While flying is “easy” after you have a couple of flights under your belt, if you are about to take your first flight, it might seem like a daunting task.
Starting with booking the flights, getting to the airports on time, and boarding the aircraft without missing the flight, there are many small pieces to get right in order to get wherever you need to go.
That’s why I wrote this guide to flying for the first time. As the title suggests, I’ll take you through all the steps – starting with the things you have to do before you even get to the airport and ending with you arriving at your destination.
Are you interested in trying business or first class for the price of economy?
If so, you might want to check out Four Ways to Try Business Class Without Breaking the Bank - a free guide that I put together detailing some of the ways I was able to do so - and experiment with some of the methods mentioned in it.
Getting Ready for Your First Flight
First, let’s take a look at all the things you need to do before you are even ready to fly – booking your flight, getting all the travel documents and gear you will need, and so on.
1. Booking the Flight
If you already booked your flight or if you have someone else booking it for you, feel free to skip this part. If not, let’s quickly look at the process of booking a flight.
There are two ways – directly from the airline you will be flying with (or from one of its partner airlines) or through a travel agent. While both of those options work well, whenever possible, I would suggest you to book directly as it will make your life easier in case you will end up needing to make changes, etc.
That said, always compare prices. And, if a reputable online travel agency like Expedia offers a considerably better fare than the airline itself, don’t be afraid to take advantage of that.
The easiest and quickest way to find flights that will work for you is to use comparison sites like Google Flights or Momondo. These will search for your flights on a variety of different airline and travel agency websites, and present you with all the options in a clean format.
Generally, when searching for a flight, you will have to input your departure and arrival airports, the dates you want to travel on, as well as whether you are looking for a return, a one-way, or an open-jaw ticket (returning from a different airport than the one you start your journey at).
Some search engines like Google Flights also allow you to input multiple airports at the same time. So, for example, if you live somewhere between Vienna and Budapest airports like I used to, you can search for and compare flights out of both of the airports easily.
You will also have to decide which class you want to travel in and whether you are willing to transfer along the way to your final destination or want to take a non-stop flight (of course, there are many routes on which you can’t fly non-stop, though).
At the time of booking, I recommend having access to your credit card and passport (if traveling internationally). Before clicking “Book” or “Pay,” make sure to triple check all the information you entered throughout the booking process – the route, the dates, as well as your personal information. Changing those things after booking can get costly.
Once you purchase your ticket, once again make sure that everything is in order. I recommend you to read this article where I list the five most important things to check after the itinerary lands in your inbox.
2. Get All the Things You Need
Once you have your ticket booked (or even before you book it), get the following if you don’t have it already:
- Official ID – If you are traveling internationally, this will generally be your passport (unless you are traveling within the Schengen zone in the EU, etc.). For domestic flights, acceptable ID varies from country to country, so check with the local authorities.
- Visa / Travel Authorization (if necessary) – Many countries will let you visit without a visa under certain conditions. Others countries require you to get a proper visa or a travel authorization (such as ESTA in the United States) even when going as a tourist. Make sure to check with the embassy of the country you are traveling to with enough time to spare since, in some cases, the process of getting a visa can take a couple of weeks or even longer.
- Vaccination (if necessary) – In most cases, you will not need to get any additional vaccinations to the ones you likely got as a child. However, when visiting some – especially African and South American – countries, you might need to get vaccinated against yellow fever or other diseases to be let in. Again, just like with visa, check with the embassy.
The above are the essentials that will get you to your destination.
But, you might also want to consider getting travel insurance – especially so if you are going on a longer trip. While hopefully you won’t need it, it will be useful in case you get sick, your belongings get stolen or damaged, or other not-so-pleasant things happen to you on the road.
I recommend getting a free quote from World Nomads to get started as they offer travel insurance for people of most nationalities that are about to travel to most of the countries in the world. You can even get insurance with them once you’re already on the road.
Separate from the above “formalities,” you might also want to buy any luggage you might need or travel accessories such as a neck wallet or a travel pillow depending on what you already have and on your preferences.
3. Pack Your Luggage
There are two kinds of baggage when traveling by air: carry-on and checkedk.
As their names suggest, the first one is the baggage that you take with you onboard the aircraft and place either in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you. The second one travels in the aircraft’s cargo hold and needs to be handed over to the airline at a check-in counter.
When packing either of those, you should be aware of what your baggage allowance is ( in terms of size, weight, and the number of pieces) and what the restricted items are.
You should be able to find what your baggage allowance is on your ticket.
As for restricted items, there are things that can be carried on but not checked in (such as lighters and matches), things that can be checked in but cannot be carried on (such as knives), and things that cannot get on the plane at all (such as spray cans).
