Ultimate Air Travel Guide: Essential Tips for First Time Flyers

Ultimate Air Travel Guide: Essential Tips for First Time Flyers

You’re going on your first flight! HOORAY! I’m so excited for you! Right now, you might be feeling excited, nervous, overwhelmed, overjoyed, or a myriad of other emotions. How do you book a flight anyway? How do people get around airports without getting lost? What if there’s turbulence? What should you bring on the plane? This post answers all these questions plus offers lots of extra tips for first-time flyers. My hope is that this post helps prepare you and gives you some peace of mind leading up to your first flight.

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Getting Around: RENTAL CARS

How to Save on Your Flights

There are lots of hacks to help you save money on your flights. I recommend using Secret Flying as well as comparing flight prices on websites such as Kiwi and Google Flights. You can read a breakdown of how to find good flight deals here.

The Benefits of Travel Insurance for Flying

It’s also a good idea to get travel insurance before a trip. Not only can you get coverage for medical emergencies, but you can also get trip cancellation and interruption coverage. That way if you need to cancel your entire trip, or go home early for whatever reason, you won’t lose a bunch of money. Travel insurance can also cover you for lost and damaged baggage and so much more. You can look into travel insurance options here.

Optional Tip: Pre-Book Your Airport Transfer for Your Arrival

To make your arrival smoother it can sometimes be easier to pre-book your airport transfer to your hotel from your arrival airport.

The other option is to grab a taxi, Uber, or skytrain from the arrival airport to your accommodation without pre-booking anything. It’s all up to you and how prepared you want to be on arrival. If you want to take public transport, you can always look up directions and bus routes before you go on your trip.

Carry-Ons & Luggage: What to Bring on the Plane

First time on a plane - luggage in airport


When you enter the airplane you can usually have one carry-on, such as a mini rolling suitcase or a backpack, plus one personal item. The personal item can be a purse, for example. As the name suggests, ‘carry-ons’ are any pieces of luggage that you bring onto the airplane yourself. You will store these under the seat in front of you or in the overhead bins.

Ideally, you want to have all your valuables in your carry-ons. Things like laptops, money, your phone, e-readers, iPads, etc should all come on the plane with you, not in your checked luggage. This is because checked luggage gets bumped around a lot, sometimes goes missing, ends up in the wrong place, or gets stolen. While this doesn’t happen often, it can happen and that’s why you want all your most important belongings in your carry-ons.

It’s also a good idea to bring a change of clothes, underwear and some basic toiletries in your carry-on. That way if your checked bag gets lost, you have a fresh change of clothes to wear if you need to wait a day or two to retrieve your luggage.

Checked Luggage:

Some airlines may charge you for checking a suitcase and some might not. It all depends on the airline. If you think you can travel to and from your destination with minimal luggage, it may be cheaper to just pack everything you need into your carry-on. If you’re going for a longer time, you may want to bring a suitcase or duffel bag and have it checked through to your destination.

Carry-Ons & Luggage: What NOT To Bring

There are a whole host of things you SHOULD NOT bring on an airplane. The most obvious things not to bring are weapons. However, if you usually bring a self-defense item, such as a pocketknife or self-defense keychain with you, you can usually still put those in your checked luggage.

Airlines do not allow you to bring self-defense items like the aforementioned in your carry-on. This is because they don’t want any dangerous situations to take place during the flight.

This is also why the amount of liquids and gels you can bring on a flight is limited. Liquid explosives can sometimes be disguised as other kinds of liquids such as soda. In fact, in 2006 there was a terrorist plan to detonate a bunch of liquid explosives on flights traveling from the UK to Canada and the USA.

Arrive Early

The general rule of thumb is to arrive 1 hour early for domestic flights and 2-3 hours early for international flights.

Personally, I like to give myself lots of extra time. I’m that person who arrives 2 hours early to domestic flights and 3-4 hours early for international flights. Some may think this is going overboard but I tend to be a pretty anxious person, so arriving early gives me some extra peace of mind. It means I can check my baggage, go through security, and then relax before the flight. I usually just read, grab a coffee, or do some work on my computer while I’m waiting to catch my flight.

Parking at the Airport

You can park at an airport in a specific parking lot for people taking flights. The airport will allow you to leave your car there for the duration of the trip, but you do have to pay for it, of course.

The other option is to take a taxi, Uber, bus, or get a friend to drop you off at the airport so that you don’t have to pay for parking at your departure airport.

