Step by Step First Time Air Travel Guide

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that every year some 2,587,000 passengers fly in and out of U.S. airports. And although some travelers feel anxious about stepping on a plane, there were only 28 fatalities out of all those passengers in 2015 and 29 in 2016 – an amazing statistic that makes flying the safest way to travel, at least in the United States where the industry is carefully regulated and monitored.

That said, there are a few things you should know – and do – to make your first flight as comfortable and stress-free as possible.

The Days Before Your Flight

Don’t leave packing until the last minute. You’ll be more relaxed – and more likely to have everything you need – if you make a list of must-haves at least a day or two before your flight, and then collect everything in your suitcase or backpack. Label each piece of luggage with your name and an email or phone number you can be reached at while on the road, just in case you get separated.

Airline Luggage Regulations

Life is almost always easier if you can pack light; not only will you avoid hauling a lot of stuff around, you might even be able to travel with only a carry-on and avoid paying checked bag fees entirely. Each airline’s sizing rules for carry-ons varies slightly, so always check with the airline before you start packing. A size limit of 24 inches by 17 inches by 10 inches, including wheels and handles, is fairly typical. You’ll also need to make sure you’re not packing anything in your carry-on that’s prohibited by the TSA; pay special attention to the rules about liquids.

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Most airlines also allow you to carry on a single small personal item that fits underneath the seat in front of you – think a purse, laptop case or small briefcase. If you do end up checking a suitcase, a maximum size of 62 linear inches (length + width + depth) and a weight limit of 50 pounds is common across the industry, with some airlines granting a 70-pound weight limit to passengers with a premium ticket. If you lock your bag, make sure you use a TSA-approved lock.

Getting to the Airport

Most airlines and the TSA recommend arriving at the airport at least two hours before the scheduled departure of a domestic flight; get there three hours early if you’re flying internationally. That gives you time to check-in and collect your boarding pass, check any baggage through, go through the security screening checkpoint and be at the departure gate when your flight starts boarding about half an hour before its scheduled departure time. The airlines impose their own hard caps on when they’ll stop accepting check-ins – usually 30 to 60 minutes before departure, depending on your itinerary. They usually stop accepting checked bags 45 or 60 minutes before departure.

At the Security Checkpoint

You’ll need to show your ID when you check-in for your flight, and then show your ID and boarding pass at the TSA security checkpoint. Once you’re past the initial screener, you’ll put all your carry-on luggage, along with your footwear, outerwear, and anything in your pockets, in bins that are then put through an X-ray machine. While your luggage is being screened, you’ll walk through a screening machine yourself – its exact nature varies depending on the airport – then collect your luggage on the other side. If either screening machine detects anything unusual, you and your luggage may be subjected to extra screening measures.

Waiting to Board

Once you’re past the security checkpoint, you’ll be in the departure terminal of the airport. Check your boarding pass – it’ll tell you which gate your plane will leave from. Each airport also has large screens that display a list of flight departure times and gates. If anything changes about your flight time or gate number, those screens and alerts from the mobile app for your airline are your best sources of updated information. Most airlines divide passengers into boarding groups; the gate attendant will call your boarding group or row number when it’s time to get on the plane. If you need extra assistance getting down the jetway – for example, if you’re in a wheelchair or traveling with small children – they’ll let you board early.

Once You’re on the Plane

When you’re on the plane, step out of the aisle as soon as you can so that others can continue to board. Stow your luggage either in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you; anything you want access to during the flight should go under the seat, if possible. Before the plane takes off, buckle your seatbelt across your lap. If you’re wearing a bulky jacket or are draped in a blanket, buckle the seatbelt on the outside of those layers – otherwise, the flight attendants will have to wake you to check it. The flight crew will walk you through the rest of your first flight adventure, from handling small electronics (they should be in airplane mode, and laptops must be stowed during takeoff and landing) to when it’s okay to use the restrooms (try to time your visits to avoid the meal service carts, which totally block the aisle).