A First Time Flyer’s Guide and Checklist

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Feeling nervous before your first flight is something most everyone has experienced before, and it’s easy to understand why. Airports are usually large buildings with a lot of signs and directories, long lines, and loads of regulations. Throughout this first time flyer guide, we’ll cover every aspect of flying, from booking your flight to baggage claim, and help you feel like a seasoned pro by takeoff.

Booking Your Flight

Booking your flight might seem overwhelming, but it is one of the easiest steps in the process. There are a variety of platforms for you to use, including popular travel expense bundling household names like Expedia or Travelocity, or you can go straight to the source and book your flight from any airline website, like United or Delta.

There are also apps, such as Hopper or Skiplagged. These are great resources if you’re looking for a deal, but it’s extremely important to read the fine print before paying for your flight. Most of the time, these apps will not allow you to make any changes after booking your flight, pick your seat, or bring carry-on luggage onto your plane.

You can also call the airline you’re interested in flying with and purchase tickets, or you can purchase tickets at the airport you plan to fly out of. While there are plenty of bookings options available, one detail remains constant: price.

When it comes to booking your flight, start searching early. While prices do fluctuate, the closer you book your flight to your departure date, the higher prices will be. There are many “travel hacking” websites and blogs available if you’re really trying to get a great deal, but in general, planning ahead will save you the most money.

Here’s another pro tip many swear by: Always book your tickets from an incognito window on your computer. This prevents websites from tracking you and raising ticket prices on return visits causing you to think that ticket prices are rising and you need to book now!

Airport Preparation and Packing

For me, packing my luggage amped up my first time flying anxiety. There are so many dos and don’ts that it’s hard to keep up with which items go in which suitcase. The Transportations Security Administration (TSA) website is an excellent resource for any questions you may have regarding items allowed on planes, both in your carry-on luggage and checked luggage.

As a general rule of thumb, when in doubt, pack it in your checked luggage. Your carry-on should only contain essentials you might need easy access to while in the airport or during your flight, assuming it’s a long trip. Also any must-have items, like medications, that would present a problem to be without if your checked bag was lost or delayed. For trips less than a week long, you might be able to make do fine with the personal item (can be a backpack) that most airlines allow in addition to your carry-on bag.

Carry-on only packing checklist

I always travel carry-on only whenever possible. It’s cheaper and it’s easier. If you pack smart, you can last a week going with just a carry-on. Here are some basic things I always have packed:

  • Enough clothes and the right kind of clothes for the trip
  • Toiletries and medications (keep medication in your personal item i.e. backpack or purse)
  • Laptop, tablet, camera, any other electronics and chargers
  • Noise cancelling bluetooth headphones – This is a solid pair on Amazon (I use these to listen to audiobooks on flights with Audible)
  • Also bring 3.5mm headphones or earbuds (old iPhone ones are fine) just in case your plane requires them to watch movies
  • A neck pillow for longer flights – they’ll help you catch a little sleep and not worry about your head flopping around while trying to sleep

Checking In

Approximately 24 hours before your flight, you should receive a text or email verifying your flight information and prompting you to check-in for your flight. If you don’t plan on checking a bag, I recommend checking in before you arrive at the airport either on your airline’s website or via their app, to avoid lines at the desk. You can use our carry-on bag size chart (top 11 U.S. airlines) to see if your bag is the right size. If you are planning to check your luggage, you can usually wait to check-in at the airport.

There are some airlines that require you to check in during the 24 hour window before your flight. During this process, you might also have the option to select your seat and pay for your checked luggage, if you haven’t already.

Arrival Time

It’s usually recommended that you arrive at the airport two hours prior to your boarding time. Boarding time is generally 30-40 minutes prior to the departure time. This will help eliminate stress and allow time to find parking (if you plan to leave your car), check-in, go through security, find your gate, and grab a snack if you didn’t pack one. You may also take into consideration the time of day and day of the week to decide how early to arrive, just use your best judgement and always err on the side of caution.

Allowing yourself plenty of time before your flight also leaves room for any mistakes or obstacles, like going to the wrong gate, or concourse, or getting picked for a random security screening. If you’re feeling anxious about your first time flying on a plane, giving yourself plenty of time to get comfortable in the airport should help.

Parking

If you don’t plan on taking some form of public transportation, Uber or Lyft, a taxi service, or making other arrangements for your arrival to the airport, this section is very important. Parking is available at the airport for both long-term and short-term trips.

Long-term parking is usually farther away from the airport entrance than short-term parking. If you know you will be parking in a long-term lot, make sure you allow for extra time to either walk or take a shuttle, if available, to the airport entrance.

The cost of parking varies by airport, but it can sometimes be very expensive. If you are planning your trip on a budget, check out your local airport’s website for parking rates and more information.

Additionally, you can find really great rates on parking near the airport from 3rd party businesses. They will then shuttle you to and from the airport. One such place is Park ‘N Fly, they are a national chain and in many major cities.

Ticketing

Upon entering the airport, you’ll see a variety of desks and attendants for each airline the airport has. In this day and age you should be buying your tickets online though, and you should have done it well in advance. You should either be printing your boarding passes and bringing them with you, or even better just using your airline’s app on your phone. Go through security, scan the the QR code on your app to their scanner. Do the same thing when you board the plane.

The whole process is very streamlined. Whenever I fly minimal interaction with anyone is involved. I just have the app open on my phone when it’s needed and walk to my gate barely having to talk to anyone. Also though, I literally never check bags. However, there are other ways to check in that way if you choose.

I know that you already checked in on the app but in case you didn’t or can’t for whatever reason, some airports will have kiosks available for you to check-in on. If you do use a kiosk, it will also print your boarding pass and checked luggage tag. Once you’ve checked in, head to the desk. Here, an attendant will weigh and take your luggage, assuming you are checking a bag.

