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Tips for first-time flyers: what to do at the airport
Tips for first-time flyers: what to do at the airport

Are you flying for the first time or has it just been a while? I’ve put together these tips for first-time flyers to ease any anxiety and help smooth your path through the airport. Hopefully, you’ll also find them useful if you’ve not flown for a while or even if you just dread the whole process of navigating the airport.

A while ago we travelled to Gatwick airport with some friends to fly to Florida. Someone moaned about the early start and how much of a hassle flying was. My friend cheerfully announced that she was happy because she was already on holiday even though we hadn’t even arrived at the airport yet. I thought then that it was a fantastic attitude and I resolved to view the airport as a more positive part of the travel experience. Now I make the most of it and I quite enjoy spending time at the airport.

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Tips for first-time flyers before you leave home

Let’s start with a few tips for first-time flyers which begin before you even leave home. In fact, let’s go back to a few days before your scheduled departure. Depending on which airline you’re flying from and which airport you will probably have the option to check-in online. You don’t have to but there are advantages. So check on your airline’s website and see if you’re eligible for online check-in and what time it opens. Usually, you can check-in from 24 hours before departure. However, sometimes it can be 48 hours. Online check-in will normally close an hour or so before departure so technically there’s no rush. I like to check in as soon as it opens as you get the best choice of seats then. Of course, if you’ve already paid to reserve a seat that’s not a problem.

Tips for first-time flyers about seat reservations

If you’re a bit nervous about flying for the first time you might choose to reserve your seat in advance. You’ll find the cost varies from airline to airline and also depending on what type of seat you want. If you have long legs you might like to pay the extra for seats with more legroom. Also, if you’re a couple travelling on a flight with a seat configuration of 3-4-3 you might find there are a few rows of 2-4-2 at the back of the plane. Those are quite popular though and can be more expensive. I’m always pleased when I see the plane layout if it’s got rows of two seats all the way through.

However, if it’s a 3-4-3 I select two seats in the middle 4, one aisle, one middle. This at least allows us to get up out of our seats without disturbing anyone else. If you don’t want to pay for a seat reservation though most airlines will let you pick your seat for free when online check-in opens. I always keep an eye on my online booking page to see how many people are booking seats in advance. If it starts getting full then I pay to reserve a seat otherwise I wait and get one at check-in.

Tips for first time flyers: check your documents and luggage allowance
Tips for first-time flyers: check your documents and luggage allowance

Check your documents

Before you leave the house make sure you have all the documents you need for the trip. I can’t imagine anything worse than arriving at the airport and realising I’ve forgotten something important. Nowadays you’ll probably get an e-ticket. I’ve not seen a paper ticket for years. I print mine off and take it with me but an electronic copy on your smartphone is fine. If you’ve checked in online you can take your boarding pass. A lot of airlines now have a smartphone app which you can show your boarding pass on. Otherwise, you can print a copy. If you can’t do either then most airlines will give you a boarding pass at the check-in desk even if you’ve checked in online. However, do check if you’re flying with a budget airline as there may be a charge for this.

Make sure you have your passport in your hand luggage along with any essential items you need for the trip such as medications. If you are travelling to a country such as the USA where you need at ESTA (Electronic Travel Authority) it’s a good idea to print a copy and take it with you. They say you don’t need to but it doesn’t take up much room and I feel happier having a copy with me. Check out my international checklist on which documents you need to travel.

Know your luggage allowance

I always pack days before we’re due to leave. Paul, on the other hand, likes to throw a few things in the case the night before. Whichever model you prefer, make sure you know what your luggage allowance is and stick to it. You’ll find that airlines vary enormously on what they allow you to take on board, particularly cabin hand luggage. Some airlines let you take quite a large suitcase. Others will restrict you to a small handbag or laptop.

Tips for first-time flyers on getting to the airport.

How early should you arrive for a flight?

An important tip whether you are a first-time flyer or not is to leave home in plenty of time to get to the airport. If you have a very long journey you should consider travelling down the night before and staying in an airport hotel overnight. You can get some good deals and some even include parking. Some hotels are attached to the airport so you can walk straight into the terminal in the morning although these tend to be more expensive.

