First Time Flying: Tips on Booking, the Airport & the Flight

 



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Part of the fear of flying is actually a fear of the unknown. If you are flying for the first time—whether for business or pleasure—this includes not knowing what to expect at the airport or while you are in the air.


This step-by-guide spells out everything the nervous first-time flyer needs to know, from booking the flight to navigating the airport to getting situated onto the plane. 


We've packed in our best travel tips for first-time flyers based on the collective experience of our staff, so climb aboard and let's get you ready for the flight!


These flight tips cover most major airlines like American, United, Delta, Southwest, etc. For budget airlines like Frontier or Allegiant, you'll see some variance in items like luggage fees, in-flight accommodations, etc. 


Boarding procedures, safety instructions, and other instructions as they relate to the safety of staff and the passengers remain relatively standard. 


Booking the Flight

The first step in the flying process is purchasing tickets. To book the flight, most people purchase their tickets online through airline or travel sites or their mobile apps. The only thing you have to fear in this step is expensive ticket prices. Otherwise, it is a relatively easy process that you can handle yourself.

Directly through the Airline

In terms of convenience, booking directly through an airline's website is the easiest route. If there are any ticket price changes between the time you book and the time your flight departs, you can usually have that difference refunded with a quick call to customer service.


It's also easier to get better seats and address flight delays, changes, or cancellations when booking direct. Otherwise, you might be referred back to your travel agency, which is another cumbersome step to have to take when you're having problems with your flight. 


It's a little extra work on the front end, but for first-time flyers, this gives you added flexibility just in case something were to go wrong. 


PRO-TIP: Add your airline's phone number to your contacts and jot down important info like flight numbers, confirmation numbers, etc. in the notes app on your phone.


Just in case something does go wrong, having all of this info readily available will help solve problems faster.

​Through a Travel Agency

There are some instances where booking through a travel agency is the better option. Specifically, if you are planning an international trip or one that is more complex than a week-long vacation in the United States, a travel agency can be a big help. 


OTA's, that's Online Travel Agencies, are sites like Orbitz, Trivago, Kayak, Booking.com, Expedia, and others. 


What's the difference between them? 


Spoiler alert - not much. In fact, the majority of these sites are all owned by four or so big players. 

Why use an online travel agency? 


  • One-Stop-Shop, flights, hotels, car rentals, and more

  • Good first-time user offers

  • Helps to save time and money

  • Quick and easy comparison of different airfares and schedules

  • See reviews and recommendations from people who have taken the same trip before.


For the most part, they wrap up all of your trip into a single package and help manage the booking and getting you to your destination. All you have to do is pay and print out the trip details. 


If problems do arise on your trip, a customer service representative is only a phone call away to get you the help you need. 

Direct Flights

Whenever possible, get a direct flight. Layovers only add the potential for more problems. You want the journey to be as simple as possible, and when you only have to board and exit a single plane, you lessen the chance for delays, cancellations, and missed connecting flights. 

Layovers and Connecting Flights

If you can't find a direct flight, it's not the end of the world. A connecting flight is where you will travel to one airport to join a different flight that will take you to your end destination. Sometimes you may have multiple stops, but for most domestic flights, it's common only to have one.


A layover is a time in between these connecting flights. For example, if you fly from New York to Los Angeles, you may only fly halfway to Chicago. There you will exit the plane and wait in another concourse until your next flight is ready to depart for Los Angeles.


This can be a quick turnaround or several hours long; it all depends on the flight schedule.

If you must choose a layover, pick one that is at least 2 hours between the time the plane is scheduled to land and when the next one is scheduled to depart. Any less time may result in a missed connecting flight. 


What often happens is the plane's wheels will touch down at, say, 10:41 AM. However, the plane won't make it to the concourse for 'x' reason (jetway unavailable, lots of traffic, etc.) until 11:30 PM. By the time you're off the plane, it's almost 12:00 PM, and you're rushing to get to your next flight.  


When booking your flight, remember:


  • Book a direct flight whenever possible, even if it costs a little more.

  • Give yourself at least a 2-hour layover between connecting flights.

  • Add more time to your layover if you want to eat, freshen up in the bathroom, etc. 

