I like to joke about being a weird enough person that I actually enjoy the more mundane aspects of travel: packing, going to the airport, taking a long flight… all those tiny pieces of the logistical puzzle that everybody else can’t seem to hate enough. To me it’s all part of the bigger travel picture and that’s enough to make it wonderful in my eyes. As Robert Louis Stevenson says in my favorite travel quote of all time, “The great affair is to move.”
But I all too often forget that the excitement and wonder of travel don’t hit others, especially first-time tourists, until they’re at that perfect postcard view that first inspired them to leave behind the comforts of home. The giddy anticipation of being somewhere new is too clouded by the uncertainty and discomfort of the less fun bits.
And even more often, I forget how lucky I am to have had the luxury of traveling young. My first several plane rides were all taken in high school and college with the safety net of accompanying family and friends, so by the time I started traveling more independently, I knew what I was doing. So having a young friend ask questions about her first time flying alone was just the kick in the pants I needed.
For anyone else embarking on their first solo flight, this is the advice I had for her:
Make sure your passport will be valid for at least six months after your return to the U.S. If you need a new one, get it well in advance of your trip.
Buy your ticket about three to four months in advance to secure the lowest price possible. Setting up an alert on Google Flights is a good way to ensure you’re not missing a deal.
Make a packing list and do a test run about a month in advance to make sure everything fits comfortably.
Try traveling with only a carry on. You’ll save time and trouble by not having to wait at baggage claim. You’ll have less stuff to worry about on the road. AND you’ll circumvent any risk of your checked bag being lost, damaged, or stolen.
If you’re using a luggage lock, make sure it’s TSA approved. If not, use twist ties to hold your zippers together and deter opportunistic thieves.
Find ways to sub out liquid products in your bag. Swapping out body wash for bar soap is an obvious choice, but you can also get solid shampoo and conditioner bars to replace the liquid versions. The fewer liquids in your bag, the more space you’ll save in that quart-sized Ziploc bag required by the TSA, and the less chance you’ll have of unfortunate spillage in your pack.
Wear your bulkiest clothes on the plane. You’ll save space in your bag and you’ll have layers for the infamously cold plane cabin. If these aren’t comfortable enough to sleep in, keep in mind that you can pack sleep wear and change into it on the plane.
Make sure your shoes can easily slip on and off and wear socks. You’ll save a little time at security and you won’t have to go barefoot on the airport floor.
Use an app like JetLag Rooster to gradually acclimate yourself to the change in time zones before you leave.
Double check your flight status the day before your departure. Charge all your devices the night before you leave, so there aren’t any dead battery mishaps.
Many airlines are introducing online check-in. Take advantage of that service and save time at the airport. If you’re really serious about saving travel time, consider signing up for Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check which will allow you access to special expedited lines at security and customs.
Get to the airport two hours before your flight, especially if you’re leaving in the afternoon or evening.
Use a zippered document pouch to hold your passport, boarding pass, and other important papers. Keep it in an easily accessible place so you don’t have to dig through your bag in the middle of a security line. You’ll need these documents at several points throughout the airport.
Keep your laptop and your bag of liquids near the top of your bag, so you can easily access them at security.
Stay calm, confident, and polite with every airport employee you meet. I typically have fine experiences with airport staff simply because I take the trouble to smile and remember my good Southern ‘Yes, ma’am’s where very few others do. Going through security and customs doesn’t have to be scary – it’s all about your attitude.
When you arrive at security, don’t wait until you’re at the front of the line to prepare your things. Start taking off your shoes, jacket, jewelry, and belt right away and carry them through the rest of the line. Unzip your bag and make sure your laptop and bag of liquids are easily accessible. When you do get to the front of the security line, you’ll have all your stuff ready and can just grab a couple plastic trays, pop your things inside, and be on your merry way.
