How to navigate the airport like a pro this Christmas
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Traipsing around a hot and crowded airport dragging a heavy trolley bag is no one’s idea of a good time. Add uncomfortable (and often minimal) seating, intense security checks, overpriced airport food and cranky passengers, and you’ve got a major dampener on air travel, especially during the busy holiday season.
But your airport experience doesn’t have to be all bad. With a little organisation ahead of time, plus expert tips and travel hacks, you’ll be able to navigate the airport like a pro, making the experience less hectic and stressful.
Here’s how to expertly traverse the airport.
Book early flights and avoid short layovers
You can begin to curate your airport experience before even booking your ticket. Selecting early morning flights isn’t a guarantee against delays, but earlier flights have a better chance of leaving on time.
Scheduling layovers shorter than an hour or even two (depending on the airport) may end in disaster or at least rushing, unnecessary stress and a higher likelihood of missing your connecting flight.
Consider buying any extras at the time of booking — paying for seats, hold baggage or anything else you may need, like selecting a special meal — so it’s all handled when the time to fly arrives. If you’re unsure about hold luggage or anything else, set a calendar alert to book at a later date or during online check-in so all your extras are handled before arriving at the airport.
Checking in ahead of time online not only minimises the time you have to spend at the airport (most likely in a queue) but also ensures you’re familiar with all the details of your trip: the departure time, flying time and airport terminal.
It also gives you insight into your seat selection and hold luggage — perhaps you’ve booked them before, and if not, this is the moment you should do so. This is especially useful if you’re flying a low-cost carrier, because in many cases, paying to check your bag at the airport is much more expensive than doing it online ahead of time. You should also weigh your baggage before you check-in (assuming you’ve packed already) so that you can pay for extra weight if needed, making sure you won’t be caught off guard at the airport.
Once you’ve familiarised yourself with what you need to know regarding your flight, selected your seats and handled your hold luggage, either print out your boarding pass (again, essential if travelling on certain low-cost carriers that will charge you at the airport) or save it on your phone. This way, you can either breeze through the departures area of the airport, skipping that section entirely and heading straight to security if you aren’t checking a bag, or proceeding to the bag drop, which often moves much more quickly than the regular check-in line.
Further reading: How to pick your perfect airplane seat
Arrive at the airport early
This is fundamental for a smoother airport experience. There are so many things out of your control that could go wrong when heading to the airport: traffic jams, public transportation delays, bad weather, long lines, extra security screenings and so on.
No one, and I repeat no one, enjoys running through the airport with luggage (and possibly children) in tow thinking of how they’ll deal with the aftermath of missing their flight. Boarding an airplane sweaty, out of breath and anxious isn’t the right way to start your trip.
So leave extra time when getting to the airport. If you end up with more time on your hands, test hand creams at duty free, have a drink at the bar, relax in the lounge, plane spot, read a book, buy souvenirs — and bask in the glory of not missing your flight.
Have your documents easily accessible
Have your boarding pass and ID accessible from the time you arrive at the airport right up until you find your seat on the plane. Of course, don’t make it so handy it will slip out of your pocket or fall out of an unzipped bag or purse, but keep it in a spot where you can readily grab it during extra security checks, in customs, or if you need to show it upon stepping on to the plane. If you have to dig around, it will cost you extra time and hold up the queue.
Prepare ahead for security
Security regulations (liquid and metal) are not anything new. You know the drill: small containers of liquid need to be in a plastic bag, some liquids and water bottles are too big to take and certain items will set the metal detector off.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed and unprepared at security, come with everything already organised. You might try to fly with trousers that don’t require a belt, and make sure you don’t carry anything in your pockets that might set off the detector the day you fly. You could also try to avoid wearing shoes or jewellery that may set the detector off. Have your liquids already inside a plastic bag and your laptop, tablet and phone within easy reach to quickly take out to make sure you sail through security checks with as little hassle as possible.
You don’t necessarily have to follow all these tips, but just be prepared and aware of what will cost you extra time. Arriving ready will help speed up the process for you — and those waiting behind you.
