What to do When You Get to the Airport Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

What to do When You Get to the Airport

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A plane taking off

Many people jet around the world on a daily basis, and regard the aeroplane as no more than a glorified bus. However, to the novice it can be a bewildering process.

Buying a Ticket

The first step is to obtain your ticket. It is almost always worth doing this well in advance, as prices are often significantly lower. In addition, if you buy your ticket by telephone or over the Internet, you may well have to wait for it to turn up in the post1. It is worth bearing in mind that, if paying by credit card, in most countries the airline will only send the ticket to the address at which your credit card is registered, often an inconvenience when purchasing away from home.

It is also possible to turn up at the airport ready to travel but without a ticket, and to attempt to buy one there. There are several tricks to this, but the main ones are patience, little or no luggage, and a cavalier attitude to money2.

First of all, you will need to check the departure boards for the next few planes going to your destination. Then go round to the relevant airline desks and ask if there are any spaces left. If there are, you are in luck, so buy a ticket. Ignore the cost, for if you miss this chance, then somebody will grab it while you are looking around for a cheaper deal.

If there are no tickets available, then don't despair. Choose the largest plane, and ask if you can be put on 'standby'. Standby is the process whereby seats that have already been paid for, but the passenger has not shown up or is late, can be sold all over again. The standby list is operated on a 'first come, first served' basis, so if there are already more than three people on the list, then try another airline. About ten minutes before takeoff, when the last few latecomers have sprinted breathlessly to the departure gate, the remaining empty seats are dished out. Being there is important; it's no good being in the toilet or at the bar when the gate closes, because if you're not standing there at the moment of truth with the money clenched in your eager fist, the place will go to the next name on the list.

Arrival and Check-In

Assuming that you have a regular ticket, turn up with the ticket and your passport at least an hour before the flight. Many larger airports suggest one and a half or even two hours; take them at their word. Some airports are so big that it can take nearly half an hour just to walk to your plane.

On arrival, check the overhead screens for the flight number of your plane, which will be printed on your ticket or receipt, consisting of up to three letters followed by four numbers. The screen will either indicate a check-in desk, or it won't. If it doesn't, wait as one will be posted there eventually.

The check-in desk is where you exchange your ticket, which is merely an expensive piece of paper and no guarantee of a flight, for a boarding card which actually entitles you to a seat on the plane. Probably. As soon as you can, go to the check-in desk, as the people who are first in the queue get the best seats.

Good Seats

  • By the over-wing exits (extra legroom)
  • A window seat (extra elbow room)

Bad Seats

  • The rearmost seat (no legroom)
  • The non-smoking seat nearest to the smoking section
  • Any seat in the middle of a row (no elbowroom)

The check-in desk is also the point at which you say goodbye to any luggage you have, as in theory it will be going into the baggage compartment of the aeroplane. You may never see it again.


Airlines divide luggage into two types, regular and hand. The most important criterion is weight. For regular luggage, most airlines give you a weight limit that allows you to carry a suitcase full of pretty much anything. The weight and size restrictions for hand luggage vary according to the type of plane and how full it is, but it is usually restricted to a briefcase or small backpack of around five kilos. The suitcase goes into the hold, and the hand-luggage comes into the plane with you.

It is important to remember that the hold is not pressurised. Anything that doesn't function well in a sub-zero vacuum will probably not be at its best at your destination. This includes the household cat.

There are a number of things besides cats that airlines don't allow on board planes. Most of these are weapons, explosives and the like. However, you can be caught out; a bottle of camping fuel will not be allowed on for instance, and neither will a steak knife in your hand-luggage. The check-in attendant may have asked you about the contents of your bag, and they may also have asked you the astounding question, 'Has anybody put anything into your bag without your knowledge?'.


Your luggage has been whisked away and X-rayed for bombs, sniffed for drugs and otherwise poked and prodded. Now it's your turn, so head for the 'departures' gate. You'll need your boarding card to get in, and then somebody will check your passport, and then you'll probably reach the Customs check that takes your luggage through an X-ray machine, and a metal-detecting arch that you have to walk through.

