“You need to check in,” my friend texted me, a full month before our cruise. This seemed a little excessive.
“Check in?” I asked. “Isn’t that a little presumptuous?”
“No!” she insisted. “I just got an email saying everyone needed to check in. So, go do it!”
“But doesn’t checking in mean, ya know, actually being there? Isn’t that the ‘in’ part of ‘checking in?’” I responded, feeling a little like I was inventing my own Seinfeld bit. “What happens if I check in, and between now and a month from now something happens? Do they already think I’m there? Are they gonna keep paging me in the terminal because I already checked in? Will the ship leave without me?”
My friend left me on read.
Though it wasn’t completely undeserved, my curiosity still lingered. Is there any advantage to checking in early? Do people actually save time this way? Do they just feel pressured to do so based on these urgent-sounding emails? Or is it just something people do to psych themselves up for a big trip? The answer is, like most things in life, it depends on your situation. Here’s how early check-in affects the most common places we do it when traveling: flights, hotels, and cruises.
Checking in early for flights can be advantageous in certain situations. If you don’t check bags, travel with your pet, or need to talk to an agent when you get to the airport, it can save you the 200-or-so seconds it takes to check in at an airport kiosk. You may lose those 200 seconds unlocking your phone and pulling up your mobile boarding pass every time you need to show it, but theoretically, it should save you a couple of minutes. Especially if you’re at a huge airport where it might take a while to find said check-in kiosks, or a relatively small airport with very few kiosks.
Checking in early is also beneficial if you bought a basic economy fare or are flying an airline that charges for seat assignments prior to check-in. In this situation, the earlier you check in the better your odds of avoiding a middle seat in row 32.
If you’re flying Southwest Airlines, check in as soon as humanly possible. Open seating may ultimately be simpler than assigned seats, but it does require setting an alarm on your phone for check-in time as Southwest devotees have boarding group order down to a science.
If you’re flying with a reserved seat and checking bags, which is the case for many people, checking in online saves you no time at all. As a matter of fact, it’ll cause you to go through an extra screen when the kiosk you use to check your bags asks if you’d like to reprint your boarding pass, with a little green leaf that makes you feel guilty for saying yes.
And for frequent fliers trying to score upgrades, it doesn’t do much either. Upgrades are generally awarded based on status and fare paid and even in the case of ties are based on the time the upgrade was requested, not when you checked in.
Verdict: Saves a small amount of time in a few situations, generally not necessary.
Some hotel early check-ins still require you to get a room key from the front desk. While this might at first seem completely pointless, it does save you the time of having to run your credit card and listen to long property explanations. But that does make time savings pretty minimal, especially if you still have to wait in line.
Marriott Bonvoy and some other hotels have recently launched apps that put the entire check-in process on your phone. It gives you a key on your device, so you never need to talk to the front desk.
“If I’m a business traveler, and I show up and I’ve got a call at 1:00 PM, and its 12:50 PM, it saves me those precious minutes,” says Michael Melendez, the general manager at the Daytona Autograph Collection in Florida.
He says about 30-40 percent of guests now use the mobile check-in app, and Marriott aims to have that up to 95 percent eventually. You can still get a physical key if you want one, or know your phone will be out of juice by the time you get home. The hotel also allows you to check in up to 24-hours in advance if you know you’re planning to arrive during busy periods.
Verdict: You can save serious time with the right hotels, during busy periods.
Cruises are perhaps the most perplexing of all travel entities offering early check-in as some cruise lines will literally send you check-in forms months before sailing. The difference is, cruise lines aren’t so much asking you to announce you’re on the ship, or at the terminal, as they are trying to streamline the check-in process once you arrive.
Because most cruises involve international travel, they need passport info to get you on board. They also need to take a picture associated with your onboard charge card, which usually doubles as your room key. With your picture taken and your passport info confirmed, the cruise line can then process you much faster — sometimes with as little as a boarding pass scan — once you get to the port.
This might not seem like a huge time-saver, but when you arrive at a cruise port and 2,000 other people are also trying to get on board, lines can be as immense and slow-moving as the ships themselves. If you’ve checked in already, you can bypass the check-in lines, scan your online boarding pass, and find your onboard charge card waiting for you on the door to your stateroom.
Verdict: Massive time saver
Despite my initial hesitance around early check-in, in most situations, it will save you a little time, and in some cases, it can save you a lot. As one who always checks bags and has assigned seats, I still won’t check-in for flights until I’m at the airport. But with a hotel app and any kind of cruise, checking in early is actually a good idea. And I understand even more why my friend didn’t dignify my question with a response.