How to Navigate an Airport

Navigating an airport - airport sign
Flight numbers are on the left followed by destination city, time, then gate.

Your first time navigating an airport may be a bit overwhelming. When you first arrive you will need to find the check-in counter with the name of the airline you’re flying with. Then you will go through security and need to find your gate.

Your gate number will either be located on your flight ticket or if you get there quite early, your gate number might not be announced yet. If that’s the case, you can look up at the tv screens placed throughout the airport. Find your flight number on your ticket. It will be a few letters, like AC for Air Canada for example, followed by a few numbers. Look up at the screens, find your flight number and once your gate has been chosen, it will show up there so you can go wait for your flight closer to your gate.

If you want to hang out in the airport and eat a meal, or grab a coffee, just make sure you are back to your gate before your boarding time, not your flight’s take-off time. It’s definitely not a good idea to go somewhere super far away from your gate for a meal, knowing you may have to run back to board.

Keep Your Passport or ID on Hand

Make sure that you triple-check that you have your passport or ID before leaving your house! Once you’re at the airport, you may be asked to show your passport (for international travel) or ID (for domestic travel) at check-in, security, and at your gate when boarding. It’s best to keep your passport or ID handy, so you can pull it out and show it when needed. You can buy special RFID blocking passport belts to protect you from theft when traveling. These can be purchased online or at airports.

At the Airport: Checking In

When checking in, you will need to show your passport or ID and then you will be given your flight ticket. Make sure you go to the same check-in counter that matches your airline! Checking in can be done at a counter with a staff person or through a self-serve computer. You will also need to weigh, pay for, and check any large luggage that you won’t be bringing as a carry-on.

At the Airport: Going through Security

Next, you will need to go through security. Depending on your airport, you may be asked to remove your shoes, jacket, belt, and jewelry when going through security. You will also be asked to remove any electronics like laptops, from your carry-on luggage, to put it through the scanner separately.

Any small liquids you have need to be visible as well, so you will have to remove those. Any larger liquids you have with you will likely be thrown out. You can read about liquid bottle size allowances here.

Sometimes airport security may select you to be part of a ‘randomized search’. They will scan your body using a large wand-like scanner. This is to check for illegal objects or substances.

Additionally, if something looks like it may be a large liquid, weapon, or illegal item on the scan of your carry-on, a staff member will open your carry-on with you so they can go through and find what that item is.

I accidentally brought a pocket knife that I carry for self-defense through in my carry-on once and had to run back to add it to my checked bag. Luckily this happened at a small airport and was no big deal, but if it happens at a large airport you’ll have to just leave the items behind.

Boarding the Plane

Make sure you are near your gate close to the boarding time. The airline staff will first call people with children, elderly people, and people with disabilities to board first. Next, airline staff will call people up for boarding zone by zone. You can find your zone on your flight ticket. If you’re having trouble finding it, you can ask the airline staff.

To board the flight, you will need to show your flight ticket to the airline staff. Next, you will enter the aircraft and find your seat. Rows are numbered and each seat has a letter. Once you and the people who have booked the seats beside you are in the aircraft, you can sometimes ask them to switch seats.

Generally, people who have window seats probably won’t want to switch. However, on long flights, I usually offer the window seat to the person beside me so that I can have the aisle seat. This is because I like being able to get up and go to the bathroom or stretch my legs when needed without having to ask anyone to move.

If you have a larger carry-on you will need to stow it in the overhead bins. It doesn’t have to be directly over your seat, as long as you remember to grab it before exiting the plane. For smaller carry-on items you can just slide them under the seat in front of you.

In-Flight: Safety Demonstration

At the beginning of the flight, your flight attendants will perform a safety demonstration. There are also safety booklets in all the seat pockets. They will explain what to do in a variety of different emergencies.

You will learn where the life jackets are located, where emergency exits are, how to exit onto water via a slide, and what to do if air pressure changes too much and you must use an oxygen mask.

Flight attendants will also point out that there are air sickness bags in the seats in front of you too.

It’s always better to be safe than sorry. That’s why airplanes have so many protocols. However, don’t let this frighten you. Flying is actually very safe, much safer than driving a car in fact.

In-Flight: Noise, Turbulence & What to Expect Flying to Feel Like

First Time Flying on a plane


Airplanes make a lot of noise. Whether it’s the constant hum of the air conditioner and filtration system, or the engine and wheels during take-off and landing, you can expect noise. The take-off and landing are the loudest parts of the flight. The rest is more just like white noise.

