I took my first flight several decades ago when air travel was less complicated. More people are travelling nowadays which means longer queues and shorter tempers.
Security became stricter after 9/11. Delays, cancellations, and lost luggage are still part and parcel of the air travel experience.
But air travel is convenient, quick and statistically very safe. And by preparing accordingly and setting expectations, it’s possible to minimise the hassle.
This post offers tips for first-time flyers but has useful information for travellers at any stage of their journey.
BEFORE LEAVING HOME
If your airline has an app, download it as it will send push notifications at key times before the flight. Some airline apps generate boarding cards which avoids the hassle of printing one in advance. Some airlines generate the boarding card when you check in luggage. Check your airline’s policy in advance.
Even if you are checking your luggage into the cargo hold, I would advise to carry a small bag as hand luggage.
Medicines, phones, keys, glasses, important documents such as visas, accommodation/car rental confirmations should always be packed in your hand luggage. Have nothing in your pockets when you pass through the security scanners.
Check with your airline regarding hand luggage size dimensions. If you have space in your hand luggage the following should be included: Dry snacks, a waste bag, antiseptic hand wipes and reading material.
Liquids and pastes must be in containers 100ml or less in size and must fit into a clear bag like below.
Medicines in liquid/paste form can be brought in addition to this allowance and must be placed in a clear bag as well. Bring your medicine prescriptions/letter from your doctor just in case security personnel query your medicines.
WHAT TO WEAR:
Go for comfort and convenience. Wear comfortable shoes that can slip off/on easily as, more than likely, you will be asked to remove your shoes at security.
Lots of walking is usually required to get from the check in area to the departure gate. If I’m travelling to a warm region, I’ll pop a pair of sandals into my hand luggage to wear on arrival.
AT THE AIRPORT
Your airline will indicate how far in advance of the flight departure time you should check in luggage. To ensure an on-time arrival, allow for delays on public transport and heavy traffic. If you are taking your car to the airport, pre-book parking as it’s cheaper and more convenient.
From now until you pass through Customs/Border Control at your destination, it’s a case of following instructions. Scan the Departure Board for your Check-in Desk number/area.
As soon as you have checked in luggage, go to the Departures area as the queue for Security could be lengthy. If you are travelling with hand luggage only, you can proceed directly to Security.
As soon as you have passed through Security, move away from the scanner conveyor belt to pack your bag or fix clothing.
Keep an eye on monitors for the flight gate number and boarding time.
Listen to boarding instructions as best you can. Some flights are boarded row by row while others use a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest ‘queuing’ method.
Passports and boarding cards are checked at the Gate prior to boarding so have them to hand. There will be no passport check if travelling between two Schengen Zone countries.
Move quickly to your assigned seat and move out of the aisle as soon as luggage is stored in the overhead locker. You can also store hand luggage under the seat in front, if it fits, with the exception of certain rows such as the emergency exits.
Over the shoulder luggage should be carried in front of you rather than bang into people on either side of the narrow aisle.
Delayed boarding can lead to a plane missing its allotted departure slot. This is mega-frustrating at a large airport as the next available slot may be hours away.
If you’re sitting in row 14 and see row 12 immediately in front of you, this is not an error on your part. Many airlines don’t have a row 13 as it is considered bad luck in some cultures.
Please, please, please listen and watch the safety announcement prior to take off. You may as well be sitting in row 13 if you don’t observe the directions.
AIR TRAVEL ETIQUETTE:
The rest of the flight requires navigating the social etiquette of air travel. Be mindful of personal space.
Boeing’s 737 range and the Airbus A320 are the most popular aircraft used in aviation. Both are single aisle with three seats on either side. Regarding arm rests, the unwritten rule is the outer arm rest for the aisle seat, the inner arm rest for the window seat while the middle seat gets two armrests as compensation for being inconvenienced.
It’s expected to pass items along if needs be.
Seats can be reclined at permitted times on the journey but do you really need to? I don’t recommend doing so for a multitude of reasons.
As for removing shoes, travel experts vary in their opinion. My view: Remove them only if you have socks or slippers at the ready. Leave them on if you haven’t changed your socks for a few hours.
What’s the conversation etiquette? Your basic social skills will guide you here. Does the other person want to talk? Do you want to talk to them? Chat helps with nerves.
I may be an introvert but fellow passengers can be an excellent source of destination information. But people aren’t always flying for holidays. Their reluctance to talk may be due to pressing issues on their mind.
Unless you’re travelling business class or premium economy, comfort isn’t guaranteed so shift your expectations (especially if you’re taller than 6ft/183cm).
If you are travelling with electronic entertainment devices please use headphones for the audio. If you want to get some sleep on the flight bring eye masks to filter out bright light.
Chew gum or suck sweets to counteract hearing issues due to changes in cabin pressure.
One of the main tips for first-time flyers concerns disembarking the plane. Have everything packed conveniently prior to landing. Let the well-travelled passengers/locals go first and follow their lead, if in doubt.
There are three main courtesies when it comes to disembarking. Firstly, let passengers with short connections exit first. Secondly, if you are slowed down by a heavy bag or other reason, it’s courtesy to wait until the ‘quicker’ passengers have disembarked. Finally, offer assistance retrieving luggage for others from the overhead lockers.
If you are sitting in different seats to your friends/family, arrange to meet at passport control or wait in your seat for them rather than block the aisle.
Difficult situations can arise between passengers. Offer alternatives or try to reach a compromise. If this fails, ask the cabin crew to intervene.
Accept that babies will cry due to the cabin air pressure on their ears. As for out of control children, in my experience neither parents nor cabin crew intervene. The task usually falls to fellow passengers.
AT THE DESTINATION
Airports differ in the method of getting you from the plane to the terminal building. Some involve walking to the terminal, some use bus transfers and some use sky bridges.
First up is passport control/border police. If you are travelling between two Schengen Zone countries, no passport control applies and it’s straight to the luggage reclaim area.
Use the wait for luggage to get cash from an ATM or foreign currency exchange.
After luggage reclaim, Customs control is the final step of the journey. And that marks the end of your first international flight.
TIPS FOR FIRST-TIME FLYERS: FINAL THOUGHTS
In general, that’s how to get from A to B via plane but this can change in exceptional circumstances such as heightened security or public health emergencies. In such cases, follow the instructions of your government, local authorities, airports and airlines. Their advice will supersede this blog post.