Flying for the first time: step by step instructions

Flying for the first time can feel intimidating, especially if you’re flying alone.

It’s all-new, barely explained anywhere, and there’s probably a different language included, which you may or may not understand… scary!

And who even knows how those airports function, as there are so many horror stories floating around!

That’s why, after my friend asked me like a million questions about flying (even though it wasn’t her first time), I decided to write out these flying for the first time step by step instructions.

Of course, they are not only for first time travellers! This article, I hope, will be useful for everyone.

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Is the passenger on a plane called a “flyer” or “flier”?

Emma sleeping on the airplane
Tired little flyer

Actually, it’s both!

Both “flyer” and “flier”, among other things, mean a “person who flies”. It’s just, as usual, the difference between spelling in U.S. and British English.

So, this article is full of tips for those of you who are flying for the first time. Flying for beginners, so to say.

I’ll probably stick to the British spelling, as I’m more used to it, but don’t be confused if you see the U.S. spelling, too.

And with this out of the way, let’s see what you should know before going to the airport for your first flight!

How to prepare for your first time flying already at home

home preparations
Ready to go!

Yes, you can prepare at home already!

Well, you’ve made the first step already – you’re reading about how to prepare for a flight. Congratulations!

So here are the things I, as an experienced flyer (and an ex-flight attendant), do at home before going for a flight.

Check and prepare your IDs

Make sure your documents are still valid – and valid long enough! Some countries require that your passport is valid even 6 months after the end of your trip. Make sure to double-check that!

And then, pack your documents in your hand luggage – or at least somewhere where you won’t forget to take them with you.

Check in for your flight

Many, many airlines now charge crazy fees if you try to check in at the airport. It can be even 60 euros for check-in!

So make sure that you check in at home.

Some airlines only allow you to check in 24 hours before the flight, unless you buy a specific seat. So don’t be alarmed if you have to wait for a bit.

And actually, sometimes, you can only check in at the airport – that might happen, for example, if the country of arrival requires a visa check.

Prepare your boarding pass

a ticket and a passport - important to prepare, even if you're not flying for the first time
It’s been a VERY long time since I’ve taken a picture of my paper boarding pass

Many airlines now provide their own apps where you get the ticket after checking in.

However, things happen.

As I already explained in my travel essentials packing list, once, my phone died on the way to the airport. It didn’t discharge, it died. And just because of a happy accident, it turned on just as I arrived at the airport. Those were quite a few stressful minutes, ha.

And now when my friend was coming to me for a visit, the boarding pass just disappeared from her app. The flight attendant said that it happens quite often, which is honestly scary.

Related: tips for flying for the first time

I usually recommend printing your boarding pass because that way it’s possible to avoid some problems. Of course, it’s often not an option, so at least make a screenshot of it or send it to someone else you’re travelling with – just in case.

Check the luggage size and weight restrictions

weighing luggage

And if maybe you have checked in luggage allowance included with your ticket. Or, you know, you purchased it when buying the ticket.

If you break the rules with the luggage size, you will most probably have to pay a fee. And those are some hefty fees, let me tell you.

  • Yes, the handles and wheels of a suitcase count in the size of the suitcase. So, if the “body” part of your suitcase fits the dimensions, but the wheels are out of them, it means your suitcase doesn’t fit the dimensions.
  • No, there’s almost no chance the airport worker will care that it’s your first flight, or that you didn’t know, or that it’s gifts for your grandkids, that it’s Christmas (yes, this is a conversation I overheard in the airport before Christmas)… you know, it’s their job, and they can get in crazy trouble for letting you go through with luggage that is out of dimensions.
  • Yes, they do check it – definitely the checked-in luggage, and quite often the cabin bags as well. It might be random checks, but these checks do happen. And again, yes, you’ll have to pay if the luggage is too heavy or too big.
  • Yes, a small crossbody bag counts as the second cabin bag item unless you manage to put it in your main bag – and that main bag then still has to fit the size.

One last thing – sometimes, the stuff you buy in the airport (duty-free bag) counts as a piece of extra luggage as well.