People talking and people flying with children or pets will also contribute to the level of noise on an airplane. If you’re sensitive to noise or think it may disturb you while you try to sleep on the aircraft, bring earplugs for your flight.

Turbulence & Seat Belt Signs

Turbulence usually just feels like minor ‘bumps’ when flying. These ‘bumps’ can happen suddenly and may give you a rollercoaster-drop sensation. Even when turbulence feels quite bad, it usually doesn’t mean anything horrible is happening. Turbulence is a very normal part of flying and pilots are trained to deal with it properly.

When experiencing turbulence, pilots may turn on the seat-belt signs which means you need to stay seated with your seat-belt fastened. For this reason, it’s a good idea to use the times when the seat-belt signs are turned off to use the restroom and stretch your legs.

Air Pressure

As the plane gains altitude the air pressure changes. Air pressure in the cabin is always kept at a safe level but it gets adjusted while the plane climbs. This can cause an ear-popping sensation. Apparently, this sensation, that you may have felt when driving up a mountain, is a big reason why babies cry on flights.

You can manage this sensation by chewing gum during take-off if it really bothers you. If any serious problems occur with air pressure or oxygen on the plane, the masks will drop and you will have to fasten them according to the instructions of the flight attendants.

In-Flight: Snacks, Drinks & Meals

Snacks and drinks on a flight are common and usually consist of water, sodas, tea, coffee, pretzels or small cookies. Usually, you won’t get a full meal on a flight unless it’s more than just a few hours long, or it flies during a mealtime.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of jokes out there about bad airline food for a reason, so don’t go on a flight expecting a five-star meal. I personally think it’s kind of ridiculous when passengers complain about the food because we should all know by now that airplane food isn’t great.

If you have any dietary restrictions you can let your flight attendants know and they may be able to accommodate you. Additionally, you may also be able to pre-order the meal you want to have when booking your flight, especially if it’s a long one.

Personally, I always like to bring some extra snacks with me in case I get hungry. If you do this just don’t bring anything containing nuts since passengers who have severe nut allergies could go into shock simply from being in the same vicinity as nuts. This is just a common courtesy that I like to practice.

Related article: How to Order Vegan & Vegatarian Food in Spanish and Explain Other Dietary Restrictions

In-Flight Tips for First Time Flyers

airplane up in the sky

Be Respectful of Flight Attendants

Flight Attendants deal with a lot of rude and upset passengers, especially when flights are delayed or there are babies crying or other loud passengers. It can be a stressful job and in many countries, flight attendants only get paid once the aircraft is moving, not during boarding, or after landing.

Be respectful to your flight attendants. If there’s an issue, they will help you, but please don’t be rude about it as they really can’t control a lot of things that many passengers expect them to control. Being respectful is just the right thing to do.

Be Respectful of Other Passengers

Additionally, for everyone to have a good flight, it’s important to also be respectful of other passengers. You don’t want to be the person that others are complaining about for being too loud, drunk or rude.

Make Sure You Have Everything You Needed for the Flight within Reach

Before you place your carry-on in the overhead bin, make sure you have everything you need for the flight in the seat pocket or in a separate bag under the seat in front of you. This could include things like your laptop if you plan to work on the flight, a book to read, earplugs, a travel pillow, headphones etc. This will just make it easier for you to enjoy your flight without having to open up the overhead bins and rummage through your luggage partway through the flight.

Staying Hydrated & Stretching Your Legs

Apparently, for every glass of alcohol you have in the air, it’s worth two on the ground. Due to air pressure changes, altitude, and how dry the air is in an aircraft, you can get dehydrated quickly. Personally, I prefer not to drink alcohol when flying and choose instead to just drink water.

While you can’t bring a bottle full of water through security, you can bring an empty water bottle, and get it filled up at a water fountain in the airport before the flight. You can also ask your flight attendants to bring you a cup of water too.

Additionally, there is a slight risk of developing a blood clot in your legs when flying. While this doesn’t happen very often, it can happen especially if you have other health issues.

To prevent blood clots you can wear loose fitting clothing, stretch your legs and walk around the cabin when the seat-belt signs aren’t on, and/or wear compression stockings. To read about blood clots when flying and how to prevent them click here.

In-Flight: I’m Up so High! What to do if You Get Anxious

Your first time flying can feel surreal and overwhelming. Lots of people have anxiety when flying and while it is common, it’s not much fun. Here are my top tips for first-time flyers experiencing anxiety in the air.