If you are unsure about your baggage allowance or whether you can take a certain item with your or not, just give a quick call to the airline you are about to fly with.
If you are traveling with sports equipment or a larger musical instrument like guitar, make sure to do your research about that before heading to the airport as well.
4. Check-in Online
There are still some airlines that don’t offer online check-in (either on all routes or just on select few). However, in most cases, you will be able to do online check-in anywhere between 24 and 48 hours before the flight (or even earlier).
Regardless of whether you are traveling with or without checked baggage, you should take advantage of it to get access to the widest selection of seats (if you haven’t chosen – or couldn’t choose – one when you booked your ticket).
It will also generally save you some time at the airport. Especially so if you are only traveling with a carry-on bag.
Before starting the check-in process, you might want to check SeatGuru to find out what the best seats to get on your flight are, and you will want to have your passport handy.
When you finish the check-in process, you’ll be able to print your boarding pass, download it to your smartphone, or send it to your email.
Even if you are able to receive a PDF or Apple Wallet version of your boarding pass digitally, I still recommend printing out a copy. That way you won’t have to worry about your battery dying. Also, some airports have security at their entrance (like Delhi) and might want to see a hard copy.
The Day of Your First Flight
Now that you have your ticket and have done all the necessary preparations, let’s take a look at what you will need to get on the day of your first flight.
1. Get to the Airport with Enough Time to Spare
Getting to the airport sounds, and more or less is, simple. Just punch in “JFK airport” into the navigation, tell the cab driver to take you to Tokyo Haneda airport, or catch the train to Frankfurt airport.
That said, sometimes it’s a bit more complicated than that. The most important thing to keep in mind is that most larger airports have more than one terminal.
Sometimes these terminals might be a short walk away from each other, but other times they might be a ten-minute shuttle bus ride apart. Sometimes they might not even be connected with a shuttle and getting between them.
Whatever the case, though, if you get the terminal wrong and are running late, you might risk missing your flight.
As such, always make sure to check the departure terminal before you head to the airport.
The terminals are generally marked with letters or numbers (terminal 1, terminal B, etc.), and you will be able to find your departure terminal on the e-ticket (or boarding pass if you checked in online in advance) of your flight, next to the airport name.
If you can’t find the information or are unsure if you’re checking the right thing, you can also check your departure airport’s website or call the airport or airline. Or simply search for “[airline] [airport] terminal” (e.g. “emirates heathrow terminal”).
One other thing to keep in mind when getting to the airport – more specifically when driving – the parking charges.
Airports generally have several different parking lots – some within walkable distance of the terminal, others requiring a shuttle bus ride. Generally, the closer the parking lot is to the terminal, the more expensive it is and the shorter the stay it is intended for.
Because of that, you will want to check the parking rates and choose the parking lot that works best for your situation in advance, before leaving home.
You should also check into third-party parking lots around your departure airport. These are oftentimes cheaper than the official parking lots and are can be a good deal if you are going to be traveling for a long period of time.
2. Check-in and Drop Your Bag Off
Once you find yourself in the right terminal, it’s time to check-in (if you haven’t done so online), and drop your checked bag off.
If you checked-in online and have your boarding pass already – and are traveling without checked luggage – you can generally skip this step and head straight to security. Otherwise, head to one of the screens that shows all the departing flights.
Find your flight on the screen to figure out where its check-in counters are.
Sometimes it will say something like “Zone A” or “Zone 1,” other times it will say something along the lines of “Check-in Counters 200-215.” Sometimes those counters will be specific to your flight, other times they will be universal for all the flights operated by your airline.
What is important, though, is that you pick the right queue. If you checked-in online and are only dropping your bag off, there will be a “baggage drop-off” queue. If you haven’t done that and are flying in economy class, use the regular “economy class” queue. If you are traveling in business class, use the “business class” queue. And so on.
Once it’s your turn, present your passport to the agent, and follow the instructions you are given.
If you have a connecting flight, your luggage will most often be checked all the way through to your final destination. In other words, if you are flying from New York to Seoul via Tokyo, you will not have to pick your checked bag in Tokyo.
Usually, you will also be given your connecting flight’s boarding pass.
Besides the manned check-in counters that I talk about, in some cases you will be able to use automated check-in machines. If you decide to do so and have problems along the way, talk to one of the staff members that will be likely standing around the machines helping people out.
3. Go Through Security Check
Unlike getting on an inter-city train or a public bus, you have to – except for some rare instances like Hawaiian inter-island commuter flights – go through a security check.
