Flying on an airplane for the first time is an exciting experience, but it can also be daunting for some. How can you prepare for your first flight?
This step by step guide for first time flyers includes all the tips, recommendations and instructions you need, so you can fly stress-free and avoid all sorts of common mistakes.
How to book a flight
To find the best flight deals, you want to look at several flight search engines that compare prices for you.
Here’s how you do it:
Searching for the best flight
You enter your dates and destination, and within moments, get results from different airlines on your screen.
In the past you had to search each airline separately, but today the process is much quicker.
which flight search engines should you use?
SkyScanner has always been my favourite flight search engine, because it’s so user friendly. That’s where I search first.
To make sure you’re getting the best prices, you want to look at results from a couple of sites.
You want to book your flights as early as possible to get the best prices. Normally, a couple of months in advance is good practice, as the prices goes up the closer you are to the flight date.
You can also find last minute deals, but that’s never guaranteed.
One more tip that’s important to know: You can fly out with one airline and return with another.
No need to book both flights with the same airline. Sometimes it make more sense financially, but often it doesn’t. When you search, select “one way” to see if you can get a better price that way.
For more detailed info, read my complete guide to booking flights.
How to check in, choose a seat and receive your boarding pass
Online check in for your flight
Checking in online will save you time and stress at the airport.
The airline will normally email you with a link to check in. Click the link and complete the check in process.
If the airline doesn’t send you that email, just go to their website and check-in there.
When you check in online and you’re planning to travel with hand luggage only, this means that you won’t have to stand in line at the airport to check any luggage.
Otherwise, if you do travel with more than hand luggage, checking in online means you can drop off your luggage at the airport without waiting in the check-in line.
Choosing your seat on the plane in advance
During the check-in process, you may be able to choose your seat. This changes depending on which airline you fly with.
Low cost airlines will typically charge you for this. If you don’t choose a seat, it will be allocated for you.
You may prefer an aisle (useful if you want to use the toilets without waking up the person next to you) or a window seat (gorgeous views!). The middle seats are usually less convenient.
You can use sites like SeatLink and Seat Guru to look at seat maps of different airplanes. ExpertFlyer will notify you when the seat you want becomes available.
Your boarding pass
After you’ve completed the online check-in, you’ll get your boarding pass emailed to you. This is the document you need to present at the airport. It contains all the details about your flight.
Some airlines and airports allow digital boarding passes, meaning you don’t have to print out the document, just save it on your phone. In some cases you’ll be issued a paper boarding pass at the airport.
I suggest you download the PDF document containing the boarding pass that’s attached to the email from the airline to your phone. I also normally save a backup copy to Dropbox and make it available offline.
Later, at the airport, all you have to do is scan the code on the boarding pass, both at security and at the gate just before you board the plane.
If the scanning doesn’t work, enlarge the code on the screen, that usually does the trick.
Food on flights – special meals, airplane food and your own snacks
Many flights include meals, but not all of them.
Low cost airlines would often charge you for food on board. Long haul flights normally have meals included in the ticket price.
In any case, you need to check if your specific flight includes meals.
If it doesn’t, then you’re allowed to bring your own food on board. That’s something that many people do. I recommend bringing sandwiches, snacks and fruits.
You can also buy food on the plane. Each airline has its own menu. They’re normally not terribly expensive, but you will have limited choice.
If your flight does include meals and you have specific dietary needs (vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, kosher etc.) then you will need to order a special meal.
You can do that on the airline website. If you don’t see the option there, it’s best to contact their customer service as early as you can (no later than 24 hours before the flight) and ask for a special meal.
The wonderful veg*n travel guide Happy Cow has a full guide to airline meals for vegans and vegetarians. Generally, if you want to order a vegan meal, the code is VGML and the airlines call it a vegetarian meal, though it’s actually vegan.
Airplane food is notorious, generally speaking. It doesn’t mean it’s always bad, it just means if it isn’t bad, that’s pretty impressive 😉
That’s why even on flights on which food is served, there will be passengers who prefer to bring their own food and pass on the airline meal…
How to prepare before your first flight
Passport and visa
Make sure your passport is valid and that it won’t expire at least six month after your flight.
Some countries require a visa from visitors. You can check visa requirement for the country you’re about to travel to.
The best way to do that is to contact its embassy in your country and ask them for official instructions.
Note that asking on Facebook or even just Googling the question will not necessarily give you the correct answer.
You can either bring foreign currency with you or take money out at an ATM after you arrive.
In some cases you can also convert currency at your destination.
It all depends on which country you’re flying to, so do a bit of online research to find out what would be the best practice and how to minimise fees.
Arrange airport transfer at your destination
It’s a good idea to find out in advance what kind of transportation you can take from the airport into the city after you land.
