When Tonya and I first started taking airline flights back in the early 1990s, I found it almost overwhelmingly stressful. It stemmed from the fact that flying was so expensive for us, but I also dreaded the byzantine process of buying tickets, checking in repeatedly, and dealing with security. So much seemed to hinge on not losing tickets, boarding passes, or identification cards. We never made any mistakes, though, and in retrospect, misplacing a ticket or boarding pass likely wouldn’t have been a big deal. (The first time I flew to Canada, pre 9/11, I forgot my passport but was still allowed through customs with a stern talking-to. Who knows what would happen today!)
I still don’t enjoy airline travel, but I’ve done it enough that it no longer stresses me out to the same extent, even as dealing with invasive and unpleasant security requirements has gotten far worse. Plus, thanks to the Internet and the iPhone, the logistics have become vastly simpler. Being able to buy tickets, check in, and print boarding passes online was the first step, and the next major improvement came when Apple released the Passbook app, since renamed Wallet.
I’ve been using Passbook/Wallet as long as has been possible — it took smaller airports like Ithaca a while to get the necessary scanners — but as much as I liked eliminating the need for paper, there were many problems early on. Getting passes into Passbook was difficult, due to horrible airline apps, and bringing up the passes quickly and reliably was also hard. Even during our trip to MacTech Conference in Los Angeles in November 2016, when I was using an iPhone 7 running iOS 10, I had problems. I eventually realized the Raise to Wake option kept swapping the boarding pass for the lock screen every time I lowered my iPhone while waiting in line to board.
But on my most recent trip, to Austin for the ASMC Summit for independent Apple resellers, everything just worked. The United app knew about my itinerary once I was logged in, and the Delta app figured it out once I entered the ticket number. Both notified me when I could check in, and made it easy to do that and add my boarding passes to Wallet. iOS 10 and Wallet were smart enough to display a constant notification on the lock screen during the time I needed it, a single swipe brought up the boarding pass, and it stayed on screen while I waited in line, regardless of Raise to Wake.
I’m sure many of you are nodding your heads in agreement, or wondering why I’m telling you all this. I’m no frequent flyer, so I’m sure that these improvements have been obvious to road warriors for a while. But I wanted to document how to do all this because I saw a lot of people still relying on paper boarding passes on that last trip. The experience of relying on an iPhone is so good, and so much better than dealing with paper, that if you’ve avoided it so far, I urge you to give it a try next time. But feel free to print a paper boarding pass as a backup until you’re comfortable with using your iPhone instead!
Get the Airline App — The first step is perhaps the hardest. It’s not that finding or downloading airline apps is difficult or expensive — they’re all free, and you can download them from the App Store like any other app. Here are links for the main U.S. airlines: Alaska Airlines, Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and Virgin America.
In my experience, the tricky part, particularly for those of us who have been traveling for many years, is logging in. I strongly recommend taking some time well before your next flight to set up the airline apps you might use. Do them all at once, since it can be a fussy, annoying process if you have old accounts, or if airline mergers have confused matters. It’s far easier to figure out your login information — usually some combination of frequent flyer number, email address, or username, plus a password or PIN — via the airline Web sites while working calmly on a Mac at home.
You may need to ask for new passwords in some cases, and regardless, I’d encourage you to change your password to a 20-character random password and store it in a password manager like 1Password or LastPass. You have to assume that airline Web sites are under attack all the time, given the value of the information they store, and I imagine that identity theft surrounding airline travel could cause a world of hurt. So set strong passwords and make sure to use a password manager that you can access on your iPhone too.
Check In and Add Boarding Passes — Once you’re logged in to the airline app, it should be relatively obvious how you can check in for your flight, which you can usually do 24 hours beforehand. If you booked the flight through the same airline, the app might even know about your itinerary already. If not, you may have to enter a confirmation number or ticket number — I had to do that when using the Delta app to check in for the return leg of my last trip, which had originated on United.
At the end of the check-in process, the apps I’ve used have provided a relatively clear Add to Wallet link or button. Tap it, and when it hands you off to Wallet, make sure everything looks correct in the boarding pass and then tap the Add link in the upper-right corner. You may or may not need to do this for each boarding pass; check to see what’s in Wallet after the first one. Now you’re ready for when you go to the airport.
Call Up a Boarding Pass — As you’re waiting in the security line, you’ll want to get your iPhone ready to display the boarding pass to the first security checker. Since Wallet knows your flight times, it starts displaying a notification on the iPhone’s lock screen some hours before.
That notification appears every time you wake the iPhone, and you can swipe it to the right to display the boarding pass. Those with an iPhone 6, 6s, or 7 can also 3D Touch it and then tap a Show Pass button, but that’s a bit clumsier than the swipe. The boarding pass will stay on screen even beyond the time set in Settings > Display & Brightness > Auto-Lock, but as you approach the head of the line, check to make sure you haven’t inadvertently pressed the Sleep/Wake button on your iPhone.
If you have an Apple Watch, you can instead bring up the Wallet app there — you might want to tap the Keep in Dock button to make it easier to get to for your return flight. The watch’s Wallet app shows the same passes that are in Wallet on the iPhone, and tapping the boarding pass shows you the same information, although you have to scroll down (or rotate the digital crown) to get to the QR code required for the scanner. While the Wallet app is up on the Apple Watch, the screen doesn’t turn off, so you don’t have to struggle with it when you get to the desk.
Although I can’t imagine a scenario where this makes sense, you can prevent a boarding pass from appearing on your lock screen. Swipe right on its notification, tap the i button in the lower-right corner, and in the next screen, disable Suggest on Lock Screen. You can turn off automatic updates here too, but again, I can’t think of when it would be useful to have a boarding pass not update automatically.
One final note. Since many flights have multiple legs, each with a separate boarding pass, note that Wallet seems to try to keep them together. If you see multiple dots at the bottom of a screen showing a boarding pass, try swiping left and right to move between them. The same applies if you’re traveling with a family and you have boarding passes for multiple people in your iPhone.
Speaking of which, if you and your traveling companions all have iPhones and airline accounts, it’s usually possible for each person to manage their own boarding passes. But if not, you can check in for multiple travelers and add all their boarding passes to your iPhone, though that will require some swiping back and forth whenever you need to present them.
Delete Passes — Back in the day, you sometimes wanted to hold on to boarding passes to prove that you’d flown the miles for a frequent flyer program. In today’s world, unless you’re a tech writer who wants to keep a few boarding passes around to document how Wallet works, there’s little reason to retain them.
To delete an expired boarding pass, open Wallet, tap the boarding pass, tap the i button in the lower-right corner, and then tap the Remove Pass option.
Anything Else? — It was difficult to document how all this works since I had to do it live, while juggling luggage and making sure I ended up on the right flight and in the right seat. There’s no way to simulate different scenarios or test something again. So, if I’ve missed something in this description of using boarding passes in Wallet, please let me know in the comments.
Finally, what if you lose or break your iPhone, with all your travel documents on it, during your trip? If that happened to me while en route, I’d go to the nearest airline desk to see if they could print me a new boarding pass. And if it happened in the middle of my trip, which seems more likely, I’d try to get to the airport early for my departure, so there would be extra time to check in for the flight and get a printed boarding pass. If you have ever experienced such an iPhone disaster, leaving you without a boarding pass or information about your itinerary, tell us in the comments how you worked around the problem.