Congratulations! You’re a first time flyer only once in your life, so savor this moment. I clearly remember the very first time I stepped foot on an airplane. It was one of the most memorable days of my entire life.
As a million-mile flyer, my top tips for those who are about to fly for the first time are simple:
- Pack as lightly as possible. There’s nothing worse than showing up at the airport red-faced and flustered because your suitcase is too big for you to handle.
- Arrive at the airport early to allow yourself to move slowly and not feel rushed.
- Limit your intake of liquids before the flight (because having to use the lavatory on the airplane is an advanced-level move).
- Most of all, enjoy the experience! Flying is an amazing thing, and most people take it for granted.
This is just the tip of the iceberg though, so do keep reading for more tips that’ll make your very first flight experience a day to remember (in a good way).
Table of Contents
Tips for first time flyers
One of the advantages of being old and crusty is that I’ve flown enough times to have learned all the tips and tricks necessary to get to the airport (and to my destination) as stress-free as possible. These are my most helpful tips for the nervous first time flyer:
1. Before heading to the airport
In my experience, the amount of preparation you do before leaving home can make or break a trip. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve sat at the airport muttering expletives to myself for how stupid I was for not taking the time to prepare better.
Triple check everything!
Triple check that you’ve put everything in your bag that you need before leaving your house. If you need a little help with this, you can see what’s in my carry-on bag to get an idea of the kind of things you may have forgot.
The most important thing you’ll need to bring with you (over anything else) is a valid government issued ID that matches the name on your ticket. I’d recommend a drivers license or a passport. Sorry, student IDs and boba rewards cards are not going to work.
If you’ve already screwed up matching your name to your ticket, don’t worry. I’ve written a full guide explaining how to deal with a misspelled name on an airline ticket.
Going through the security checkpoint at the airport will require you to remove any loose clothing (and things like belts and shoes). The simpler your wardrobe, faster you’ll move through the security checkpoint.
Not only that, you’re likely to feel stressed (and flustered) at times as you move through the airport and onto the plane. Ain’t nobody got time for heavy jackets and frilly scarves.
Check in online (if possible)
Even if you have bags to check, checking in online will still save you time at the airport. Checking in online (or via the airline’s mobile app) will allow you to input all of your information before arriving at the airport. The only thing you’ll need to do once you arrive is to sign into the kiosk so that it can spit out a bag tag for you.
Pack light (and comfortable)
First time flyers often feel the most stressed out in the hours leading up to the flight. Having to manage that stress while pulling two 50 lb suitcases is going to tick you right the heck off. I can promise you that. The lighter you pack, the better.
Additionally, no matter how much stuff you need to bring with you, the important thing is to pack your things in a way that’s most comfortable for you.
Remember: you are going to have to load your bags into and out of cars. You will have to push and pull them around the airport. If putting everything in a cardboard box seems the most natural to you, go ahead and do it. Yes, you can check a box as luggage…
2. At the airport
For the first time flyer, an airport can be a confusing place. The trick is to focus on one thing at a time and not get distracted by all the sights and sounds. Your first priority when arriving at the airport should be checking in your bags in and obtaining a boarding pass if you don’t have one already. Ignore the Cinnabons. The Cinnabons can come later.
Move as quickly as you can through the security checkpoint
Out of respect for everyone in the long line behind you, be ready move quickly once you reach the conveyor belt at the security checkpoint. Place any loose articles of clothing in one of the provided bins, and make sure everything is out of your pockets.
If you’re flying with medication, you don’t have to worry as long as it’s in the original container with the prescription printed on the label. You may be selected for secondary screening if you use a pill container without labeling.
Eat before you board the plane
Since you’re not likely to served any amount of substantial food on the airplane, it’s best to eat before boarding the plane. You know how I just told you to hold off on the Cinnabons? Well, this is the time to gorge yourself.
To help pass the time as you’re sitting there ingesting 3000 calories worth of cinnamon rolls, you might be interested to learn all about why airport food is so expensive. It’s fascinating.
Be at the gate at least 10 minutes before boarding begins
You don’t have to spend all your time at the gate waiting for your flight to start boarding. However, I do recommend that you be there at least 10 minutes before they start the boarding process.
This is when the gate agents are most active. If there are any announcements that need to be made in regards to the flight (such as delays), this is when they tend to do it.
It’s good to know what’s going on so that you can adjust accordingly (if necessary).
Wait until your row / zone number has been called to board
Do not rush the gate as soon as they start the boarding process! Stay back as far as possible until your zone number has been called. Doing otherwise will just create confusion and chaos in the boarding area, and clog up the boarding queue.
I sometimes prefer to wait until nearly everyone else has boarded the airplane before I board myself. It’s much calmer that way. However, I don’t advise this if you have a somewhat larger carry-on bag, since you will need to find a place to stow it.
In that case, you want to board with your designated zone number so that you’ll have a chance to take advantage of any open overhead bin space. It disappears fast!
3. On the plane
I still remember the first time I stepped onto an airplane. It was a Republic Airlines Boeing 727 at Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW), and I was massively upset about the security personnel confiscating my plastic toy gun.
Come to think of it, I think it was my mother who was the most upset. She had no idea that I put it in the suitcase before we left the house, and boy did she look shocked (and scared) when they found it. Sorry mom!
Avoid putting things in the overhead bin if possible
If possible, use the space under the seat in front of you to place your carry-on bag. This will allow you easy access to it (and all its contents) for the entire duration of the flight.