Pack your hand luggage properly

a full suitcase
A checked in bag – generally needed when travelling in winter… and with kids

The checked-in luggage cannot be reached during a flight, so there are definitely some things you just must pack with you in the cabin.

Such things include, but are not limited to,

  • Medicine that you need to access at any time – I generally pack pain medicine, nose spray and hydrating spray for the nose, bandaids, and any medicine you need to take regularly. But make sure that your destination allows having medicine with you – for example, Japan has extremely strong rules for that.
  • Basics in case your checked-in luggage gets lost or delayed – change of clothes, underwear, basic hygiene products. In case you are flying to a place where the weather is very different, pack (you don’t necessarily have to wear it) appropriate clothing. When flying to warmer destinations, make sure to pack t-shirts and stuff with you in the hand luggage.
  • Paper napkins – nothing worse than your nose starting to run during a time when you can’t go to the lavatory (toilet in the aeroplane) for a napkin.
  • Snacks – unless you want the “full” experience and want to buy some snacks on the plane or in the airport, pack something with you. Honestly, there’s no judgement if you want to buy – I still sometimes do it for fun, although it’s been quite a few flights since my first time flying, haha.
  • A water bottle – I always take a refillable or just an empty water bottle with me to refill in the airport, as the water you can buy is very overpriced. Most of the airports now have drinking fountains or clean water from the tap.
a water fountain in Riga airport
For my refillable bottle, a friend recently suggested Owala to me, and it’s really nice.
  • Chargers – don’t forget those! The same reason – if your checked luggage goes missing, you don’t want to remain without your phone.
  • Any valuables – IDs and other documents, money, jewellery, laptops, etc. must go in the cabin bag – I’m sad to say it, but sometimes things get stolen, not just go missing.

So, in a few short words – you should pack everything that you wouldn’t want to go missing or that is hard to replace.

Things that are mandatory to put in cabin luggage

And then, of course, there are things that are illegal to put in the hold. Such items include electronics that use lithium-ion batteries, firearms, electronic cigarettes (Salt, IQOS, etc.), external chargers, and many other things that are considered Dangerous goods.

As I’ll mention later, it’s better to check your airline’s website for the info on this.

If you can’t fit everything in hand luggage…

going to the airport

Buy the checked-in bag while still at home.

The best – and cheapest – idea is to buy the checked-in baggage while buying the ticket. But if you thought that you’ll manage to fit everything in the hand luggage and were mistaken, the second best time is to do it while still at home before checking in. After you’ve checked in already, it’s gonna be more expensive. And at the airport, well, that’s the worst time.

One time when I was flying back home from visiting my parents, I decided to add another checked in bag to my ticket, as only on the way to the airport I decided that I don’t want to carry everything through the airport. Well, that was not a cheap decision.

Some ticket fares have checked-in luggage included, so again, check what are your allowances.

Things you can’t or shouldn’t put in the checked-in luggage

Checked-in luggage goes to the aircraft’s hold and IS NOT ACCESSIBLE DURING THE FLIGHT.

So, there are some things that you can’t or shouldn’t put in the checked-in bag. (and yes, I mentioned most of these already in the “mandatory to put in the cabin bag” part of this article)

By the way, the checked bags are scanned as well, so follow the rules as stated on your airline’s website – or on the immigration website of the place you’re travelling to.

Medicine that you might need during the flight

Or that you would suffer without if the checked-in bag was delayed or lost. That would be medicine that you need to take regularly or prescription medicine. Like, I wouldn’t put my migraine pills in the checked in bag – what if I get a migraine during the flight?

Really, I’d put pretty much all the medicine in the cabin bag in my personal travel first aid kit.

But again, make sure that it can go in the cabin! For example, needles most probably will not be allowed. And if you have prescription medicine, better have a note from the doctor that states that you need to take it.

marrakech airport has strict security

Anything with lithium-ion batteries

To put it bluntly, Li-ion batteries can spontaneously combust under pressure, and there’s pressure in the hold. Since this kind of fire is not easy to fight, you need to have anything with Li-ion batteries in the cabin, as flight attendants are trained to deal with this kind of fire.

