My first time flying on a plane was when I was three years old, going to the island of Kauai from Oahu. My mom told me I was so excited for my first flight that I couldn’t stop talking about it for the entire trip! My second flight was to Las Vegas. I remember staring out the window the entire time, absolutely enamored with watching the ocean, blue skies, and clouds pass by.
As an adult, flying has become integral to my life, especially while living and traveling in Europe. Traveling is an incredible experience, and flying is virtually a non-negotiable to see the farthest parts of the world. While flying can be stressful, it’s also exciting and can add fun to your incredible journey!
This article will take you through what to expect when flying for the first time, from planning your trip to what happens in the airport and how to have a smooth flight. We hope these first-time flying tips and tricks allow you to have a fun and relaxing first flight!
When Planning a Trip
This first section of tips for first-time flyers covers the process of planning a trip and booking your first flight. While it can be as easy as going to an airline’s website and booking the first flight you can find, there are lots of ways to save money and ensure that you’re getting the best deals.
1. Check Current Promotions for Travel Credit Cards
My first tip when it comes to planning any trip, with or without flying, is to do some research on credit cards that offer travel benefits. This can vary from branded cards for specific airlines and hotels to cards like American Express or Chase Sapphire, where you can accumulate points through these companies’ respective rewards programs. These companies often run promotions for signing up for a credit card which allows you to accumulate a ton of points at one time.
If you plan to be loyal to specific airlines or hotels, you’ll want to go with a branded credit card. For example, I have an IHG Premier Rewards credit card, so I earn points by using the card that I can use towards stays at brands like Intercontinental, Six Senses, Crowne Plaza, and Holiday Inn. Airline credit cards offer benefits like free checked baggage, free upgrades, and loyalty status, along with accumulating points that can be spent on tickets.
For more information on this, check out our article on the best travel credit cards.
2. Search Smarter, Not Harder, for the Best Flight Deals
Once you know where you want to fly to, you’ll want to sign up with Going. Going (formerly known as Scott’s Cheap Flights) sends you flight deals straight to your inbox. All you have to do is let them know your closest airports, and they’ll let you know the best flight deals departing from your city.
For date-specific searches, check Skyscanner, Momondo, and Expedia. These are flight search engines that will provide you with a list of flights from every airline – except for Southwest, where you’ll have to look separately. It’s a good idea to see if Southwest flies frequently out of your home airport.
It will save you a lot of time to check these websites rather than individual airline websites. To find the cheapest flight possible, you’ll want to be flexible with your dates and open to connections over direct flights.
Southwest is the only large airline not allowing its flights to be shown on these search engines. I do still recommend checking out Southwest for domestic flight deals, though.
See Related: Best Family Vacations on a Budget
3. Double-check Any Connecting Flights
Make sure to pay attention to flight details before you book anything. You may see a good deal, but it may require you to make several layovers through different airports in order to get to your final destination. If you don’t want to take a long flight, you may prefer to have a layover in between.
However, you’ll want to make sure you have sufficient time between your flights on your layover. If you have multiple international flights, you’ll need a layover of at least an hour (preferably more) in order to get through customs and security and make it to your next gate and onto your next flight. I recommend looking for flights that have at least a two-hour layover for a safe buffer.
4. Be Sure to Have All the Required Documents to Fly
It’s so fun and exciting once you have your flight booked! But through that excitement, there are a couple of essential things that you’ll need to remember before you head straight to the airport. With any flight, there will be specific documents you’ll need in order to get through security and board your flight. Here are just some of the basics:
- Boarding Pass – Every passenger on every flight needs a boarding pass. This can be printed out online, saved digitally on your phone, or you can get a paper ticket at the check-in desk at the airport unless otherwise stated by your airline.
- Passport – Passports are required for all international travel but are not required on domestic flights. You must have a valid passport that will be valid for at least six months after your trip. If you don’t currently have a passport and plan to travel internationally, apply for one as soon as possible, as the process can take several months.
- ID – For domestic flights in the U.S., you just need a valid driver’s license or state ID.
