I travel as much as I can and I love technology, which makes travel easier. However, during a recent trip to the United States, I was taken aback by how technology has impacted air travel and I’m not sure that I’m thrilled with what I experienced, although in time, when the innovations become more familiar, I know I will be grateful for them.

Because US immigration and customs control is done here in Toronto, I got pre-processed via a machine that scans your passport and where you answer pre-screening questions. The machine also takes your picture and prints out a form that you need to submit to the US immigration officer before being admitted to the United States, even while physically still in Toronto. There are three airports in Canada with this facility – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

In a previous post I lamented about how I was inconvenienced by an airline that did not accept cash for inflight food sales when I didn’t have a credit card. Now, they’ve gone a step further by selling entertainment on board. Yes, you need a credit card to view the movies or listen to songs on the inflight entertainment system. Seriously?

Online check-in twenty four hours before your flight is quite common in North America. I received my boarding pass in an email from the airline. I didn’t have luggage to check in so I was expecting everything to go without a hitch. I was travelling from Toronto to LA with a layover in Charlotte.

The problem was, even with roaming activated on my smartphone, I couldn’t access data or wifi at Charlotte International Airport so I couldn’t retrieve my electronic boarding pass. Neither could I open the airline’s app or WorldMate’s app where I had copies of my boarding pass.

Thank goodness the email that the airline sent had a PDF of my boarding pass which I presented during boarding. Going paperless meant I didn’t have a printed copy of my boarding pass. Lesson learned here: have a printed back up of your boarding pass for situations when data or wifi are not available.

A week later, I was early at LAX on my trip back to Toronto with a layover at O’Hare International Airport. I decided to skip online check-in on this trip.

At the counters I was caught by my biggest surprise of this trip. There were no more counter check-in staff. Instead, what greets you at the check-in counter is a monitor and keyboard – you need to check yourself in! If you have luggage to check in you need to put it in the weighing scale. The computer asks for your booking reference or travel locator. Then you need to scan your passport on the scanner.

Because I didn’t have pre-assigned seating when I bought my ticket, the computer now advised me that all available seats were for sale, meaning I had to pay to get a seat assignment on the flight. Because I was really freaked out by this new experience, I chose a seat, swiped my credit card, and waited for the computer to print my receipt and boarding passes.

The luggage tags were still printed inside the counter where airline staff used to check people in. I saw one airline staff who went back and forth checking for printed luggage tags. He will verify your identity and tag your luggage.

I’m sure if you really freak out and don’t know what to do you can still call the very few airline staff and ask for help. I observed that people were already used to this process and knew what to do.

Some questions in my head:
1. What if you didn’t know your booking reference or where to find it? (Lesson here: always write down your booking reference or know where to find it on your itinerary.)
2. What if you didn’t have a passport? I’m not sure if the scanner would scan/accept a driver’s license or any other form of ID.
3. What if you had to pay for your seat and didn’t have a credit card? Where do you pay with cash when there’s no one there to help you?

Upon reaching Toronto, I was processed via the automatic immigration and passport control system where you scan your passport and customs declaration form. After processing the machine prints out a form which you need to show to the officers guarding the exits. You don’t get to speak to a human immigration officer anymore!

Some lessons I want to share with you:

1. Always have a copy of your itinerary and know your booking reference.
2. If you opt for online check-in and electronic boarding passes, be sure to print a copy of your boarding passes in case wifi or data fail while you are boarding.
3. Have an international credit card available and ensure that you make a travel notification to your bank to avoid unnecessary delays.
4. Bring your passport, if available, even for domestic flights.
5. Lock your carry-on luggage because airlines sometimes collect bags during boarding to load in the cargo bay and to give back to you at the destination airport. You wouldn’t want to part with an unlocked luggage.
6. Most important of all: arrive early and give plenty of time to go through the travel formalities. The things you have to go through are stressful enough. If you arrive late and are running to make your flight, your stress will be so much worse.

If you do what you can to ensure you are prepared for your trip, you will have a better, hassle-free experience. Safe travels!