Diary of A Professional Traveler: Boarding

UPDATE: Sandy has written an excellent article on travel tips for flying. I suggest that you read her article for other good tips and ideas.

Jetway connected to a Northwest 747-400 at Kansai International Airport, Osaka

In our last article I talked about packing for your international flight. You have to make it to the airport on time, get your boarding pass and make it to the gate! Here are my personal insights on this topic:

You’ve arrived at the airport. I hope you’ve allowed yourself no less than 2 hours, and preferably 3 hours of time before your flight is scheduled to leave. I’ve gone to the airport and found that there was an irregularity with my ticket that took about 2 hours to straighten out. By the time I got my boarding pass in hand I had just 20 minutes to get onboard before the flight left. It made no difference that the problem wasn’t my fault – I didn’t have a valid ticket and I wasn’t going anywhere until the problem was solved. It was a good thing that I arrived so early!

At this point I would like to stress something very important. Keep your cool under any and all circumstances. There are several strong reasons why you should never resort to raising your voice, getting angry or threatening anyone. In these times of heightened security, authorities are quick to quell any disturbances anywhere in the airport. If you start shouting you will be detained by security.

Also, the airport and airline personnel are doing their jobs within a highly complex system of interacting polices. None of these people are policy makers, so yelling at them about a policy that you don’t agree with is counter productive. In fact, you would be doing nothing more than pissing off your own best advocate in any given situation. This is especially true for flight attendants. You’ll be spending upwards of 10 to 15 hours in confined quarters with them, so make friends. Keep that smile on your face and you will be amazed at the reaction from service people. Your nice smile and pleasant attitude will set you apart from the majority of the traveling public. Besides, some nice flight attendant might hit on you. 😉

In the case I mentioned above, I was in the new airport in Thailand and speaking with a Thai female representative of the airlines. She informed me that I didn’t have a valid ticket and could not be issued a boarding pass. Although I was very surprised and annoyed to hear that, I just smiled and showed her a copy of my e-ticket. She examined the e-ticket and went right to work on solving the problem, even making some calls on her personal mobile phone while on hold with the company phone. During the course of action, I smiled and apologized several times, and she smiled back saying it was no problem. If I had reacted the way some other foreigners react, the outcome might have been much different. When you are polite and courteous, people are motivated to help you. When you are a guest in a foreign country this is especially important.

Once in Taipei I was embarrassed by a countryman of mine when he approached the service counter at Northwest airlines with the comment “I’ve been waiting for over an hour.” The woman apologized and (in one of the best comebacks I’ve ever heard) politely asked him what she could do about it. He responded by telling her to “Get someone else on the other computer” which was unoccupied. The woman then proceeded to explain that the company had been trying to get someone for weeks but no applicants had come for the job. After that the man did exactly what the couple in front of him did – which was to try several permutations of his itinerary in order to get the best deal. He took 30 minutes doing so. When it was my turn I approached the counter and with a big smile I said “I’ve been waiting for over an hour!” in obvious parody. Then I apologized for the last man’s attitude. That little joke and smile went a long way with her. I don’t know why people do it but it doesn’t help to get pissy about unavoidable things.

Before leaving for the airport make sure that you check the airline’s website for any possible cancellation notice about your flight, especially if weather conditions are questionable. Also, you should know your allowed baggage weight. Often that information is not written on the ticket but is available on the website. I’ve been caught overweight myself a few times. My pleasant attitude at check-in makes it a lot easier for my overweight bag to be overlooked as well.

OK, back to the airport. You’re headed towards the check-in counter. Be sure that you have your frequent flier card out and clearly visible. Once I was checking in at a cooperating partner’s airline, and I was standing in line with my Gold Card in my hand, visible. I wanted to see what happened. In less than 30 seconds, a roving service person spotted my card and personally conducted me over to the VIP line where I was immediately served (and upgraded to 1st class, by the way). The passport wallet holds the frequent flier card, e-ticket and passport so I can present these documents immediately without searching for them. Once you get your boarding pass and gate number you are all set to go. Now all you have to do is wait.

