Tips & Tricks For Navigating an Airport Like a Pro

Traveler walking through airport with Rollaboard luggage /> <br />
<p><em>Knowing how to navigate to the airport and what to do when you get to the airport will save you time and effort on your next flight. While airports can feel busy and even chaotic, they all operate in essentially the same manner, whether you’re in a small domestic airport or one of the gigantic international facilities. To make your next trip a little easier, here’s a guide to how to find your way around an airport.</em></p>
<h2>When Should You Arrive at the Airport?</h2>
<p class=Always arrive at the airport in plenty of time for your flight. For domestic flights, this means arriving one or two hours prior to departure and at least two hours during peak seasons or long weekends. For international flights, it’s best to arrive two to three hours in advance. You never know when there might be delays during check-in or going through TSA security checkpoints. Arriving with no time to spare can leave you rushing to catch your flight.

If you plan on parking at the airport, factor in an additional twenty minutes for navigating the airport parking lot. Airport parking shuttles can be delayed or filled with other passengers; it’s best to add some wiggle-room to your schedule so you’re not pressed for time.

Arriving at the Right Terminal

While smaller airports may only have one or two terminals, larger airports like Los Angeles International have multiple terminals, often spread over a large area. As you navigate to the airport, watch for signs pointing to your terminal, and enter through that terminal if at all possible. If nothing else, you won’t have to haul your luggage as far!

A little preparation before your trip pays off. Before your flight date, find out where your terminal is located (a quick online search should show you this information). Planning out your route to the terminal will help you stay on schedule on your travel day.

Are you checking a bag?

Both carry-on and checked luggage have their pros and cons, and depending on the nature of your trip you may be traveling with one or both types of baggage. No matter what type of baggage you use, check the airline you’re traveling with to understand their luggage weight or size restrictions. Trying to adjust your luggage to meet weight restrictions in the check-in line will slow you down and cause unnecessary stress. 

Add some extra time to your schedule if you need to check-in bags. Long, slow-moving check-in lines can eat into the time you allotted to get through TSA security checkpoints. On the other hand, if you whiz through check-in, the worst that happens is you have to wait at your departure gate for a little longer before boarding. 

Checking in for Your Flight

There was a time when everyone had to line up to the airline check-in desk to print their boarding passes. Thanks to online apps, this is no longer necessary, and you can either print off your boarding pass at home or have a virtual boarding pass sent to your phone.

If you have to check in at the counter, you’ll need to produce personal identification. A driver’s license is fine for domestic flights, while you’ll need a passport for international flights. You’ll receive your boarding pass and baggage claim card. Any check-in bags will be weighed and tagged.

If you have to change planes during your flight on different airlines, you may have to disembark at the end of your first flight, collect your luggage, and recheck in with the second airline. Check to see if you have to do so, and make sure you schedule enough time to catch your connecting flight.

How to Navigate through Airport Security Checkpoint

After check-in, you have to go through security screening. In the USA, this means going through TSA security. If you’re traveling to international countries, be sure to check which items are prohibited for your destination country as well as the USA. 

Like check-in lines, security lines can be long and slow-moving. You’ll present your identification and boarding pass at the start of the queue, then move forward until just in front of the X-ray machines. Once there, be prepared to do the following:

  • Remove your jacket, belt, and shoes.
  • Empty your pockets.
  • If you travel with a drinking bottle, make sure it is empty.
  • Put all documents into your bag.
  • Place your jacket, belt, shoes, and carry-on bag into one of the trays provided. 
  • If you have any liquids, aerosols, gels, or electronic devices, place them into a second tray.
  • Proceed through the metal detector when instructed to do so.
  • Comply with all random searches, including body x-rays, bag searches, and pat-downs.

Wear as little metal as possible to prevent delays moving through security, and answer any questions politely. Once through security, retrieve your bags and items and move promptly away from the security gate to make room for other passengers.

TSA Regulations

TSA regulations include a long list of prohibited items. Items such as firearms and sporting goods that could be used as weapons are banned for obvious reasons. Other items, such as liquids and gels, are only allowed in limited quantities.

All liquids and gels must be stored in 3.4-ounce or smaller containers and must fit into a single one-quart clear plastic bag. Pack this bag at the top of your carry-on so you can easily access it as you go through security. Larger containers, including water bottles, will not be confiscated unless empty. All gel-like foods will be confiscated, including jello, pumpkin pie, and peanut butter. Trying to bring such items through security just slows you down.

Medically-necessary prescription liquids, including water, baby food, and liquid nutrition, can go through security. Be aware, however, that all such items will need screening, and the final judgment on what is or is not medically necessary rests with the TSA agent. 

Do you have TSA Precheck or Global Entry?

You can get through security faster if you pre-register for TSA Precheck or Global Entry. Both make it faster to get through security at airports that participate in the programs. TSA Precheck can shave several minutes off the time you spend in security lines, especially during busy travel periods. 

How to Find Your Way around an Airport to Your Gate

Your gate number will be printed on your boarding pass, but double-check this information against the airport’s flight departure screens. Gate numbers and terminals may change depending on the airport’s operational needs. Be especially careful to recheck your gate number if you printed your boarding pass at home or online.

As for how to navigate an airport, signs with arrows will provide directions to different gate numbers. Usually, these signs are for more than one gate number. For instance, you might see a sign for Gates 41-50 with a directional arrow. If in doubt, ask at one of the airport’s informational kiosks. 

While navigating an airport, take the following steps:

  • Find your gate before visiting shops or restaurants.
  • Check the flight monitors regularly for changes.
  • Be at your gate for boarding time, not the flight’s departure time. 
  • Ask for directions if needed. 

While waiting to board, organize your carry-on so you have everything you need for the flight in hand. This way, you can stow your luggage in the plane’s overhead compartment and not need to retrieve it until you land.

Changing Flights

As noted above, you may need to change flights to reach some destinations. The time between when your first flight lands and your following flight boards is known as a layover, and when layover times are short, making your connecting flight can be a rush.

Allow a minimum of ninety minutes of layover time: busy queues, late arrivals, retrieving and rechecking baggage, and finding your next departure gate all take up valuable time.

When you reach your connecting airport, take the following steps:

  • Follow the Flight Connections signs. You may need to retrieve your checked luggage.
  • If you haven’t got a boarding pass for the next flight, or need to check in your luggage with the new flight, go to the airline transfer desk. 
  • You may need to go through passport control, extra security checkpoints, or produce transit visas depending on the airport.
  • Go through security screening. 
  • Double-check the departure gate on the flight screens and go to the appropriate gate.

Finding Your Checked Luggage

At your final destination, disembark and follow the signs to the baggage claim area. Retrieve your baggage and, if you are in a different country, go through customs and passport control. Fill out any required arrival forms, declare any goods, and have your travel visa ready if needed. If you bought duty-free goods, pick them up on your way out of the airport.

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