Gate
With that said, though flight status boards are your first stop for directions, go directly to your gate for any breaking information. The official system updates sometimes lag behind reality, so you want to check in at your gate to make sure nothing has changed. Beyond finding out your flight status, by showing up at the gate you will get a sense of how crowded the flight is and figure out which terminal amenities (restaurants, bathrooms) are nearby.
Take these steps to prevent problems before they start.
Program Your Airline’s 800 Number into Your Phone
If you get stuck due to a delayed or canceled flight, you’ll want to be proactive in figuring out your options, as airline folks are typically understaffed and under siege in these situations. If you have the phone numbers of airlines that fly your preferred route programmed into your phone, you will get a lot farther a lot faster than if you don’t.
Download Apps That Help
When the previously mentioned flight with my son was canceled, TripIt notified me very early on and gave me access to a list of other flights on the route for that day, on both my original airline and other airlines. When I called my airline armed with this info, I was rebooked in minutes, and we went to the zoo for the morning. See this list of airport apps for other ideas that can help.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 18 Best Airport Hacks
- Sleeping on Planes: 13 Tips for Travelers
- 10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.
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