Growing up, airports had always been daunting to me. It seemed as though there were SO many steps whenever I'd fly with my family as a kid.
I like to be prepared—especially when entering a new, potentially scary situation. So before flying solo for the first time at the age of 18, I studied what to do as though I were about to take the SATs on it the next day. I asked my mom to walk me through every step, what I would need, and potential problems I could run into. I also took a nosedive into the web—and though I don't remember exactly, probably read articles a lot like this one.
And guess what? My first time flying alone was a BREEZE. I was worried for nothing! Yet, I'm still glad I took the time and did my research, for perhaps the reason it went so swimmingly was because I had been prepared.
***Before we get into the 20 things to know before flying for the first time, I do want to clarify that I'm only regarding domestic travel within the United States in this post. Because that's all I really know. I haven't flown out of country in almost 10 years, let alone solo. (☹️) So while I feel more than qualified to offer my insight and recommendations for first-time flyers traveling from one U.S. state to another, I WILL need to put on my research glasses once more one day when the time (and money) comes to venture into international travel again.***
Well, here goes!
1. Nobody cares how you look.
BELIEVE ME, this is so true. Nobody cares how you look. Yes, you may come across some impeccably-dressed flyers—mostly those who are flying for business or to impress the people picking them up—but a far greater number of people are in casual, comfortable clothing.
I have legitimately worn sloth slippers at the airport, and nobody batted an eyelash.
2. It takes a while to get OFF the plane.
I did NOT anticipate this the first time I flew. This is usually not a big deal unless you have an immediate connecting flight, but expect it to take up to a half hour to get off the plane. The further back you are, the longer it takes.
3. Bring a neck pillow.
The best are the ones with memory foam... *groan.* You don't even have to consider space a neck pillow takes up because you can simply wear it around your neck as you check in. Let me tell you, those airplane seats are not comfortable—talking coach, not first class. I've never had the luxury of flying first class. 😅
What's the worst that can happen? You don't use it. But if you don't bring it? A KINKED NECK!
4. Bring something to pass the time while waiting.
Again, you may not use it. However, given that waiting at some point during your trip is inevitable, it helps to at least have CHOICES. I do recommend taking some time to relish in the scenery on your first flight—the puffy and wispy clouds, the miniature world from miles high. But frankly, after a while of staring out the window, flying can become reallllyyyy boring. Especially flying solo. And when you're in the sky without connection (although this isn't always the case, as some have WiFi and/or let you pay for it), and you can't sleep, having at least a book to read or crossword puzzle to complete makes a difference.
5. Airport staff can be very rude, demanding, quick-paced.
This doesn't encompass everyone of course. But generally speaking, I've met more curt and non-nonchalant airport personnel than delighted ones. Don't take it personally; they see thousands of people each day—many of whom, honestly, have the same "annoying" questions. Plus they need to keep the lines moving if they want people to catch their flights on time.
If you genuinely have a question, even if you think it's silly or stupid, don't be afraid to ask though. It IS their job to assist you.
6. You need to find out if your airline allows checked baggage & factor that into the price.
Yes, airlines like Spirit may have some ridiculously cheap airfare sometimes, but if you're going to be gone for more than a few days and need to bring luggage, you have to factor that into the price. It's usually at least $30/suitcase. If it's STILL cheaper than other airlines, give them a whirl. However, quite often it's not.
I highly, highly recommend Southwest Airlines to those who are trying to fly on a budget. They have some of the cheapest prices I've ever come across, AND they allow for:
2 free checked bags (suitcases)
A carry-on (smaller than a suitcase but still large enough to fit quite a lot. You usually store this in the overhead) and
A personal item (like a purse or backpack, which you would put below your feet).
Tell me that's not insane! And possibly even more than you'd need.
Always check the regulations. Every airline's website should tell you the maximum dimensions your bags can be without incurring additional fees and how much they can weigh. If you want to know what you cannot pack in your suitcase, check the website.
7. There’s almost always an additional fee of $5.60 per way.
Don't be surprised when you see this. Even though it's such a trivial amount, it's worth knowing that this is a government-imposed September 11th Security Fee. This is also known as a Passenger Fee. It goes to TSA (Transportation Security Administration), the people who assist you while you walk through the full-body scanners/metal detectors. This $5.60 will be imposed on every one-way ticket.
8. Even if you type in that two people are traveling, results will often pop up for price of one.
I don't even bother anymore. I'm sure this isn't always the case, but whenever I've searched for tickets for 2+ people in the past, the price that pops up is always for ONE person. 🙄 Super annoying. And super disappointing when you think, "WOW, $200 for two people, roundtrip?!" ...Only to find out it's for one.
I just search for one person now. Only time to be cautious with this is it specifically says "Only one available!" You don't want to buy the last non-refundable ticket, and now your friend or partner can't join you on the same flight.
9. You can download your Spotify playlist to use offline.
Yessss. This is one of my FAVORITE hacks, even though it's probably pretty public knowledge. You can download your Spotify playlist to your phone ahead of time to use when you have no connection. This is useful in so many instances where you can't access good WiFi—not just traveling. But there is nothing better than popping in your headphones, knowing you can shuffle your favorite playlist with NO lag or delays. Yes!
