Hey adventurers! As you know, I travel by air a lot—but thinking about my first time flying solo still makes my stomach turn! I was so anxious at the airport and convinced, like many first time flyers, that I was going to accidentally break a rule and get hauled off by the TSA.
Airport anxiety can keep people from going on the adventure of a lifetime. To help you feel more confident the first time you jet off alone, I’ve put together this step-by-step guide to first time flying. It covers everything from how heavy your checked bag should be to whether or not to print your ticket at home (Spoiler alert: You probably don’t need to print it!).
For more travel tips, check out my posts on coping with travel anxiety and packing light!
Step 1: Decide Where To Go
Let’s start with the fun part…where are you headed? There are countless fun destinations around the world, so take your pick!
If you’re looking for recommendations, grab some inspiration from my lists of the top 10 places to visit in the world or the 20 best places to visit in the US. Just be sure to check COVID-19 travel restrictions before you buy a ticket to make sure you meet the requirements for your destination.
Step 2: Buy a Ticket Online
Long gone are the days when you’d buy a ticket just before your flight at the airport counter like they do in the movies. These days, most airline tickets are purchased online.
You can buy a ticket directly from an airline’s website, or you can use websites like Kayak.com or Google Flights to compare multiple different airlines.
For a small fee, most airlines let you select your seat when you purchase your ticket. If you prefer a certain seat or are traveling with a partner, it’s a good idea to pick a seat ahead of time. Just don’t forget to choose your seat for the return flight as well!
Step 3: Pay For Your Bags Online
Each airline has different baggage fees. Depending on which airline you choose, you may have the option to purchase your bags ahead of time—if you can, do it!
Purchasing your bags ahead of time typically costs less than purchasing them at the airport. It will also save you time at the airport since you won’t need to wait in line to pay for your bags.
Step 4: Pack Your Bags!
When you fly, there are three types of items you can bring:
- Checked bags travel in the belly of the plane. These bags don’t go through security, so you can pack full-size toiletries and other liquids in them. The weight limit for checked bags is typically 40 to 50 pounds.
- You bring carry-on bags onto the plane with you. Each airline has different size requirements for carry-ons, so check your airline’s website. Carry-on bags go through airport security, so you should make sure anything that will need to be pulled out for security purposes (check out Step 8 for more on this!) is easily accessible.
- Personal items are items such as a purse or backpack that can fit under the seat in front of you. Most airlines allow you to bring a personal item onboard for free. Personal items also have to go through airport security.
Depending on the length of your trip, a carry-on bag might be enough. However, some people prefer to check a bag, since checked bags are bigger and don’t have to be carried throughout the airport.
If you do check a bag, pack any essential items, like prescriptions, in your carry-on or personal item. Unfortunately, checked bags do sometimes end up on the wrong flight or get damaged in transit. Keeping the essentials close will ensure you don’t lose them in case of emergency.
Finally, don’t forget to pack your license, passport (if necessary), and COVID-19 vaccination card (or proof of a negative test, if necessary). You’ll likely need these items at the airport.
Step 5: Check In 24 Hours Before Your Flight
Exactly 24 hours before your flight, you’ll get an email inviting you to check in. Click the link in your email and follow the instructions to check in. Sometimes, you can’t select your seat until check in, so it’s important to try and do this step as soon as you receive the email to get the best seat.
Once you finish checking in, you’ll gain access to your boarding pass. Your boarding pass is your ticket for the flight. At this point, you can either:
- Print your boarding pass at home
- Print your boarding pass at the airport (sometimes for a small fee)
- Add your boarding pass to your smartphone’s wallet
I recommend adding your boarding pass to your phone—it’s simple, and since it’s likely you’ll always have your phone on you, it will be difficult to lose.
Step 6: Go To the Airport
It’s the big day! Time to head to the airport—your adventure awaits!
I suggest wearing comfy layers and slip-on shoes with socks on the airplane. You’ll want to arrive at the airport at least 2 hours early for domestic flights (flights within the US) and 3 hours early for international flights.