- Apply for a visa – Some countries require visitors to apply for a visa in advance. Every country has different rules when it comes to visas, so make sure to research this before you make any travel plans.
- Passenger Locator Form – Countries mostly used passenger locator forms during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some countries (and states, like Hawaii) still require visitors to fill out a similar form, but it’s mostly for tourism statistics. Flight attendants will usually hand out this form on the plane.
See Related: Countries With Digital Nomad Visas
5. Pay for Luggage When Buying Your Plane Ticket
One of my most important first-time flying tips is to pay for your luggage when you’re booking your flight. You may still be considering what you’re going to wear or bring, but trust me: it is always cheaper to pay for your luggage at the time of booking rather than at the airport. If you are a loyalty member of a specific airline, they often offer a certain amount of luggage for free, but always remember to check out the luggage policy before booking.
See Related: Ways to Luggage-Free Travel (Yes, It Is Possible)
Before Your Flight
Once you have your flight booked, things start to get more fun! What you’ll pack, what you can and can’t bring on the plane, and booking any extra things like rental cars are all things that you should start to consider next.
6. Purchase Travel Accessories
How much you plan to bring on your flight will determine what kind of luggage you’ll need. Be sure to check your airline’s website for specific dimensions that are allowed for each luggage type. You may have everything you need in terms of luggage already, but if you don’t, here are some of my recommendations:
- Personal Item: BÉIS Mini Weekender – A personal item must fit under the seat in front of you on an airplane. Some low-cost airlines have strict size limits on personal items.
- Carry-on Bag: AWAY The Carry-On – A carry-on (also known as a cabin bag) goes with you into the cabin and should fit in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you. Each airline has different dimensions that are allowed, so be sure to check with your specific airline.
- Checked Bag: LEVEL8 Voyageur Check-In – The general rule with checked bags is not so much about size but about weight. Most airlines allow 50 pounds per bag, but some may allow a little more or a little less. If your bag is too large, most airlines charge an oversized bag fee.
I personally always prefer to travel with carry-on luggage only. It’s much faster to get out of the airport and onto adventuring when you don’t have to wait in baggage claim for your items to come out. The only downside of traveling with a carry-on bag only is that you are limited in the amount of liquid you can bring, but that rule might be changing in the near future!
See Related: AWAY vs BEIS: What is the Better Suitcase?
7. Book Any Extras
Continue planning your trip by booking everything else you’ll need while there. If you’re going on a long trip away from home (such as exploring Europe), book any connecting flight and other legs of your journey. You’ll also need to book accommodation, tours, airport transfers, and a rental car if necessary.
8. Packing Rules
When flying on a commercial airline, there are certain rules that every passenger must follow when it comes to packing. There are different rules when it comes to cabin luggage (also known as a carry-on bag) versus checked luggage (the luggage that flies in the cargo area of the plane). Here are just some of the basic but most important rules when it comes to packing:
- Each passenger is only allowed a single (clear) plastic bag worth of liquids. Each liquid item can only be a maximum of 100 ml or 3.8 ounces. You can have full-sized items (over 100 ml) in your checked luggage. Either way, here’s a list of our favorite mini bottles that might help you out.
- Exceptions to the liquids rule: medications, breastmilk, baby food, and anything from duty-free as long as it remains sealed.
- No weapons (or sharp objects) are allowed in carry-on bags.
- No lithium batteries in checked baggage (including built-in portable chargers).
- Keep all electronics in your carry-on – the airline will not be held liable if something gets damaged in your checked bag.
- No flammable liquids in checked baggage.
See Related: LEVEL8 Luggage & Cases Review: Worth the Price?
9. Check in to Your Flight Online
For most airlines, you can check in to your flight exactly 24 hours before your departure time. The airline will usually e-mail you right before it’s time to check in.
During check-in, you can pick your seat, upgrade your ticket, and purchase additional luggage if necessary. Once you check in, most airlines will give you a digital boarding pass.
