In yesteryear, travelers would buy 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.
How eTickets Work
These days, when you purchase a flight online, you're buying an eTicket, or 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. Many travelers print the eTicket and itinerary or make sure they're saved together in their email for easy access.
While some people print their eTickets at home and bring them to the airport, most travelers today add the eTicket to their iPhone wallet or keep the eTicket link open to scan at the gate when boarding.
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). You may not need to show these to anyone if you check in with a self-service check-in kiosk. 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. if you're traveling internationally, 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.
What Happens at Check-In
After arriving at the airport, go to the check-in desk and 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. Check out what "SSSS" means on your boarding pass.
Many 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.
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.
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 so that you can be easily contacted if they go missing. Keep your flight and hotel confirmations on your phone and/or laptop as well.