First Flight: A First Time Flyer’s Guide

There are so many first time flyers who don’t know what to do or what to expect when they finally get to fly. All they know is that security is pretty high. Many of them don’t have a clue about the bag standards or even what can be brought on a plane and what can’t. I have flown enough times to know what it takes to have a smoother flying experience and now its time for me to pass it on to those who don’t know what to do or expect.

1. Check-in – No matter what you do, you have to check in for your flight so that the airline can have an accurate list of passengers to store in their records and send to the FAA. I have noticed that some airlines are making it possible to check yourself in on their websites within 24 hours of your flight. I suggest however, that you skip that and check in at the ticket counter. By doing this, you ensure that you are accounted for, receive your boarding passes, and get your luggage checked all at the same time. So by doing this, you kill several birds with one stone. Also, remember to arrive several hours before your flight. Many times, lines at the ticket counters and at security can be so backed up that it can take anywhere between five minutes to an hour to get through just one line. To avoid this, I suggest catching an early morning flight. I have noticed that at several airports in the U.S. that I’ve flown out of, the lines were almost non-existent before 7am and whatever lines were there, were very short and the most time you would spend was 15 minutes. So for shorter wait times, I suggest the early morning flights.

2. Checked bags – Most people will have at least one piece of luggage to check. Some airlines offer this service for free with the first bag and then charge for additional bags. Some airlines will allow two bags for free. Now, there’s another very common fee that can be tacked on to luggage. This fee is for luggage weighing over 50 pounds. Most airlines will only charge about $60 for each overweight bag and sometimes – depending on the clerk’s mood and your politeness – they may waive the fee for you out of kindness if it isn’t too far over the limit. A good idea is to weigh the bags you plan to check on a bathroom scale the night before you leave if you can. Make sure that you pack it so it can stand on it’s own because holding it up will actually add some weight to it. Doing this will allow you to see how much your bag is going to weigh before you put it on the scale at the airport and you will be able to save yourself from a hassle at the counter.

3. Carry on and personal bags – What’s the difference? A personal bag is a bag that you will most likely need immediate access to during your flight. A carry-on bag is kind of like a back-up suit case in the event that your checked bags get lost and it usually goes in the overhead compartment. Now, I strongly suggest that you don’t put something in that looks like a weapon, not even a toy, because these bags will be run through an X-ray machine and if something looks suspicious, that’s going to slow you down while TSA is doing a physical search because they aren’t sure of something they saw in the viewer. For personal bags, I suggest a laptop bag, purse or backpack since they are small enough to fit under the seats. If you carry electronics such as a laptop or digital camera, take the laptop out and inform the agents about any other electronics you have. They may ask you to remove them from their cases. Also, if you plan to carry your toiletries with you, store them all in a clear Ziploc bag. You will need to leave this bag out when you place everything in the bin. I recommend opening your carry on and personal bags when placing them in the buckets anyway. This not only says, “I have nothing to hide” but it also makes it a few seconds faster to search since they don’t have to spend the time to open anything.

4. Luggage tags – I’m sure you know what these are if you have been to job/health fairs, banks, or even bought TSA approved travel kits. The best ones to get are the transparent plastic ones that have a paper card inside and you write down your name, mailing address, phone number, and email. I strongly suggest picking a few of these up when you get the chance to. They will save you time because you won’t have to stand at the ticket counter filling these things out. Another benefit of having them is that they add more distinction to your luggage and in the event that the airlines misplace your bag, you would be able to give them a better idea of what to look for when they ask if you used a luggage tag because you can describe it. I use this kind of luggage tag and when the airline found both of my bags nine hours later, they said that the tags I described stood out to them. So again, I suggest picking up a few of those luggage tags for that reason but if it comes down to it, invest in the extra time it takes to fill out the paper ones on string that the airline or bus company provide. It’s well worth the effort if you have to deal with lost luggage.

5. Clothing – When you fly, your choice of clothing will make a difference in speed and comfort. It all starts at the security check point. It would be wise in the summer time to wear comfortable shorts that don’t require a belt, flip flops, and a nicely fitting t-shirt. If your flight is in the winter time, I suggest flip flops, sweat pants with no metal on them, a t-shirt, and a hoodie for the few times you’ll be outside. You may not exactly look stylish this way but most TSA agents don’t require you to remove your flip flops and you won’t set off the metal detector with your clothes. The only clothing item you will have to remove is the hoodie. Also, avoid wearing jewelry before you go through security. There’s no point in putting it on just so you can take it off and then put it back on. Just put it in your carry on until after you get checked.

