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What to expect at the airport

In the ever-changing world of air travel, it can be difficult to know what to expect when you arrive at the airport for your flight. Will you be able to check in quickly or will the line stretch out the door? Will your carry-on bag meet the latest Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requirements? And what form of ID will you need to show?
U.S Begins To Tighten Border Procedures
A traveler prepares to swipe her passport while checking in at San Diego International Airport in San Diego, California. Beginning on January 23rd, United States passengers traveling by air will be required to show a passport when traveling to Mexico or the Caribbean.Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images
/ Source: Independent Traveler

In the ever-changing world of air travel, it can be difficult to know what to expect when you arrive at the airport for your flight. Will you be able to check in quickly or will the line stretch out the door? Will your carry-on bag meet the latest Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requirements? And what form of ID will you need to show?

We can't guarantee you a hassle-free trip to the airport, but a little preparation can go a long way to helping you know what to expect before your next flight. If it's been a while since your last trip, you should be aware of two major changes: a stringent set of carry-on luggage restrictions, and new passport requirements for travelers headed to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or the Caribbean. Read on for the scoop on these changes as well as useful guidelines to help you sail smoothly through the airport on your next flight.

TSA Rules for Carry-on Luggage
For travelers who like to simply carry on and go, packing just got a little trickier. Toothpaste, shampoo and other liquids, gels and aerosol items must be stored in individual containers of three ounces or less if you want to put them in your carry-on. All containers must be placed inside one clear, quart-sized plastic bag. Need to bring more than that? You'll have to put it in your checked luggage. Learn more about the new rules in our comprehensive Airport Security Q&A.

You'll also want to be sure you check the TSA's list of permitted and prohibited items before you pack.

Check-In Times
For domestic flights, you should be at the airport at least 90 minutes before your flight is scheduled to leave if you're planning on checking luggage. If you're bringing just a carry-on, allow at least an hour. If you're flying to Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands or an international destination, arrive at least two hours early. During peak travel times, allow even more time at the airport -- perhaps an extra 30 to 60 minutes. Check with your airline for its recommended arrival times, as these may vary depending on where you're flying. For instance, American Airlines suggests allowing three hours for flights to Mexico and a whopping 3.5 hours for flights to Delhi, India.

Curbside and off-airport check-ins have returned to many airports across the United States. In addition, many airlines allow you to check in for your flight and print your boarding pass via the Internet up to 24 hours before your scheduled departure time. This is not only a time-saver but can also mean a better selection of seats. Most airports are equipped with self-service kiosks that make the process of checking in speedier.

Beware: Even if you have already checked in for your flight, an airline can cancel your reservation if you are not at the departure gate on time. Even if you have an advance boarding pass or an advance seat assignment, your seat may be given to another passenger. Similarly, if you do not check your baggage in sufficient time for it to be loaded on your flight, the airline is not responsible for any delay in the delivery of your baggage to your destination.

Airport Parking
If you're driving yourself to the airport, be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to find a parking spot and get from your car to the terminal (which can literally be miles away). Keep in mind that airport lots fill quickly at peak travel times, so you may want to reserve a spot ahead of time in an off-airport lot. Learn more in Long-Term Airport Parking: Is This Spot Taken?

Got Your ID?
For domestic flights, a driver's license or other government-issued photo ID is all you need to show at check-in, security and boarding. However, under the new Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, travelers flying to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, Central and South America, and the Caribbean will need to present a passport as of January 23, 2007. In a hurry? See our list of passport and visa expeditors.

Please note that if you do not provide appropriate identification, you may be denied boarding or removed from a flight at any time. For more, check out The Airlines' Rights.

Delays and Cancellations Before you leave for the airport, call your airline or check its Web site to see if your flight is leaving as scheduled. Keep in mind that airlines are not required to compensate passengers for delayed or canceled flights. Each carrier differs in its policy, and there are no federal requirements. Most will book you on the next available flight. If your plane is delayed, the airline may pay for meals or a phone call, so ask.

Some will offer no amenities if the delay is caused by bad weather or other conditions beyond their control. Compensation is required by law only if you are bumped from a flight that is oversold (discussed below). Although it is not required by law, many airlines are beginning to inform passengers to the causes for delays in their flights, through their own programs.

Overbooking is legal, and most airlines do it. They are, however, required to ask people to volunteer to be bumped. If you are bumped involuntarily, you must be given a written statement describing your rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't, and you may keep your ticket and use it on another flight.

If you choose to make your own arrangements, you can request an "involuntary refund" for the ticket. You are also entitled to compensation, with a few exceptions. For example, if the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, you get nothing. For more details, read our comprehensive guide to bumping.

Lost or Delayed Luggage
If your bags are delayed, airlines usually agree to pay "reasonable" expenses until they're found. The amount is subject to negotiation, and you may have to fight for it. If your bags are not found, you must file a claim, which takes some time to process. It is normal to wait six weeks to three months for reimbursement, although some airlines are much more efficient than others.

Liability limitations for travel to and from international destinations for all airlines are governed by the Warsaw Convention or Montreal Convention, as applicable. For international travels, including the domestic portions, subject to the Warsaw Convention, the liability limit for delay, damage or loss is approximately $9.07 per pound ($20 per kilogram) for checked baggage, with, according to the American Airlines Web site, a cap of 70 lbs. The liability limit is approximately $400 per passenger for unchecked baggage. Where the Montreal Convention applies, the liability for the delay, damage or loss to checked and unchecked baggage is limited to 1,000 Special Drawing Rights per passenger. For travel in the United States, the airlines are limited to $2,800 of compensation per passenger.

Beware of deadlines! If you miss the check-in deadline, the carrier is not responsible for your bag if it is delayed or lost. Learn more in our guide to lost luggage.

To find out how a particular airline or airport fares in these and other performance-related areas, read the Air Travel Consumer Report, published by the Department of Transportation.

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