The biggest benefit of checking in to your flight early is being able to pick the best seat for the best prices. You can choose a window seat or aisle seat, depending on your preference. If you wait until the last moment to check in, you may get stuck in the middle seat between two strangers.
Middle seats are usually the most cramped airplane seat, and you’ll have to share your armrest with the person sitting next to you. Window seats are best if you want to sleep for most of the flight, and an aisle seat is a good option if you want to get up to walk around every so often.
However, this experience will vary from airline to airline, especially on low-cost airlines and basic economy fares. Some airlines will not allow you to choose a seat during the check-in process based on these factors.
If you’re flying Southwest, you’ll definitely want to check in as early as possible. Southwest is known for its unique system of not assigning seats. Instead, when you check-in, you are given a number (A1, A2, B2, C3, and so on).
Your assigned letter and number correspond with your place in line; those with A1 through A15 will get to board first, while those in the C section will board last. Once you board, you can claim any seat you’d like.
See Related: Ways to Find Cheap Flights to Europe
10. Purchase Travel Insurance
Travel insurance protects you from unforeseen circumstances that may arise during your journey. Plans vary on what they cover, including everything from lost luggage to car trouble, medical emergencies, and theft. Here at ViaTravelers, our favorite places to shop around for travel insurance plans are SafetyWing and VisitorsCoverage.
VisitorsCoverage is an online marketplace where you can find trip insurance as well as travel medical insurance, whereas SafetyWing specializes in medical insurance. Make sure to find a plan that fits your travel plans. Some credit cards also offer a certain amount of travel insurance included in your annual fee.
See Related: What’s the Average Cost of Travel Insurance?
At the Airport
Arriving at the airport can often be the most stressful part of a trip. Let’s walk through the steps of navigating through the airport all the way to finding your gate. Once you’re waiting excitedly at the gate, you can start to relax, and the vacation really begins!
11. Arrive at the Airport Early
Give yourself time to get situated at the airport. If you are traveling with a checked bag, need your boarding pass printed, or if your airline requires you to, head to the check-in counter. Unless your airline requires you to stop at the check-in desk first, if you’re only traveling with a carry-on bag or a personal item, you can head straight to security.
Airport security is usually where you’ll spend the bulk of your time before getting to your gate. We’ll talk about how to get through security efficiently in the next section. Generally, you want to arrive at the airport at least two hours before your flight for domestic trips. If you’re going on an international flight, give yourself a few hours (at least three hours) to get situated.
If you’re flying during peak travel times (holiday weekends, spring break, summer, etc.), give yourself additional time. Also, don’t forget to factor in traffic and drive time, especially if all your nearby airports involve long car rides to get there.
12. Going Through Security
Going through airport security is usually the most stress-inducing time for any traveler. Security is often plagued with long lines and people who move at sloth-like speeds. This is where you have to unpack some of your belongings, such as liquids and large electronics, take off any metal jewelry and accessories, take off your shoes, and walk through a scanner.
These are a few of my personal tips that I follow in order to get through security as quickly and efficiently as possible:
- Wear shoes that can easily slip on and off.
- Don’t forget to take off your jacket, belt, and watch before going through the scanner and make sure your pockets are empty.
- Keep all of your large electronics in one place (laptop, kindle, and iPad).
- Keep your liquids bag close to your electronics so you can remove them all at the same time.
- Don’t wear a ton of layers before security – hold or keep unnecessary layers in your bag.
- Don’t wear clothing with lots of external pockets (think cargo pants). These will make you a target for “random” searches.
Once you put your items on the security conveyor belt, you’ll have to walk through a body scanner. They may have to do a secondary search if you set off the alarm – but don’t worry, this is normal and only takes a few more seconds.
If there’s anything that seems out of the ordinary in your bag, security may ask you to open it and ask for your permission to look through it. Again, as long as you don’t have any contraband items, this will only take a few seconds, and you should be good to go.
See Related: Clear vs TSA Precheck: What’s Better?