  • Red-eye flights are often cheaper but at the expense of traveling at night.


​RED-EYE FLIGHTS: You might see a "+1" on some flights, or see flights that fly overnight. These are referred to as "red-eye flights." Any flight that travels through the night is a red-eye.


The downside is obvious; however, these flights are typically cheaper if you can deal with not sleeping well.

Types of Tickets

You may see different ticket types available for purchase. The main differences you're likely to see include the ability to make flight adjustments after purchase, refundability, carry on allowance, seat selection, or boarding group. 


Be sure to carefully read the fine print of the ticket you are purchasing. Most airlines will be somewhat flexible on some of these policies. For example, if you need to change your flight weeks or months for departure, most customer service agents are happy to make that adjustment. 


Packing

Always, always, pack the night before! Get your laundry done a day or two before and make sure all of your electronics are fully charged. You will also want to pack some specific documents and ensure you have the right luggage. 

Important Documents

Be sure to have a valid form of ID, such as your driver's license and your passport if you are traveling internationally. The TSA has an article outlining other forms of acceptable IDs, if you are not using something typical, like your driver's license, military ID, or passport. 

S​tarting on October 1, 2020, all travelers in the US, over 18 yrs old, will be required to have a REAL ID-Compliant Driver's License or another form of acceptable identification.


More on the REAL ID can be found on the TSA website


​Even if you plan on using a digital boarding pass on your phone, it may be helpful to print it from your home computer or at the airline's kiosk. 

American-Airlines-Boarding-Pass

An example of a boarding pass for an American Airlines flight printed at the airport.

​​Carry On Luggage

Carry on luggage refers to the larger suitcase or bag that you can bring on the plane with you and store in the overhead compartment.


There are restrictions to the size of the carry on you can bring; however, most bags from known brands like Chester, TravelPro, Delsey, and others are compliant for most domestic flights. 


​​International flights have slightly stricter standards, and are the requirements are only slightly smaller than domestic flights. Be sure to check the website of your airline for specific requirements.


I​​f your bag is larger than specified measurements, you will be required to 'check' your luggage, which incurs around a $25-$30 fee.

​BE AWARE: Don't go by your luggage manufacturer's advertised dimensions. Some manufacturers will not include the wheels or handles in their product listings. Airlines do take these into account. 

American Airlines Carry on Checker

If your luggage is questionable, you may be required to place it in this module to check its measurements.

Checked Luggage

If you are traveling for longer than 4-5 days, you'll likely pack a larger suitcase, which you will be required to check-in prior to going through security. These bags have weight limit restrictions, but as long as you're only packing usual items like clothes, shoes, etc. you won't even come near that limit.

 

There is a $25 to $30 fee for each way when checking your luggage. After checking your luggage, you will not have any access to your bag until you pick it up from the baggage claim at your destination.

 

TSA has specific restrictions on what you can and can't pack in both your checked and carry-on luggage. Each airline may have additional restrictions on what you can and can't pack. 



​Personal Items

In addition to your carry-on, you are also allowed to bring on a 'personal item' onto the plane. This has to fit under the seat in front of you and is commonly a purse, small/medium backpack, or diaper bag of sorts.


These bags are subject to the same restrictions as your carry on and also have varying size requirements. It is best to pack items that will be accessed during the flight like snacks, headphones, laptops, power banks, etc. 


To summarize, remember:


  • Make sure your ID is compliant and up to date

  • Your carry on and personal item meet your airline's requirements

  • If you are checking luggage, it also meets your airline's checked luggage regulations


Checking In

Before the flight, you are also required to "check-in," which just acknowledges you are still planning to make the trip. If you booked online, you could follow the instructions you get from the airline — you'll get an email or text prompting you to sign in. 


This is usually about 24 hours before your flight. If you didn't do so during the booking process, you can usually choose a seat during the check-in process, or pay for your checked bags (if applicable). 

Almost all major airlines allow you to perform all of these actions from the app. 


As part of this process, you receive a boarding pass—a document that proves that you have purchased a ticket and contains information about you and your trip. 


After checking in, your boarding pass is available through the app and can be added to your digital wallet. 