If you don’t use a kiosk for check-in, you can do it the old fashioned way. Find the desk for the airline you’re flying with, wait in line, and show the attendant your government issued I.D., such as a driver’s license. They will confirm your flight details, print your boarding pass, weigh your luggage and send you on your way.

Now, you are ready for security.

Security Checkpoint

If you are a first time flyer, the security line looks incredibly overwhelming. This will be the most time consuming step of the process, but once it’s complete, you’ll be almost ready to board your flight.

Security is different in every airport. Some airports have a checkpoint for every gate, and some airports have one large checkpoint that everyone uses regardless of their gate. The desk attendant should tell you where to go after you check-in, but if they don’t there will be signs close-by that indicate which direction you need to go.

Before you get in line, check to make sure you’ve removed the following from your carry-on luggage and personal item(s):

  • Any liquids over 3.4 fluid ounces (100 ml) – including water, juice, etc.
  • Sharp objects or any item that could be considered a weapon, including manicure sets

When you’ve completed this step, grab a spot in line and wait with your boarding pass and I.D. in hand. You’ll be greeted by a TSA agent who may ask you some simple questions like, “Where are you headed today?” If you’re wearing a hat, they may also ask you to remove it or lift it up to ensure you match the photo on your I.D.

The attendant will direct you to the open lanes of security checkpoints behind them. There, you will be given a plastic tub and instructed to remove the following items from your bag(s) and person:

  • Any electronic larger than a laptop, as well as your laptop and charger. These go in a bin by themselves
  • Your shoes. 
  • Any food or liquid. These go in a plastic bin, along with the items below.
  • Your cell phone.
  • Jacket, if you’re wearing one.
  • Belt, if you’re wearing one.
  • Anything you have in your pockets, including your wallet and keys.

You do not have to remove any jewelry, and if you’re over 75, you can keep your shoes on.

Once you’ve placed everything on the belt, you’ll be directed to another line where you’ll walk through either a metal detector or full body scanner. Once you’ve exited the scanner, a TSA agent will either tell you you’re good to go, or they may perform a brief pat down.

If you do have to be pat down, don’t panic. Some clothing items, specifically those with sewn in sensor tags will set the scanner off. Also hair clips, metal in bras or other random small items may get flagged on the scanner. I’ve also known people who have had their hair patted down. Random pat downs are sometimes part of the experience, and they usually don’t last longer than 20 seconds.

The last step of security is the same for everyone, grab your stuff off of the belt and find a place to sit. Some people like to put their shoes in front of their items on the belt, so they can put them on while they wait for everything else to come out of the x-ray.

Whatever you choose, consolidate your items into one bin and find a place to sit to organize your stuff. Not only will this make you look like a pro, but it will eliminate the risk of a traffic jam in the airport security line while others are also trying to grab their belongings.

Whatever you do though, don’t forget anything as your hurriedly collecting your things from the conveyor belt. I had to use 3 different tubs recently for all the items I was brining, and I almost walked off leaving my wallet as I was trying to grab everything quickly and move out of everyone’s way. So after you’ve placed everything back into your bag, and double checked that you didn’t leave anything in the plastic bin, return it, and head towards your gate.

The Gate

The gate is where you’ll wait until it’s time to board your flight. Some airports have trains or shuttles that take you to your gate, and others have hallways that you can easily walk through to get there. Gate numbers are listed on easy to read large signs, with odd and even numbers on opposite sides.

If you have any time to kill, there are usually shops and restaurants near your flight gate. Be aware that airport prices are astronomical, but should you find you forgot a necessity, a travel sized option will most likely be available for purchase.

If you decide to wander around, make sure you’re back at your gate at least 5-10 minutes before it’s time to board your flight. Attendants at the desk will announce when the boarding process will begin, if a gate change has been made, or if your flight has been delayed.

Boarding

The boarding process is the last step before takeoff. Boarding is done in groups, and the attendant will announce when it is time for each group to board. Your group should be written on your boarding pass.

After your group has been called, you’ll wait in line for the attendant to scan your boarding pass. Then, you will walk down a hallway and wait to board the plane. On the plane, you’ll be greeted by a flight attendant who may help you find your seat. Your seat will be listed on your boarding pass, so make sure you keep it handy, in case you forget.

Once you’ve found your seat, store your carry-on luggage overhead. You can keep your personal item, such as a backpack or purse, with you as long as you can store it underneath the seat in front of you. After you get comfortable, buckle your seatbelt and get ready for takeoff.

The flight crew will give brief safety instructions as the plane drives to the runway and prepares for takeoff. The captain will make an announcement, and you will feel the plane’s speed increase. Before you know it, you’ll be off the ground and on your way to your destination.

The captain will turn off the fasten seatbelt sign 15-20 minutes after takeoff, which allows you the freedom to move around the cabin to stretch your legs or take a restroom break.

Landing and Baggage Claim

Landing is extremely similar to takeoff. The captain will make an announcement beforehand letting you know when you will be arriving at your destination, what the weather is like, and the carousel number your checked luggage will be on. At this time, flight attendants will be collecting any garbage from passengers.

When it’s time to land, make sure all of your belongings are packed and you are ready to exit. Double check the seat pouch in front of you to make sure you aren’t leaving anything behind. After the plane has taxied to the gate at the new airport and the captain has given passengers permission to exit, follow all of the signs to baggage claim. If you have forgotten your carousel number, don’t worry. There are screens available to help you figure out where to go. Keep in mind that sometimes the carousel numbers can change.

Once you’ve gotten your checked luggage, you are ready to explore your destination. Flying for the first time can be scary and full of “what if” scenarios, but the more you tackle your fear and fly, the less likely you are to experience anxiety.

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