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After I buy a ticket online for an airline, should I go to the airport and register it or is it enough to go to the airport at the date of flight and not to do anything? How can I pass the gates to get myself to the waiting room for the flight? Do I have to print the ticket for this purpose? I have not bought an airline ticket online, so how it works is not known to me. The flight is an international flight.

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@BrianCoolidge This is actually an excellent question. How can you know how it goes, if this is going to be your first flight? –  Bernhard Aug 12 '14 at 6:11
GREAT question, yashar. –  Joe Blow Aug 12 '14 at 8:05

5 Answers 5

up vote 31 down vote accepted

It would depend on the airline and the airport/country but no matter how you buy the ticket, the next big step is what's called “checking in”. This is when the airline assigns you a seat and confirms that you will indeed be flying.

In most cases, you can now check in online a few days to a few hours before departure and print the boarding pass at home (or wherever you can find a printer). You can then show up at the airport and present this self-printed boarding pass together with your passport to drop your luggage off and go through the security and police check (where applicable). Some airlines/airports also allow you to use a smartphone app as your boarding pass.

Alternatively, it's also possible to check in at the airport itself, possibly for a fee. I have not done that in quite some time (preferring online check-in), but, back when I did it regularly, giving my name and presenting an ID was typically enough for the staff to find my booking. If using some automatic check-in machine, scanning the passport or presenting the credit card used for the booking was sometimes necessary.

In any case, you do need to be at the airport in advance (depending on the circumstances up to 2 or 3 hours before departure are recommended) but not to go there in the days before.

Finally, note that your ticket should include some confirmation number that you could write down to help the airline find your booking should any problem arise.

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Bringing the passport is the most essential part, just emphasizing that :) –  Bernhard Aug 11 '14 at 20:41
@Bernhard Or so other form of identification depending on whether your flight is domestic or international or EU based... –  Aditya Somani Aug 12 '14 at 5:54
@Bernhard It depends on the airline and country rules. The idea is simply that one form of identification depending on what is required. Not necessarily passport. –  Aditya Somani Aug 12 '14 at 6:13
Quite often, it is also possible to check in and drop off luggage a day in advance at the airport. If you have an early morning flight, or have to leave the hotel in the morning but have an evening flight that could be convenient. –  Simon Richter Aug 12 '14 at 7:11
All good points (including the edit about the boarding pass on smart phones) but I tried to keep things simple. –  Relaxed Aug 12 '14 at 7:23

Just to repeat Relaxed's excellent answer. Yash, the process is:

(1) PURCHASE a ticket. These days, that is almost always online at say Expedia, or over the phone. You'll get some sort of purchase code, like XFD123HHC

enter image description here

Note that these days, it's usually confusing since there is both an EXPEDIA code AND a code from the AIRLINE! (Possibly even more than one airline.) So, write all those down, or if you prefer print it out from your computer.

(2) CHECK-IN. At the airport, you "check-in". This means you give them your code numbers, and you show them your passport, and you give them your luggage. In return they give you your boarding pass.

Note, as it says you give them your luggage. But any small "carry-on" items, you just keep in your hand.

So, "check-in" is all about getting your boarding pass.

Boarding passes almost always look like this:

enter image description here

(3) Next, AFTER checking in, you go through security. You have to show them your boarding pass and also your passport again. They scan you and your small "carry on" items. You then enter the departure area of the airport. Only people who are actually flying, can go there - you have to say goodbye to your family as you enter the security check point.

Now - you go shopping! :) There are always shops in the departure area. In any large airport, it is like a shopping mall. Once again, the only people in the departure area are people who are actually flying - they have a boarding pass in their hand. (And of course people like police, shop-keepers etc who have special passes to be in the "passengers only" area.)

(4) Finally you board the airplane. This happens at the gate. You have to give them your boarding pass and show them your passport. At the gate they remove and keep the large part of the boarding pass (on the left in the image above) and you keep the small part (on the right). The only reason you keep the small part is to remember your seat number. (if you happen to drop it or lose it it is no big deal.

