You’re getting on an airplane for the first time in your life and you have no idea what to expect? That’s fine – we’ve all been there at one point in our lives. It’s a nerve-racking experience, and the only thing you can do to make it better is prepare.
This is exactly what we’ll help you do with this comprehensive guide. We’ll take you through your first flight step-by-step, from when you should start packing to how you should properly deplane.
With our detailed travel tips for first time flyers, everyone around you will think you’re a veteran flyer, so keep on reading!
Note: If you are flying with toddlers, that is a whole other story and worth preparing for in a totally different way.
There’s a lot of things that you need to do before you even get to the airport, and we are starting with those!
If you want your first flight to go smoothly, you should be well prepared and give yourself plenty of time for everything. So, you should pack your bags a couple days before your flight, and not the morning of it.
I like to pack my main suitcase two days before my trip, because that gives me enough time to pack absolutely everything I need, and wash any clothes that I might have worn but I want to bring on my trip.
If you’re bring a suitcase and a smaller bag, I recommend you pack the small bag the night before your flight. Put the items you know you won’t need in the morning inside it, and you can just throw in your toothbrush and phone charger once you’ve gotten ready for the airport.
If you leave everything to the last minute, you’ll have a very stressful morning, and chances are you won’t get to the airport as early as you’d like. Give yourself enough time in the days leading up to your flight, and everything will go smoothly.
It’s important to be acquainted with the airline you are flying with. Go on their website and download their app, and go through all the important information – luggage sizes, security procedures, baggage restrictions etc.
You should also look for information on how much time you have to check your baggage. Some airlines will stop accepting checked baggage 45 minutes before the plane is supposed to depart, while other will do it even earlier. And you don’t want to be stuck with a 32” suitcase that you can’t bring inside the actual airplane because you didn’t know that you had to check it immediately.
It’s particularly important to pay attention to the baggage size and weight allowances. And if you’re not planning on bringing a checked bag, this is something you need to do before packing. What’s the point of spending hours arranging all your clothes inside a suitcase, only to realize that it’s too big to be allowed inside the cabin?
You can find most of the information you need on your airline’s app, provided they have one. These are actually really useful for getting updates about your flight and checking in online, but we’ll talk about that later.
Anyone who is flying out from the United States or flying to the United States has to deal with TSA. And they have a lot of rules, so be sure to read up on all of them.
Perhaps the best-known TSA rule is the 3-1-1 rule, in regards to the amount of liquids you’re allowed to have in your carry on luggage. You can read all about it here; the general rule is that you are allowed up to 3.4 oz of liquids, and all of the containers have to fit into a quart-sized ziplock bag. When going through TSA checkpoints, you will need to take out that bag and show it to TSA agents.
You will also have to take out your electronic devices – definitely think about getting a TSA friendly laptop backpack if you usually travel with a lot of tech.
TSA has a long list of items you are and aren’t allowed to have on an airplane, so be sure to go through it. Make sure that you don’t have any forbidden items in your carry on luggage, to avoid wasting time on TSA checkpoints.
This is something you should before your every trip, and not just before your first flight. I won’t go into too much detail – if you want to know more, be sure to check out my comprehensive guide to travel insurance and why you need it.
Basically, travel insurance is something you need whenever you’re travelling to a foreign country. It will cover most of the medical costs if you get into an accident or suddenly fall ill. And it could save you from bankruptcy, if all your pricey electronics were to get stolen.
You can prepare for your flight for days, but what happens when you arrive at the airport and you’re forced to check your carry on suitcase because it’s an inch taller than what the airline allows? That situation is entirely avoidable, if you prepare for your first flight properly.
So, once your bags are fully packed and shut, you need to weigh and measure them. I’ve done a very detailed guide on the best (and worst) ways to measure the size and weight of your luggage, so check it out if you’re not sure where to begin.
Once you’ve taken detailed measurements of your bags, you need to cross reference them with airline’s baggage size and weight restrictions. And if one of your bags turns out to be too heavy or too big, at least you have some time to decide what to do about it. It’s definitely better to arrive at the airport knowing that you will have to pay an overweight baggage fee, than to be blindsided while you’re trying to board.
The general rule of thumb is that you should arrive at the airport at least two hours before your flight, if you’re flying domestic, and three hours if you’re flying internationally. This will give you plenty of time to check in, go through security, grab a snack, run to the restroom and get to your gate.