Generally, that check will take place when you go from the check-in to the departures are of the terminal. At some airports, it’s done later – at your actual boarding gate.
At the check, both you as well as your baggage will be scanned.
You will have to go through a metal detector or a body scanner that will let the security staff know that you are not carrying anything dangerous. Sometimes, you might “beep” as you go through, and will have to go through a more extensive check including a pat down, etc.
To avoid that as much as possible, remove everything from your pockets, and remove your belt, watch, etc. At some airports, you might also be asked to remove your shoes.
All of those, as well as your carry-on bag will go through an X-ray machine.
Before placing your bag on the conveyor belt that will take it through the X-ray, remove your laptop (or use one of the smart new foldable laptop backpacks) and allowed liquids, and make sure you don’t have any large bottles of liquids (above 100 ml in most cases, but check with your departure airport) with you.
On some occasions, the security staff might look into your bag manually to ensure there is nothing dangerous in it.
Once you are past the metal detector or body scanner, and your bags come out of the other side without being flagged for further inspection, you are good to go.
Before leaving the security check area, though, make sure you have all your belongings – your phone, your watch, your belt, your coins, you name it.
Oh, and don’t try to do any stupid jokes…
4. Go Through Immigration
If you are flying internationally, you will almost always have to – besides security – also clear immigration to exit the country that you are departing. Generally, there will be an immigration check after security, but occasionally – like in Singapore – you’ll go through immigration first.
Just present your passport without any cover or similar attachment together with your boarding pass to the immigration officer and wait for further instructions.
If you are traveling with your family, you can approach the immigration officer together. Otherwise, if you are traveling with your friends, go one-by-one.
Nowadays, some countries have automated the process where you only need to scan your passport and pass through an automated gate rather than interact with an actual person. Unless you are flagged for additional screening, of course.
There are also countries – like the US and the UK – which do not have exit immigration. In those countries, departing on an international flight is not much different than departing on a domestic flight.
5. Find Your Gate and Wait for Boarding
Once you get to the departures area, confirm the gate that your flight will be departing from (it will be something like A10, B15, G27A, etc.) once again. Either head directly to the gate or make sure you to leave yourself with enough time to get there by “boarding time” which should be indicated on your boarding pass.
Also, when going to the gate, make sure you are going to your actual gate rather than your “seat.” It is fairly easy to mistakenly look at your seat number, let’s say 17A, and head to gate A17.
If you have some time to spare, you can look around the duty free shops, grab a bite to eat, or get a cup of coffee at one of the stores in the terminal. If you are flying in business or first class, you can (at most airports) visit a lounge.
Alternatively, you can just head to your gate early and sit on one of the benches around it. Nowadays, many of them also have power outlets and USB ports.
6. Board the Plane at Your Departure Gate
The time has come to finally board your first flight.
Depending on what airline you are flying with, how large the aircraft you are flying on is, and so on, boarding will generally start anywhere between half an hour and an hour before the flight’s scheduled departure time.
Boarding usually takes place in groups (sometimes called zones). These might be numbered (zone 1, group A, etc.) or they might simply be described by who can board (first class passengers, frequent flyer status holders, etc.).
In either case, disabled passengers, passengers traveling with children, and so on can most often board first. They are followed by various combinations of premium class passengers and frequent flyer status holders. Economy class passengers board last.
Occasionally, passengers in window and middle seats might be invited to board first, followed by passengers in aisle seats to increase efficiency.
Don’t worry about it too much, though, as the gate staff will explain it before the boarding will begin.
As for actually going from the terminal into the aircraft, you will either walk down a jetway that directly connects it to the aircraft, take a bus to the aircraft and then walk up a set of stairs, or walk to the aircraft and then take the stairs.
It will depend on the airport you are departing from as well as the actual flight.
Onboard Your First Flight
With all of the above done, you should find yourself at the door of the aircraft that will take you on your first flight. You greet the flight attendant that will welcome you at the door, and now what?
1. Find Your Seat and Stow Your Baggage
Once onboard, head down the aisle and find your seat. The seat number is usually written above the seats, on the overhead bins. In case you are flying on a twin-aisle aircraft, a flight attendant will direct you into the correct aisle.
Before sitting down, stow whatever luggage you need to in the overhead compartment. You can also keep it under your seat if it fits (I wrote about what some of the best under seat carry-on bags are before).
When stowing your luggage, try not to block the aisle for too long so that the people sitting further down the plane than you can get to their seats quickly too.
Finally, if you happen to sit in an emergency exit row, stow all your baggage in the overhead compartment.