An airplane can burn down in 90 seconds (and can be evacuated in less than 90 seconds using only half of the emergency exits) – yes, even the huge one – so it’s better to be able to fight a fire quickly.

That’s why laptops, tablets, portable batteries, and everything of the kind have to go in the cabin bag.

Chargers

Just as I mentioned before, in the “what to pack in the cabin bag” section.

Well, this is a “shouldn’t because not having them would be inconvenient” kind of situation – in case my charger would go missing, it would be bad kind of bad.

Jewellery

Unfortunately, some of the baggage handlers have sticky fingers so – valuables go in the cabin.

On that note…

My “remove before flight” tag that I had on my suitcase so that I recognize it on the belt where the checked-in luggage arrives went missing. Sad.

Which means – if there’s anything that you don’t want to go missing, don’t put it in the checked in bag.

IDs and wallet

The same as jewellery – you don’t want to lose these. Plus, you’ll most probably have to show an ID at the gate to be able to board. Not in Vienna airport, though, for some reason.

Get travel insurance

Even if you have the European Health Insurance Card, it might be a good idea to get the normal travel insurance as well.

When we were in Tenerife, I had crazy stomach pains – so bad that I could barely move. We checked the nearest hospital on Google Maps (which would accept the EHIC), but that had a 2* rating on Google because of rude staff, no one speaking English, wait times, hospital quality etc.

There was a private doctor like 50m from our hotel who had like 4,9 stars. He was expensive, but he spoke perfect English (a German guy) and was amazing.

Good that I had insurance, otherwise I’d be out more than 100 euros to just find out that I had a cramp in my abdominal muscles.

Who’s gonna watch your pets or plants?

a cat playing

When planning your trip, make sure to ask someone – with plenty of time to spare!! – if they could watch and feed your pets and water your plants. This is a thing you shouldn’t leave for the last moment, really.

Find a way to get to the airport

Depending on your flight, you might need to be in the airport at least 2h before the flight. That’s what most airports suggest, anyways.

Find out who’s going to take you – a friend? Family member? Public transport? Taxi?

Ask the person in advance, or book your taxi in advance to make sure you’re not late for the flight.

If you’re driving yourself to the airport, find parking for the car and book it

The cheapest airport parkings tend to get booked out way in advance. And many of them are great, if not better, than the more expensive ones.

Don’t be afraid to book one that is a bit further from the airport if it means you’ll save tens and tens of dollars/euro. They usually have transfers included (some might have only one way, be careful!). And, of course, make sure to add extra time for getting to the airport on time.

Dispose of all the food that will go bad while you’re away

Eat it, gift it, take it with you, throw it out… that really doesn’t matter. What matters is, not coming home to a smelly fridge and apartment.

And on that note…

Take the trash out before going to the airport

Same reason as the food – nothing worse than coming home to a smelly apartment because some meat or fish had gone bad in your trash.

First time at the airport!

almost empty Prague airport, with many sighs that are not only helpful for first time flyers, but for everyone

If this will be your first time going to an airport, I believe you might feel terrified. And even if it’s just your first time flying after a long break, it might be scary. Especially since the aviation industry has been a little bit of… hmm, how to put it nicely… a mess lately.

I completely understand, it’s intimidating. But I’ll try to help you as much as I can.

What you should have and know when you arrive at the airport – predeparture check, so to say

  • Your bags with all the things you need – and that you’re observing the airline’s limits
  • Boarding pass
  • ID and other travel documents
  • You abide by all the travel restrictions

If you have all of these things, great!

Moving on.

What time should you be at the airport?

a family at the airport happy to be travelling

The boarding usually starts approximately 40 minutes before the departure time and the gate closes 15 minutes before departure. If you’re at the gate after it closes, your boarding can be denied!

But what time should you arrive at the airport itself? Depends on a few factors.

First is, obviously, if you have a checked in bag, you’ll need to be at the airport sooner before departure. And the time depends, mostly, on what time the bag drop desk opens.

