Our Guide to Your First Flight
Part of the fear of flying is actually a fear of the unknown. If you are flying for the first time, 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 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!
Step 1: Booking the Flight & Checking In
Booking the Flight
The first step in the flying process is booking 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.
Alternatively, you can purchase your tickets from the airlines via the phone. If you haven’t purchased tickets and/or checked in online or by phone, you will need to begin at the ticketing counter at the airport.
Getting the Best Deals on Flights
I usually get the best deals directly through airline websites (Delta, Southwest, etc.). But if you have time to look around, you should also check travel sites such as OneTravel.com and Booking.com. If you signup for a free Ebates account and book through them, you can earn cash back. Plus, Ebates has offers from many travel sites such as Booking.com. These sites are especially helpful if you want a package deal on a flight, hotel, restaurants and car rental. You can often get “early bird” pricing if you don’t mind booking a bit further in advance of your trip. Also, prices fluctuate on trips, and an airline may post “web special” pricing for a limited period. If you start looking early, you can catch these deals.
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’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).
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. You can choose to have the boarding pass emailed or texted to you in a digital QR code format that the airport staff can scan. (More on that in the next step). You can also download and print the physical document and bring that to the airport if you prefer. Additionally, you have the option to obtain your boarding pass at the airport, which we will also cover in the next section.
Step 2: Arriving at the Airport
Plan to arrive at least two hours prior to your departure time, especially if you are flying for the first time or if it is your first occasion flying at a particular airport. You want to have ample time to be able to find parking (if you are leaving your car), get checked in and go through security before your plane departs. You don’t want to add the anxiety of being late for your flight if you are also experiencing a fear of flying.
Airports have parking options if you will be leaving your car there during your trip. Long-term and short-term is available, depending on the length of your trip. Long-term generally has cheaper daily rates but is farther from the terminal. Short-term is usually for shorter trips or for picking up other travelers from the airport. The airport site will have parking rate information available on its website, along with maps displaying the parking areas. You can often specifically find an airport’s parking locations in GPS apps like Google Maps, allowing you to navigate directly to the parking area.
The section of the airport for all preflight activity is usually labeled “Ticketing” on airport signage. If you haven’t done so online, you can purchase a ticket, check in, and receive your boarding pass at the ticket counter. If you have already booked your flight, you can use kiosks in the ticketing area to check in and/or print a boarding pass.
If you have “checked” baggage (the kind that you don’t keep with you on the airplane), the ticket agent will weigh this (it generally has to be under 50 lbs. or so) and tag it to make sure it ends up on your flight. The agent may receive your bags then or direct you to a nearby dropoff station.
If you have already booked your flight, checked in, have a boarding pass and are not checking baggage, you can head directly to the security area, usually labeled something along the lines of “Security Checkpoint.”
Step 3: 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 security, and there is generally ample signage to point you in the right direction. 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 a security agent, they will check your boarding pass and I.D. You will need a government issued I.D. such as a driver’s license.
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.
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 with on the aircraft. After that, you collect your belongings from the bin and head to your gate area.
Permitted and Prohibited Items
Airports have strict requirements regarding what you are allowed to have on your person and in your carry on bag.
- For a guide on permitted and prohibited items, visit this Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website page.
- For information about the “3-1-1″ rule pertaining to liquids, visit this TSA webpage.
Step 4: Heading to the The Gate (Or Concourse)
The “gate” is the area where you wait until time to board. Each concourse in an airport houses several gates. A concourse resembles a mall in that it usually contains restaurants and gift shops.
There are several gates, one for each flight. When it is time to board, passengers line up and present their boarding pass to a gate agent. You walk through a “jetway,” which connects the gate to the plane outside the gate.
Step 5: The Flight
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 gives 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. People that already experiencing fear and anxiety when they fly tend to fear the worst during safety instructions.
But 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 address them in the unlikely event they are necessary. If an emergency does occur, the crew is well-trained and equipped to assist passengers.
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 plane reaches a certain altitude, passengers are free to move about in the cabin and use the restrooms. 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.
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 of the descent. When the plane lands, the Captain drives to the gate, where passengers use the jetway to exit the aircraft and enter the destination airport.
If you checked baggage, you will 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.
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 add a comment below if you have any questions.