2. Prepare for Take-Off
After your luggage is stowed, get yourself seated and prepare for take-off. Fasten your seatbelt once everyone’s seated, and turn your phone off (or put it into flight mode) once the aircraft door is closed.
Never stand up from your seat if you are on the ground and the aircraft is already (or still) moving.
Before you take-off, the cabin crew will either do a manual safety demonstration or play a safety video on the aircraft’s screens. Watch carefully. While the chances of an accident happening are extremely low, it’s always good to be prepared.
Once everything is ready, your aircraft will be pushed back (you will move backwards) before taxiing to the runway.
Right after take-off and during the climb, you might experience some ear pain because of the changing pressure. If that happens, you can try swallowing or the Valsalva maneuver both of which should help you “pop” your ears.
Alternatively, just chew a chewing gum throughout the take-off and climb.
3. Enjoy the Cruise
Up until this point – and even after this point whenever possible – you should be seated with your seatbelt fastened. When you reach your cruising altitude (or sometimes earlier), the pilots will turn the seatbelt signs off, though.
From that point on, you can go to the restroom, stand up to pick something out of your bag, and so on. If you are on a longer flight, the meal service will oftentimes start at that point as well. If you are flying with a lowcost airline like Ryanair or easyJet, the onboard sales will begin.
The cruise is also your chance to relax, get some work done, or catch up on movies and TV shows. And, of course, to enjoy beautiful views out of the window.
If you want to learn more about how to pass time on a long flight, check out this article.
Two important things to keep in mind here.
One, all commercial flights are non-smoking these days, so do not smoke onboard. Not in the cabin and not in the lavatory.
Two, even if the seatbelt sign is off – as mentioned above – keep your seatbelt fastened whenever you are seated. You never know when the aircraft will hit a turbulence. Also, from time to time, the pilots might switch the seatbelt signs on when flying through turbulence – make sure to fasten it when that happens.
4. Prepare for Landing
At some point – usually about 20 or 30 minutes before landing – the aircraft will start its descent towards the arrival airport. And, the pilots will turn the seatbelt signs back on.
At that point, it’s time to stow your laptop and other large devices that you might have been using during the flight, put your luggage under the seat in front of you or in the overhead compartment, sit down, and fasten the seatbelt once again.
Just like during the climb, you might encounter some ear pain during the descent, so follow the same tips as mentioned above to mitigate that.
As for the landing itself, sometimes it might be a bit “hard” but even then it’s safe, so don’t worry. Also, keep in mind that after touchdown (and even during the descent), parts of the wing will move, pop out, and so on. That is perfectly normal.
In fact, it is also perfectly normal for the engines to “open” after touchdown. That is simply one of the ways aircraft break – by directing the thrust from engines against the direction the aircraft is moving in.
Even after the aircraft exits the runway, stay seated.
Stay seated until the aircraft comes to a complete stop at your arrival gate, until the seatbelt signs are switched off.
Don’t stand up while the plane is still moving – even if some of your “rude” fellow passengers might do so.
Once the seatbelt sign is off, gather your belongings and get off the plane in an orderly fashion. Be careful when taking out heavy bags out of the overhead compartment.
Just like with boarding, you will disembark either via a jetway connecting the aircraft with the terminal, or using stairs followed by either a walk or a bus ride to the terminal.
…oh, and, congratulations – you’ve just finished your first flight!
Connecting to Your Onwards Flight
So you stepped off your first flight. Now what? That will depend on whether you arrived at your final destination or whether you have a flight to connect to.
If you have a connecting flight to catch, continue reading. Otherwise, jump to the next section of this article.
1. Follow the “Transfer” Signs
As soon as you get off the aircraft, follow “transfer” (or sometimes “transit” or “connections”) signs.
Those will take you either to the departures area directly or to a security check dedicated to transfer passengers. In some countries like China and Russia, there will also be a (usually brief) passport check.
While doing the above, also find out which gate your connecting flight is departing from as soon as you can.
The gate number might be written on the boarding pass that you got when you checked in, but make sure to also check one of the flight information displays at your transfer airport as every now and then, departure gates change.
Also, keep in mind that the above applies to international-international (and domestic-domestic) connections. If you are transferring from an international flight to a domestic one or vice-versa, the experience will be more similar to taking two separate flights.
2. Get to the Right Terminal and Find Your Gate
Once you are in the “secured” departures area once again, find your gate.
At airports with only one terminal, that will be easy.
At airports with multiple terminals, you might have to change terminals. That will either involve walking, taking a bus, or taking an automated train.
Whatever the case, though, airports that receive a lot of connecting traffic are also generally well sign-posted, so you will be able to find your gate fairly easily.
