Once upon a time, travelers bought airline tickets from a local travel agent and the physical tickets were mailed to their address. These days, you almost always have to use an electronic ticket; it can cost up to $20 for the privilege of getting an airline ticket in the mail, although some travel agencies will still mail you tickets.
Many travelers print the eticket and an air itinerary, meaning you're basically paying for a "real" ticket yourself.
Attach your eticket to the rest of your itinerary, like your accommodation confirmation, and make sure they're saved in your email for easy access. Keep it with your travel documents. Below, I go through this process in more detail.
How eTickets Work
These days, when you purchase a flight online, you're buying an eticket -- a ticket that's stored online. Airline and travel agency sites will walk you through the purchase process and it's super easy to follow -- after you've selected your flight online, you'll be prompted to pay with a credit or debit card. The screen will then present you with your payment confirmation receipt, your eticket, and your itinerary.
You may want to print these out and keep them with the rest of your travel documents. (Learn why you should email yourself travel documents here.)
What to Bring to the Airport
Be sure to check out your airline's requirements for checking in and boarding the flight before you start packing.
In some cases, you'll have to print out your eticket to show to the staff at check-in (along with, of course, your passport and visa, if required). I've also occasionally been asked for the debit or credit card with which I made the e-ticket purchase; make sure you have it with you at check-in, just in case.
You may not need to show these to anyone if you check in with a self-service check-in kiosk -- many airlines have these at airports. And you'll also be able to check in online if that makes it easier for you.
For the vast majority of cases, though, the only thing you need to worry about is your passport. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, you'll hand your passport to the check-in staff and they'll check their computer system for a reservation in your name. They'll even be able to print out your boarding pass without needing to see your eticket because everything is stored online. Additionally, if they do need to see proof of your purchase or your ticket, you'll be able to get away with showing it to them on your phone or laptop, so make sure to download a copy before you head to the airport and keep your technology charged.
As always, research beforehand, so you won't be in for any nasty surprises!
What Happens at Check-In
After arriving at the airport, find out where you need to check in by checking the electronic screens at the entrance, then head to the correct desk. There, you'll show the agent your passport and eTicket. They'll compare your ticket against the airline's database and issue you a printed boarding pass when everything checks out.
This boarding pass is what enables you to get on the plane.
Side note: lots of airports are installing self-service check-in desks, which can help save time as there are rarely any queues for them. If you see one, type in your information on the screen (usually your eticket's reservation number, your passport number, and/or your flight details) and it'll print your boarding pass for you. It'll also print a tag for your luggage, which you should attach to your backpack or suitcase by following the on-screen instructions. Take your luggage to the bag drop queue, place it on the conveyor belt, and then you're good to go. Head to security and then make your way to your gate.
Well prepared travelers are those who are prepared for everything not to go smoothly, so be sure you arrive with plenty of time to spare in case of problems like computer glitches, flight delays, or more.
I recommend at least two hours beforehand for a domestic flight and four hours before for an international flight if you're of a nervous disposition. It's always wise to check news reports or Twitter before you head to the airport to see if its likely you'll be experiencing delays.
Hassles are becoming increasingly rare with e-tickets, though (I've rarely experienced any problems with them in over six years of travel!) It can be a little nerve wracking to use them for the first time, but take the leap and you'll see how easy, convenient, and simple it is. And above all, you'll learn how practical e-tickets are for students traveling internationally who may not always have access to a printer.
What if You've Checked in Online?
When you check in online, you'll enter the details of your eticket into the airline's website and in exchange they'll email you a copy of your boarding pass. You can then choose to store this on your phone or print it out at home.
Once you get to the airport, if you're traveling carry-on only, you can head straight to security at the airport without having to queue to check in or drop your bags, which helps you save time and stay sane.
Be aware: with certain airlines, I've checked in online and been told that I needed to have printed out my copy of a boarding pass to pass through security, which can be a problem if you're traveling and don't have easy access to a printer. Because of this, I'll often choose to check in at the airport instead if the hostel I'm staying at doesn't have a printer for guests to use.
What to Keep With Your eTicket
You may want to keep a copy of your air itinerary and your accommodation confirmation with your ticket, especially if you're taking many flights over a short period of time and are likely to forget dates/times. Your hotel may take you through the same online process and allow you to print lodging confirmation. Keep these copies of hostel and air itineraries in your checked baggage in case of lost luggage -- if someone opens your bag, they'll immediately know what flight you were on and where you'll be staying.
Alternatively, if you don't have access to a printer, be sure to attach a luggage tag to your backpack or suitcase -- I like these travel themed ones from Nuolux -- so that you can be easily contacted if they go missing. Keep your flight and hotel confirmations on your phone and/or laptop, so that you'll be able to easily show them to anyone if needed.
This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff.