If you’re getting ready to fly for the first time, welcome. Big step, huh? More like a huge leap… 11 km (7 mi) into the sky that is! I’m here with all my slightly sarcastic but ultimately helpful advice for those of you who want to be prepared and know what to expect on a plane (and at check-in) (and at security) (and while boarding) (etc. etc.). Not sure if I can calm your nerves completely, but I’ll give you the lowdown on every step so you have the maximum info, and that always seems to help me relax. Knowledge is power, so you’ll be flying like an Avenger after reading these tips!
In this article, I’ll give you the best tips for first-time flyers so that you know what to be ready for from the moment you leave for the airport to the second you’re in that taxi in your vacation destination. I’ll answer some frequently asked questions about airports, packing, takeoff, and why you should never have coffee on a plane (but will anyway).
Dare to take your first flight to discover the world! For example, Kenzo Ji in Nagano, Japan
So, start packing your bags, it’s time to fly! Let’s take an in-depth look at every aspect of flying in this bad boy of a chronological first-timers guide.
And once you’re actually there, you’ll be like “oh yeah, this is what Jan talked about in his article!” and “I did it, I’m so glad I read that Next Level article and didn’t have a meltdown at the x-ray machines!”. Are you excited yet? I am, and I’m not even the one flying for the first time!
Your travel prep starts long before your actual flight. You’ll need to buy your plane tickets, book your hotels, and make sure you have the right travel documents. But when you pack your bags and start feeling those butterflies in your stomach, that’s when the adventure really begins.
Ironically, the most stressful part of flying is everything that happens before and after the flight. When you’re in your seat on the aircraft, you literally can’t do anything but sit back and relax while another human takes on the huge responsibility to get you to where you’re going. It’s just like sitting in a cramped movie theater with free drinks and snacks and your (almost) personal assistant ready to cater to your every whim. (Unless you’re sitting in the back and want chicken—you’re getting pasta, I’ll tell you that right now.)
Remember this: Flying is safe and it’s easy peasy lemon squeazy—unless you have little kids. In that case, flying is stressful AF from the moment you decide you want to fly to the moment you get to your hotel. At least it’s still safe though.
People consider flying stressful because it’s not exactly a routine occurrence in normal life. You’re shipping yourself to another country, dealing with endless rules, requirements, and restrictions, getting checked over and over again by intimidating-looking men and women, making you feel like you are one of only few non-criminals in a sea of traveling terrorists. But then you board the plane and everyone is smiling their most professional smile and it’s just a matter of hours until you’re finally there, and all is well again.
If you’re a nervous traveler, and especially a nervous flyer, even the little things can rattle you. But you’ll be prepared—you've got me!
For people that hate being out of their comfort zone, the entire travel experience might be stressful. But hopefully you’re that type where the nerves turn into excitement the moment you step off of the plane
When you buy your plane ticket, be aware of your baggage allowance. Usually, you can even choose what type of bags you wish to include based either on the fare you choose or which add-ons you pick. There are weight limits and size restrictions that you’ll need to adhere to if you don’t want to pay extra (a LOT extra) at the airport. Sizes vary by airline, so always check your specific one!
Checked bags are the big ones and will go into the plane’s cargo hold. There aren’t many forbidden items that any sane person would need to worry about (obviously no weapons, poisons, fireworks and such). Do not put your laptop, phones, or anything else with lithium metal or lithium ion batteries into checked bags. It’s because if the battery happens to combust in the depth of the cargo hull, well, that would suck. Oh, and electronic cigarettes are also not allowed.
Carry-on bags (aka hand luggage) are smaller bags or suitcases that come into the plane cabin with you. You store them in the overhead compartment above your seat. Gate agents love to play the game of “spot who we can charge extra for an oversized bag”, so you’ll need to make sure you adhere to size limits. There are many restrictions on what carry-ons cannot contain (like liquids and knives, see below).
A personal item is a small bag like a purse or a laptop, sometimes even a small backpack, that isn’t counted towards your carry-on allowance. You need to store your personal item under the seat in front of you, so it needs to be quite small. It’s where you’ll want to keep your headphones, your phone, your passport, and little things like chapstick, and pen.
Read my tips on how to pack for an international trip (handy packing list included).
The forbidden items list is supposed to keep the passengers, crew, and airplane safe, so, if you use common sense, you probably won’t have any trouble deciding what is ok to take in your carry-on.
Here are the main culprits:
There’s also often a bin where you can dump out your water bottle before security (not always though, so you may need to chug it or make a quick run to the restroom)
On the day of your flight, it’s all about navigating the airport! Get ready to:
Plan on arriving at the airport 1.5 hours before a domestic flight and 2.5 hours before an international flight. Check-in counters usually open 2–3 hours before the scheduled flight time, so there’s no use standing around for much longer than that. If you are flying anything better than economy class, you’ll have your own check-in, which means your line will be significantly shorter, and you can get to the airport later. Just remember check-in often closes an hour before departure time.
That said, you need to allow ample time to get through the sometimes incredibly long security line (which comes after check-in but before the gate area), so cutting it too close could turn your first flight into your first panic attack.
If you need to travel a longer distance to get to the airport, give yourself at least another 30-minute buffer. Traffic, an accident or a flat tire can make you want to pull your hair out even on a regular day, let alone when it has the power to ruin your first flight. The longer you need to commute to get to the airport, the bigger your time buffer needs to be.
Many airports have more than one terminal, and you’ll need to know which one your flight leaves from beforehand, so you know which one to head to. A terminal is an airport building. Sometimes, you can walk between the terminals, sometimes you need to use trains, so it’s important to not just head into a random one if you don’t want to be running around excessively.
Which terminal your flight departs from depends on whatever criteria your airport uses to allocate its terminals. It will can be based on destination (international vs domestic), your airline (alphabetical order), etc. Each airport is different, so don’t think that once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
Every terminal has a departure area and an arrival area—make your way to departures. In smaller airports, there will only be one area for everyone.
Take your sense of direction with you, you'll need it even outside the airport... like getting to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa
When you enter the departure hall, look for the screens with flight details. You’ll see screens that list departing flights and screens with arrivals, so don’t freak out right away if you don’t see your flight on there. It’s probably just the wrong screen, or you need to wait a second for it to switch to later flight times (I knew you’d come to the airport way too early despite me telling you not to!). They’ll list flight numbers, destinations, departure/arrival times, and the check in counter number and the gate number. There will also be a note at the end stating the status of the flight, like “check-in open”, “go to gate”, or “boarding” (better hope it doesn’t say that yet though).
Once you know your check-in counter number, go find it. It’s where you’ll let the airline know you’ve actually shown up for your flight. You’ll show your travel documents (passport, visa if needed, proof of onward travel where required), be assigned seats (if you haven’t chosen them online already), get your boarding pass, and leave your checked bags.
It’s also where your bags will be weighed, and where the folks that ignored weight limits or don’t have a scale at home need to open their suitcases, right there in front of everyone, and try to wear as many jackets as they can in order to cut some weight from their bag. Not fun, and certainly a great way to escalate your first-time-flyer stress. So, don’t overpack! Higher classes will get higher weight limits, so don’t be side-eyeing that lady in business class with her huge suitcase.
Either pay extra for overweight bags or get creative...
Lines at check-in, especially on international flights at large airports, can be MASSIVE. This is why you want to check in asap after you get to the airport and leave the coffee break for later. You want that boarding pass in your hand before you move on to the next step: security.
Note: If you don’t have checked luggage and have checked in online beforehand, you will skip check-in. You already have your boarding pass in your phone (or, if you’re particularly ancient, probably printed out), so you’re good to head straight to security.
Check-in counters at an airport. Prepare your tickets and other travel documents depending on where you are going. Figure out the documents you need in my separate article
Getting rid of your large luggage can take a bit of the stress off when flying (not just for the first time, but every time). I mean, at least one of you is now successfully on their way to the airplane! But you, the human, and your little carry-on companions, still need to get through the dreaded security area. But I’ll walk you through, step by step, so you get no surprises at airport security.
Only traveling people (with valid boarding passes) and flight crew are allowed past security. Security is the border between landside and airside where you and your bags will go through x-ray machines to check that you’re not carrying anything illegal on or inside the bags or your body. It’s where you’ll feel the most like you may be wrongfully detained and sent to a tiny dark cell because your passport photo is weird and your nail clippers are too sharp. But if you know what to expect, you’ll fly through, so don’t stress it.
At airport security, you’ll need to put your bags and some of your personal items into the bins that are waiting at the conveyor belt right before the body scanners.
Once you strip yourself of every conceivable threat, send the bins off into the x-ray machine and wait your turn to walk through the scanner (usually a “backscatter passenger scanner”, but I still call it the x-ray machine).
All you need to do is walk through the machine (one by one, no walking with your wife and kids). If you then get stopped by the security person, don’t panic, you probably just got chosen for a random extra check. They’ll scan you again using a small hand-held device right there on the spot. It’s no big deal and it happens all the time, you aren’t going straight to a jail cell. The agents have dozens of behaviors they look out for that could be deemed suspicious, like yawning too much or staring at the ground. So, if you partied too hard last night or are stressed because this is your first time going through an airport, you may be selected. Sometimes they just find the extra change you left in your pocket, so you’ll be asked to take it out and go through the scanner again.
The airport respects different religions, but only up to a certain security level. Here I am at the Wailing Wall in Israel
Religious considerations: If you can’t take off your [fill in item of clothing that you wear to appease whichever deity you follow] at security, you can ask—or will be asked—to go to a dedicated private area and deal with it there. A Muslim woman, for example, can ask to only be seen by a female security officer in this case. But no, you can’t take your “religious” knife or sword with you on board.
Your bags get scanned and come out the other end in the same bins you put them into. Just take your stuff and you’re free to go unless you see another security person take your bag to the side. You’ll be called over for explanations. They can’t just search your bag, so you can be asked to open your bag yourself and show the contents. It’s either nothing and you can go repack your bag (my girlfriend “loves” when that happens), or they found that 120 ml hairspray you tried to hide and will confiscate it from you.
Story time: My friend has a fantastic story about a “sex toy” that security was trying to have them take out of their bag, because apparently that is (was?) a big no-no in Vietnam. The item in question was actually an electric shaver, and the security agent couldn’t for the life of him pronounce “sex toy” in a way that my friend would understand, especially since he wasn’t carrying anything of the sort. Anyway, the security person was frustrated and very much embarrassed by the numerous attempts he was trying to explain what he was looking for in bad English.
A gate is the area in the terminal where you access your airplane. Each scheduled flight leaves from one gate, and all the passengers of that flight gather there while they are waiting to board. There are seats, info screens, a counter (wo)manned by personnel from your airline, and the magic doorway that leads to your aircraft.
So, after you clear security, stuff all your stuff back into your carry-on and look up at the information screens once again. Locate your flight and find your gate number. Especially at large airports, you’ll want to start walking in the direction of your gate.
At this point, airports resemble shopping malls, with tons of stores and extremely overpriced restaurants and cafes ready to take your money while you wait for your departure time. This is when you can have your coffee break.
You want to be at your gate no later than 30–45 minutes before your scheduled departure time, because the boarding process takes a minute, and this is roughly when they start calling passengers in. Shorter flights will start boarding later than long-haul international flights.
If you aren’t at your gate before boarding is closed, even if it’s before your departure time, you will be denied access to the plane.
Once the plane is ready for boarding, the gate personnel will announce it via the speaker system, and it will also show on the info screens. People will start lining up and then, when you reach the counter, be ready to show your passport and boarding pass. Once you are cleared, you’re finally boarding your plane! Just follow the crowd, you can’t get lost at this point, because you’re usually in the air bridge, aka boarding bridge, sky bridge… and it’s not a bridge at all—it’s a tunnel that connects the terminal straight to the airplane door.
Tip: International flights usually board by sections of the plane, so know your row number (it’s on your boarding pass) and listen up—they’ll be calling out the numbers as they are ready for them. Priority boarding passengers will be called first, as will people with disabilities and children.
At smaller airports or on low-cost carrier flights, you may notice the absence of a sky bridge at the gate. This means you will be getting on a bus that’ll take you to your airplane instead. Not gonna lie, it’s annoying as heck, because a 30-second walk to the airplane door can turn into a 20-minute wait on a crowded airport bus while it waits for everyone to get their boarding passes and passports checked, and then it takes a 1-minute trip to the airplane.
Just follow everyone’s lead, it’s almost impossible to get lost. Don’t worry, they won’t let you wander off (without taking you back for questioning about your intentions and relatives in the Middle East).
In Europe, this is often the case at smaller airports or if you’re taking a low-cost airline, but in US, you’ll get the dreaded bus almost always at airports like Washington DC and Las Vegas.
When I see this thing I almost want to turn around and run away
Once off the bus, you’ll be shown to the stairs up to the airplane. While boarding, stay behind the safety lines so you’re not sucked in and turned into a tourist smoothie by the engines.
You’ve made it through the perils of airport check-in and security, and now it’s finally time to take your first flight! As you walk towards the plane through the boarding bridge, you may start to feel all kinds of jitters: nerves, but also excitement. You’ll be way off the ground in a matter of minutes!
Your flight attendants will be greeting you at the airplane door, so just say hello and keep moving. They may even help usher you into the correct class or aisle if you’re on a larger aircraft—so have your boarding pass handy.
To find your seat, keep scooting forward while looking at the aisle and seat numbers printed on the bottom of the overhead storage bins. Once you find your spot, you can either shout “Heureka!” and start chatting with your travel companion about who gets the window seat, or, you can store your carry-on bag in the overhead bin and get the heck out of the way so you’re not holding up the entire line.
Better airlines will have better quality seats, food, and entertainment (on my way to Chile)
Too crowded for your taste? Now may be a good time to usher you to my article describing all the airplane classes. One look at the density of humans in economy may nudge you into considering at least premium economy on your next flight! Here’s my experience with Austrian Airlines Premium Economy.
You can keep your purse or laptop with you are your seat—it will need to be shoved under the seat in front of your for take-off and landing.
While your plane is on the ground, you just need to fasten your seatbelts and chill—you’ve done everything you needed as a first-time flyer, now it’s in the hands of the pilots and crew. Don’t go reclining your seat just yet, though!
Tip: The rear section of the plane is furthest from the wings, meaning that it can get slightly more movement in case of turbulence. If you’re prone to air sickness or think any little shake will set off a panic attack, steer clear of the back seats.
When everybody is on board, doors close and you are now required to sit in your seat with your seatbelts fastened until you reach cruising altitude. What is that? Here are the phases of a flight and the specifics that interest you:
Some people are scared of flying on every single flight, not just on the first one. I regularly see people turn white as chalk, clutching their armrests at landing.
But I say why go through the anxiety of imagining yourself crashing to the ground (I assume that’s what you’re afraid of) when you can spend hours eating free food, watching movies, reading that book you’ve been putting off, and literally being able to do nothing but relax?
And while I understand there’s not a switch that you can flip to turn off your fears, there are steps you can take to minimize them. Here are Dr. Jan’s Five Fearless Flying Facks (like FAQs and hacks together, ok?)!
Sure, you can use your phone on the plane, just not for calling or texting... I guess you could use the calculator? Your phone needs to be in “airplane mode”, which turns off all signals coming and going from the phone (so they don’t interfere with all the signals coming and going from the airplane).
Laptops also need to be in an offline mode and cannot be used at all during takeoff and landing.
Yes, you can take food on a plane, just make sure it’s not stinky, because your plane-mates will hate you! Beware that some foods will qualify as a liquid and will need to adhere to the liquid limits (3-1-1 rule—see above). Cream cheese, spreads, apple sauce, Nutella, all of them will need to be tiny in order to be allowed on your flight.
The food is not always that bad If you fly with quality service! My tip: Austrian Airlines Premium Economy Class
Airplane food gets a bad rap, but it’s not entirely its own fault. Fun fact of the day: Because of the cabin pressure and low humidity, we lose around 30% of our taste buds when we’re on an airplane. Less taste means less satisfactory food! Airplane catering companies will try to compensate for this indisposition by adding extra salt and extra sugar and god knows what else, so if you do like your airplane food, this may be why.
Have you heard of this airplane travel tip?! Isn’t having coffee on the plane part of the fun? It’s usually explained that the water for the coffee (same thing with tea) is from the plane’s water tank and there is some concern about how clean and bacteria-free those tanks are. Notice how you never get tap water on a plane? Yeah.
Well, just to ease your mind, the water tanks on planes do get cleaned at least annually, and the water is tested periodically for bacteria. And, at the very least, remember that most bacteria is killed at 76°C (170°F), so you should be safe if you’re having a hot beverage. The fact that the taste will likely be horrible is another thing, but that’s just down to bad coffee bought in bulk.
The one thing I would maybe consider is if you are on a plane from a country where the tap water isn’t safe in the first place, you may want to steer clear of it on the plane as well.
Namibia’s animals are simply amazing. The tap water... not so much. It’s not crazy bad, but maybe skip the airplane coffee on the flight home if your stomach is on the sensitive side
I don’t know if this is even a concern for anyone, but just to mention every last detail, yes, there are toilets (called lavatories) on airplanes. It’s a teeny tiny room, but it gets the job done. If you’re using it for the first time, you will likely get startled when you flush—it sounds like you will get sucked in and spat outside of the plane. So, I recommend closing the toilet before flushing. To be safe, obviously.
Toilet myths: No, toilet waste doesn’t get sprayed out of the plane when you flush! I’ve heard this myth and I can’t fathom it. It’s not like it would disintegrate, so what’s the alternative? “Oh look, it’s a plane! Get your umbrellas!”?? There’s a tank on the plane, ok?