For example, in Riga airport for a Ryanair flight, the bag drop opens 2 hours before the flight. There’s just no point going sooner, as you can’t do anything else until your bag is checked. In Vienna, on the other hand, for the same Ryanair, you can drop the bag off a bit sooner, as there’s not a specific desk for your destination flight.

departures screen at the maui airport

How many flights are arriving at the same-ish time? The more flights departing within 30 minutes to an hour around yours, the earlier you should be at the airport.

How big is the airport? At a tiny airport, you don’t have to arrive very early before the flight, while at a bigger one, you have to give a margin for the walking distance.

Do you need passport control? That, again, adds some time.

Generally, for flights within Europe, I tend to arrive 2h before the flight if I have luggage and an hour and a half before if I don’t. It works even for airports as big as Vienna International for a Ryanair flight. Even Ryanair itself suggests 1,5 hours before the flight for Vienna if you don’t have a checked-in bag.

For international flights from the US, generally, 3 hours are suggested.

Which terminal?!

Bigger airports tend to have more terminals.

There might be one for local flights, another one for international, and then specific airlines depart from their own terminals.

Since the terminal can change, the best thing to do is check the airport’s website before arriving at the airport. And then keep an eye on the screens to know where to go.

When do you need to go to the check-in desk?

check in desks in the bratislava airport
Check in and bag drop off at the Bratislava airport

Two main reasons – you have checked baggage to give to the workers or you need to check in. And a third smaller one – children’s equipment.

Sometimes, as I said already, you can only check in at the airport – that generally happens if the country of arrival requires extra checks for things such as visas. Otherwise, the best idea is to check in at home or, then, some airlines have check-in terminals as well where the line is usually shorter.

As for the children’s equipment, generally, things like car seats and travel cribs can be left at the bag drop. If you have a stroller that you want – and can – use until the plane itself, it still needs to be marked by a check in staff.

If you need to drop off a checked in bag, the airport worker will put a sticker on it and give you one part of it, too. Don’t lose it! It’s your proof that you have a bag in case something goes wrong. The same applies for self-service bag drop-off desks.

Otherwise, there’s no need to wait in the line – you can go straight to the security check.

Next step – going to the airport security

customs dog in training in an airport
A security dog in training in the airport

Before each flight, you need to go through a security checkpoint. There, your hand luggage is scanned for anything that shouldn’t be in it.

There might be more than one security in the airport, so check the screens after arriving for which one you need to go to. Usually, there are letters of different gates that you can access above the entrance to the security check.

For everything to go smoothly and without delays for you and others, prepare for the security!

Generally, you need to take out any electronics and liquids from your bags. Some airports now don’t care about liquids, but many still take the max 100ml package with 1l total of liquids, which should fit in a 1l big transparent resealable bag.

You need to take any watches, necklaces, belts, and jackets off before going through the scanner. Pant pockets should be emptied as well – napkins, coins, etc., will have to be put in the box that goes through the scanner. A good idea is to either put everything in a jacket that you’ll take off or in a bag.

Sometimes, you’ll need to take your shoes off as well. It really depends on the employee and on your shoes.

Ways to get through security faster

If you see that you have a very early flight, maybe there are a ton of flights departing at the same time so the lines are looooooong and you’re afraid of missing your flight… or maybe you just hate standing in lines. There are things that you can do to expedite the security process!

TSA pre-check or Global entry for my US-bound or based friends

TSA pre-check speeds up security in US airports. For example, you don’t have to take your shoes or belt off, or take out liquids and electronics from your bags.

Global entry includes the TSA pre-check, plus a faster passport and US customs control for international travellers arriving in the USA.

Both of these require quite a time to get, background checks, and fees for memberships. But if you travel often through the US, it’s something to consider.

This article here has some good comparisons for TSA pre-check and Global Entry.

Fast track

Many airports offer Fast Tracks access to which you can buy for one-time use.

Some airports offer kind of a membership card which includes fast-track as well. For example, Riga airport’s RIX club card costs 249 euros a year and includes fast track, access to the business lounge and invitations for a special price, check-in at the business class counter, and other benefits. Other airports offer similar things, as well.

