Notionally, airline travel is a glamorous thing - headed abroad, sunhat on in the airport, cheers-ing a friend or lover with a glass of something cold and fizzy ahead of boarding a flight somewhere exotic. The reality of negotiating airports, alas, is often considerably less romantic - harried passengers pushing by, checks under taken by surly security staff, too few hands to carry too much luggage.
Relax. We're here to help. With the benefit of years of negotiating global airports, we've curated a set of golden rules to take most of the stress out of travel.
Heed our advice and instead of frantically dashing for the gate, you can breeze on board a plane with a spring in your step, prepared for a fabulous holiday.
- Need entertainment for you or your family? Download at home (airport Wifi is sketchy at best) - podcasts, movies, TV shows etc, to your phone or tablet, while charging the device
- Check the airport Twitter or website to see if there are any major delays being flagged
- Book your airport parking ahead of time (see more below)
- Check which terminal your airline flies out of
- Leave early enough to get to the airport at least 2 hours before your boarding time - make sure you have a clear idea of your travel route to the airport, and any potential delays.
Don’t get drunk ahead of a flight
We don’t want to harsh your holiday mellow, but there are myriad reasons why getting in your cups ahead of a flight is a bad idea. Quite aside from how it may distract you from catching the actual flight on time, boorish behaviour on board a flight is not simply unsociable, if it escalates, it can result in the airline choosing to ban you from their flights for a number of years. Oh, and if you’re flying long haul, it will leave you dehydrated and exacerbate any jet lag. Stick to a tasteful tipple or two ahead of take-off.
Buy your foreign currency online - never at the airport
It can be handy having folding cash when headed abroad - but don’t make the exchange at the airport. The airport bureau de change charges a hefty premium. Instead, try a site like the Royal Mail foreign currency office. Usually you’ll get a better exchange rate the more money you exchange. If you’re worried about carrying a wad of foreign currency, we recommend putting some in your check-in luggage, and some in your wallet - that way if either piece of luggage is mislaid, you’re not left bereft.
Be judicious in buying duty free: it is by no means always cheaper than the High Street. Google prices of any items ahead of hitting the airport. And remember: as heady as the thrill is of a shopping spree at the airport, your money is probably far better spent on the actual holiday itself.
Using Airport Parking? Buy it in advance
The savings for booking airport parking in advance in the UK can be substantive - the earlier you book, the better. By way of example, a week-long stay at Manchester Airport Parking could set you back £385 on the day - book in advance, and you can nab the same length of stay for as low as £59.99. It’s worth shopping around secondary provider sites like Holiday Extras for the best deal.
Early international flight? Plump for a nearby hotel the night before
A cheap hotel a mile or so from the airport can save so much stress if you have a super early departure - and may make trying to sleep the night before a little easier. On site hotels come at a premium but booking.com will likely help you find a spot near enough to cut out a serious commute - and most airport adjacent hotels offer free transfers, so do check.
Arrive at the airport at least two hours before an international flight
… and 90 minutes before an internal one. That said, monitor airport Twitter in the week ahead to see how their security is doing - if they’re under strain, factor in more time. Last summer saw extraordinary queues at multiple UK airports, and although many of the contributing factors have been resolved, it’s likely this summer will be busy again.
Heathrow, in particular, is already likely to buckle under the burden of staff strikes: check the dates.
Check the Covid requirements of the country you are visiting
Make sure you meet the Covid vaccine requirements of the country you’re heading to. If you have the NHS Covid travel pass on your phone, screenshot it as well - sometimes the dodgy airport reception can make calling up the travel pass from the NHS app laborious and stressful.
Weigh and measure your luggage before you leave home
... and makes sure it adheres to your ticket's allowances. We recently went four pounds over our allowance on an US internal flight and we were charged $60 on the spot for the privilege. Don't rely on your ability to charm the staff to avoid excess fees: they've been instructed to be strict on this matter.
Keep the clear plastic toiletries bag
... for when you go through security, so you don't have to faff around putting your liquids into a new one at the airport. For bulkier but cheap toiletries, consider buying at the airport - picking up some deodorant, toothpaste and facial wash at an airport Boots can allow you to stay refreshed on the plane.
Some travellers even stretch to purchasing a sheet mask for use on long-haul flights - its a great way of preventing your skin from being dehydrated, depending on your embarrassment threshold for being seen in one in public.
Carry-on luggage: should I bring a backpack or a roller suitcase?
The arguments in favour of backpacks are simple - it’s easier to duck and dive around an airport with one on, and you’re less likely to fall foul of airline size limitations. That said, it is on your back, and can swiftly get weighty with travel essentials.
We’d recommend a backpack wherever possible, but a hard-shell roller suitcase - that adheres to the size restrictions - is useful if you’re not great at carrying a load, and can be wheeled around the airport.
Travel as light as you can
Not checking any luggage in will save you time both at check-in/baggage drop, and waiting for your luggage to arrive at the other end.
If you’re able to, avoid check-in luggage and opt instead for purchasing a small bag (the backpack) and a large cabin bag (the roller suitcase) - travelling light makes airport trips much, much easier. You used to be allowed both by default but this isn't the case any more - particularly on budget carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet, so do check your allowances or you may end up stung with a extra fee at the airport.
The gold standard for carry-on suitcases, in our experience, is the Antler Clifton.
Dress for travel, not for style
It's mind-boggling how ineptly dressed people can be at the airport, considering they're about to board a metal tube with recirculated air and uncomfortable seating for several hours. Now isn't the time for fashion - it's the time for comfort. High heels and boots are right out (one exception: if you are headed somewhere cold, wearing boots on the flight will save you putting them in your luggage. In this case only is it advised).
Slip-on shoes are best. Comfortable, stretchy leggings are ideal (trousers if you don't do leggings), and a loose-fitting top. Avoid belts and jewellery - this will irritate the security door. If you're headed on a long-haul flight, a change of underwear, socks and t-shirt to put on just ahead of arrival can help you feel more human when you land.
Consider how late your airline may be
If you have people picking you up on the other side of your travels, take a look at your airline's track history for flight delays - we've detailed them here. (Spoiler: Wizz Air is the worst). No point your friends pitching up half an hour early for an airline notorious for arriving late.
Be kind to the airport staff
Travel is stressful - especially if you’re herding multiple family members - but do keep your cool. Getting irate at airport or airline staff is not going to expedite anything.
After more travel advice? Check out our guide to how to pack, how to take a great holiday photograph, how to keep your money safe overseas, and what to consider when buying travel insurance.
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