You can also print your boarding pass from a desktop computer or at the kiosk at the airport. It's highly recommended to do this just in case your phone dies or has technical issues at the gate. 

 


Arriving at the Airport

How early should I arrive for my flight?

Most airlines and travel experts recommend arriving two ahead of the scheduled departure time for any domestic flight. For International flights, plan for around 3-4 hours ahead of time.


If you are traveling during the peak holiday season, aka Thanksgiving and Christmas, it's advised to add an extra hour or two onto those times because of the influx of families, children, etc. 


Remember, you need to account for factors you can't control like traffic, security checkpoint wait times, etc. 


​PRO-TIP: Signing up for TSA Pre-check, Global Entry (for international travelers), or CLEAR, can save you TONS of time and hassle going through security.

​It's basically like getting to go through the VIP line, which is always shorter.


Parking

If you are not being dropped off, you will need to pay for parking. You should check the rates and available lots at the airport you'll be departing from. Larger airports usually have 2, sometimes 3, different lots for travelers. 


One lot is designated as "daily," for travelers who will not be leaving their car overnight. This gives them a better rate than the "long-term lot," which is specifically for flyers who will be gone for more than a day. 


If you are gone for multiple days, park in the long-term lot, or else you'll be paying a lot more money to stay in the daily lot. 


When you pull into the lot, you'll likely pass through a gate where you'll receive a ticket about the size of a business card. Put this in your glove box as you'll need it to leave the lot. After coming back from your trip, you'll put the card into the machine on the way out and pay the parking fees. 


Lastly, for some major international airports, you may have to ride a shuttle from the parking lot or garage to the gates. It's recommended to tip these shuttle drivers a few dollars as they will typically help you with your luggage. 


​PRO-TIP: If using an iPhone, drop a pin on the location for where you've parked your car and save it. Otherwise, make a note on your phone on the section, lot number, etc. of where your car is parked. This will make it much easier to find once you get back.

Ticketing

It's recommended to always print out a paper copy of your boarding pass and tickets, just in case the digital copies on your phone become inaccessible. 


You can print these out on your computer at home, or you can retrieve them from the kiosk at the airport. If the kiosks are not available or you are having trouble with them, you can talk with one of the airline's representatives to help you. 


You will receive all of the tickets and boarding passes for the first part of your flight, so be sure to place them somewhere where they can't be lost. The front pocket of a backpack, wallet, or purse is a good idea. You will want to be able to access them quickly, but keep them secure. 


American Airlines Check In Kiosk Chicago Ohare

Walk up to a kiosk or customer service rep to check into your flight.

Checking Luggage

If you plan on checking your luggage in, you can do that from the kiosk or by speaking with a representative. 


If done from the kiosk, it will print out a long sticker that you will wrap around the smaller, non-extending handle on your suitcase. You will remove the backing to expose the adhesive, wrap it around, and then connect the two adhesive sides together to form a loop. 


You'll then need to wait in line until you reach the check-in desk to hand off your bag. Sometimes the representative will be printing out the sticker and putting it on your bag. 


After you have landed at your destination, remove the sticker and throw it away before heading home. Having multiple labels on your luggage only increases its chances of getting lost. 

​Getting Through Security

Depending on the airport, there may be a central security checkpoint for all gates—like in the Atlanta airport—or there may be separate checkpoints for each set of gates, like in the Tampa airport. 


Airport personnel can help you find the checkpoint, and there is generally ample signage to point you in the right direction. Regardless, all passengers must go through security, including children. 


When you reach the security area, you'll generally wait in line anywhere from no time to an hour or more. Once you get to an agent, they will check your boarding pass and ID to ensure they match. 


You will need a government-issued ID such as a driver's license, and as already mentioned above, starting October 1, 2020, it will need to be REAL-ID compliant. If your ID is compliant, you will not be allowed to pass security or board the plane.


If you become a frequent flyer, we recommend that you check out our CLEAR airport security review as a way to gain access and move through life more quickly and easily.


Be Aware: While waiting in line, you may be subject to a random screening. For example, while the author of this article was in Washington DC, his hands were dusted for any remnants of bomb-making materials. Unless you have recently been to a shooting range, near any gun powder, or fireworks, you will not have anything to worry about.