So after shopping, you all stand around at the gate. Eventually they will say "Now boarding, your flight 247". You all line up and go through the gate - as I explain, they take your boarding pass, you show your passport, and they give you the small tear-off piece. At that instant you do and must walk straight on to the plane (down the walkway) and that's you on the plane. (You cannot go back to the shops, or anywhere else, after that.)

To recap:

(1) purchase online. Give: credit card number, Get: reservation number(s).

(2) at the airport: check-in. Give: reservation number(s) + luggage. Show: passport. Get: boarding pass.

(3) at security. Show: boarding pass + passport. Get scanned (you and your carry-on bags).

You're now in the "departure area" which is often like a mall. Passengers only.

Wait until you hear "Flight 247 now boarding at gate 44B..."

(4) at the gate. Show: boarding pass + passport. Walk on to the plane and sit down, you cannot return to the departure shopping now.


(A) traditionally, you only got your seat assignment at the moment of checkin. ie on the actual day, at the airport. However these days...on the web, after you buy the ticket, typically you can click and actually choose your seat, so that's good. (In fact, nowadays, most airlines now have a con where you can then pay a little more for a "better" seat.)

(B) at most big airports, in fact, you can "check-in" -- so, leave your luggage with them - right on the road where you get out of the taxi. sometimes you do that and you ALSO have to then checkin at the main checkin counters inside; sometimes all the checkin is handled at the roadside.

(B2) To add more confusion, these days you can often check in using a machine that looks like an ATM. Instead of having to line up to talk to a human at the check-in counters, you line up to use a little sort of machine; they might have a row of ten or so of these machines. You just type in your numbers and it prints out the boarding pass for you (see image above). Note that in this case you have to put your bags "somewhere", sometimes a person comes and gets it, sometimes you use the roadside system, sometimes you then go to another counter etc. Personally if it was my first time I'd just go to a human at a checkin counter! I would not use the "automatic machine" nor the "roadside checkin".

(B3 !!) And note that these days, you sometimes do not need to check-in at all! If you strictly have only hand baggage, in some cases you can "check in online." You do that at home before even going to the aorport. I would avoid this if you are new!

(C) note that check-in is the part where you "have to wait" - those are the long lines you see at airports. it can often happen you have to wait for an hour in the line. some people like to arrive very early, to be the first to check in, so you don't have to wait. note that by doing that you can get a better seat (BUT that does not apply so much these days, as explained above, you can usually get your seat in advance.)

the wait to go through security CAN BE very long, particularly say in the US. often there is no wait at security. the wait to actually board is no big deal, you all just line up and go on the plane.

I hope it helps you, or some other readers! more and more people are flying for the first time, so, enjoy.

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Quite a few airlines in Europe expect everyone to check in online and print their own boarding pass, so only the baggage drop-off is done at the airport. For the cheaper airlines, you may get charged a significant fee for the airport check-in, if you have't done it online; for example, Ryanair charges 70 EUR/GBP (about a hundred dollars) for that - possibly more than the ticket itself. –  Peteris Aug 12 '14 at 9:53
that's a good point actually. things are changin'. perhaps the OP should tell us where they are flying from –  Joe Blow Aug 12 '14 at 10:07
@Peteris, How does that work for people who are traveling and don't have access to a printer? –  The Photon Aug 12 '14 at 16:59
@ThePhoton… –  Jan Fabry Aug 12 '14 at 17:49
"Boarding passes are always the same size all around the world, they look like this". No, they aren't. I have encountered boarding passes in the following variety in addition to the one you showed: letter or A4 self-printed passes. Boarding passes displayed only on iPhones or other devices. Plastic laminated cards that are collected and re-used for subsequent passengers (low cost airlines). –  Alex Brown Aug 12 '14 at 23:08

It definitely needs to be noted that some airlines these days require the flyer to present the original credit card used to book the ticket upon check-in too. This is an attempt to reduce internet fraud. Check with your airline if this is the case, as the airlines are generally super strict if they follow this policy (no credit card, no flight, no exceptions!)