13. Duty-free Shopping
Once you pass through security, you’re on to duty-free! Items in a duty-free shop are usually exempt from local or national taxes. Popular items you’ll find include name-brand makeup and perfume, liquor, and cigarettes.
You can also find local artisanal items, so it’s a good place to pick up last-minute gifts for friends, family, or the cabin crew to win yourself some in-flight favors or a free seat upgrade! At checkout, they will ask you to scan your boarding pass. Anything put in a duty-free sealed bag may not be opened until you get to your destination.
See Related: Can You Bring Alcohol on a Plane?
14. Finding Your Gate
After walking through duty-free, you’ll find yourself in the boarding area. Above you, you’ll see large TV screen panels with various flight information. To find your gate, look at the flight number on your boarding pass.
The corresponding flight number on the screen will show you where your gate is. Follow the signs in the airport for your respective gate.
If you get through security early, your flight may not have a gate assigned to it yet. In this case, I recommend joining other passengers at the airport bars, lounges, or restaurants. If you’re at a small airport that may not have these amenities, have a seat at any gate until your flight information has been updated.
15. Airport Lounges
A great benefit to arriving early at the airport is taking advantage of airport lounges. Airport lounges are more private areas that usually feature comfortable chairs, charging areas, bathrooms, and complimentary food and drinks.
You can access an airport lounge through various means, including your credit card, airline loyalty status, or through a Priority Pass or similar membership. Some lounges will allow you to pay for a day pass, which usually costs around $30 or more.
See Related: Best Credit Cards with Lounge Access
16. Prepare for Your Flight!
Once you’ve gotten yourself situated, it’s time to sit and wait. Use the bathroom, buy snacks, water, and magazines, and make sure your electronics are charged.
Take out anything from your suitcase that you’ll use during the flight. Make sure to stay by your gate so you’ll know when boarding begins.
Customer service agents will tell you when it’s time to board. At this time, you’ll get in line, present your boarding pass and ID, and make your way onto the jet bridge, which will connect to the airplane.
During the Flight
This next section of tips for first-time flyers is all about what goes on during the flight. All the tips in this section can be applied to every flight, whether you’re on a short domestic flight or a long-haul international flight.
17. Dress Comfortably
This may not matter on flights that are less than two hours, but for any long-haul flights, I highly recommend that you dress comfortably. Comfortability can look different for everyone, so choose an outfit that’s best for you.
My perfect outfit for long-haul flights consists of leggings, compression socks, a sports bra, a comfortable top, a hoodie, and a sleep mask. Layering is key – you might feel hot from walking through the airport, but once the plane takes off, it’s usually pretty chilly and can remain that way for the entire flight.
See Related: Best Carry-On Essentials for Travel
18. Finding Your Seat
Your seat number is located on your boarding pass. The first row on the plane is row 1, and then it goes up from there. Seat A is a window seat, and then the row goes down the alphabet. If someone is in your seat, you can politely tell them that it is your seat or inform the cabin crew.
Generally speaking, you can switch seats with people unless the plane is on the smaller side and needs to be weight balanced. Once you find your seat, you can store your luggage in the overhead compartment above your seat or under the seat in front of you.
See Related: SeatGuru Review: How to Find the Best Airplane Seat
19. Taxi, Take Off, and Landing
“Taxi, take off, and landing” refer to the three states in which the plane is moving, but it is not safe for passengers to move around the cabin. Taxi and take off are when the airplane is departing, and landing is when the plane descends from its cruise altitude until it touches the ground, then it’s taxiing again until it is parked at the gate.
Flight attendants will let you know when the plane is at its cruise altitude, which is when you can use the bathroom, stand up and move around the cabin, and remove items from your luggage. During take off and landing, air pressure may change, and you may feel your ears “pop.” This is a normal sensation and shouldn’t cause any long-term pain.
20. Turbulence is Normal
I’ve been flying since I was three years old. It was not until I became an adult that I started to (unnecessarily) worry during turbulence.
Turbulence is when the plane flies through unstable air, causing the plane to shake and rattle. Moderate turbulence is completely normal, and severe turbulence is very rare.
