Step-by-Step First-Time Air Travel Guide
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that, every year, some 2,587,000 passengers fly in and out of U.S. airports. And although some travelers feel anxious about stepping on a plane, there were only 28 fatalities out of all those passengers in 2015, and 29 in 2016 – an amazing statistic that makes flying the safest way to travel, at least in the United States where the industry is carefully regulated and monitored.
That said, there are a few things you should know – and do – to make your first flight as comfortable and stress-free as possible.
The Days Before Your Flight
Don't leave packing until the last minute. For your first time flying, you definitely want to be prepared ahead of time so you don’t get any sudden anxieties regarding what you should bring and what you can’t forget. You'll be more relaxed – and more likely to have everything you need – if you make a list of must-haves at least a day or two before your flight, and then collect everything in your suitcase or backpack. Label each piece of luggage with your name and an email or phone number you can be reached at while on the road, just in case you get separated.
Airline Luggage Regulations
Life is almost always easier if you can pack light; not only will you avoid hauling a lot of stuff around, you might even be able to travel with only a carry-on and avoid paying checked bag fees entirely. Each airline's sizing rules for carry-ons varies slightly, so always check with the airline before you start packing. A size limit of 24 inches by 17 inches by 10 inches, including wheels and handles, is fairly typical. You'll also need to make sure you're not packing anything in your carry-on that's prohibited by the TSA; pay special attention to the rules about liquids.
Most airlines also allow you to carry on a single small personal item that fits underneath the seat in front of you – think a purse, laptop case or small briefcase. If you do end up checking a suitcase, a maximum size of 62 linear inches (length + width + depth) and a weight limit of 50 pounds is common across the industry, with some airlines granting a 70-pound weight limit to passengers with a premium ticket. If you lock your bag, make sure you use a TSA-approved lock.
Even if you have a couple carry-on bags to bring with you on the flight, you may be on a full plane that requires a few people to voluntarily check their carry-on bags at the gate. If this is the case for your flight and you have a connecting flight, they will be sure to have those bags sent to your final destination by checking your travel information. If you do choose to volunteer your bag, there is no charge, and you will not have to stress about finding space for your luggage upon boarding.
Getting to the Airport
Most airlines and the TSA recommend arriving at the airport at least two hours before the scheduled departure of a domestic flight; get there three hours early if you're flying internationally. That gives you enough time to check in and collect your boarding pass, check any baggage through, go through the airport security screening checkpoint and be at the departure gate when your flight starts boarding about half an hour before its scheduled departure time.
The airlines impose their own hard caps on when they'll stop accepting check-ins – usually 30 to 60 minutes before departure, depending on your itinerary. They usually stop accepting checked bags 45 or 60 minutes before departure. Especially when you are flying for the first time, having lots of extra time to spare when you get to your gate is far better than having to sprint across the airport before your flight takes off without you.
The check-in process in itself is not usually the longest part of your airport experience, and you can often check-in early via airline apps that allow you to do so. However, be sure to account for any special holidays happening or specific days of the week that travel rates increase–these factors might make for longer check-in lines, which makes checking in early even more appealing.
At the Security Checkpoint
You'll need to show your ID when you check in for your flight, and then show your ID and boarding pass at the TSA security checkpoint. Once you're past the initial screener, you'll put all your carry-on luggage, along with your footwear, outerwear and anything in your pockets, in bins that are then put through an X-ray machine.
While your luggage is being screened, you'll walk through a screening machine yourself – its exact nature varies depending on the airport (some kind of metal detector) – then collect your luggage on the other side. If either screening machine detects anything unusual, you and your luggage may be subjected to extra screening measures.
Waiting to Board
Once you're past the security checkpoint, you'll be in the departure terminal of the airport. Check your boarding pass – it'll tell you which gate your plane will leave from. Each airport also has large screens that display a list of flight departure times and gates. If anything changes about your flight time or gate number, those screens and alerts from the mobile app for your airline are your best sources of updated information. Most airlines divide passengers into boarding groups; the gate attendant will call your boarding group or row number when it's time to get on the plane. If you need extra assistance getting down the jetway – for example, if you're in a wheelchair or traveling with small children – they'll let you board early.
Once You're on the Plane
When you're on the plane, step out of the aisle as soon as you can so that others can continue to board. Stow your luggage either in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you; anything you want access to during the flight should go under the seat, if possible.
Before the plane takes off, buckle your seatbelt across your lap. If you're wearing a bulky jacket or are draped in a blanket, buckle the seatbelt on the outside of those layers – otherwise, the flight attendants will have to wake you to check it.
The flight crew will walk you through the rest of your first flight adventure, from handling small electronics (they should be in airplane mode, and laptops must be stowed during takeoff and landing) to when it's okay to use the restrooms (try to time your visits to avoid the meal service carts, which totally block the aisle).
Note: Some airlines may offer free, in-flight entertainment and/or wifi, especially if they are long flights. International flights often include these types of amenities, with longer time being spent in the air.
Overall, first time flyers should prepare well in advance of their flight to ensure their travel experience goes as smoothly as possible. Arrive at the airport two to three hours early to give yourself plenty of time to do what you need to do at the check-in counter and the security checkpoints.
Make sure you have your personal identification close-at-hand for check-in and security purposes (this will either be a passport or a driver’s license). Save yourself the hassle of having your bags thoroughly examined by airport security by noting the TSA rules when it comes to carry-on items.
Make sure you have easy access to your wallet and cell phone at all times, in case you need to refer to any information or grab your ID or credit card.
Pay attention to your boarding gate and boarding time, as both of these factors could potentially change due to any difficulties with the plane, sudden delays or gate changes.
Familiarize yourself with the cabin crew and do not be afraid to ask questions when needed. After flying successfully for the first time, you’ll be fully prepared for the next flight.