Preparation is the key to graceful airport navigation
If you travel frequently for business, you probably know how to navigate an airport. We know you. We’ve seen you in the security lines at 6:00am on a weekday, waiting to hop a regional to Detroit, or Dallas-Fort Worth, or some other delightful locale — only to see the inside of a taxi, a conference room, and a faceless hotel. To the Aluminum Cowboys and Cowgirls, we salute you, we’ve been you, we are you.Business travelers, this post isn’t for you. We invite you read it and comment with your own tips…however, this post is directed to the more occasional traveler…the traveler we see struggling, panicking, wandering aimlessly, or fumbling. We’re here to help with some tips from the wisdom gained over dozens of airports, hundreds of connections, and millions of air miles. Let us walk through it step-by-step, shall we?
This is where some research and advance planning can really help you. You’ll first want to get serious about your priorities. Most major airports will have three tiers of parking: hourly, daily, and economy. Pick the one that makes the most sense for your budget and priorities. While there may be a substantial difference in price between daily and economy, remember that there will be more time invested in parking further away from the terminal, waiting for a bus to arrive, and riding to the terminal itself. If your stay is short, it might well be worth it to spend a little more for daily parking to save a lot of time and hassle in these transitions.
Consider other parking options as well. We’ve used a commercial parking outfit for 10 years that offers the additional service of picking you up from the terminal upon your return in your own vehicle. This service is invaluable in the winter because the task of clearing the snow off your car is done for you. It feels truly luxurious to climb into your warm car right from the terminal and to go home. No waiting, no buses, no hassle.
You may have other parking options as well. Some airport hotels offer competitive rates for parking, just call and inquire. These can be particularly advantageous if you have secured a room for the night prior to an early morning flight. The hotel shuttle to and from the airport then becomes your de facto parking shuttle. To avoid parking altogether, consider ride-sharing, taxis, and public transportation as viable options.
If you’ve followed our advice in (NEVER CHECK LUGGAGE AGAIN POST LINK), then you can skip ticketing altogether. If not, you should at least have your boarding pass in hand or on your mobile device. Otherwise, head for the kiosks to get your boarding pass. If you have to check luggage, then here are some tips for navigating the ticketing line as quickly as possible:
If you have any sort of status on the airline, make sure to look for lines that may allow you to skip ahead of those who don’t. When you get called up to be helped, make sure you have your paperwork in order. This means IDs/passports, boarding passes, and any other documentation–out, open, and organized. This makes the agent’s job easier and the whole process more efficient.
BE NICE to the ticketing agent. A little kindness and empathy for them at this stage can go a long way toward accommodating any special requests you have, adjusting your seating arrangements, or generally ensuring that your baggage accompanies you to your destination. If you’re lucky enough to get a senior agent or supervisor, they can have substantial power to make your flight experience smoother.
Before you enter the security line, take a minute to get organized. A little time spent here will make your security experience much easier. Get your paperwork in order again. You’ll need your ID or passport, your boarding pass, and any other documentation that the TSA agent might need to see to let you through. (For example, when one of us travels solo with our kids, we’ll bring along a letter from the other parent stating that it’s okay to travel with them across state/national lines. It’s only occasionally been asked for, but is nice to keep handy.)
Put all of the things in your pockets into a dedicated pocket/compartment in your carry-on bag. Do this before the security line, so that you’re not fumbling while you’re trying to load your bag on the conveyor belt and go through the metal detector. Remember to take off your heavy jewelry, belt, phone and shoes if you’re not in the TSA Pre-Check line. At this point, we usually unzip the pocket where our laptops are stowed and unlace our shoes too. All of this makes for quick and easy access during the next step.
The security line for your terminal might necessarily not be the fastest one. Use the TSA app (iOS, Google Play LINKS) to find out the wait times for US airports. It may be worth it to use a different terminal to get through security, then traverse over to your terminal after you’ve cleared security.
Again, BE NICE. The TSA agents have difficult jobs and don’t get paid well enough to do them. Making their jobs easier by having your documentation in order, being organized and pleasant will make your experience through security go as quickly as possible. Treat them poorly, and you’ll find just how empowered they are to slow your journey. If they have questions, answer simply and truthfully. If they need to search your bags, do your best to be polite and helpful. Remember, even though it is often called “security theater,” they are there to keep us safe.