You should aim to arrive at the airport around 3 hours before your flight time for an international flight. If you’re flying domestically you can usually arrive a bit later, say 2 hours beforehand. Check with your airlines for their minimum times.

Book airport parking early

If you’re driving to the airport book your parking well in advance. You’ll get the best deals by booking ahead as they usually offer early booking discounts. There are loads of options for parking. You pay more for onsite parking and you’ll find staying slightly further away is much cheaper. If you do this then they’ll be a shuttle bus to take you to and from the airport. At large airports, you might also have the option of valet parking where you hand your car over at the airport drop off. Personally, I prefer to park my own car and keep the keys so I always look for this option.

When it comes to airport parking, it pays to shop around. I find that quotes vary depending on when you book and which airport you’re flying from. My favourite online booking sites for airport car parking are Holiday Extras and APH. While Park Sleep Fly is the place to look for parking deals which include a hotel room the night before. They also do parking only deals. If you’re travelling a long way to the airport, then do consider staying at an airport hotel the night before. So much less stress. Same goes for early morning departures. If you travel down the day before you don’t have the same worries about getting stuck in traffic or delayed trains. For airport hotels without car parking try for some good deals.

Tips for First Time Flyers when you arrive at the airport

Tips for first time flyers When you arrive at the airport
Tips for first-time flyers
When you arrive at the airport

When you arrive at the airport head for departures. As a first time flyer, you may find this a bit daunting but stay calm you’ll be fine. If you are travelling with only cabin hand luggage and you have checked in online and have your boarding pass you do not need to go to the check-in desk. Otherwise, you’ll see tv monitors overhead with lists of flights. Look at these to find which check-in desk to go to. These are usually labelled with letters A-Z. Once you know which area to go to you’ll see large letters indicating that section.

If you have checked in online but have baggage to check into the hold then look for a ‘bag drop’ sign in your check-in area. These allow you to quickly check in your bags. You’ll need your passports and you may need your boarding pass depending on your airline. I’ve found they tend to print you a boarding pass at bag drop even if you already have one.

If you’ve not checked in online then you may be able to use a self-service kiosk. They’ll be easy to spot if they’re available and there should be staff around to help you if you have any problems. Otherwise, join the queue for the check-in desk. If you’re flying first class, business or premium then you’ll have a separate, usually shorter, queue.

Check out where the main facilities are

They'll be lots of things to do at the airport
They’ll be lots of things to do at the airport

Once you’ve checked in and dropped your bags you’re free to explore the airport. You should have a boarding time indicated on your boarding pass. This is the time the airline expects to start allowing passengers onto the place. You should aim to be at the departure gate well before this time although they will still let you in until the gate closes. The gate closing time should also be on your boarding pass.

What you should do next depends on which airport you’re at. Some have a lot of facilities before passport and security control. Others have more facilities once you’ve passed through. You can check out the airport website before you leave or ask one of the staff. If you want to grab breakfast or a coffee before heading through security make sure you leave yourself plenty of time. I prefer to go through passport control and security first and then relax with a coffee. This is usually the best option at large international airports anyway.

Tips for first-time flyers at Security screening

Have your passport and liquids ready
Have your passport and liquids ready

You’ll go through security screening first It tends to be a bit noisy and chaotic, especially at large airports. It’s not anything to worry about though. Remember it’s for your safety as well as the other passengers and just go with the flow. Before you even enter the security line there will be small tables where you can sort out any liquids in your bags.

Sort your liquids

You cannot take any containers larger than 100ml of liquid. This includes toothpaste, liquid make-up, suntan lotion etc as well as drinks. If you have any liquids larger than 100ml you must throw them into the bins provided. Any liquids which are smaller than 100ml you should put in a small transparent plastic bag and keep it separate for security. The only exception to this is if you are travelling with liquid medicines that exceed the 100ml limit or if you are carrying baby milk. You can carry a reasonable amount of medicine with you. Keep it in the original bottle with the pharmacy label on it as this makes it easier. There is a useful guide on the TSA website.