First-class and business-class tickets

Fast track is generally already included in the business class and first class tickets, but of course, check.

And after security…

having food in the airport

Depending on how much time you have left, you might even manage a whole meal and some duty-free shopping!

If you need to go through passport control, it’s usually after you’ve gone through security and before the gate. I’d suggest going through the PassControl straight up or at least not later than an hour before the flight. Yes, there are usually fewer stores and restaurants after the control, but it’s better than missing your flight.

And then off to the gate!

At the gate, you’ll definitely need to show your ticket and usually the passport/ID card as well. Your bag might be checked as well – both for size and weight. If it’s too big, you’ll probably need to pay a fine.

If you have any food and drinks bought at the airport, you can take those onboard to eat. Actually, food can be packed at home.

Generally, boarding starts 30 to 45 minutes before departure – check your boarding pass for the precise boarding time.

If you have some extra time left at the airport

Emma waiting for our plane in vienna airport

You can consider going to an airport lounge. Generally, that’s a paid service, unless you fly a lot and have earned a status. Or you can just buy a Priority Pass that gives you access to 1300 airport lounges all over the world.

Some credit and debit cards have lounges included, such as American Express or Revolut.

Sign up for Revolut here

There are select lounges that you can go to that accept it. Or you can just buy a lounge pass, as I said, as well.

Look up what your card or airport offers! Or even ticket – sometimes, you can go to airport lounges if you have, for example, a business class ticket.

Or you can just go and shop in the airport stores – some have better prices than outside the airport. Just remember that for many airlines, a duty-free bag counts as a personal item!

What to expect from your first flight

a flight attendant on the stairs of an airplane in the airport
Welcome! (Yes, that’s me)

Woohoo, you’ve made it through the gate! This is exciting not only for first-time flyers but for most people, haha.

Now, it’s time to go to the plane – either through the airbridge, by a bus, or onto the apron and up the stairs!

Find your seat

The row number and seat letter are written up above the seats. Find yours! Seats “A” are by the window, and then the last letter you see, let’s say F, is by the window as well.

Where to stow the luggage?

bags stored under the seat in front of you on an airplane
I usually stow mine under the seat

There are two places for bags – under the seat in front of you and up in the locker. The lockers are for everyone, not just you, so utilize the space wisely. Don’t take up all of it! And take as many of the things that you’ll definitely need down with you so that you don’t have to get up all the time.

You’ll need to stow the things for takeoff and landing, so it’s wise to keep the necessities in a bag for easy stowage.

Buckle up!

For take off and landing, you need to have your seat belt fastened, tables and seatbacks in the upright position, window blinds open, arm rests down, and electronics off or in flight mode.

It’s a smart idea to have your seat belt fastened at all times – when working as a flight attendant, I got hurt more than once because of sudden (and not so sudden) turbulence. Some of my colleagues even got seriously hurt, to the point of having to go to the hospital.

And you’ve probably read about and seen pictures of what happens after a sudden severe turbulence. Might not feel too good to test how hard the lockers are – with your head, huh?

What to expect in flight

having food on the plane
Food, coffee, book.

During the flight, there will be services and sales provided by the cabin crew.

Remember, though:

But anyways, service. Depending on the airline, the ticket class that you bought, if the flight is short or long haul and other factors, the service differs.

Generally, on long-haul flights and the ones that are operated by “more luxurious” airlines you get food included. The same thing generally happens for chartered flights or higher class, such as business class flyers.

Otherwise, you can usually buy some kind of food and drinks onboard. If the flight is short, it might only be snacks, maybe sandwiches, and for longer flights, there’s usually hot food available as well.

Quite often, you can buy things like perfumes, watches, and other interesting things as well. And the prices are even quite good.

On some airlines, you have in-flight entertainment as well! So, there could be movies you can watch – sometimes for free, sometimes paid. So remember your headphones!