Try to Remember How Safe Flying Is

Try to remind yourself that flying is much safer than driving and other types of transportation. My dad is an aircraft mechanic and he used to remind of how safe flights are when I would get anxious about them as a kid.

Take Deep Breaths & Try to Distract Yourself

Start off by taking deep, slow breaths. Breath in for four seconds, hold for four seconds and breathe out for four seconds. Next, remind yourself that flying is very safe and try to distract yourself. Try watching a lighthearted movie or read a book.

Talk to a Flight Attendant if You’re Really Anxious

If none of that works, don’t be scared to talk to a flight attendant. They are trained to deal with all kinds of situations and it’s likely they have helped anxious passengers before too.

Related article: How to Travel with Anxiety: Managing Symptoms on the Road

Layovers & Flight Connections

If you have a layover, you will be told when you check in that either your checked luggage will only need to be picked up in your final destination, or that you will have to pick it up at your layover, and re-check it to your final destination. Usually, your luggage can just be sent all the way through but it just depends.

If you need to pick up your luggage and re-check it, you will need to go to baggage claim at your layover airport. Once you have your luggage, you will need to go and check it in with your next airline to make sure it also goes to the same place as you. If you don’t need to do this, you can simply go to the straight through to the ‘departures’ section of the layover airport, and wait for your next flight.

If you have a really long layover, you may want to leave the airport and come back. Just remember if you do this, you’ll have to take the time to come back through security again. Many airports offer a luggage service where you can pay to store your luggage at the airport and then come back and retrieve it later. Just make sure you are back well in advance to make your next flight!

Arrival, Picking Up Baggage & Exiting the Arrival Airport

luggage conveyor belt at airport

If your final destination is in a foreign country you will have to go through immigration. This is the part where they may stamp your passport, and ask you questions about what you plan to do in the country. They will want to know if you are traveling for work or pleasure, how long you plan to stay and where you will be staying. These are all normal security questions that you will need to answer.

Once you’ve made it through immigration, you will need to get your luggage and then exit the airport. It sometimes takes a while for all the luggage to be unloaded from the plane. You can find your baggage claim area by looking for the conveyor belt that is showing your flight number on it. That will be the one your luggage should come out on. Once you’ve got your luggage you can exit the airport and grab a taxi, bus, or airport transfer to your accommodation.

How to Deal with Flight Delays & Cancelations

If your flight is delayed you may just have to wait until there is a new boarding and take-off time set up. It could be that you just need to wait an extra 30 minutes, or 5 hours. Flying can be a little unpredictable due to storms, weather changes and other issues.

If something is wrong with the aircraft your flight could get canceled. If this happens, airline staff will usually assist you in rebooking the next available flight to your destination and they can help you if you had a flight connection or layover that will now be missed too. However, you may have to pay for it upfront.

One of the best tips for first-time flyers that I have is to use Air Help if you experience a cancellation or flight delay. Services like Air Help can assist you in getting compensation for delayed and canceled flights.

How to Deal with Lost or Damaged Luggage

If you remember the tip I mentioned about taking a photo of your luggage before you leave, you can use this to show to airport staff if your luggage gets lost. They can then use that photo to help locate your luggage more quickly. You may have to wait a few hours or even a few days for your bags. The airport will call you and you can then go pick them up when they are available. This happened to me on a trip to Mexico once and I was without my luggage for the first three days of my trip.

If your bags or any items in your bags get damaged, then there isn’t much you can do besides making sure you have travel insurance before your trip. If you do get travel insurance, you can make a claim through your provider and get reimbursed for lost, stolen, and damaged baggage.

Related: Travel Insurance Can Cover Trip Interruptions, Damaged Baggage, and More

Info about Fossil Fuels & Optional Carbon Offsets

It’s no secret that airplanes use a lot of fossil fuels to operate. If you want to lower your carbon footprint you can buy carbon offsets through third party organizations before or after your trip. These organizations usually allow you to pay a fee in order to plant trees or install solar panels somewhere so that you can ‘offset’ your flight.

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2 thoughts on “Ultimate Air Travel Guide: Essential Tips for First Time Flyers”

  • Your tip to show up an hour early for a domestic flight sounds like it would be really helpful to make airport travel easier. I think that another way to improve your airport travel experience is to choose the right airport. My sister is planning a trip this July, so I will make sure she chooses a reliable airport and keeps your tips in mind.

    • Yes absolutely! And not just choosing the right airport but making sure you know which airport to arrive to because so many cities have more than one airport and arriving at the wrong one can really screw things up!

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