6. Food and drinks – Airports can be expensive when comes to food and drinks. Here’s what I do and it works just fine. As most frequent flyers know, TSA will give you a hard time for trying to get liquids through security, open or not. I’ve had an unopened bottle of soda confiscated and thrown away because I didn’t know at the time that outside liquids were being banned. So how do you get a bottle of water through? You don’t. You just get the bottle through. When I fly, I will take at least one empty canteen from my firefighting days and stick in my bag with the lid off of it. Because its empty, TSA won’t take it away and then when you get through security, you just find a water fountain and fill up. Food is an item that you don’t have to worry about really. Snacks like Pringles, Slim Jims, Combos, Skittles, and other stuff like that can just be brought through. Once you get through security, you can usually buy the things that would be confiscated so don’t be too bummed out.

7. Gate tickets – Sometimes, you may not have an assigned seat on a plane. This is usually fixed when you get to the gate. However, I have had one instance where the boarding pass for my connecting flight said, “See Ramp Agent.” I did this and it turned out that the ramp agent had to print out a whole new boarding pass from his desk at the gate. So if they say you need to have another ticket printed out, ask them to do it at the desk. Many of them don’t like doing it but it’s part of their job.

8. Pay attention – Paying attention to your surroundings is very important when you fly. You have to keep an eye out for the right terminal, the right gate number, the time on your watch and ticket, and even for suspicious activity. Another thing you have to do is listen carefully when you are at your gate or in the bathroom near your gate. If you are sitting at the gate and you aren’t paying attention to all of the announcements that are made, you may miss your flight even though it’s right outside the window.

9. Missed flight connections – If you’re getting off of a plane for a connecting flight, the first thing you need to do is look at the ticket for your next flight – which you should pull out as you are walking up the ramp from the plane – and the time. Then, if you have enough time, you can “meander” to the gate you need while stopping for directions every now and then if you’re unfamiliar with the airport. If you don’t have the time, the luxury of taking your time is no longer there for you. In this case get directions and try to hurry along. I have found myself literally running to my gate and got there just as the flight attendant was saying that they were ready to close the door. Thankfully, the ramp agent asked them to hold on and explained my situation and I was able to get on the plane still. If you aren’t lucky enough to catch your flight on time because of something they did, they will put you on the next available plane to your destination at no extra cost. If the next plane doesn’t arrive until the next day, the airline will sometimes offer to put you in a hotel for the night on their dime. But again, this is only if your missed flight is their fault. Most people end up staying in the airport overnight though. So if you don’t make it to your connecting flight on time because of the airline, there’s no need to worry. This also holds true for busses.

10. Sky Mall – It seems that most – if not all – airlines have magazines for the passengers to kill some time with during the flight. One of my favorites is Sky Mall. This is a catalog with things that you would expect to find at places like Sharper Image. Many people write down the name of the catalog or they write down the website but there’s no need. The airlines’ copies are free for the passengers to take. It even says on the cover that the passenger is allowed to take a copy if they want it and that the airline will just simply replace it with another one. So if you see something in the catalog that you just have to show your friends or you just don’t feel like copying info down, go ahead and take the catalog. And if you’re one of those people who would still feel guilty about it, remember that its not stealing when they tell you on the cover to go ahead and take it.

11. Random searches – I have some bad news for you all. TSA does random bag searches and it can happen at any time during your travels. It may be searched when it first gets checked in at the airport or it may be searched at a connecting airport but no matter what, it can be searched and you won’t know about it until you open it up and see the card sitting inside. If you have a TSA approved lock on your bag then you’ll know it got searched because your lock will no longer be there. Yes, as violating as it is, TSA will not only cut off any agency approved locks you have – which they will not replace or reimburse you for – but they will also go through your belongings thoroughly without you being present and then you’ll never know they did it until you see your lock cut off or until you open your bags and see a notice. Now I feel its wrong that they aren’t held responsible for any damage they cause to your luggage – including locks being cut off – but unfortunately, there’s no laws to regulate that. On the plus side, they are least required to leave a card inside your luggage if it gets checked and this card simply states that they selected it for a search and basically that any damage they cause to your bags is your problem and not theirs.

I hope that this guide has been helpful to you. I’m sure that there are some things I’m forgetting to add. If you have anything you would like to add or expand on, you’re welcome to tell me in the comment section. Just remember that laws and policies do vary from country to country and that they also change frequently in the U.S.

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