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I read the linked article. Never heard this before, and after 30+ years of flying, have never been asked. Many of my flights were business trips, and I don't even know what card the tickets were purchased on. Driver's license, and passport, if overseas, has always been enough. –  JoeTaxpayer Aug 12 '14 at 13:31
Being a web developer who works quite a lot ecommerce sites, I highly doubt airlines can force customers to show the credit card. The site should be PCI complaint to store the credit card numbers (legally) which costs a lot of money. If the passenger name/PP number matches the details in the PP, you should be fine. They can probably verify with the last 4 digits and first 4 digits (tells what type of card it is) in extreme cases. –  Ayesh K Aug 12 '14 at 16:40
I don't know how that could be practical- especially if you purchase the ticket weeks or months in advance, your chances of having the same credit card number active are significantly less than 100%- what with all the fraud activity. There must be a 'plan B' available. –  Spehro Pefhany Aug 12 '14 at 20:52
@mccdyl001 impossible to enforce for all the reasons mentioned. If you fly for business, you don't have the card, if it was even paid for by a card. Same with charters, and any other flight you get as part of a packet deal. And if you're booking through an agent, the agent's name is on record as the one paying (and you'd be paying the agent, possibly using a bank transfer rather than a credit card). –  jwenting Aug 13 '14 at 10:57
I agree wholly, but it doesn't change the fact that they do check for credit cards - section 6.4. OP didn't mention the countries he's flying to/from, so I mentioned this as it could make his life easier if going via one of the aforementioned carriers in Southern Africa. –  mccdyl001 Aug 13 '14 at 11:30

When you buy a ticket online (or otherwise) you get a reservation code. Normally one could print out a confirmation email just so you have that code on paper for reference. With that code on the date of the flight you will go to the airport to the counter of the airline that sold you a ticket and a lot of airlines nowadays provide electronic means of checking-in for the flights so once you check in and check your bags in if any you will get your boarding passes printed and with them go through security to the gates and then onto the plane.

There are other methods that are allowed for check-in such as online check-in which is open 24 hours before the flight in most cases, which will let you print the boarding passes and take them with you and go straight to security unless you have to check your bags and so on.

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I don't think it's helpful to talk about "registration" when every airline I've ever come across calls this process "check-in". –  David Richerby Aug 11 '14 at 22:36
While I have not actually used the confirmation e-mail for anything in many years I always print it just in case. –  Loren Pechtel Aug 12 '14 at 16:27
And don't forget that you often are required to submit other data before you can check in. Think passport and visa details. –  jwenting Aug 13 '14 at 10:58

If flying to South Africa or even simply transiting through South Africa and you are taking minors (anybody under the age of 18) with you, there were some recent regulations passed in the country which will be very relevant to you:

All minors have to travel with full unabridged birth certificates (i.e. showing both parents). Both the named parents have to be travelling together with the minor. If only 1 parent is travelling with the minor, an affidavit authorising the travel from the other parent is required along with a copy of their passport/ID. If a minor is travelling with neither parent then affidavits from both parents are required and the copies of their passports/IDs. The only way out of the "affidavit from other parent" requirement is if the travelling parent has single-custody of the minor in question (and can show the paperwork) OR if the travelling parent has the death certificate of the other parent. If any of these documents are not in English, a sworn translation into English needs to be supplied too.

This is a rather ill-thought-out policy to try stop child trafficking and child traffickers using South Africa as a hub. Unfortunately it has been passed into law so there will not be much you can do if you are lacking in documents. If you are flying into or through South Africa your airline should have warned you by now already and check your documents at check-in. These laws kick in on the 1st October 2014.

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