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Most airlines encourage passengers to check-in for their flight online ahead of time. Normally you can do this anytime during the 24 hours before your scheduled departure time. It's often possible to print your boarding pass on your home printer before you leave for the airport, and through this way, you may be able to bypass the airport ticket counter altogether. Even if you have luggage to check, you may be able to use the confirmation number you received online and check your luggage at a little satellite kiosk, rather than waiting in the main ticket queue.
In the case of international flights, it's absolutely essential to contact the airline the day before you fly. Even if an actual remote check-in isn't possible, it's necessary to make sure the flight schedule hasn't changed since you made your reservation. It's also just a good idea to make sure the airline still has you on their passenger list for the proper flight; the world of air reservations is not yet seamlessly perfect. In some cases, you might have to actually phone the airline, but this will depend on their protocol regarding passport numbers and tickets.