Once upon a time, a plane ticket was an actual piece of paper that you received from a travel agent, at the ticket counter or in the mail, and you surrendered part of that paper ticket when you checked in for your flight. Nowadays, you receive an electronic ticket instead, with a confirmation code that you can use to quickly access the ticket information and personal data, such as flight number and travel agency, stored in your airline's database.
Checking in With Machines
Because all your ticket information is stored in the airline's database, most airlines let you check in without ever seeing a human being, except to drop off your checked bags. Once you’ve purchased a ticket online with your debit or credit card, you can use online check-in with your e-ticket number or confirmation number on the airline's website or mobile app and you'll receive an electronic ticket that the departure gate attendant can scan off your smartphone's screen.
Alternatively, you can check in by scanning the flight ticket barcode at one of your airline's airport kiosks. Once the self-service kiosk has located your electronic record, it will print out a paper boarding pass you can use to get through the security checkpoint and onto the plane. Once you’ve confirmed your airfare, make sure to check in with plenty of extra time for domestic flights, and even earlier for international flights.
Checking in With Airline Staff
If you need extra help or have trouble pulling up the electronic record of your ticket, you can also check in with the attendants at your airline's ticketing desk, where they can use your ID to access the e-ticket and printed boarding pass for you.
One thing an electronic ticket can't do is make sure you're on time for your flight. If you're in the habit of cutting it close, travel tips like traveling with only a carry-on (so you don't have to stand in line to check a bag) and using TSA Pre-Check to breeze through the security checkpoint can make the difference between missing your plane or getting aboard in good time.
The Advantages of Electronic Tickets
There are many advantages to having your ticket information stored in an electronic database, which is really the core of what makes an e-ticket. To start, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents some 83 percent of air traffic around the world, estimates that e-tickets save the air travel industry up to $3 billion every year.
Having electronic tickets over physical tickets also means that the paper boarding pass is disposable; if you lose it, airline staff can simply print you another.
Lost airline tickets were much more problematic back in the day when each slip of paper represented actual money.
Finally, having your ticket information stored electronically makes it much easier to change itineraries, cancel flights and even shuffle seats around.
Nowadays, you can do all of that on your own, online or through your airline's mobile app, without even having to speak to a human being.