There's security in knowing how

September 12, 1999

Here's our passenger's guide to the ups and downs of scheduled air travel on larger planes. It will get you from the curb, through security, onto the plane and finally to the baggage claim area.

Curbside

At some airports, a skycap can check in your bags, check up on your identification and check off security questions about who packed your luggage. In return, you'll get some baggage-claim tags, which you check to make sure they are right.

Oh no! Your checked baggage goes above and beyond -- and we mean in a bad way: too many, too hefty or just too darn awkward.

The way it is: Size counts. So does weight, shape and quantity. Bust an airline's free limits -- and every airline is different -- and you pay extra.

Math time: Luggage gets measured in linear inches -- that's the sum of the height, length and width of a bag -- and pounds. For example, American allows three pieces checked free if you have no carry-on bag, or two pieces checked free with one carry-on or one piece checked free with two carry-ons. American's size limits are 62 linear inches for the first, 55 linear inches for the second and 45 linear inches for the third, with a weight limit of 70 pounds a bag. That's only one airline's limits for domestic flights on big jets. Travel internationally, on another airline or on a small commuter plane, and the limits may change. Fly first or business class, and you might get a bigger baggage allowance.

OK. You brought all of these suitcases because you feel secure traveling with half of your household goods. They could, for example, cost you: on US Airways, $50 each for the first three oversize, overweight or over-number bags; on AirTran, $20 for each piece that exceeds its three-bag limit.

Now, suppose you're into bowling, golfing, skiing or fishing. Some airlines, like American, will let you check your gear, appropriately contained, for any single one of those sports in place of one free piece of checked luggage. Some other airlines, like Southwest, will let you check it for free in addition to your checked luggage allowance. If you want to take your surfboard or your bicycle along, that's an extra $25-$45 each way on most carriers.

Airlines usually have a deadline for checked baggage, and it can vary from one carrier to the next and one airport to the next. If you should miss your baggage check-in deadline, a carrier might check your bag anyway but refuse to accept any responsibility for where it goes, or when.

The airlines' NEW promise: Nothing new here.

As a good flier: You I.D. baggage inside and out with personal name and address labels. If you are the paranoid type, use your work address instead of home.

You remove old baggage-claim tags. They may enhance your well-traveled image, but they could confuse busy baggage handlers.

You always lock your bags, remove shoulder straps and secure garment-bag hooks. You make sure the claim tag you are given matches the tag the airline has affixed to your bag, and make sure that if you are headed to Boise, your bags are too.

You never pack your bags so full that they could burst open...

Check in

They have to check you out before they can check you in, so get ready to pull paperwork. You should have plenty of time to do that, plus write a best seller and become a grandparent, while you're waiting in line.

You might be able to skip this step if you a.) have checked your bags with the skycap, b.) are traveling only with carry-ons or c.) are running late and plan to check your bags at the gate (if they're small enough to fit through the scanners at the security checkpoint).

But if you are destined for the counter, show your ticket to the airlines agents. Or, if you have purchased ticketless travel, give your confirmation number. You'll also have to show a photo I.D. proving you are the person whose name appears on the ticket. Ticketless travel also requires you to show the very credit card with which you paid for the flight. If you are traveling outside the United States, there's more paperwork to present. Depending on your destination, you might need a notarized copy of your birth certificate or a passport and/or visas.

If you don't already have a seat assignment -- some airlines will reserve them when you purchase your tickets -- you might get it and your boarding pass here.

Or, the airline may assign seats only at the gate.

Oh no! You lost your ticket or ticketless confirmation number.

Your ticket is wrong.

You're flying ticketless and dont have the right credit card.

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