You might think that’s excessive, but it’s much better to be an hour early than two minutes late. That way, you will be able to deal with things you can’t plan for, like long lines at the security checkpoints.
So, you’ve arrived at the airport two and a half hours earlier – what do you do next?
First thing’s first – be sure that you always have your documents on you before you’ve actually entered the airport. If you haven’t already checked in online, you will need to show a copy of your E-ticket, or a physical ticket if you purchased one, and an ID. Your passport is another important item that you want to have handy at all times, and it should be without a passport cover.
Try to keep the important documents somewhere where they are safe, but easily accessible. I normally put them in one of the front pockets of my carry on luggage, or in my jacket pocket if it’s cold enough that I’m actually wearing a jacket.
If your airline doesn’t allow for online check-ins, this is the first thing you need to do once you arrive at the airport. Head to the check-in counter; there you will be able to choose a seat, and you can check in any luggage that’s too big for the cabin.
You will be asked to show your ID and ticket (or E-ticket copy) at the desk. Once it is confirmed that both of those documents are valid, you will be issues with a boarding pass.
The process is a little bit different if you opted to check in online. Most major airlines allow for online check-ins 24 hours ahead of the flight, which actually makes your life a lot easier. This is usually done via their website or app; once you’ve checked in online, you will receive a copy of your boarding pass. You can print it out if you want to, but a lot of airlines will allow you to just show them your copy on your phone.
The best thing about checking in online is that you can entirely bypass the check-in counter, if you don’t have any large suitcases you want to check. This makes the entire process much faster, and just makes the overall experience go smoother.
Another thing to keep in mind is that some airlines have baggage drop off desks or counters, for people who are travelling with checked baggage but checked in online.
Delayed flights are a very common occurrence, so be on alert for any updates about your flight. All airports have those huge screens that have info on all arriving and departing flights, so peek at them every now and then, to be sure that nothing has changed about your flight.
Additionally, most of the larger airlines will issue updates via their phone apps. Which is another pro of having their apps on your phone; the advantage of receiving a notification versus trying to find your flight on one of the dozen displays is undeniable.
You’ve finished with the check-in process, you’ve dropped of your bags and now it’s time to head to security. Yes that’s the worst part of the airport experience, but it doesn’t have to be time-consuming or uncomfortable, if you come prepared.
You will most likely have to stand in line, so why not prepare while you’re waiting? Unbuckle your belt and open up your bag, so that you can start taking out the liquids and electronics as soon as you’re in the front of the line.
But keep your documents handy, as you will be asked to show your ID to security officials.
Keep in mind that you will need to remove your belt, shoes, anything metallic and entirely empty out the contents of your pockets. You need to place those items inside a container on the scanner belt, and then go through the metal detector yourself.
By the way, if you have any piercings in places you wouldn’t want to show to security agents, either remove them or put in non-metallic jewellery. In case you the alarm goes off because you have a piercing in a place that is not visible when you’re fully clothed, you will have to show it to the security agents. If it’s in a really delicate place, you can ask to be taken to a private room and inspected by an officer of your gender.
I know that dealing with airport security for the first time is a nerve-racking experience, and you might be tempted to make jokes. But don’t. For the love of God, don’t make jokes about weapons, bombs, terrorist attacks or anything in that realm – airport officials aren’t paid to laugh at your joke, and they have to take anything you say seriously. If you make an inappropriate joke, you will most likely be detained and questions. And depending on what you said, you might even face criminal charges.
There’s no reason to be nervous, if you don’t have any forbidden items on you. Stay calm during security check, be nice to the officials don’t say stupid things and you’ll be done in minutes.
Once you’ve successfully passed security, all that’s left is to go to your gate and wait to board the plane. Boarding usually starts 30-45 minutes before the airplane is supposed to take off, but that depends on the airline. And once you’ve gone through security, you are officially in the secure area of the airport, also known as airspace. If you leave airspace, you will have to go through security again.
If you’re finished with security but your plane is not boarding yet, you have some time to yourself. Charge your phone, go to the restroom, go get something to eat – you can do whatever you want, as long as you don’t leave the airspace. Just make sure to be at your gate on time.
Don’t forget about the duty-free shops – depending on the airport, it could be a couple of convenience stores, or a mini-shopping mall within the actual airport. Just be careful when buying food liquids – there are certain rules about items bought in duty free shops, particularly about nips and big bottles of booze. You can learn more about those in my detailed post on nips and airline regulations.