Outside or Inside?

Should you wait outside of the secure area or should you go inside and wait there? That depends upon a few factors:

  1. How well do you know the layout of the airport?
  2. How long is the backup at the security checkpoint?
  3. What are the services like outside vs: inside the security zone?

If I’ve never been to an airport before, I tend to make my way through security and towards my gate as soon as possible. I make mental notes of shops and restaurants along the way. Once I’m confident that I know where the gate is and how long it takes me to walk around, I’ll go eat or shop. At other airports that I know well, I tend to hang around outside and enjoy those services until I’m ready to go inside. In some airports, the services in the security zone are not as good as outside in the lobby. You’ll just have to find out for yourself.

The Security Checkpoint

Some countries charge a departure tax. You will not be permitted to enter the Passport Control area until you have paid the tax. I’ve seen cases where people didn’t keep enough local currency on them to pay the departure tax. Don’t get caught having to run to an ATM just to pay a departure tax. Normally the first thing I do when arriving in a departure tax country is to put the exact amount for the tax in my passport wallet so it’s right there when it’s time to leave.

I’m going to avoid personal commentary on the necessity of security checkpoints such as they are, but I accept that they exist and are an irrevocable fact of life from now on. You’ve checked your big bags, and you’ve put all your pocket stuff in your shoulder bag, so you can just breeze through security. Drop your coat, bag and anything else and walk though. Easy right?

Maybe, maybe not.

Some countries such as Japan have random security inspections. You can be walking along and suddenly be asked by a security person to submit to a random search. They are asking you to be polite – it’s mandatory. The proper response is to answer in the affirmative and smile. In addition to these random searches, Japan also has a law that states anyone boarding an aircraft must pass though a security checkpoint and inspection. Even if you arrive in an aircraft from another country, and remain within the security zone, in order to board another flight you must pass though security again.

Keep in mind that different airports, and even different checkpoints in the same airport have their metal detectors calibrated at different levels. Sometimes I will breeze through with only my metal belt buckle and glasses, and later in another airport I will make the machine buzz. Just stop, smile and follow the directions of the security people.

The first time I ever visited Japan on a connection to Taiwan, I made the machine buzz on the way to boarding the flight to Taiwan. A cute Japanese female in a very sharp uniform politely directed me aside. She asked “May I touch your body?” The correct answer is “Yes” and I gave it. She then bent down on her knees, put on a pair of latex gloves and put her fingers inside my pants, working all the way from the back, around to the front. Needless to say I was a bit surprised. I said “This is my first time to Japan.” She kept on working her fingers while saying “How do you like it here?” Not being one to miss an opportunity I replied “I love it here!” Several foreigners in the line behind me cracked up. It’s a wonder they let me go!

Another time I was arriving in China when one security inspector found my whisky flask during their incoming Customs inspection. The inspector asked me in English “Does this have anything in it?” Knowing that they were about to confiscate it I said “Let me see.” I opened it, held it up high and poured the entire contents into my mouth and drank it all in front of the inspector. Several others stopped to watch. Then I replied “No sir – it’s empty.” After that they waved me through.


Be careful when buying certain items even in the airports. In Taiwan for example, Cuban cigars are legal and readily available. If you buy some expensive Cubans in the airport shop, they will be confiscated upon your arrival in the US.

Boarding the Aircraft

Finally, the boarding call is made. In Asia, most airport boarding is next to total chaos. You’ll find that people will be lining up as much as 30 minutes beforehand because once the gate opens, it’s a free-for-all, with everyone pushing and shoving to get on first. Even though this makes no sense at all, most airports don’t board by seat rows, even if they say they do. I don’t care to stand in line for 30 minutes or more, so I just endure the chaos. It’s annoying to pass by rows of seats with people trying to sit down and having to wait while they put their carry-on baggage in the overhead compartments, but there isn’t anything you can do about it. So I’m telling you in advance so you can be prepared and keep smiling.

