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Believe it or not, I've never flown before... I am flying United Airlines for a vacation for about a week and then I'm flying back via United Airlines. I read online that starting 24 hours before my flight I can check in online and United Airlines will give me a boarding pass to print.

However, I'm not sure what to do on my return flight since I won't be anywhere near a printer and I don't want to find a print shop and pay to have the passes printed. I really couldn't find any answers on Google... And I feel stupid even asking this... But how do I get a boarding pass for my return flight?

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    In many cases you can use a "mobile" boarding pass, which is usually a bar code image on your phone or other mobile device. – phoog Jan 2 '18 at 5:44
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    A piece of advice, Monica, this problems, and others like it, are easily solved at the airport if you give yourself enough time. A big airport might handle 200,000 travelers per day, which tells you two things: (1) it's possible for everybody to figure out how to get on a plane, but (2) it's gonna be crowded. – Malvolio Jan 2 '18 at 16:00
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    @Willeke: Really? Every airport I have ever been to the answer to this is the same - you go to the checkin desk or an automated checkin and you get one printed. I am curious what airports this doesn't apply or what better options there might be than this at some airports... – Chris Jan 2 '18 at 20:27
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    @Azor-Ahai: Hmm... Maybe. I've been to some pretty small airports in non-english speaking countries (Merzifon Airport in turkey, KOh Samui in Thailand) and have had no problems at all with just showing my booking information and passport. I'd be really surprised if there was an airport that ran public flights which couldn't cope with somebody just showing a passport and if needed telling them their destination (but am willing to believe there might be which is why I am asking where this might not work). – Chris Jan 2 '18 at 20:38
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    Are you kidding? That's a GREAT question! After 20 years of only taking the train, I switched back to flying and was like "How DOES this work in the 21st century?" – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 2 '18 at 23:00
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Quite simply, you go to the airport 3 to 4 hours before the flight, check the information boards for your flight number and the checkin desks serving that flight, and then go to those checkin desks. There you will be checked in by an airline representative, your baggage checked and you will be handed baggage tags and your boarding pass.

In other words, you do it the old fashioned way :)

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    3-4 hours was 10 years ago. Nowadays, 90 minutes is virtually always ok, sometimes 30. – fkraiem Jan 2 '18 at 7:38
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    @fkraiem there's a difference between minimum times and safe times, especially for a first time traveller who isn't sure what to do, where to go and who to speak to. – Moo Jan 2 '18 at 7:42
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    @fkraiem it also depends massively on where you are flying to/from. If the OP is flying from Heathrow to Boston (for example) and shows up 30 minutes before departure then she will not be getting on the plane. – Kevin Anthony Oppegaard Rose Jan 2 '18 at 9:28
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    Some airlines charge a fee for checking in at the airport which may cost more than the ticket cost in the first place. – kasperd Jan 2 '18 at 10:17
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    @kasperd: My impression is that in-person check-in fees are mainly only charged by "low-cost" carriers (so far). Since the OP is flying United Airlines, they probably won't have to worry about that in this case. (Your comment may be useful for future readers, though.) – Michael Seifert Jan 2 '18 at 14:27
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You have quite a few options, though specifics may vary based on the airline and the specific flight (not all airports accept mobile boarding passes, for instance):

  • most hotels have a "business center" or even dedicated boarding pass printing workstations. You can go there, connect to the airline's website, do your online check-in, and print your boarding pass. This is probably overkill nowadays.

  • you can check-in online using your laptop, tablet or mobile phone, and get a mobile boarding pass. Depending on the airline, whether you use the website or app, and the operating system on your mobile phone, this may be an e-mail, a PDF in an e-mail, a PDF to download, a boarding pass in the app, a boarding pass in the Apple Wallet... Don't know United's app, but in general, I would recommend you use their app, it'll give you the best experience on a mobile phone.

  • you can check-in online, and not retrieve your boarding pass. You'll be able to get it either from the kiosks at the airport, or from the check-in/baggage drop desk.

