Why you should check in online for your flight
Signing up for credit cards through partner links earns us a commission. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. Here’s our full Advertising Policy.
Preparing for a trip, whether for work or pleasure, involves many steps. To help make your trip easier, you can check in online before you even show up at the airport. Doing so comes with several advantages, and we’ve put together a guide to those benefits. We’ll also share tips for making the entire check-in process more manageable.
The reasons you should check in online for a flight
Checking in online for your flight comes with a few distinct advantages, the biggest being that you can skip the check-in counter at the airport, which will likely save you time (sometimes quite a bit of time!). If you don’t plan on checking any luggage, online check-in allows you to print out your boarding pass and proceed right to the security gate.
For an even smoother experience, take advantage of an online boarding pass. Southwest, for example, gives you the option to receive your boarding pass via text, email or print 24 hours before your flight.
If you do need to check luggage, you can still save time by checking in online. Some airlines offer curbside pick up when you arrive at the airport. Others provide a line solely for dropping off your checked baggage rather than waiting in line with other passengers who haven’t yet checked in.
Not only can you save time by checking in online, but you may also be able to pick prime seating. Try to check in as soon as your airline allows you — usually up to a day in advance. Just note, this timeframe goes by the time zone from which the flight is departing, regardless of where you physically are at the time. You’ll be able to see the layout of the plane and pick your preference based on what’s available.
When you should check in for a flight
How early you can check in depends on which carrier you’re flying. Southwest, for example, allows you to check in 24 hours in advance. You can’t pick a specific seat, but you’ll be assigned a better “zone,” which lets you board earlier. Travelers with elite status and those who pay for EarlyBird Check-in get access to better boarding groups, regardless of when they check in.
Low-cost carriers may also have odd rules about checking in. Spirit Airlines, for example, offers a checked baggage discount when you check in online rather than in person. However, there are some restrictions on who can check in online. You won’t qualify in certain situations, such as traveling with a pet, a lap infant, or a group reservation of 10 or more.
Frontier is another airline with restrictions regarding online check-in. The most notable is that you have to pay extra to pick an assigned seat. Otherwise, you won’t be charged, but you’ll also be assigned a seat from whatever is leftover.
Don’t assume you know all of the check-in rules even if you’ve recently flown. Always check for updated processes and fees well in advance.
Do I need to print my boarding pass?
Printing out your boarding pass can be a hassle, especially if you don’t have a printer at home or are already traveling and getting ready for your return trip. Luckily, most airlines have other options available that allow you to check in without dealing with any physical paper.
Some airlines, like Southwest and American Airlines, allow for electronic/mobile boarding passes. Pull up your ticket on the phone and use it to get through the security checkpoint. Just be sure you either have data left or have connected to Wi-Fi so you can access the ticket. I like to take a screenshot in case there are any issues with the internet.
Another alternative to printing your boarding pass at home is to use a self-service kiosk at the airport. They’re much faster than checking in at the ticket counter. Still, plan for some extra time if you opt for this route since lines can still form at the kiosk.
In many cases, you probably don’t need to print a boarding pass, even if you want to avoid the ticket counter. Just check the full spectrum of options for your specific airline, so you’re not scrambling to make your flight at the last minute.
If you check in online, what do you do at the airport?
Having extra time at the airport is never a bad thing. For one, it means you haven’t missed your flight. And it also means you’ll have a more relaxing and enjoyable experience.
What can you do with that extra time after you’ve checked in online?
First of all, remember that you don’t need to arrive as early when you check in online. Once you do arrive, check your bags if needed. Then make your way to the appropriate gate.
Depending on how much time you have, you may be able to take advantage of an airport lounge. With the right credit card, lounge access might even be free!
You could also spend some time perusing the airport shops. If you’re just starting your trip, pick up a book or magazine. If you’re heading home, wrap up any souvenir shopping for family and friends. You may also find some services-based businesses, like getting your shoes shined or getting a manicure. Explore what each airport has to offer, and you may be pleasantly surprised.
How early do you have to get to the airport if you have checked in online?
Exactly how early you need to show up depends on several different factors. Even when you check-in online, you still have to go through the security line before reaching your gate. Larger airports are likely to have more significant lines, which can slow you down. One option is to enroll in TSA PreCheck or CLEAR. You have to pay for these services (unless you have a particular credit card), but they can help you breeze through security. If you’re a frequent flier or have a specific reason for being tight on time, enrolling in one of these programs may be worth it.
Also, consider how many terminals are at the airport. If you have to take a train or other mode of transport to get to the right terminal, you need to account for a little extra time. Minor details like these can add to the total time it will take you to get to the gate.
Taking a few moments to check in online can make your time in the airport more relaxing and enjoyable. You’ll likely avoid the ticket counter, potentially be able to pick your seat, and maybe even save on checked luggage fees. Plus, you don’t have to get to the airport as early as you would with traditional check-in.
Featured image by Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.
Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)