Also, gate numbers don’t overlap between terminals (if there is gate A10 in terminal 1, there is not going to be another gate A10 in terminal 2), so just follow the signs for your gate number and you will get to the right place.
3. Refer to the Other Sections in This Article
Once you find your departure gate at your connecting airport, the process is no different from what I described in the earlier sections of this article and to what I will describe below in the “Arriving at Your Final Destination” section.
So, just refer to those.
Arriving at Your Final Destination
Even though by this point, your first flight (or even first two or three flights if you connected) are over. However, there’s a bit more that you have to go through before you meet your loved ones, close a business deal, or explore a new city.
1. Go Through Immigration
After getting off the aircraft, simply follow signs for “baggage claim,” “exit,” “city,” or similar.
If you are arriving on a domestic flight, that will take you directly to the baggage claim area – so skip to the next step.
If you are arriving on an international flight, you will first have to go through immigration.
Depending on the country you are arriving in, you will either have to just line up in one of the queues (one designated for “foreigners” generally) or you will have to fill out an immigration form before that.
Sometimes, you will even receive the form beforehand from the flight attendants – in that case, fill it out during your flight to save yourself some time at your destination. In some countries, you might also need to buy visas before being able to enter them.
Once again, I recommend that you check the entry requirements for whatever country you are going to in advance with that country’s embassy or consulate.
As for the actual immigration process, you will present your passport to the officer who will make a decision whether or not to let you in. Unless you get flagged for one reason or another, it should be fairly smooth.
Sometimes, though, you might be asked questions about your travel plans and so on. You might also be asked for your hotel confirmation or return flight ticket, so have those documents handy just in case.
2. Pick Up Your Baggage and Go Through Customs
If you follow the right directions after getting off the aircraft, at one point or another, you will find yourself in the baggage claim area.
If you are traveling with carry-on luggage only, head straight to the exit. Otherwise, check one of the displays to see which carousel your luggage will appear on. Then, go to that carousel and wait for your luggage to come out.
You might have to wait a bit until your bag comes out. Occasionally (very rarely), your bag will not come out – in that case, don’t panic. Go to one of the customer service desks, file a claim, and more often than not, your luggage will be delivered to you later on.
After you pick up your bags (make sure they are truly yours as there’s a lot of “black suitcases” out there), head towards the exit.
If you arrived on a domestic flight, you will be able to get to the arrivals area right away.
If you arrived on an international flight, you will have to go through customs first. Sometimes that might include running your luggage through an X-ray machine or filling out a customs declaration.
Check the regulations of the country you are going to beforehand to know whether you should go through the “nothing to declare” lane (that’s the case the most often) or whether you are traveling with something you will have to declare.
3. Get on Your Way
With your feet safely on the ground, your baggage with you, and immigration and customs cleared, you have finally “truly” arrived at your destination and are ready to get started with whatever you went there to do.
One last tip that I will mention here is that you should research how you will get from the airport to wherever you need to go (unless someone is picking you up) in advance.
While some airports are really easy to figure out and offer great public transportation options, others are more confusing. As such, knowing what you will do once you step into the arrivals hall before you even step on your flight will ensure a smooth start of the stay at your destination.
Resources for (Not Only) First Time Flyers
Google Flights: My favorite way to search for flights. It will search for the cheapest flights at a wide variety of sites for you. And, you can use it to search for flights from (or to) multiple airports and the same time.
KN Aviation Buyer’s Guides: If you are looking to buy travel equipment like a suitcase set or a duffel bag, make sure to check the guides I’ve published on this site.
KN Aviation Flight Reviews: Read some of my flight reviews to get a better idea of what an actual flight is like.
Priority Pass: A lounge membership service that gives you access to over 1,000 lounges all over the world. If you plan to fly often in the future, make sure to look into it.
SeatGuru: A great site for looking up seat maps. Check it before selecting your seat to avoid seats that don’t recline, don’t have a window, and so on.
TSA List of Prohibited Items: If you are not sure if you can bring a certain item onboard an aircraft, TSA’s website is a good place to start. Keep in mind, though, the rules might vary from country to country.
World Nomads: If you are considering getting travel insurance, I recommend looking into World Nomads first.
In spite of constantly shrinking leg room and declining onboard service, flying is still the most convenient way to cover long distances. And, it’s by far – at least or me and until space travel is an everyday occurrence – the amazing and beautiful way to get from point A from B.
It’s also fairly simple once you understand how it works. And hopefully, the guide above gave you a better idea of what the day of your first flight will be like.
If you have any question, leave a comment down below.
Other than that, all I can say is, enjoy your first flight!
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