If you need extra time for any reason — you have children, are travelling with older companions, have a disability or injury — no problem. Many airports have special family lines or can provide assistance, and all you have to do is ask a staff member or look for the signs. If you know ahead of time you’ll need the extra help, tell the airline while booking your ticket or call ahead to add it to your reservation.
Bring decent carry-on luggage and don’t overpack
Trying to stuff every item in your carry-on bag to avoid paying for a checked bag is something I am guilty of, and it certainly doesn’t make your airport experience any easier.
Overfilling a backpack can wreak havoc on your shoulders and back, and dragging around a chock-full rolling suitcase that only has two wheels instead of four gets old fast. Heavy duffel bags or totes can be even worse, directing all the pain to one shoulder.
If possible, spend a little extra on the right luggage, like backpacks with extra strap padding and lightweight trolley bags that roll perfectly.
To avoid dragging heavy items through the airport, pack only what you truly need in your carry on. And if you need a lot, make sure your trolley has four functioning wheels and put the bulk of your heavy items there, saving your back and shoulders from added pain or injury. Just make sure your carry-on meets the weight requirements so you don’t have issues when boarding. And when packing, remember: if you’re bag is really that heavy, are you going to be able to comfortably lift it into the overhead bin?
If you find yourself with heavy luggage that’s (literally) weighing on you, look for a small cart, as some airports provide these to place your carry-on bags in.
Find the everything you need ahead of time
Taking a look at an airport map before travelling can be very helpful. I always like to see exactly where the Priority Pass lounge is before I even get to the airport so I can head directly there after passing security. This way, if there isn’t a lounge in the airport or terminal I’m flying from, I can prepare myself by finding another spot to eat or sit comfortably.
In a tight layover situation, it can be useful to see where your gate or terminal is and how to get there. If you need to purchase a specific souvenir or item at the pharmacy, find out which restaurants an airport has or want to use the yoga room, glancing at the map ahead of time could save you some time, too.
Checking out the airport map will tell you if you’ll need to take a train within the airport to get to your gate or where to find the car hire desks once you arrive.
If you haven’t had time to do this ahead of time, you can do so at the airport or even on board the plane, as some airline magazines have airport maps in the back. Flipping through these to find the map can be especially useful if you have a tight connection and want to find your gate.
Check the departure screens
Gates can change, and so can departure and boarding times — it’s all part of the joy of air travel. Make sure to take a look at the departure screens every once in a while, especially in larger airports. A gate change could mean several minutes of walking, depending on your airport or terminal. Catching it before you go too far saves you time and energy. If you’re in the lounge, check the screens before leaving. If there’s a flight delay, you may want to enjoy the lounge benefits longer.
Sign up for alerts and download apps
Whenever possible, check boxes during the booking process to accept notifications from the airline via email or text about your flight status. I’ve been notified in some cases via email or text before information has changed on the screen or gate announcements were made, alerting me to gate changes and delays much more quickly. Sign up for these and keep your phone nearby while waiting for your flight.
Having certain travel apps, like specific airline or airport apps, LoungeBuddy or Priority Pass, ride-hailing apps, TripIt and others can also make your airport and travel experience easier. You’ll be able to find lounges, get delay alerts, airport transport and more with just a few taps.
Further reading: 21 apps all travellers need to download this year
Wear layers and bring anything else you need for the airport
Things I never want to be at the airport: cold, hot, hungry, bored or without power for my electronics. Wearing comfortable clothes and shoes (this doesn’t mean pajamas, just nothing overly tight or itchy), and bringing snacks, water, a Kindle, a slew of downloaded series, podcasts, movies and music on my phone, an external battery and charging cord has saved me many a time (and hopefully prevented my phone getting hacked via an airport charging station). If you’re travelling with children, make sure you have enough snacks and entertainment for them in case of delays.
Having a seamless airport experience is sometimes beyond our control, but organising ahead of time, coming prepared and having all the right items with you will help you get through your airport experience like a pro — even when Christmas queues are eternal or delays strike.
Featured photo by Dukai Photographer/Getty Images.