When I board an aircraft, I like to know beforehand what the seat layout is. I use Seatguru and study the layout so I can go directly to my seat. I just hold up my boarding pass stub and politely tell the flight attendant that I know where my seat is. They have plenty to worry about with passengers who aren’t as well prepared as you and I are.

Choosing The Best Seat

Your seat should have been chosen by you when you booked the ticket, but you might not have been given a choice at that time. Choosing a seat is a hard one for many people. It all depends on what defines best for you. Even given a choice, many passengers just wait until their boarding pass is issued and take whatever seat they are assigned. I suggest that you open this link and study the diagram to get an idea of what I’m talking about in the following discussion. For some people, sitting close to the restroom is an advantage. To others, sitting next to the galley is where they want to be. You however, may not want the noise and associated smells. Some areas with open areas in front, such as Row 21 on Northwest’s 747-400 are super for leg room, but since they have armrest tray tables, the seats are narrower and there is no floor storage. Rows 63-65 are great when traveling with a companion, and there is also some extra room on the side for placing a bag. That kind of extra space is useful if you are using your portable computer and want to take a break. You can just set it down beside your seat in relative security. I used to sit in Row 35 a lot, but on one flight a very tall guy sitting behind me in Row 36 on the outside stepped over me to get out! These days I try to avoid seats with the tray table in the armrest because they are just too narrow for comfort. By far my favorite seats are Row 10 A/B. I mostly prefer the aisle seat because I don’t have to slide in and out. But I do have to get up whenever someone wants to get out. Even if you are flying economy, by studying the seat chart for your aircraft in advance, you can make an intelligent seat choice that will have a positive impact on your comfort, especially during long flights.

Preparing For Take Off

I take stuff out of my shoulder bag and put it in my shirt pockets for the flight. I keep my bush hat and bush jacket out and store the shoulder bag and anything else except the camera bag overhead. If it’s daytime and the weather is clear I keep my camera bag on the floor under the seat in front of me so I can reach it easily.

In my next article I will tell you just want I keep on my person during the flight. I’ll also give you some practical tips on how to pass the time on those long boring international flights.

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  1. I love seatguru.com! I use it for every flight nowadays, even if my flight is only 2 hours. hehehe. I agree that you should always be polite because it can only help you. Also, that’s the way people should be anyway. Planning a little ahead for a long flight makes a big difference on your experience. I did a post on tips for flying a while ago (see below). I’m looking forward to your next post!


    Sandy’s last blog post..I?ve been tagged!

  2. I like those one on one security checks. Makes me feel like I look dangerous. One time in Sydney they stopped me when I was traveling with my wife and son. I hadn’t realized that my wife had placed a few of her items in my backpack. The guy pulls out of my bag a Woman’s Day magazine, then a bra which really confused him, then same baby food and toys. He looked relieve at the toys and said oh you’re traveling with your family? I laughed so hard at his expression.

    owshawng’s last blog post..Hotpot At Home

  3. owshawng » hahaha 007 on vacation with the wife and son! good one!

    i don’t recommend pulling those stunts like i did however. the only reason that i did that in Beijing with the whisky flask is because i know that they would find it fascinating and funny. YMMV!

  4. Sandy » i’m going to go read your post right now! i’m glad that you left a comment on this article because now our readers can see your comment with a link to your article on Travel Tips for Flying. Seatguru is the best kept secret out there for seat selection. thanks!

  5. Nice series of articles. An extra advantage to turning up early – if you have too much weight in your luggage, being one of the first to check-in often means not being charged for excess baggage. I once flew Singapore Air from Bangkok to Sydney and had 38kg of check-in luggage (limit is 20kg). I turned up to Don Muang nice and early and was second in line when the check-in counters opened. They didn’t charge me. During the flight I was chatting to the guy in the seat next to me – he checked in a lot later and got charged for being 2 or 3 kg overweight.

    cfimages’s last blog post..Merida Cup @ Shetou, Zhanghua

  6. Craig » that’s a great point! if the plane isn’t full they usually don’t mind. being there early can mean you skip those extra charges. thanks for the excellent contribution to the article.

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