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Travelers flying at off-peak times with just a small bag in hand can get lulled into thinking they don't need to show up early to the airport. But airlines enforce minimum check-in times in order to allow for baggage processing, security procedures and to help ensure on-time flight departures. You can't argue with an airline computer: If you're even a minute afoul of the deadline, it won't let you check in. United's check-in requirements vary slightly depending on the departure airport, if you're checking luggage, and whether your flight is domestic or international.

The absolute minimum cutoff time is 30 minutes before your flight departs, but that's if you're taking a domestic flight with only a carry-on, and only from certain airports.

Top Tips for Moving Pets Abroad – A Tale of Two Retrievers

Mendoza was flying out of Houston, where United requires passengers without luggage to check in 30 minutes beforehand; those with checked bags must present themselves no less than 45 minutes before the scheduled flight. Mendoza cut it a little too close, so the computer at the kiosk wouldn't issue his boarding pass.

United rebooked him on the next available flight, departing less than two hours later. Mendoza was able to breeze through security and to his original gate, where his original flight had yet to depart, and the aircraft doors were still open.

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  5. Mendoza was booked on the later flight, though, and his boarding pass was not valid for the a. Passengers can request the change within 24 hours of departure online, in person or over the phone.

    Normally passengers make same-day changes when their schedules shift, not to ping pong from one flight to another and back again. The gate agent of Mendoza's original flight went by the book, and had Mendoza pay the same-day change fee to expedite getting him on that flight at the last minute. Doors close 10 minutes before departure; had Mendoza argued, he may well have missed the cutoff. You never know what's going to slow you down and prevent you from checking in on time or getting to the gate before the aircraft door closes.

    Tale of a Departure

    Traffic, car trouble or long lines at security could easily ruin your day. Price-comparison websites are, in theory, the easiest way to find the cheapest fares. But they can also be misleading. First, most do not list fares from every airline operating the route; second, they do not normally quote exact fares. As I found with my spot-check, they can also be subject to technical hitches without the user realising. Even so, they are a useful guide, as long as you bear in mind the limitations and check at least two or three as part of your research.

    I Flew Spirit Airlines for One Penny* and Lived to Tell the Tale

    Sites like Expedia take the booking themselves — you don't click through on to the airline site as you do with the price-comparison sites above. They can be useful — you can put together packages including hotels and hire cars that are financially protected, for example. But they normally charge a booking fee for flight-only arrangements, and it isn't always clear how much extra you are paying. Midweek, outside the school holidays, at unsociable hours etc, and use filters on booking and price-comparison sites that allow you to search for cheaper fares on the days before and after your ideal date.

    Spirit Airlines: A Word About Baggage

    Or book with an airline, such as BA, that doesn't charge extra for hold luggage. Be sure to measure and weigh all luggage — cabin and hold — before you leave home and make sure it is under the limit for your airline. Penalty charges for breaching the limits can be swingeing.

    Some sites try to tempt you into booking insurance which you may already have and other extras a new cabin bag, for example. Ryanair is the most aggressive at doing this, and you need to be careful to remove from the online booking form any extras you do not want. We urge you to turn off your ad blocker for The Telegraph website so that you can continue to access our quality content in the future. Visit our adblocking instructions page.

    A Tale Before Departure

    Telegraph Travel Advice. So how exactly are airlines pricing their air fares, and what can you do to find the best offer? We've noticed you're adblocking.