How to ace airport check-in and security

Avoid needless queueing and long waits with these simple travel hacks for getting through airports faster

TODO alt text

If you're here to find out how to get a free upgrade to business class, our advice is simple; get a time machine. The days of dressing smartly and getting yourself into front of the plane are over, but there are many things you can do to beat the system and get yourself through airports faster. 

Know your enemy. There are three hurdles at all airports than passengers have to beat – the check-in procedure, the security line, and the boarding gate. Ever-increasing security measures mean a lot of frustrating queueing. So how can travellers get through airports more quickly? 

Check-in

The first challenge is check-in. If you can avoid it, don't check bags. That will save you time both at your departure airport and at arrivals later. 

If you can check-in online, preferably using the airline's app if you want to go paperless, you'll be able to go straight to security as soon as you arrive at the airport. 

If you're really fussy about where you sit on a plane, consider using TripAdvisor’s SeatGuru service to hunt for your ideal seat (hint: the near the wings is less turbulent, but towards the back of the plane is a few decibels quieter).

However, if you do need to check bags, checking-in ahead of time is less important (especially if you're on your own and don't care where you sit on the plane), because the bag drop queue is very often as long, or longer, than the check-in queue. 

Leave plenty of time; make sure you're at the check-in queue 20 minutes before check-in begins, and that your luggage has your name and phone number/email on it, but not your home address (that's just an invitation to break-in to an empty property). 

And remember that it's your passport that the check-in assistant/check-in kiosk wants, so have it ready.

If you frequently lose your passport, or, at least forget what pocket you've put it in, try a passport holder, like the the one above from Shinola.

Five ways to ace airport check-in

  • Don't check luggage
  • Check-in on the airline app
  • Get to check-in before it opens
  • Make sure your name and email/phone is on your bag
  • Have your passport ready

Security

Having got your boarding pass and checked-in your luggage, the next hurdle is security. How long wait times are will depend on where you are in the world, what time it is (the earlier, the quieter), and also what kind of traveller you are. 

Those travelling light and not checking in luggage may feel smug when they bypassed the check-in queues altogether, but their life is more difficult at security than those who checked everything in. 

Every security area's rules are different, but it's better if you prepare for the worst. So take off your belt and put it in your jacket pocket along with your phone, your passport, coins, and even tissues (you're likely to have to go through a millimetre scanner, which detects absolutely everything). 

You may also need to remove your shoes. This is where having slip-on shoes can be really useful. It saves time taking them off and slipping them back on again. 

Ditto a tablet. While staff may ask for iPads and laptops, just presume they also mean Kindle Fires and e-ink e-readers. It's all the same to them. 

Having the right bag is crucial at security, so check out our guides to luggage below:

Make sure these are easily accessible at the top of your bag, which also goes for a transparent wash-bag (or plastic bag) containing max. 100ml liquids.

There are many other quirks of the system that make some location-specific knowledge useful. 

For instance, U.S. airports are increasingly busy and have long queues. Singapore’s Changi airport is famously streamlined and very rarely has long queues at security. 

With the opening of a massive new terminal there later this year, Singapore is where to head to, if you have a choice, if you're going long-haul to somewhere in Asia or Australia. 

Meanwhile, if you're going to fly domestic through China, think twice about taking a portable battery with you. The rules on what you can officially carry are quite simple – a 100Wh (Watt hours) to 160Wh battery is legal – but the staff never seem to know the rules, and often confiscate batteries from unsuspecting passengers. 

The final piece of advice for getting through security quickly is rather simple, if possible; fly business class and take advantage of courtesy channels. In this era of budget travel, you get what you pay for.

Five ways to ace airport security

  • Travel very early in the morning
  • Take your shoes off regardless of requests
  • Put your passport/phone/belt in your jacket pockets
  • Remove tissues from trouser pockets for millimeter scanners
  • Travel business or first class

Departures

The final hurdle is the departures area of the terminal, and the boarding gate itself. If you go to the airport in good time and you get through check-in and security swiftly, it's likely that you will have an hour or two to kill on the other side. 

It's all too easy to visit a bar or restaurant, and later find yourself running to catch the plane during a final call. You can avoid this by setting an alarm on your phone. When you get through security, look at the departures board and see what time your gate will be announced. 

Until that time, there's nothing for you to do, so set an alarm for that time on your phone, and go shopping/eating/drinking to your heart's content.

Now all you have to do is get on the plane. That sounds easy, but it's a concept that almost every passenger struggles with. Why? They queue. For nothing. 

Despite airlines introducing boarding groups, you will not find a single gate in any airport that doesn't have people standing around and queueing. This is despite the fact that every single one of those passengers already has an assigned seat; they are literally queueing for nothing. 

Don't join them. Have a seat (even consider sitting at an empty gate nearby if it’s in view), and wait for your boarding group to be announced, or even better, wait until everyone else at the gate has boarded the plane. 

Just because no one else knows how to use airports, that doesn't mean you have to join them. Happy flighting!