After you’ve made it through security, take a breath and reassemble yourself making sure that you have everything. Check the Departures board to ensure that your flight is on-time and still leaving from the same gate. If you have time, you can enjoy the airport, get some food, fill up your water bottle, and use the restroom before boarding your flight.
The bigger international airports have come a long way in the last decade. Gone are the faceless shops and Brutalism-styled architecture. Airports now are sweeping, airy, and embrace natural light in their design. They resemble luxury shopping malls and often feature high-end retail and fine dining opportunities. Take advantage of this by checking Yelp to find the best restaurants in the airport and to help guide you to services you might need. If you find yourself with an abundance of time, you might want to leverage one of the airline club lounges. (SEE MORE IN OUR POST AIRLINE CLUB LOUNGES)
Many airports have enhanced their websites which can provide a wealth of information about the goods and services being offered there. A little research here can uncover interesting dining or entertainment opportunities that might be just around the corner.
Make sure to decode the boarding procedures for your particular airline. Most begin boarding 30-40 minutes before the scheduled departure time, so be in the vicinity at that time. Strategically place yourself out of the way of passengers who are boarding ahead of you, but close enough that you can be among the first in your boarding group. The game here is to get on early enough so that there is enough room near your seat for your carry-on bag in the overhead compartment.
While you’re waiting to board, make sure that the items that you’ll need when you get to your seat are easily accessible so that you’re not fumbling with them on the aircraft. Finally, don’t forget to have your boarding pass in hand or queued up on your phone for the boarding agent to scan.
What’s baggage claim? If you tend to be a carry-on only traveler, you’ll rarely see them. However, there are times when they’re a necessity. If you find yourself needing to utilize baggage claim services, a little preparation here can help. First, hang on to those tags or stickers that match the paper tags put on your luggage by the airline when you check in. That little ticket stub can help resolve “black bag confusion” between you and another traveler without having to resort to opening the bags to reveal all your dirty underwear. Additionally, having the tracking number associated with your bag(s) can help find them quicker in the unfortunate event that your luggage is lost by the airline.
If you have status on the airline, your bags might be unloaded from the aircraft first and you might see them come to the carousel first. This doesn’t always happen, but it’s another great reason to have status on an airline when it does work. Regardless of when your bags come down the carousel, position yourself in such a way that you can see your bag when it first pops out, but be far enough away that the bag has had time to slide down the slope of the rotating carousel. Finally, hoist your bags, make sure you have them all, and exit gracefully out of the building.
Depending on your mode of transportation to leave the airport, you may need to make your way out to the pickup area, find a taxi line, or navigate to the parking lot. Signage in airports has become better and more consistent in recent years, but every airport seems to handle the transition to land-based travel differently. If you’re leveraging a ride sharing service like Uber or Lyft, the airport may have a special zone for pickups. Pay attention to the signage and don’t be afraid to ask for directions if you need help. Larger airports will often have “ambassadors” to help guide confused travelers to their desired destinations. As with arrival to an airport, a little advanced research on the airport’s website can go a long way toward resolving any confusion while trying to exit the airport.
Connecting through airports should be easy. And, if everything goes perfectly, it is. But every connection introduces a new set of things that can go wrong. Most often, it’s a delayed incoming flight that forces you to dash off the aircraft and sprint through the airport to make your connection.
Again, a little preparation and research can save the day. If your flight attendant hasn’t announced connecting gates, feel free to ask them. They often have this information at their disposal. Your airline’s app may have this as well. Additionally, check your airport map to determine if your connecting gate is a short walk away or if it requires a long walk across terminals to get where you need to go. Just knowing this information can vastly reduce your stress level when navigating these connections.
Connections can get tricky on international flights that require you to clear customs. You may need extra time to retrieve your luggage, clear customs, and re-check your bags.
As you’ve read through this guide, it’s clear that successful navigation of an airport depends mostly on planning a step ahead. When you’re properly prepared, you’ll breeze through the terminals and sweep past your traveling comrades looking like a pro.
Bon voyage and safe travels!