Blue sky outside an airplane window.

Tips for Air Travel In India

 5 Things You Need to Know

Indian train travel is a must do for any serious traveller, but even with the new online train booking options, it is still much easier to book flights than it is to book train passage. And the cost, availability, and timing make flights a reasonable alternative for getting around the sub-continent. While air travel is air travel almost everywhere you go (except, perhaps, in Pakistan!), there are a few peculiarities in India. Here are a few things new visitors to India should know before they head to the airport.

Young woman lounges on the middle bunk of a sleeper cabin in Indian train car.

Chilling on the Train to Varanasi: Overnight train travel in India is something every traveller should experience at least once.

1. Airport Entry

You must have a ticket to even enter an airport in India. That means you should print either your booking confirmation, ticket, or boarding pass—or have it available on-screen. Note that this official proof of your ticket must include the date, flight number, and traveller’s name (which will be checked against your passport or other travel ID). A military/police/security officer of some kind checks both your proof of reservation and your ID at the entrance. Some airports will have a somewhat orderly queue; others may have a crowd you need to finesse your way through.

(Note that airlines do have ticket counters on the outside of the terminal building—or through a special entrance—so if you don’t have a copy of your booking, you should be able to get one from your airline or the code-share partner airline’s desk.)

A large 10 to 15 people crowd round the entrance to the airport.

Travellers make their way into Goa International Airport in 2013. A bottleneck forms as folks crowd around the officer. The airports I visited in 2017—large and small—had more orderly queues with dividers to manage the flow of people.

2. Luggage Screening

Your to-be-checked luggage must be X-rayed before you go to the check-in counter. Pre-check-in bag screening is not unique to India, but I’ve found that in other countries the screening is often right inside the door—you must go through it to get in. At all the airports I’ve entered in India, I could have walked right by the screening machine without being stopped. So, make sure you find the appropriate screening line—look for your airline’s logo—and send your to-be-checked bags through the X-ray machine. (If you walk on by, the check-in personnel will send you back.) The security personnel will tape your zippers’ tabs together or put a sticker across the zipper or something similar, and this sticker is often branded to your airline. Be sure to do any last minute adjustments between your checked and carry-on bags before you do the screening. Note that carry-on luggage does not go through this screening.

3. Staggered Check-In Times

The check-in process may be staggered by flight (and in dedicated lines). The screens above the check-in counter will help you ensure you get in the right line. This too is not unique to India, but it’s worth noting because you may become irritated when you arrive 2 hours early for your flight only to find your check-in is not yet open. I suspect this has something to do with queues. Folks in India are not naturally inclined to queue. Perhaps by controlling check-in this way, airlines can avoid the burden of managing an disorderly line up, while still ensure that the people who need to check-in at a certain time can do so without aggro. But what do I know?

4. Gendered Security

As with the rest of India, men and women separate for security lines at the airport. This separation is not optional—women must go through the women’s security. This is not just for the people being checked, but also for those doing the checking. After you go through the metal detector, personnel will wand you and lightly pat you down (in other words, touch you!). Women step behind a curtain for this and are searched by a woman. Men get their pat down out in the open.

As there are generally more men in public spaces in India, it’s not always immediately obvious that the security line is for men only. Women travellers must keep their eyes open for the “ladies queue.” The bonus is that the women’s security line is often shorter (although, stepping behind the curtain takes more time—but we ladies are used to that, amirite?).

From what I’ve observed, families separate for security and young children stay with their female relatives. I presume young girl children travelling with only a male relative would accompany him through the men’s security—but I have no information to back that up.

If you are trans or non-gender-specific, remember that the separation of men and women is partly for the benefit of the security personnel—I presume that they will not want to touch someone that they perceive to be the opposite sex.

5. Security Stamps

Your boarding pass and your carry-on luggage must be stamped by security!

When you check-in, be sure to get an airline luggage tag for each piece of hand luggage. You do not need to complete the information on these tags, you just need to attach them to the bags in such a way that they are easy to see when you’re carrying the bags.

After your carry-on bags have gone through the X-ray machine, security personnel will stamp the luggage tags. Make sure that your tags are stamped before you leave the security area.

And, when you line up for the screening and pat down, make sure you have your boarding pass with you. You generally do not need your passport, but you do need the boarding pass. After the security officer checks you, he or she will stamp both pieces of your boarding pass. Again, make sure both the small piece and the large piece of the boarding pass are stamped before you leave security.

When you board your plane, these tags and the boarding pass will be checked, sometimes several times. When flying domestically, you will not have to show your passport after you’ve checked-in—the only thing that matters is your stamped boarding pass and luggage tags. When flying internationally, once you’ve cleared passport control, you can put your passport away—it’s all about the stamps.

These little things become second nature after your second or third flight. But every time I fly, I encounter a traveller who has stumbled on one of these idiosyncrasies of Indian air travel.

One final tip…

Many Indian airports have adopted a “silent airport” policy. They will make only minimal flight announcements. They will not announce changed gates and they will not page late passengers. You must check screens regularly and be at your gate on time for boarding.