You’d be surprised how large of a bag you can fit under an airplane seat . If you’re curious, my Swiss Gear carry-on easily fits under the seat (even when packed to capacity).
Don’t speak to your seatmate unless spoken to first
I realize this makes me sound introverted and cold, but nothing irritates me more than a chatty seatmate who can’t get the hint that I don’t want to talk. Sure, like conversation is fun and pleasant sometimes, but I guarantee nobody wants to hear your life story and how you got to this exact moment.
Small pleasantries are fine, but make sure you understand the signs of someone not wanting to talk to you. It’s not personal. It’s just the way that most people are these days.
Be prepared when the snack cart arrives at your row
I’m not a flight attendant (nor do I have any desire to be one), but I do know one thing: nothing would grind my gears more than having to repeat all the drink and snack choices over and over for every passenger.
They usually make an announcement beforehand in regards to what snacks and drinks are available. There’s also usually a menu in the seat pocket in front of you with a list of everything. Be nice to your flight attendant and have your mind made up by the time he or she asks you what you would like.
Mind the seat recline
Yes, it’s perfectly OK to recline your seat to your liking. However, it’s extremely rude to do it with no consideration of the person behind you. Have a quick look back before you let it rip. If the person sitting behind you looks stressed out clacking away at a laptop, be respectful and limit your recline. The same goes if they’re trying to eat.
If everything looks good, east back gently. Don’t slam it back. You’ll be quickly identified as and inexperienced first time flyer by doing otherwise. They’ll also probably hate your guts for eternity.
4. Connecting to another flight
Despite how complicated and scary it may sound, connecting from one flight to another is an extremely simple process. It’s not any more complicated than what you had to do to get on your first flight.
Making connections (even at major airports) doesn’t usually take that long. For example:
- A short layover in Detroit is super easy
- A short layover in Minneapolis can be complicated, but easy if you plan ahead
- A short layover in Phoenix is hardly ever a problem
- DFW minimum connection times are lower than you might think
- A 1 hour layover is plenty of time in Denver
- A 1 hour layover is plenty of time in Seattle too
- A short layover in Atlanta isn’t that bad (but you need to hustle)
- 1 hour is the ideal time for a layover in Chicago (ORD)
Check the flight information displays
The first thing you need to do after stepping off your plane and finding a connecting flight is to use the flight information displays that are scattered throughout the terminal. All flight departures will be listed alphabetically, and it’ll tell you not only the departure gate, but the scheduled departure time as well.
It’s also smart to take advantage of the mobile app of the airline that you’re flying. Most airline mobile apps will alert you automatically to your connecting gate information.
5. Arrival at your destination
See? Flying for the first time wasn’t so bad, was it? The truth is that it’s a really difficult thing to mess up, because there will be airport and airline personnel everywhere to help you out if you get confused. Here are a two final tips to keep in mind:
Be patient when deplaning
You will exit the aircraft from the same door that you boarded it from. That means that the people at the front of the airplane get to get off first, while everyone in the back will have to sit and wait.
One of the most important things to learn about air travel is that patience is key. There will be a lot of sitting around and waiting. And this is especially true if you’re seated at the back of the airplane.
Just stay seated, and have your bag (and your body) ready to move once the people ahead of have cleared the way. If you feel like you need more time, that’s ok too. Just stay out of everyone’s way as you wave them past.
Pro tip: you will look like a total buffoon if you try to hurry up and beat everyone ahead of you. It’s not a race. Just wait your turn.
There’s no rush to collect your checked bags
Easily one of the most frustrating things about flying is retrieving checked bags after a flight. To locate the baggage carousel, just follow the signs for “airport exit” and “baggage claim.” They’ll be everywhere.
However, it’s important to know that it can take up to 30 minutes for your bags to arrive. Therefore, take your time. As a matter fact, now might be a pretty good time to grab another Cinnabon. Because well, you totally deserve it.
This is so helpful! I’ll be flying for the first time ever for a trip in January at the tender age of 23. This is the first First Time Flyer guide I’ve seen that didn’t make me even more anxious about everything. Thank you Scott!
You’re very welcome Caleb! Enjoyed your trip!
If you’re travelling with a laptop, camera, or anything with a battery larger than those found in tablets, triple check their power rating, know where on the sticker the power rating is, and preferably take the battery out or know how to take the battery out. TSA officers will see the battery on their scanners, some are lax, others will try and make a fuss about it. The numbers on the stickers don’t lie, though.
This applies to economy class, but don’t go with your favorite or even second favorite drink when the catering cart comes around. You’d get a sip of coke or pepsi at best if you ask for the popular drinks, but your chances of getting the whole can is much higher if you ask for a canada dry.
The seats in economy class (I seem to fly a lot of economy, don’t I? lol) seem a lot wider than they are long. Know how to loosen the seat belts, exploit the headrests (American economy seats at least let you adjust them), etc. to make yourself comfy. Just don’t hog the armrests (leaving the center armrests for the poor soul in the center seat is a good idea) and be gentle when reclining; you’d hate to have your hot coffee splashed onto your laptop when the guy in front reclines, right?
Getting to know the flight attendants on long haul flights can be advantageous. At the least you would spark a nice conversation the next time you head to the restrooms, sometimes you may find yourself with an upgraded meal, better service, or all sorts of friendly tokens if you take the time to see them as fellow humans and not as your personal assistant.
Oh, and just avoid LGA. And EWR. Screw it, if it’s not JFK, just fly to IAD/BOS and take Amtrak to New York.
All really good tips Kelly! Thanks for taking the time to write this out – I’m sure it’ll be helpful to many.