Finally, if you’re driving to the airport, make a note of which airline you’re flying. Typically, where you park is based on the airline. If you’re taking an Uber or Lyft, you’ll need to know which terminal to go to and the terminal is dependent on the airline you are flying.
Step 7: You Made It To the Airport! Now What?
Go to the airline counter if you need to drop off a checked bag or print your boarding pass.
Otherwise, navigate to one of the large TV screens spread throughout the airport. These screens display the gate number for each flight. They also show if your flight is on time. Find your flight by destination and airline and make note of which gate is listed.
Step 8: Go Through Security
Next, follow the signs for the airport security checkpoint. This is one of the scariest parts when it’s your first time flying—but after this it’s easy breezy!
Once you make it to the metal detectors, grab a couple of gray bins—you’ll put items that must go through the metal detector in these. Take off your shoes, belt, and hat and put them in a bin. You must also set out the following from your bag:
- Electronics (including your phone0
- Food (even food that isn’t liquid)
- Liquids—These must be less than 3.4 ounces in size. Additionally, all your liquids must fit inside one quart-sized plastic bag.
Put all these items in a bin, and load your personal item and/or carry-on onto the metal detector belt as well.
When instructed, walk through the metal detector yourself. If the metal detector beeps, don’t panic! Make sure there’s nothing in your pockets and try walking through again. If it continues to beep, a TSA agent will help you figure out what’s wrong.
If your baggage gets pulled off the belt and examined, don’t take it personally. My luggage got inspected once because the dirt on my shoes set off the alarm! Just be patient and you’ll get your bag back in no time.
If all of these instructions feel like a lot to remember, don’t stress! They have agents who will be directing you every step of the way so you really just have to follow instructions once you’ve made it to this point.
Step 9: Find Your Gate
Take a deep breath—the toughest part is over! Once you’re through security, follow the signs to your gate. If it’s far away, you might need to take a tram.
Even if I have a lot of time before my flight departs, I like to walk to the gate first. Once you’ve found it, you can grab some food or do some shopping to pass the time. Just make sure you’re back at your gate at least 30 minutes before your flight leaves, since the flight crew will start letting passengers board.
Step 10: Getting On the Plane
Most airplanes board in waves. To see what boarding group you’re in, check out your boarding pass. Once your group is called, go ahead and board the plane.
Check your boarding pass for your seat number. If you have carry-on baggage, stow it in the compartment above your seat. If this compartment is full, a flight attendant can help you find a spot for your luggage. Your personal item should be stowed under the seat in front of you.
Before taking off, the flight attendants will show a brief safety presentation. Pay attention, but don’t get stressed—remember, flying is a very safe form of transportation!
Step 11: Ready, Set, Takeoff!
Once you’re in the air, sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself. If you need some ideas on how to spend your time, check out my tips on what to do on a plane.
Some people find that the change in air pressure causes their ears to pop uncomfortably. It helps to chew gum when taking off and landing.
Sometimes, you might experience turbulence, which is when rough conditions cause the airplane to shake. This is one of my least favorite things about flying, but it’s quite normal. Just make sure to sit in your seat and fasten your seatbelt when you start to experience turbulence. It will be over before you know it!
Step 15: What To Do Once You Land
Once you land, give yourself a pat on the back—you made it through your first flight! Once the plane taxis to the gate, you’ll be able to get off the plane and get going on your fun vacation.
If you checked a bag, follow the signs for baggage claim once you’re off the plane. Your bags will be dropped off here once they’re removed from the plane.
If you need transportation from the airport (like a taxi, rental car, or shuttle), follow the signs for ground transportation once you’ve gotten your bags.
Your First Time Flying Is Going To Be a Breeze
Flying for the first time is intimidating, but once you’ve done it, you’ll realize there wasn’t anything to be scared about. Before you know it, you’ll have the confidence to travel anywhere you please. Enjoy your adventure!
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