Stay hydrated! You can’t take a full water bottle through security, but you can pack an empty water bottle. Once you’re in the airport proper, fill it up at a water fountain and drink it before your flight. When you board your plane, you can also ask a flight attendant to refill your water bottle ensuring you stay hydrated in flight.
Airport food is ridiculously overpriced. I once saw a $5 peanut butter and jelly sandwich in Detroit. Save your money and pack your own snacks. I like to have one for waiting at the airport and two or three for a long flight. Peanut butter crackers, pretzels, and granola bars are all perennial favorites, but don’t forget that as long as you finish it on the plane, you can also have fresh fruit or veg in your bag.
Double check your flight’s gate on an arrival-departure board at least once after you pass through security, just in case you don’t hear an announcement of a change.
While you’re waiting to board, use Pocket to load up your phone, tablet, or laptop with reading material for the flight. This app saves articles for future offline reading.
When it’s time to board, don’t stand like a numbnuts at the gate. Large planes often board in zones, which are printed on your boarding pass, and you know first class will always get to go before economy. Standing in the way of others trying to board doesn’t get you on the plane any faster, so just stay seated until your zone is called and when it is, calmly walk to the gate. There are a handful of times when it’s reasonable to rush through the airport in a panic, but waiting at your gate for the flight to board is not one of them.
Don’t put your boarding pass away. You’ll need to show it to both the attendant at the gate and to the flight attendant on the plane so they can direct you to your seat.
If you’re among the last to board, you may feel overhead space is at a premium, but don’t succumb to the urge to shove your bag in the first compartment you see. Keep your bag as close to your seat at possible. When you don’t, it just creates a domino effect where no one’s bag is next to their seat.
Take out everything you’ll need during the flight before putting your main carry-on into an overhead compartment. You can organize this while packing by putting in-flight stuff in a separate day bag inside the carry-on. Don’t be the person who has to climb over their seat mates five times during the flight to get something out of their bag.
Airplanes are gross. Use a wet wipe to sanitize your armrest and tray table before doing anything else.
On a similar note, who knows when that wimpy blanket and pillow were last washed? Pack your own and don’t be afraid to think outside the box about how to pack your own. A large sarong can double as a blanket, while a fleece jacket could be bundled up like a pillow.
If you have a smartphone, laptop, or tablet on board, turn it off or switch it to airplane mode.
Keep your blood flowing. Compression socks are popular in the fight against blood clots, but don’t forget that you can also take a walk as long as the seat belt sign isn’t lit and food and beverage service isn’t in progress.
If there’s a meal served on the plane and you have a vegetarian option, go for it.
If you’re on an overnight flight, try to take yourself through a normal bedtime routine. After dinner service, head to the bathroom and change into comfy clothes, brush your teeth, wash your face, etc. It may not be the easiest feat in a tiny airplane bathroom, but it will help keep your Circadian rhythms on track and make it easier for you to fall asleep. Likewise, when you wake up, try to go through as normal a morning routine as possible. It’ll help you adjust to the change in time zones.
Your flight attendant may pass out customs forms before landing. Use your own pen and don’t let anyone borrow it, but more importantly take advantage of the time you’ve been given. Don’t wait until you’ve landed to fill out your paperwork.
Be prepared for a long, slow customs line. Like security, this is a place where attitude is everything. Staying calm, confident, and polite will help the time pass faster. Getting rude and trying to hurry will not. The officials will probably have a few basic questions for you, most likely about where you’ll be going and how long you plan to stay in the country.
Don’t change your money at the airport. Order foreign currency in advance from your bank, or find a bank after you arrive. These will have much better exchange rates than the airport. If and when you do change money, double count it, even if the clerk counted it in front of you.
Have a plan for your transportation from the airport to your accommodations. Is somebody picking you up? Is there a metro or shuttle that serves the airport? Do your due diligence well in advance. Don’t just hop in the first taxi you see.
Airports can seem daunting to the first-time traveler, but allowing yourself plenty of time to prepare and keeping a level head will go a long way from turning it from a chore into one more exciting step of your travels.