Planes are built to withstand severe turbulence and more. Though it may seem scary, turbulence usually passes after a few minutes and is nothing to fret over. The cabin crew will usually let you know before the pilots expect turbulence to hit, at which time the seat belt sign will turn on, and you should return to your seat and fasten your seat belt.
21. Items to Help Anxious Travelers
No matter how often I fly, I am an anxious traveler. And that’s okay! To me, the anxiety is worth getting to see and explore a new place, and I’m not going to let it hold me back from exploring our beautiful world. Throughout the years, I’ve compiled a bit of an anxious traveler kit that I use when flying. It helps me get my mind off the flight and makes the time go faster. These are some things I recommend:
- My top recommendation has to be noise-canceling headphones. The Soundcore Life Q35 is my favorite. It’s affordable, connects wirelessly to my phone, and comes with a cord so I can also use it with the in-flight entertainment system.
- Download your own entertainment, like your favorite movies, shows, or games, onto your phone, iPad, or laptop. Most long-haul flights are equipped with an in-flight entertainment system that includes some great movies and TV shows. But if you have a comfort show (mine is Grace and Frankie), you can download a few episodes to watch.
- Download music and podcasts onto your phone. If you need a calming podcast recommendation to help you fall asleep, I love Get Sleepy by Slumber Studios. Think bedtime stories – but for adults!
- Invest in an Amazon Kindle – another one of my top recommendations! I feel like I read so much faster when I’m on a plane.
- A good-quality neck pillow and a sleep mask help a ton.
- Most airlines equip their planes with USB chargers, but just in case, always make sure to bring a portable charger with you. Anker is my go-to brand when it comes to portable chargers. I’ve been using the same one for over 5 years, and it’s still going strong!
22. Meals on Flights
On domestic flights, unless you’re in first or business class, you most likely won’t be offered a free meal. You may get a small snack and a drink.
Therefore, I recommend bringing your own snacks and filling up a water bottle at the airport. On international flights, you will get at least one meal.
After the Flight
You’ve made it to your destination! There are just a few more things to know before you leave the airport, but soon after, you’ll be off to enjoy your trip! Happy travels!
23. Customs (for international flights)
Once you land in an international destination, you’ll have to go through customs. They usually have two lines: one for citizens and one for non-citizens. Once you make it to a customs officer, they’ll ask for your passport and flight details along with some basic information.
Basic questions may include where you’re staying, how long you’re staying, how much money you’ve brought with you, and the purpose of your visit. If everything’s good to go, they’ll stamp your passport, and you’ll be out of there.
See Related: Awesome Places to Travel Without a Passport
24. Head Straight to the Baggage Claim Area
After customs, follow the signs to baggage claim. If you have checked your luggage, you’ll look for the bag conveyor with your flight information on it and wait for your bag.
If you don’t have checked luggage, you can proceed to the exit. Many airports have large baggage claims, so it’s important to pay attention to which one your bag will be sent to.
25. Lost Luggage
If you’ve found yourself in the unfortunate position of not being able to locate your luggage at the baggage claim, you’re going to need to go to the lost luggage desk. File a PIR (property irregularity report) for your lost luggage and describe it as accurately as possible.
Most lost luggage issues are resolved relatively quickly. In the meantime, buy only the necessities and keep all your receipts so you can request reimbursement from the airline.
See Related: VisitorsCoverage Review: Is It Legit?
26. Finding the Rental Car Office
If you’ve been paying attention, you will have booked your rental car ahead of time (see #7), but where do you find it once you’ve arrived?
Rental car offices can usually be found after baggage claim and in the arrivals area of the airport. Some airports have rental car offices in a parking garage, but you can easily figure this out with signs posted overhead. Some rental offices might be further afield (take LAX as an example), and you may need to take a shuttle to reach it.
While searching for the car rental office, make sure to keep all of your belongings with you at all times. Abandoned luggage can be confiscated and destroyed by airport security.