  • you can just do the regular check-in at the airport. Note that not all airlines allow this, and some may charge a fee for this (shouldn't be the case for United). Also, if you haven't pre-selected seats while booking, this leaves you a lot less options. It also means that in case of overbooking or other issues, you'll often have a lower priority.

I strongly recommend you check-in online, the earlier the better. If you have luggage to check in, you'll have to go through a kiosk or check-in desk anyway, so you'll be able to get your boarding pass at that point, but your presence will already have been confirmed, your seats assigned, etc.

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    Companies that don't allow airport check-in or charge extra for it usually allow online check-in way more than 24h in advance. – Marc Glisse Jan 2 '18 at 12:18
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    Since the question asked about United specifically, it might be worth mentioning that they do allow checking in at the airport (at least at every airport I've seen) and they don't charge a fee for it. – David Z Jan 2 '18 at 22:46
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    Call up your e-ticket/boarding pass in the app, then take a screenshot of it. This will save your tail if there's not WiFi at the boarding location. One carriers' app automatically logs you out after an interval, and the ticketing is all cloud-side. That's great, but there's no WiFi in the bowels of Union/Penn/Grand Central Station halfway down the platform. No cellular either, so your phone and the train's own WiFi are right out. Screencap saved my bacon. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 2 '18 at 23:10
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United has a mobile app that allows checking in 24 hours in advance - and it will then give you a boarding pass right there in your phone.

Assuming you have a working data connection (wifi, or data plan that works where you are traveling) I find this the best option.

Not only do you get your boarding pass, but it gives decent updates on flight status - gate number, delays, seating map... it even includes maps of airports to help you find your way to your gate.

It helps to create a frequent flyer number - I'm not sure how well the features work if the app doesn't "know who you are".

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When you go to the airport there, there are literally everywhere kiosks, about as big as a 10-12 year old kid, where you can print your boarding passes. on the touchscreen you can select your airline, enter your code and then print your pass. Usually these are situated right before where you check in your luggage.

Also, what you can do is online check in, and just have the QR code ready on your mobile. All they need is that QR code. So many people just check in with the mobile and have the QR code scanned from their mobile. Just put brightness to max if it doesn't scan properly.

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    The QR code in mobile is a godsend. I have used it to fly and come back in a couple of flights my company booked me in the last minute. – Rui F Ribeiro Jan 2 '18 at 10:33
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    They may be yellow in all airports you have used, the last ones I have seen were blue. – Willeke Jan 2 '18 at 10:48
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    Depending on the airports and airlines, not all kiosks are necessarily usable for all airlines. Some airlines have their own dedicated kiosks. – jcaron Jan 2 '18 at 11:32
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    In addition to increasing the brightness on your phone, it also helps to lock the screen orientation when scanning a boarding pass; some scanners require the phone to be "face-down", and flipping the phone over can trigger a switch to landscape mode, pushing the QR code off the screen. – Michael Seifert Jan 2 '18 at 14:29
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    Besides entering your ticket code, you can usually identify yourself to the kiosk (e.g. by credit card or passport). – MSalters Jan 2 '18 at 16:38
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The simple and, uh, comprehensive answer is:

  • (A) you get it at that departure airport from a human

  • (B) you get it at that departure airport from one of the kiosks,

  • (C) you get it online, and print it

  • (D) you get it online, and you actually don't bother printing it; you just keep the PDF on your phone, or

  • (E) you actually don't need to get it online. Just get the app of that Airline and it will organize some sort of virtual a on-screen boarding pass.

That's it.

Protip.

Nowadays like most people I just use "E" all the time. But. Even in this day and age, I find it incredibly useful to have a print out (C). A simple example, at many airports (say, Chhatrapati currently), merely to get in the door just after the taxi there's a line and a basic security bloke, who really prefers something primitive - a paper print out. (Ironically of course, that would be tremendously easier to fake than some digital hook up.) And of course your phone can run out of electrons, etc.

As many have mentioned, how cautious you should be depends hugely on where you're flying.

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    I hate it when my phone runs out of electrons and turns into a ball of plasma. – reirab Jan 3 '18 at 20:09
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    the Hawking radiation is the worst dude! :) – Fattie Jan 3 '18 at 20:59

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