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What You Need to Know Before Flying for the First Time

What You Need to Know Before Flying for the First Time
Mariel Loveland

You did it! You’re finally going on your first ever flight. Congratulations! Wait a minute, that’s kind of nerve-wracking, isn’t it? Airports aren’t exactly known as a stress-free environment, and airplanes are notoriously conducive to straight-up crying fits. Don’t let this discourage you. You will enjoy that holiday.

If you’ve never traveled by air before, the thought of shipping yourself off to another location like human FedEx cargo is completely daunting. Fortunately, you probably won’t need that giant binder of documents, reservations, cash and traveler’s checks that most first time flyers seem to meticulously curate (unless, of course, it eases your anxiety). In today’s air travel climate, you’re pretty much good to go with a passport, a smartphone and what’s already in your wallet.

Air travel is simple once you know the basics. To avoid any major issues, first-time flyers should keep a few things in mind.

Check Your ID Before Your Trip

It’s always wise to make sure you have a valid passport before you book an international trip. You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget the expiration date. After all, passports are valid for a decade, and it’s probably not something that’s at the front of your mind. Some countries won’t even allow you to visit if your passport expires in six months of your trip.

Travel laws for domestic flights have also changed in recent years, and you might not be able to use your existing driver’s license. As of 2020, all travelers on domestic flights must have either a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license, US passport, US military ID, or one of the other various accepted forms of ID outlined on the TSA’s website.

Don’t Forget a Visa If You’re Going International

You don’t need a visa to travel everywhere internationally, but you will need a visa to travel to some places outside of the States. Take this from the drunk woman I shared an Uber Pool with who struggled to get into Tanzania because she never thought she’d need one as a visitor if she was already in the continent. Remember: a continent does not equal a country, and each one has its own laws.

The majority of countries don’t require a visa for US passport holders who plan to visit for less than 30 days and have an onward or return airline ticket. This includes the UK, Europe, Japan, South Africa and Thailand.

In some instances, like if you’re traveling to Australia, you may be required to get an electronic visa which is easily purchased online. Other times (like with what happened to my dear acquaintance in the Uber Pool), you can scoop a visa at the airport. I did this after taking a ferry from Hong Kong to Macau on a whim, but I was very lucky. China—along with a few other countries like Russia and Brazil—is notoriously strict, and you typically need to apply for a visa in advance.

Make sure to always, always check whether a visa is required for your trip. No one wants to be sent immediately back on a 15-hour flight after they’ve just landed.

Your Credit Card Probably Has the Best Exchange Rate

I’ll never forget when my hairdresser was planning a trip to Italy and frantically trying to find traveler’s checks before she left. Yes, she was trying to find traveler’s checks in 2019. I’ll be honest, I had to Google whether or not you can even still get these from a bank, and even as a well-traveled millennial, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one in the flesh. Yet, some people still insist on using these. Don’t be one of those people!

Traveler’s checks are a relic from a time when ATMs weren’t as widespread. They still work in the way your Walkman cassette player works, but you may have trouble finding a vendor to actually take them. Instead, you’ll most likely get the best exchange rates using your credit card. If that sketches you out, companies like Visa and Travelex have a debit card equivalent of a traveler’s check. Whatever you do, just make sure to tell your bank that you’re traveling so they don’t shut off your cards for suspicious activity.

Research Baggage Requirements

In the age of budget airlines, baggage requirements are notoriously tricky and carry-on sizes are ever-shrinking. Don’t rely on guesswork unless you’re prepared to shell out for an extra checked bag. All airlines have this information available on their website, so get out your scale and measuring tape, and get to it.

Be Early…Like, Really Early

I have a couple of memories from before I was a seasoned traveler, and most of them involve running out of breath through an airport because I got my timing completely wrong. What can I say? My family has some sort of gene that makes us late for everything, but there’s a particular unmatched shame in being that person whose name is called over the airport loudspeaker. It’s somehow even more haunting in an Irish accent. Don’t be like me on my first trip to Dublin.

As a general rule, you should try to get to the airport two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight. Also make sure to check things like traffic, public transit schedules, and TSA warnings. Sometimes there’s increased security measures (particularly around the holidays) and the lines get jammed up. In that case, allow for some extra time.

Factor in Time For Parking

Parking is a sneaky airport time-suck, especially if you plan on leaving your car in long-term parking during your trip. The type of parking you choose dictates the amount of extra time you’ll need to set aside.

Airports offer both short and long-term parking. The former is typically for people dropping off or picking up passengers, and the latter is for longer stays and usually gives a much, much better daily rate. For example, short-term parking at JFK is $4 for 30 minutes, but long-term parking is $18 for the whole day. This gets cut in half if you choose a long-term lot that requires a shuttle to get to the terminal.

Between waiting and transit, shuttles can add 30 minutes to your trip. Factor that in so you don’t have to run to your gate.

You Can Save Time by Checking in Online

The line to check-in can cost you some precious relaxation time. If you show at the start of the recommended two to three-hour window before your flight, you could end up waiting for an hour. This isn’t necessary if you don’t plan on checking a bag. Instead, most airlines allow you to check-in online or through their mobile app. You can even get a virtual ticket.

Of course, the check-in counter does have its upsides. You can check your bag, pick a seat, and get a physical ticket. For some reason, physical tickets tend to settle first-time flyer nerves, so by all means, go for it. Just be prepared to wait.

Knowing the TSA Guidelines Will Prevent a Headache

Security is often the most lengthy part of your airport experience, so you’ll definitely want it to go as smoothly as possible. As a rule, have your ticket and ID ready and accessible at all times. Your laptop and electronics must be taken out of your carry-on and put in their own bin. You’ll also have to remove belts, shoes, coats, hats and other bulky layers or accessories that might set off the scanner.

The TSA’s liquid policy is one of the first things to trip up first-time flyers, and no one wants their expensive face cream tossed in trash. All liquids in your carry-on or personal item (purse, backpack, etc.) must be put in containers that hold less than 3.4 ounces and placed in a quart-sized plastic bag. You’ll have to take this plastic bag out of your carry-on and have it clearly visible in a bin on the x-ray conveyor belt. Pro tip: if you pack your liquids in a Ziploc ahead of time, you’ll get to skip in front of everyone else who didn’t (and trust me, there are lots of people who won’t).

The TSA has a full list of what you can bring in a carry-on and checked back on their website.

Don’t Be Scared! You’re Actually Really Safe

As a first time flyer—or even a hundredth-time flyer—flying can feel pretty terrifying. You’re in a metal tube miles in the air and have no control over the situation whatsoever. I’m even willing to admit that I still sob at turbulence despite having been on more flights than I can feasibly count. In fact, I’m getting nervous just letting you in on this secret in the event that the universe wants to prove me wrong and smite me like an Alanis Morrisette song, but here it is: a commercial flight is literally one of the safest places you can be.

In truth: you’re more likely to die by falling off the furniture in your home, accidentally drown in your own bathtub, or get hit by lightning in your backyard. The odds of dying in a plane crash are one in 11 million, so just try your best to relax and know your fears are completely illogical.

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1 Comment

  1. Irpworks

    December 4, 2019 at 8:05 pm

    Several very good items here and some not so good. I’ve traveled internationally and domestic since 1983 and still frequently am saved by having hardcopy hotel reservations and other items. Don’t assume your cellphone and/or data will work anywhere, especially in other countries even if your provider said it would. A lost hotel reservation in a full hotel can truly foul a trip. A print of a reservation works wonders.
    The part on baggage requirements needs attention even from some regular fliers.

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