The Screening Process

Next, you will place your personal belongings and any carry-on bag (the one(s) you will keep with you on the plane) in bins that roll along a conveyor belt and under the x-ray machine.



Chicago O Hare Security TSA Scanner

This is the what security screening looks like after you have walked through and gathered your items.

 This includes the contents of your pockets, belt, and shoes. You then walk through a type of scanner that checks you personally for weapons or anything else you are not allowed to fly on a plane with. 


A metal detector wand may be waved over your to double-check. Additionally, if the body scanner picks up on any nuances on your body, a TSA agent gently pat the area to ensure there is nothing there. 



​BE AWARE: The body scanner is a very sensitive machine. Something so much as your boarding pass or a stick of gum can show up on the screen.


Keep in mind this machine will not show any images of what is underneath your clothing - only if a foreign object appears on the outline of your body.


Any electronic larger than a cell phone needs to be removed from your bag(s) and placed in one of the containers. This includes laptops, tablets, and cameras. Be sure to have these items easily accessible and not buried deep within your bags. 


After that, you collect your belongings from the bin, put your shoes back on, and head to your gate area.


​A Better Solution: CLEAR

​If you would like to avoid most of the security screening, consider signing up for CLEAR and check out the review here. With CLEAR, you will only need to walk through a metal detector; all your belongings can stay in their respective bags — no removal of shoes, shorter lines, and less hassle.


Prohibited Items & the 3-1-1 Rule

Airports have strict requirements regarding what you are allowed to have on your person and in your carry-on bag. To find out what personal items you can bring with you on the flight, consult the resources below.



Finding the Concourse Gate

The "gate" is the area where you wait until time to board a plane. Each concourse in an airport houses several gates. A concourse resembles the wing of the mall in that it usually contains restaurants and gift shops. Any food or merchandise you buy in the concourse area is fine to take on the plane with you.


​A terminal is the large main building of a section of the airport. The terminal houses several concourses. Imagine it like a large tree. A terminal is the trunk of the tree with large branches coming off the trunk, these are your terminals. Finally, there are small branches off of those larger ones called gates, where the planes are docked for the next flight.


It goes Terminal > Concourse > Gate, so in the picture the gate is L8. This is gate 8, in concourse L. According to this map of Chicago O'Hare Airport, concourse L is in Terminal 3. Large international airports have multiple terminals, but generally will not reuse concourse letters.


​When at the gate, you are free to sit wherever you please. When it is time to board, passengers line up and present their boarding documents to a gate agent. 


If you are using a digital boarding pass, it is scanned straight from your phone. Just ensure your brightness is high enough and have your paper one ready in case your phone has trouble scanning. 


You will then walk through a "jetway," or "jet bridge" which connects the gate to the outside of the plane.

American Airlines Concourse Gate
Jet Bridge with no airplane

A jet bridge waiting for an airplane to dock on a sunny day.

jetway connected to airplane

An airplane that has been docked to the jet bridge on a rainy day.

Valet Checking your Carry On

For smaller aircraft, typically ones flying in or out of small regional airports, you may be required to 'valet check' your luggage. Don't worry, this doesn't cost you any money, and is a common practice. 


Usually, an attendant will walk around the gate area, passing out small red or yellow tags that will attach to the top of your luggage. This will vary from airline to airline, but generally, if it has wheels, you will valet it.


After scanning your boarding pass, you'll leave your carry-on at the top of the jetway where it will be stored in the belly of the aircraft for that flight only. You will still take your personal item with you to your seat. 


After the flight lands, your bag will be waiting for you at the top of the jetway. It may take a few minutes for the crew to unload all the bags and make them accessible.


The Flight



Boarding the Plane

Passengers board the plane according to the group number on their ticket. Different airlines have different ways of doing this, but for most first time flyers, you will be the last to the second-to-last group.


Once you make your way onto the plane, read the seating labels found around eye level just below where the handle is for the overhead storage compartments. You'll see row numbers, often with letters indicating the seat number. 


If you are having trouble getting your bag into the storage area or can't find your seat, flight attendants will be standing by to assist.