Going through security screening

As you approach the security check you’ll see a conveyor belt with large grey trays on it. Place all your hand luggage into one or more trays. Try to keep everything as flat as possible. You need to put your transparent bag with liquids in separately but it doesn’t need its own tray. Remove any electronic devices such as smartphones, kindles, laptops from your bag and place them separately in the tray. You should also empty any metal objects such as coins and keys out of your pockets. Most airports will ask you to remove any bulky coats or jackets so put those in a tray too. At some airports, you may need to remove your shoes as well.

Once you’ve put all your things in the trays they will go through a scanner. You walk through a metal detector gate when called by the security person. If it buzzes or sometimes even if it doesn’t they may ask to pat you down or at bigger airports, they will do an extra scan. Being cooperative makes their job a lot easier and you’ll be on your way more quickly.

If you have a pacemaker

Just a quick note if you have a pacemaker fitted you should not go through the electronic screening. You will have been given a card when you had the pacemaker inserted. Show this card to the security officers and they will tell you how to proceed. My dad had one fitted a few years ago now and he was concerned about flying but there is no need to be. Thousands of people with pacemakers pass through airports every day and staff are trained to deal with them.

Tips for first-time flyers in the departure lounge

Once you have cleared security and shown your passport you’ll usually walk first into the duty-free shop. At large international airports, these shops are huge and you can spend an hour just browsing all the perfumes, watches, gifts and chocolates as well as the duty-free wines and spirits. I’ve found that items like my favourite nail polish can also be a bargain here.

Further inside the departure area, you’ll find more shops, restaurants and places to sit. As long as you’ve left plenty of time grab a coffee and take a minute to relax. If it’s a morning flight we like to eat breakfast at the airport but on later flights, we might just have a coffee then browse the shops for a bit. If you’re flying business or first then you’ll probably have a lounge you can use. Or you may have access through your credit card. If so then definitely check it out. We spent time in the first-class lounge at Heathrow once and it was a wonderful place to relax and wait for our flight. Very quiet, plenty of seats plus free food and champagne too! Otherwise, you’ll be in the main waiting area with everyone else which is where we usually are.

Buy water now you’ve completed screening

Before we board our flight I like to buy my own bottle of water especially if it’s a night flight. That way I have a drink with me without having to get up or call the flight attendant. I usually take a roll or sandwich with me for the flight as I’m not keen on airline food. It’s a personal choice. You don’t need to do either of these things. I’ve actually had some decent airline meals recently but generally, they don’t appeal to me much. If you’re fussy or aren’t sure the airline will cope with your dietary requirements it’s a good option. As a side note, it’s only liquids you can’t bring through security so you’re free to bring a sandwich from home if you want to.

Tips for first-time flyers at the boarding gate

Wait at the gate for boarding announcements
Wait at the gate for boarding announcements

Enjoy yourself shopping, eating or relaxing but keep an eye on the overhead departures monitors. You’ll find very few airports make announcements now when a flight is boarding. With so many flights it would be so noisy and intrusive. In smaller airports, you’ll still hear them though. You should already know when your flight is due to board as it’s printed on your boarding pass. You might even have the gate number on there too.

The departure list monitor will have a list of all flights taking off in the next few hours. Look for yours by flight number and destination. Note that some flights have multiple flight numbers so pay attention as they will rotate. Alongside your flight, it will either say ‘Wait in lounge’ or ‘Proceed to gate number’. Once you see the proceed to gate start making your way there. Large airports like Gatwick and Heathrow have lots of gates and some of them may be quite a long walk. You may even have to take a monorail or shuttle of some kind for some gates.

Wait for boarding at the gate

Once at the departure gate you will either see an open or enclosed seating area with your gate marked. If it’s open seating just take a seat and wait to be called forwards The great thing about open seating is you don’t have to sit in your exact gate area so if it’s very busy you can sit nearby. You’ll still hear the announcements. If it’s a closed seating area then you’ll need to present your passport and boarding pass at the door and you’ll then be allowed in. These can get quite busy but don’t worry as you won’t be in there too long.

You'll probably be able to see yor plane from the departure gate
You’ll probably be able to see your plane from the departure gate

In either case, an announcement will be made when boarding starts. Usually, people requiring assistance are allowed to board first along with any First Class, Business or premium passengers. Often families with small children will be allowed on next. After that general boarding starts. How this works varies from airline to airline. Some will put a boarding group letter on your boarding pass and then call those groups to board one at a time. Some airlines board by seat row number. Just sit and wait until you’ve called.