Once the plane starts boarding, passengers are normally divided into groups, in order for everything to run smoothly. Wait until the crew calls your group, show them your boarding pass and just follow everything they say.
You’ve finally boarded the airplane, but what now? Where do you put your luggage, and how should you behave so that you don’t give off that you’ve never flown before? Let’s talk about that.
So, the first thing you’re going to do when you board an airplane is put away your carry on luggage. If you have two bags, one of them is going in the overhead bin, and the other one is going under the seat in front of you – the latter should be the bag that holds the items you want to access during the flight.
When putting away luggage in the overhead bin, always look if there’s room close to your seat. Some people will put away their luggage in the first empty spot they see, even though it might be 15 rows away from their seat. And that just makes it more complicated to deplane, as they have to walk around the plane and get in everyone’s way.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you should move out of the aisle as soon as you’ve put away your luggage. You don’t want to get in the way of other people, so once you’ve gotten rid of your bags, get in your seat and fasten your seatbelt.
And that’s most of it – the flight attendants will talk you through the rest of the journey. Stay in your seat until it’s okay to remove your seatbelt, and don’t use any electronics until the crew says that it’s okay to do so.
If you want to recline your seat, you need to do it very carefully. First, check if there’s someone sitting behind you – you don’t want to just ram the back of your chair into them. When you’re reclining your seat do it slowly and gently, and don’t recline it too much – just imagine how uncomfortable you would be if the person in front your did the same thing.
Also, if you get the aisle seat, keep in mind that people in the row behind you will eventually get up and walk around. Even if there’s not anyone directly behind you, a person sitting in the window seat won’t be able to move out of the row if your seat is fully reclined. Be thoughtful of your fellow passengers, and don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want to be done to you.
Once you’re in the air, you will be able to get up and go to the bathroom if you have to. But plan your toilet trips – try to do it before or after the crew starts serving meals, as the food cart usually blocks the entire aisle.
Also, if you see that someone just entered the restroom, stay seated until they exit. You never know how long they’re going to be there, and it’s more comfortable to wait in your seat than in the tiny space in front of the restroom door.
If you get to the airport on time, you will have plenty of time to go to the restroom before you actually board the plane.
Just because there’s a button that lets you call a flight attendant next to your seat doesn’t mean you have to actually use it. The button is there so that you can alert the crew that you’re having a medical emergency. And if that actually happens, feel free to press it multiple times, to let them know that it’s really urgent.
It’s also okay to ring the bell is there’s something you think the cabin crew should know. Maybe an overhead bin popped open or you’re in the middle seat and the people around you are sleeping and you don’t want to disturb them.
But if you just have a question or want another drink, go to the galley and ask them in person. Or wait until a crew member walks past your seat, and then ask them.
You’d think this was a given, but it’s not. J.K. Rowling once said that you can a lot about the person by how they treat their servers, and boy was she right!
Flight attends are people like you, who are just doing their jobs. And you should be kind to them; always say please and thank you, just like you would to the cab driver or a waiter.
And if you’re not kind to those people already, you might want to work on your manners.
The plane has landed and you’re almost done with your first flight. But there are a couple other things to keep in mind, so that you act like a true veteran flyer.
Our instincts tell us to get out of our seats once our vehicle stops moving, right? But even after an airplane lands and the seatbelt sign is turned off, the doors won’t be opened for another 5-10 minutes. Yes, you need to collect your luggage, but how long is that actually going to take?
Additionally, think about where you’re seated. If you’re right next to the door, you’ll be one of the first people to deplane anyway, so just sit down and wait until the crew tells you to start collecting your belongings. But if you’re 30 rows away from the door, you won’t achieve anything by standing up as soon as the plane lands. You’ll only get in the way of other people, and you’ll give away your inexperience in flying.
There are two types of flyers – clappers and non-clappers. And the crew is not a fan of the former.
There’s no reason to clap once your plane has landed, so please don’t do it. It’s annoying, and frankly a little insulting – did you think you weren’t going to arrive to your destination safely, so you’re clapping?
Did you actually doubt the pilot with 20+ years of experience?
The only scenario in which it is mildly okay to clap is if you’ve had a particularly nasty or turbulent flight, and you’re sick to your stomach. But it’s only okay to do it if someone started before you and you’re just joining in.
And even then, it’s questionable at best. Just try not to clap your hands on an airplane at all.
That would be all of our tips for first time flyers. I think I’ve covered everything – be sure to let me know if you have any questions, or if I forgot to mention something important!
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.