I actually like spending time at airports. It’s fun to people watch, the shopping is great, and there’s just so much going on all around you, it’s just exciting. A few years back I went through a point in my life where I was flying somewhere different, every two weeks, for the better part of two years. It was great, and I learnt a lot about efficiency when it comes to navigating airports, all over the world.
Because, wasting 5 minutes here and 10 minutes there quickly adds up, especially when you’re travelling so often. And this can often spiral out of control, to the point where taking even an extra half hour or an hour to get out of the airport means you’re now stuck in rush hour traffic.
Here’s how you can get through the airport faster, and have more time to enjoy your holiday.
Check in online
Once you book your flight pay attention to when the online check in opens, and set a reminder in your calendar. When it goes off, jump on a computer as quickly as you can and get yourself checked in. This is for two good reasons. The earlier you check in there’s a higher chance you’ll be able to choose the seat you like, and once you arrive at the airport you just need to drop your bags and head to security. It’s far quicker than the general check in lines. I also like to choose a seat right at the front of the plane when I’m in a rush, so I can be one of the first people off, and hopefully one of the first in line at immigration when I land.
Check your flight before you leave home
In my experience the airlines have been pretty bad at giving advance notice when flights are delayed or cancelled, so it pays to sign up for a service like FlightStats.com or TripIt just as a safeguard before you fly. Before you leave home, just take a look to confirm the flight is on schedule, and nothing (like the weather or other problems) has caused delays or problems. Otherwise you’ll rush to the airport early, only to discover the delays when you arrive.
Weigh your luggage before you leave
I spent $20 on a simple electronic hand scale that is worth its weight in gold when I travel. Before I even leave for the airport, I can accurately determine just how much each of my bags weighs, so I can pack up to the maximum the airline allows, without going over. In general I find the airline staff are getting stricter on baggage weight, which leads to two outcomes. You get stuck repacking your bags at the check in counter or you pay the excessive overweight charges.
Keep your essentials handy
I have a hooded jacket that is my go-to when I fly, and it’s got the perfect pocket on my chest where I can slip my passport, boarding pass and any other immigrations or customs forms that need to be filled in. This way, I’ve got it handy whenever any officers ask for it, and I’m not wasting time fumbling around in the bottom of my bag. Oh, you’re also going to need a pen so you can fill out any additional forms you get given at check in or immigration, so keep this handy too.
Sign up for whatever you can
In Thailand my credit card company would send me Fast Track passes that would allow me to skip the general security and immigration queues at Suvarnabhumi Airport, and there’s a number of programs like this all over the world. In the United States you can use the TSA’s PreCheck to get through security faster, and there’s a Global Entry program with the U.S. Customs Department you can use to speed through immigration and customs when you’re a frequent international traveller from the United States.
Be prepared for security
No matter what airport you’re flying through, you’re going to have to go through scanners and security before you board. Before getting to the conveyor belt and the x-ray machine, take everything out of your pockets, remove your watch and any jewelry, slip your belt off and tuck anything else that may set off the metal detectors into your carry-on luggage. Oh and remove your jacket too. This way, all you’ve got to do when you get to the front of the line is to slide out your laptop, along with any liquids you may have in a clear zip-lock bag and walk straight through.
Watch for new desks being opened
You should also keep an eye out for any new security stations being opened, which usually happens when an airport is busy and there’s massive waits at both security and immigration. If you see a couple of officers about to open a new line, start walking over there before they open the gates, so you’re first in line when they do. This also applies for the immigration officers desks when you’re entering or leaving a country. Just keep an eye out, as jumping to the head of the queue here can often save you anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes depending on how many people are in front of you.
Make a good impression
If you look like you’re up to no good, you’re going to have a much harder time getting through airports. It was a running joke in my family for a long time that my “homeless surfie backpacker” look would mean I was always getting pulled aside for “random explosives tests” and having my things gone through in a tad more detail. It was frustrating, because it would happen at every, single airport. Once I started travelling for work, often in a suit and tie with proper luggage, this completely stopped. The lesson here is to dress nice and look the part, and you’ll clear security far quicker.
Fly at the right times
Just like rush hour traffic, when you’ve spent enough times in airports you’ll notice that there’s particular days and times that are far busier than others. Avoid flying during these peaks if you can, which is usually late afternoons to early evenings on Friday’s. People are going away for the weekends, and all the business travelers are returning home. It’s chaos. Instead, fly on a random day like Tuesday morning, and there will be far less people at the airport.
Be smart and order a driver
Taxi ranks at airports are one of the biggest time wasters, especially when you’re landing somewhere in Asia in the middle of rainy season. I waited once for an hour and twenty minutes just to get a cab into the city, and I will never do that again. Instead, coordinate with your hotel and order a driver to pick you up, so that as soon as you land you’re met with a sign displaying your name in the arrivals hall, are escorted straight into a car, and you’re off to your hotel in a matter of minutes. It’s a little more expensive yes, but the time you save is worth it.
To get through an airport quickly it just comes down to being organized, and knowing a couple of tricks to speed through security and immigration. I still love spending time at the airport, but only the time I want to be there. There’s not enough hours in the day to waste them unnecessarily.