Tips for first-time flyers on board the airplane

Settle into your seat, fasten your seat belt and relax
Settle into your seat, fasten your seat belt and relax

At the door of the aircraft, you’ll be greeted by some of the crew and they’ll look at your boarding pass and direct you to your seat. Try to keep moving through the aeroplane to your seat without bashing anyone with your hand luggage. I find it helps to keep my bag in front of me so I can see what it’s doing. I’ve noticed that it’s people who drag their bag behind them in some way that seem to cause most problems.

Once at your seat you should place your larger bag in the overhead storage container. You can put a small bag under the seat in front of you but it will reduce your foot space so I prefer to put things overhead. Make sure you’ve got out anything you need for the flight so you don’t have to keep getting up. I pop my kindle, reading glasses and bottle of water into the pocket in the seat so they’re handy for later.

Take your seat and fasten your seat belt

Take your seat and fasten your seat belt. Now you’re all ready to fly. Once everyone is on board the captain will usually make an announcement welcoming everyone on board. He’ll let you know if there are any delays, what the flight time is and probably tell you about the weather as well. The flight crew will do a safety talk before you take off or many airlines use a safety video now instead. These videos can be quite creative. I saw one recently where small children showed you all the safety features. It made it fun to watch but it is a serious message so pay attention.

Relax, read, eat, watch tv

If you’re flying long-haul you will probably get some meals and drinks included. On short-haul and even some longer flights now you will have to pay for these. You should avoid the temptation to drink too much alcohol when flying even if you’re nervous and think it would help. Alcohol dehydrates you and the effects are worse at flying altitude. Instead, drink plenty of water and try to relax.

I like to read when I fly. It’s a great opportunity to get several hours of uninterrupted reading in. Now I view flying as a period of time when nobody can ask me to get up and do anything so I can just please myself. Most long haul flights will have some form of entertainment system so you should have the choice to watch a movie or tv show or even play games. On international flights, they will usually give you a headset but on budget airlines, domestic flights and shorter flights they may charge. It’s best to check before you go and take your own if necessary.

All flights are non-smoking

It’s now more common to be offered wifi onboard. I never use it as it’s so expensive but it’s an option if you want it. If you’re a smoker then you will have to wait until you land as all flights are non-smoking. You won’t be able to vape or use e-cigarettes either.

You are free to move around the aircraft if the seat belt sign is off. Unfortunately, there isn’t really anywhere to go but you can use the toilet and walk a few steps to stretch your legs. You’ll hear an announcement when the plane prepares for landing and must return to your seat.

Tips for first-time flyers on arrival at your destination airport

On arrival, you’ll be directed towards passport control if it’s an international flight or baggage claim if not. There will be staff to show you where to go but airports are generally well signposted. Just follow signs to arrivals and you’ll find passport control. If you are going straight onto another flight without leaving the airport then you are a transit passenger and you should follow the ‘in transit’ signs. If in doubt ask someone.

At passport control, you will find different queue lanes for different types of passport holders. Usually, if you hold a passport for that country you will go to one queue. If you are a visitor look for the ‘other passports’ queue. Sometimes there are extra queues for people who need assistance but if you need help and you can’t see it just ask.

Baggage Claim

Baggage hall at Heathrow airport
Baggage hall at Heathrow airport

Once through passport control, you head to baggage claim. If you didn’t check in any bags then you can obviously skip this step but you’ll probably have to walk through the area anyway. Your bags will come down on a conveyor belt. It will have a number and you can check which is yours by looking on the monitor. You’ll have to wait a while for bags to start appearing but then they come off quite quickly. For some reason mine always come off last.

If you’re worried that your luggage is taking a long time look around to see if others are still waiting. When bags are still coming on the belt there is still a chance yours will turn up. Unfortunately, bags do get delayed or even lost from time to time. If it happens to you don’t panic. Just speak to someone at the airline luggage desk in the baggage claim area.

Once you collect your bags walk through the customs area. They may want to scan or check your bags but you’ll soon be outside in the airport departures area. You’ve made it!

You've made it!
You’ve made it!

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Top Tips for Flying