You want to do this before the flight, so you can relax and not worry about it.
Arriving at a new country may be a bit overwhelming, especially if you don’t know the local language, so you want your airport experience to be as easy as possible.
In some cities, you’ll find efficient public transport links between the airport and the city, but that’s not always the case unfortunately.
The airport website should have details on your different options.
It will most likely save you money if you check your options in advance. In London, for example, there’s such a range of airport transfer options that you can take a bus for £2 or a train for £18 from the same airport!
Also note that in some cases you will get the best price when you book way ahead of time, because the prices go up closer to the date.
Here are some services you can use to book your airport transfer in advance:
Always beware of taxi touts. They are pretty common at many airports and will take advantage of confused tourists who arrive at a new country unprepared.
How to pack for your first flight
Different airlines have different rules about luggage.
You will need to check your airline’s size and weight limits for luggage.
Sometimes there are fees for luggage that doesn’t conform with those limits. Other times, the airline staff might ignore those limits at the airport, but why take the risk.
I recommend you fly only with hand luggage, if you can.
Then the first decision you want to make is between travelling with a carry on suitcase or with a carry on backpack.
I personally travel with a backpack (this one), as it’s more comfortable and efficient for my needs, though it can also be carries as a suitcase thanks to a double handle.
Many airlines let you add a smaller bag as well, like a laptop bag, often referred to as a “personal item”.
flying only with hand luggage has many advantages:
- Low cost airlines normally charge for checking extra luggage and their fees can be ridiculously high sometimes.
- When you fly only with a carry on bag, you save yourself time at the airport, both at the luggage drop-off before boarding and at the luggage pick up after landing.
- If you do check luggage, you have to wait by the luggage belt for your bags to arrive after landing.
- I also like having all of my things with me throughout the flight, rather than worry that the airline might lose my bags, or that something might be broken or even stolen.
That’s why I always fly with a carry-on bag.
What you pack in your carry-on bag is up to you, depending on your travel destination.
One of the best tricks if you want to travel light is to pack clothes for a week (even if you’re going to travel longer) and do your laundry once a week.
Make sure you don’t carry liquids over 100ml in your carry on bag or use solid toiletries to avoid travelling with liquids.
Also, have a look at the list of banned items on your airline’s website; it includes some everyday items like scissors and matches.
What to wear for a flight
You want to wear comfortable clothes when you fly. Wear something loose and don’t worry too much about how you look.
You’ll be sitting down in a pretty tight space for a long time, so do dress as comfortably as you can.
It sometimes gets cold on a plane. On some airplanes you will be given a blanket, but bring an extra warm layer with you just in case.
This is what I wear on all my flights:
Things to bring on a flight to make it more comfortable
Sleeping during a flight is a wonderful thing, if you can manage to fall asleep.
It’s not always easy…. There’s noise, light, smells, sometimes the seats are uncomfortable.
So what can you do?
1 – Use noise cancelling headphones – They will keep your environment quiet and let you sleep peacefully.
2 – Use an eye mask – They block the light, obviously, and some say they improve sleep quality. Plus, they take up minimal space in your luggage.
3 – Use a travel pillow – Flight cushions can really make a difference as to whether or not you’ll manage to fall asleep on a flight. It’s not just about comfort, it’s about supporting your neck.
At the airport – arrival, security, boarding
Arriving at the airport
You want to find out in advance what’s the best way to get to the airport on time. Is it a bus, a train, a taxi, your own car, a lift with a friend?
Depending on the airport and the flight, you will need to be at the airport a certain number of hours before the the flight is due to take off. Find out from your airline when you should arrive at the airport.
Then work out how long it would take to get to the airport, taking traffic and rush hour into account.
If you drive your own car, consider the time it would take to find parking.
This way you’ll know when to leave home and not stress out about running late.
Check or drop-off luggage
When you arrive at the airport, look at the electronic Departures board and find your flight number. The board will tell you which check in desk to go to.
If you travel only with a carry-on, then you will save yourself time at the airport – you can skip the check in / drop off stage and go straight to security.
Next is airport security. At this stage you will have your carry-on luggage scanned by an x-ray machine.
You will walk through a metal detector and you need to present your passport and boarding pass.
The whole process should just take a few moments, but the line might be long… Sometimes very long…
Some simple rules to remember about passing through security:
There are bins that roll underneath the x-ray machine conveyor belt. When it’s your turn, take one of these bins and put your carry on bag in it.
If you have a laptop with you, take it out of its bag and sleeve and put it in a separate bin.
Before going through the metal detector, consider taking off shoes, belts and jewelry, and check for coins or keys in your pockets.