You aren’t quite done with your first flying experience just yet. Getting out of the airplane is one thing you’ll need to do—trust me, those minutes waiting for the crew to open the plane doors can feel like hours following a long flight! And then you still have to pick up your bags and get through immigration. But no worries, it’s pretty straightforward.
Grab your stuff, it’s time to pick up your rental car! Here I am with this beast in Peru
The first thing you’ll want to do once you leave the plane (besides maybe finding a restroom), is go through immigration, which is basically border control. There will be a line forming as you leave the baggage claim area. Depending on the country you’re traveling to, there may even be more lines, so pay attention where you’re queuing—sometimes there’s a separate line for residents and another for 3rd country nationals.
When you see the line forming, you’ll understand why some people are very antsy once the plane lands and try to get off asap. It’s because they hate immigration lines, and clearing immigration can take as long as 30–90 minutes in some countries. Higher cabin class won’t get you any benefits here.
You’ll show your passport, provide any other required travel documents, and, in places like the United States, answer questions that you make you feel like you’re there to overthrow the government. Then you’ll get stamped in and you’re officially in your destination country! Congrats!
Some countries require a visa on arrival (I write a lot more information about visas in my article about travel documents), so look around for a counter that issues those first if that’s the case.
After immigration, you may also see a customs area. Mostly you just pass it or go through the side that says “Nothing to declare”. Customs is where you have to go declare things like millions of dollars in cash, a suitcase full of cigarettes or raw meat that you’re bringing into the country (just a warning—don't try to do either). It’s where they’ll ask you to open your luggage in case the airport scanners catch something they didn’t like, and you can be asked to remove things from your bag before they let you continue on your vacation. They’ll also fine you if you’re transporting forbidden goods, so read up on regulations of your destination country beforehand.
head to the carousels where you’ll pick up your luggage. Follow the signs to “baggage claim” or some similar wording. If you can’t see it, just follow the signs to “Immigration” or “Exit”. Most airports are built in a way where you can’t wander off without your stuff, so this should be the easy part.
It takes a while for the strong men that mishandle luggage get everyone’s bags and suitcases out from the cargo hold, so you’ll probably hang out for a while before the carousel starts moving. Oh, and you’ll need to find the right one first—there will be a screen with your flight number and departure airport by your carousel. If you’re premium economy or higher, your bags will likely come out first.
Then, all you need to do is look out for your bags and grab them off the conveyor belt. There are two things to keep in mind:
Just a quick mention about layovers—if you have a connecting flight, you’ll go through the process of alighting the plane and making your way through the terminal, but not to baggage claim. You’ll just stay in the transfer area of the airport, moving to another gate, and starting the boarding process again when it’s time.
You may need to change terminals, so check the information boards for gate numbers and departure details as soon as you land. But unless you bought two separate tickets instead of buying your whole trip at once (don’t do that, especially if you’re a first time flyer, it’s a mess waiting to happen!), you don’t pick up your bags or check in again while waiting for your connecting flight.
If you have a long layover and you want to leave the airport while waiting, you theoretically can. You don’t worry about your bags until your final destination, but you do need to check entry requirements at your layover stop. Also, remember that many airports are very far from the city they serve, so it may not even make sense trying to leave the airport at all. Instead, go explore the airport and its restaurant and entertainment options.
Eating in Nagano, Japan
Now that you’ve cleared immigration, you’re good to go! Depending on what your mode of travel from the airport is, go do that. There are always tons of taxi and car rental counters at the airport, but it’s a good idea to book your car in advance. Actually, waiting until you get to the airport to figure out transport means is a crazy and bad idea. And by bad I mean expensive and probably a rip-off. You don’t want to be dealing with the hawkers at the rental and taxi companies after hours of travel. Or ever, really. More about renting cars in another article.
Have a fantastic vacation, and when you’re ready to go home, you’ll be flying for the second time! Like a pro, you got this!
Now the adventure can begin! This is me at the Beinn Eighe in Scotland
This article will focus on carry-on luggage. If you don't want to get embarrassed at the airport by security rummaging through your bag for something that shouldn't be there, you'll want to read this.
Traveling is about making memories, not police reports. Follow these tips and cautionary tales and remember to catch the right type of travel bug. So go out there and explore the world, but, you know, wisely!
Let me show off a bit here. I've racked up around 350 flights under my belt. And if you're a fan of my blog, you know I've traveled extensively across many countries. Here's my guide on how to handle long flights!