The X-Ray Machine

Basically a conveyor belt that moves things slowly past an X-ray camera, this allows the Customs officials to peer inside your luggage without the bother of opening it. Put everything you're carrying through the machine. This includes cameras and photographic film; don't bother arguing about it. There is little chance of film damage in modern machines, whatever you may have heard, and if you don't put your camera through, then it's not going on the plane. If you have anything suspiciously weapon-shaped in your bag, Customs will ask you to empty it out for a proper search.

The Metal Detector

You will now be asked to walk through a metal archway which detects whether you are carrying anything metallic. First remove any coins and keys from your pockets and place them in one of the small boxes by the side of the arch (often it's easier simply to take your coat off and send it through the X-ray machine), and then stroll through. Regardless of whether you are actually carrying anything metallic, it will almost certainly sound an alarm. Don't worry, the burly Customs officer heading towards you will merely frisk you manually and then let you go. Just hold your arms out away from your sides and wait for them to finish... and pray he doesn't spot the collection of hand-grenades you've tried smuggle in your underpants. Only joking.

Waiting For a Gate

Right, you're through into the departure lounge. Have another look at your flight details on an overhead screen. If it doesn't say 'boarding' and give you a gate number (and it shouldn't yet, if you are still on time), then now is the time to browse around whatever facilities your airport has to offer.

You will soon realise that almost all of these facilities are designed to separate you from your money. Airports are expensive to run, and their owners are not blind to the fact that they have a good cross-section of the wealthier parts of the population trapped in a small boring space for at least an hour, often with pocketfuls of local currency for which they have no further use. One clue to this is the fact that there is rarely if ever any seating in the departure lounge area, forcing you to stay on the move.

The Bar

Airport bars are usually smart, clean and impersonal. You're probably feeling thirsty, so why not have a quick one? There are, however, a few hidden factors to take into consideration. Many airlines offer in-flight free drinks, about the equivalent of a double. If you're on a short flight, and you're expecting to drive at the other end, it's worth thinking about what your blood alcohol level is going to be like when you land. In addition, if you are obviously drunk when you try to board your plane, then they will not let you on.

The Coffee Bar

Typically many kinds of coffee are available at ruinous prices, along with a sandwich or cakes.

The Self-Service Restaurant

Probably the most cost-effective place to eat. It also gives you a useful place to sit.

The A La Carte Restaurant

If you fancy something a little more up-market, you can sometimes find a more genteel eatery. However, keep a close eye on the time; because the restaurant wants to create that special ambience, they will have turned off or muted the overhead loudspeakers, so that you won't be able to hear any announcements about your flight.

The Executive Lounge

This is a special waiting area with comfortable seating, newspapers and above all free drinks. The rules for entry do vary, so it is often worth asking on the door. Usually you need to be holding a First or Business Class boarding card, but you can often get in if you have a Frequent Flyer or credit card of the correct colour - usually platinum.

The Shops

Aaaah, the shops. The airport will make a great deal of their prices, claiming that they are 'duty free' or some variation thereof. Now, it is quite true that on some routes (though no longer within the EEC3) it is possible to buy goods at a reduced price, on the basis that since you are not technically on native soil then you are exempt from some taxes. On other routes (particularly within the EEC), the shops may claim to 'pay your taxes for you'. This is all true, and there are some bargains to be had, particularly in the areas of expensive alcohol, expensive perfume or expensive electronics. However, it must be remembered that the prices and taxes are those of the country that you are just leaving. It is quite possible that the same goods are available far cheaper in the high street of the country you are about to visit, so it pays to do your research first. Oh yes, and to buy stuff you will need to show your boarding card.

While you've been sampling the delights of airport entertainment, hopefully your plane has arrived from wherever it was before. After landing, it will drive or be towed to a docking point, known as a 'Gate', at which point the current batch of passengers will be unloaded and the cleaning crews will move in. At about this time, the overhead screens should say something like 'Boarding at Gate xx'. You should now make your way to the Gate in question, bearing in mind that it may be a long way away, which is likely if it's a high number (like Gate 86), and that it is very possible that you may have to go through more customs or passport checks, especially if you missed out on one of them before.