There will also be an icon indicating the window or aisle for you to determine which seat is yours. 

airplane seat marker

Planes have markers at about eye level so passengers know which letter on their boarding pass refers to which seat.

​​After locating your seat, place your luggage in the overhead compartment, ideally wheels first. You can take your backpack, purse, or whatever your personal item is with you to your seat. It will need to be placed under the seat in front of you for takeoff and landing. 


For those sitting in the front-most seat of economy you will not have a seat in front of you. Instead, look for the overhead compartments that are reserved for your personal items. 

 

Pre-Flight Procedures

Now for the fun part, the flying itself. For some people, this is where the fear and anxiety begins setting in. But if you know what to expect when you fly, you will hopefully be able to better manage the fear before you are in the air.


Passengers board the plane, find their seats, and store any carry on baggage in the storage bins above the seats. 


The crew relays safety instructions (or they are presented in a video on screens behind each seat), and the Captain gives a brief message to passengers along the lines of the weather in your destination city, any expected weather or turbulence issues expected and how long the flight is expected to take.

Canadair Safety Card

A safety card is in the seat in front of you to let you know what you need to do in the rare event of an emergency.


People that are already experiencing fear and anxiety when they fly tend to fear the worst during safety instructions. ​This is something you can learn to overcome by educating yourself on flight safety statistics and recognizing that the fear is irrational.


Accidents are very rare, so safety measures are seldom needed; the crew addresses them in the unlikely event they are necessary. If an emergency does occur, the crew is well-trained and equipped to assist passengers.

The Takeoff

The Captain then "drives" the aircraft on the ground to get in position for takeoff. Before takeoff, passengers must fasten their seat belts and remain seated until instructed otherwise. 


When the pilot gets the clearance to take off, the plane will begin accelerating along the runway before becoming airborne. This is the part some passengers dislike because the plane is leaving the ground, and the body is angled upward. 


Others have a feeling of exhilaration as the plane accelerates into the air. The acceleration and takeoff are likely to be a little bumpy as you move across the runway.

During the Flight

When the plane reaches a certain altitude, passengers are free to move about in the cabin and use the restrooms. Many planes have a video screen on the back of each seat with on-demand music, TV programs, and movies for entertainment. Wi-Fi is usually available as well, so you can take care of personal or business-related tasks.


The crew will also serve snacks and drinks. Depending on your ticket, food and drinks may be complimentary. 


If you're in the coach section (typically the cheapest) section, you'll generally get a snack like pretzels or cookies and sodas or water. You can still buy additional food items or alcoholic beverages if you prefer.


If there is turbulence and moving around is not safe while in the air, the crew will instruct passengers to remain seated until notified otherwise. Turbulence is nothing to fear—it is caused by fluctuating air pressures and is a normal experience of flying.

The Landing

Likewise, when you are close to landing, the crew will require that passengers be seated and buckled in. 


Some people fear this part of the journey because the plane will often slightly roll (turn) and change altitudes in preparation to descend and land on the airport runway assigned to the flight. 


When the plane lands, the Captain drives to the gate, where passengers use the jetway to exit the aircraft and enter the destination airport.


Post Flight Procedures

Exiting the Plane

Similar to how you boarded. Exiting the plane is essentially the same but in reverse. 


After the plane has exited the runway, there may be a wait until a gate is available for the plane to dock. This is dependent on whether or not flights are running behind and the availability of a jetway. 


You should remain buckled until the crew gives you the okay to unbuckle. If sitting near the rear of the plane, you will be better off staying in your seat as it will take a while for everyone ahead of you to get off the plane. 


Be courteous to other passengers and help when needed. 

Baggage Claim

If you checked any luggage, you would then head to the baggage claim area. Airport signage will direct you to baggage claim, or you can get assistance from airport staff. Shortly after landing, luggage is placed on a carousel for passengers to pick up.

Final Thoughts

Once you have experienced the air travel process for the first time, you will at least have addressed the fear of the unknown, and hopefully will enjoy any future flights. Good luck, and if you are interested in reading some additional tips for first-time flyers, click here.

First Time Flying | Resources