Disembarking after your first trip on a plane

ryanair plane on the apron at the alghero airport on Sardinia italy
On the way to the airport after disembarking

After landing, wait for the seat belt sign to come off before getting up to disembark the aeroplane. Believe me, sometimes pilots break so sharply at the parking spot that you might fall.

Passport control, known also as immigration

lines at passport control
There tend to be lines sometimes

There are places where you fly and don’t need to go through passport control, such as within the Schengen area or when flying domestically, but sometimes you need to go through it.

For example, when arriving in the UK (<- this link leads to a pdf), you’ll need to pass through passport control. Quite often, there are automated machines where you can scan your passport and a camera will make sure it’s you. These machines are really fast.

If you can’t go through such a gate (for example, you don’t have an e-passport), go to a border officer. After being invited to the desk, give them the passport. The officer might ask a couple of questions, such as where have you been or where are you going – make sure to answer these honestly!

Then, after getting your passport, you’re free to move on! 

If you’re transferring to another flight

signs in vienna airport

In case you need to catch a connecting flight, kudos to you – it’s quite brave for a person who is flying for the first time! I’m proud of you!

So, if you bought a connecting ticket, you need to go to a transfer centre.

Do you have to clear customs even if you’re only transferring?

Yes, generally, you need to go through customs and immigration. So make sure that the time between the two flights is long enough!

What happens to the checked-in bag?

As I said sometime at the beginning of the article, ask the person at the check-in/ bag drop desk if your bag is checked in to the final destination or not. If it’s not, then you have to collect the bag and check it in again. This can take quite a lot of time!

What about clearing the security between two flights?

Sometimes, it’s not needed to clear security, especially if you travel domestically or in the Schengen area. But be prepared that it might happen – so, in case you buy some bigger liquids in the duty-free stores before your first flight, make sure the cashier puts it in the special transfer bag. And even then, the bag might get open and the things – confiscated (bye-bye, my Greek olive oil).

Collecting your checked-in bag or kid’s items

waiting for the luggage at the luggage belt in the airport
Waiting for our bag

For the kid’s stuff such as strollers, ask the cabin crew or the airport workers where you can collect them. Sometimes, these things are left straight by the aircraft, but in some airports, they’re put together with the rest of the luggage.

As for the checked-in luggage, after disembarking, follow the signs for “baggage claim”. At some point, you’ll arrive in a room where there are big black belts where the bags will arrive. Look for which one yours will be on on the big screens.

Check that your bag is ok

Check if your bag is alright and not damaged after collecting it. In case something is wrong, make sure to go to the Lost and Found or the Handling office for the airline that you flew. In bigger airports, there will probably be more than one of the Handling offices.

They will file a report for the damaged bag where you might need to recall things such as when was the bag bought, how much it cost, and others. Sometimes, the airline replaces the bag, and sometimes, it pays for fixing it.

More than once, it didn’t make sense for us to use the airline’s help as it was just too inconvenient. Insurance might have helped more – so make sure, when buying a travel insurance, to have damage to your luggage included!

damaged bag

Customs at the airport

When arriving in some countries, you might need to clear customs. Some countries are very strict for what you can and cannot bring – for example, there are places where you might even need to wash soil off of your shoes!

Some places that have very strict controls are, for example, the USA – and Hawaii is even stricter than the mainland, New Zealand (soil even), and the UK. And it’s not just when flying in – for example, in Patagonia, when crossing the border between Chile and Argentina, you can’t have any food, fuel, and other things in your car or luggage.

For example, in Europe, you need to declare even cash if it’s more than 10 000 euros (or equivalent in a foreign currency).

Exiting the airport after your first flight

exiting the easter island airport

After you’ve collected the bag, congrats, you can exit!

If you don’t have anything to declare to customs, make sure to take the correct colour exit – there’s usually one red and one green.

In conclusion about flying for the first time – step by step

rainbow as seen from a flying airplane

Here it is, your step-by-step instructions for flying for the first time.

The article worked out quite longer than I planned it to be – apparently, there are quite a few things to know about flying, he.

But I do hope you find it all helpful.

I decided to write a different article for flying tips – I think this one is long enough already…


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