Place liquids and creams in small containers of up to 100 ml inside a clear plastic bag. Security staff will through away any liquids or creams you have, that do not comply with the rules.
To come prepared, get yourself some leak-proof travel bottles for toiletries.
You want to make sure you don’t get dehydrated on the plane, but if you have a water bottle with you, you have to drink it before you reach security.
The best solution I’ve found is to use a simple, collapsible water bottle that doesn’t raise suspicion during security checks.
I can easily refill it once I’m done with security at a drinking water fountain. If there are no fountains at the airport, I ask at a cafe or restaurant if they’d refill my bottle with tap water. This way you never have to buy bottled water, and that’s an added advantage.
Security should go smoothly, but once in a while security staff may ask you to open your bag so they can have a look inside.
If you haven’t brought anything you shouldn’t bring on a flight, you should be fine. Last time I was asked to open my bag, it was due to a pack of chocolate that for some reason looked suspicious in the x-ray machine…
Once the security check is over, pick up your belongings. You’ll see the list of departures on the electronic screen and it will tell you the number of the gate to go to in order to board the plane.
Boarding the plane
Before you reach your gate, there will be plenty of shops and restaurants on the way, depending on how big the airport is.
The gate area is basically a waiting area where you spend some time before boarding.
Each flight has its own gate, of course, so check the screen next to the gate to make sure you’re in the right place – it will have the name of the airline, the flight number and the boarding time.
The boarding time on the screen will tell you if a flight is late.
The boarding gate might change, so listen out for announcements.
Shortly before boarding, line up with the other passengers. Depending on the flight and airplane, you may have different lines for different sections or rows.
Some airlines have a separate line for passengers with a priority boarding ticket, who can board faster.
To know which line you should be in, just have a look at your boarding pass and in case of doubt, ask a member of staff.
Congrats! It’s your turn to board! Have your passport and your boarding pass ready to show the staff and…. Get on the plane!
Sometimes you’ll have a bus taking you from the gate to the airplane, and in other cases there will be a jet bridge connecting the airport gate directly to the airplane.
Once on the plane, the flight attendant will check your boarding pass one last time and then you can go find your seat.
Stow your luggage above your seat. If there’s not enough room, try to find space nearby.
During the flight
Before take off, you will get full safety instructions from the flight attendants.
As long as the seat belt sign above your seat is lit, you should remain seated.
Obviously, you should be sitting down during take off, but there may be other occasions during the flight when you will be instructed to remain seated: Turbulence happens sometimes during flights and the crew will announce it and ask you to sit down and fasten your seat belt.
Things to do during a flight
Entertainment on a flight
Some flights have in-flight entertainment – Movies, TV shows, radio shows and the in-flight magazine (those magazines are usually quite a good read!)
Not all flights have entertainment though and some may show a movie you don’t want to watch, so it’s best to bring your own.
Make sure your phone, tablet or laptop are fully charged and prepare some movies, TV shows, podcasts or reading materials in advance, taking into account the length of the flight.
I always take two power banks with me on a flight, so I don’t have to worry about watching videos that might drain the battery.
The last thing I need is to find I’ve run out of battery just as I arrive at a new city and need to navigate. It’s always a good idea to have a good spare battery.
You can also get wifi access on some planes, so you can be really productive.
I personally prefer not to do any work on flights, but just distract myself with a funny movie…
Also, a flight is a great opportunity to read that book you never had time to read in your daily busy life 😉
Sleeping on flights
Relaxing and falling asleep on a flight is a wonderful way to pass the time and arrive at your destination more refreshed.
How to feel less nervous on a flight
If you feel nervous on your first flight and you’re flying on your own, perhaps try chatting with the person sitting next to you. It’s a good way to relieve some tension.
It is also a good idea to pass on alcohol, even if it is offered on board. It might make you anxious or just enhance any negative feelings you already have.
Sleeping is a good way to pass the time if you feel nervous. Try your best to fall asleep so you will spend less time worrying.
Another thing to do when you feel nervous is simply to remind yourself how rarely accidents occur in reality. You are highly unlikely to encounter an emergency situation on a plane.
The crew will let you know when to sit down and fasten your seat belt again, shortly before landing.
Landing should go smoothly, and if you feel a few bumps, it’s a normal thing. If you feel unwell, call one of the flight attendants, they are trained in handling these situations.
Looking out of the window during landing and taking pictures is good fun! Have a look at these fantastic pictures taken from the window seat.
That’s it! Once the plane hits the ground, the pilot drives it to the gate and after a short while you can get off the plane.
From there, just follow the signs at the airport.
There may be a passport check (depending on where you’re going).
If you travel with hand luggage only, you don’t have to wait for your bags, just go towards the exit and start your new adventure!