Once you finally get to the Gate, you will probably be grateful to find some seating. Scattered around will be your fellow travellers, and you can amuse yourself by wondering which one you'll be sitting next to on the flight.


While you are sitting there waiting, the ground crew are cleaning the toilets, loading the food, hopefully loading your luggage, and refuelling the plane. Eventually the Gate will open and you will finally be allowed on. Things that you may notice on the way are another X-ray machine, a pile of free newspapers, and a knot of anxious-looking people hoping for standby tickets.


Sit where they tell you, eat what they give you, and if anybody offers you a free drink then say 'yes'. There really isn't any more to it than that.


After a while, the plane will land. Sit back and relax, you're not going to be leaving any time soon, because the aisles are probably clogged with people queuing up to get out and trying to extricate their bags from the overhead lockers. Just let them get on with it, as there are quite a few hold-ups ahead before you actually manage to leave the airport, and you'll soon catch up with them.


After some combination of walking, buses and/or travelators, you will eventually arrive at the entrance to the Arrivals Hall. However, to get in you will need to satisfy the immigration officers, which may simply be a case of showing your passport or visa. However, sometimes you will get asked unanswerable questions such as 'Why are you here?', 'Why did you leave your own country?'. It is always best to give the shortest and least complicated answer that you can easily prove. Never lie, and never joke.

Baggage Reclaim

If you only have hand luggage, head straight for the exit. However, if you had luggage in the hold then you are going to have to wait for it to be unloaded and transported halfway across the airport.

Follow the signs to the baggage reclaim area, and then check on overhead screens or boards to find which carousel has been allocated to your flight.

A carousel is simply a circular conveyor belt. Luggage from the plane drops onto it, and then goes round and round until a passenger recognises it and picks it up. Don't be fooled into waiting breathlessly by the drop zone, though, as the first bag won't be yours. Neither will the second. In fact, not only will your bag not appear until somewhere near the end of the process, but that very first bag will almost always bumble forlornly round and round until everybody has left. This hapless travel accessory was almost certainly bound for some completely different destination halfway round the world, and it happens so often that you will almost certainly be a victim at least once in your flying life.

If you do find yourself sitting after everybody else has gone, watching somebody else's unclaimed bag spinning gently by, don't panic. Airlines are tolerably good at finding lost luggage and getting it back to you, although the process can take days or even weeks. Hopefully, however, you have taken out travel insurance that covers the replacement of enough essentials that your trip is not spoilt.

The only thing that you must not do is leave the airport without a signed Incident Form detailing your loss, and your movements over the coming period so that the airline can deliver your bags to you when it finds them.

Customs Again

The last hurdle is now before you, the customs check. Sometimes, especially in Europe, there are several exit gates that you can choose from. If you happen to be importing goods on which tax must be paid, then you'll probably need to head for the 'Goods to Declare' gate, often marked with a red square, where customs officials will help you sort out the paperwork and relive you of loads of cash. However, in general most people use the 'Nothing to Declare' channel, often marked with a green triangle. Here you may or may not be stopped by customs officials. Who they pick is essentially random, although you can minimise the risk by being sober, not looking guilty and not moving too quickly past the desk. If you are stopped, then you are asked some fairly stupid questions ('Where have you been?' 'Where are you going?'), and then your luggage may or may not be searched. If this happens, bear it stoically and eventually they'll get bored, leaving you to put everything back in as best you can while they move on to the next victim.

Within Europe, there is often now a third blue 'EEC' gate as well, which you can use if you are travelling between EEC countries, as customs regulations between these countries have been relaxed.

The Arrivals Hall

Finally, you emerge blinking into the bright lights of your destination airport building. Many of the smaller airports are pleasantly full of character, but if you've flown between major sites you may find it hard to believe that you haven't just been decanted back where you started. Don't worry about it, just get some local currency from one of the Bureaux de Change and get on with your trip. You'll be back soon enough.

1Although several airlines are now operating with paperless ticket systems.2Perhaps your company is paying.3European Economic Community.

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