10. You can ALSO download movies on Netflix.
Similarly, you can also download your favorite Neflix movies AND episodes. This DOES take up space, so consider that. But you can just delete it right after. Believe me, Netflix helps pass the time sooo well.
11. If traveling alone under the age of 21, know that a delayed flight may be a problem.
Here's what I mean by this... Once, when I was flying back to Minnesota from Florida, I had a layover in Chicago. I don't quite remember if my connecting flight was canceled due to the weather or if my plane had arrived late so I missed my connecting flight, but either way, I was stuck. I wasn't the only one; there were dozens, if not hundreds of people who were stuck as well. And they were estimating the soonest flight wasn't until the next morning. YIKES.
I couldn't rent a car because I wasn't 25, and I would've considered Ubering to a hotel, but I wouldn't have been able to rent a room because I was under 21. So I was actually stuck-stuck. A nice guy (I hope he was just nice) offered to drive me back because he was heading to the same destination and decided to just rent a car and drive the remaining 6 or so hours, but I wasn't about to take that risk. Luckily, within a couple of hours, they were able to secure me an immediate flight, so I never had to sleep at the airport.
TLDR; if you're under 21, you can't rent a hotel. So if you get stuck, you may just need to sleep it out at the airport.
12. If there’s a shuttle, there’s a reason.
HAHA, this was a fun lesson to learn... NOT. Thomas and I were in Atlanta, which we would quickly find out is a GINORMOUS (and super cool and artistic!) airport. For whatever dumb reason, we chose to not take the shuttle bus and to walk to our gate. We ended up spending a solid 45 minutes just walking, and if I remember right, we were almost late for our departure.
Remind me to never do that again.
13. Airplanes are always cold.
Okay, at least usually. Of all the times I've flown, I think there was only one instance where I was hot. Other than that, I froze my tushy off. And as far as I know, you can't just request a blanket (at least not when you're flying coach—i.e. "economy," i.e. the cheapest class). And especially not during Covid. You could probably buy one at the airport for an outrageous price... Orrrr, you could come prepared.
Remember: you can always take garments off (to an extent), but you can't put them on if you don't have them! Bring a sweater.
13. Bring an empty water bottle.
You can't get through security with full bottles of liquid, like water, but you can bring an empty water bottle to fill up once you're past security. Airports usually have quite a few water fountains. I mean you could always spend $4 and buy a bottle at the airport too... but I'm too cheap for that (can you tell that yet??).
In case you're wondering, you can bring liquids on the plane with you.
14. Look at the low-fare calendars.
Again, not all airlines make this as easy as Southwest, but if you have wiggle room in your booking dates—and in most scenarios, unless you're flying for an emergency or you have a rigid work schedule, you do—then I definitely recommend checking out the low-fare calendars. Essentially, you are looking at the cheapest price of every day that month, and that way you can plan the departure and return dates around the best deals. I do this every time I travel, and that's how I lock in those bangin' cheap flights.
15. Think about what the weather will be like when you ARRIVE at your destination.
You don't necessarily have to stuff a whole different outfit into your carry-on just to change into when you arrive—because as we all know, clothes take up a lot of space! I find that a different pair of shoes often does the trick, as well as traveling with removable layers.
So instead of wearing a long-sleeved shirt, wear a tank top with a jacket or hoodie over it. That way, you can tie the jacket around your waist when arriving somewhere warmer.
16. Don't bother checking your bag at an outdoor counter.
When you pull up in the drop-off area, there are immediate check-in counters for your baggage. Waste of money. The regular check-in counters are usually right inside less than 100 feet away, and the lines are rarely that long.
17. Many airports require you check in 45 minutes in advance.
Some even say 30. Wanna hear a short story?
One time, Thomas and I were leaving his family in Florida to head back to Minnesota. I did some calculations, and it turned out that if we drove up to Georgia for our departing flight, we would save a bunch of money. Even though we left hours in advance, we ended up arriving with only around 15-30 minutes to spare. I genuinely believe we could've hustled to our flight and been one of the last to board, but we weren't even allowed to check in at the desk because they require you do so at least 45 minutes in advance. Luckily, the front desk lady was delightful (in stark contrast with #5—must be a Georgia thing!) and found us a later flight.
18. However, you don't need to get there 3 hours in advance.
It is common among first-time flyers to arrive hours in advance out of fear of missing their flight. I can relate. I did the exact same thing my first time flying solo! Even though my mom had prepped me well, I still wanted to make sure I gave myself enough cushion in case I got lost or didn't know what to do.
In reality, though, it's 2 steps: check in and security. Easy. Sometimes the security line is long, so I always recommend giving yourself about an hour and a half. You actually may still end up waiting—and I swear, half the time flights are delayed anyway—but at least you won't be sitting at your terminal for two looong hours!
19. Think about getting an airline credit card!
Both Thomas and I have credit cards with airlines. At first I was going to say this may not be something to consider for your very first time flying, but then I thought, "Maybe it is!" Because when you sign up for most airline credit cards, they give you bonus points—often as much as 40,000 to 50,000 points! Depending on the airline you're with and when you book, that could be enough for a few domestic round-trips.
Plus, every dollar you spend is usually equivalent to one point, while every dollar you spend on the airline (e.g. tickets) is DOUBLE points! Yeah, it may still take a while to add up. However, if you are putting your regular bills on that credit card, it could accumulate quickly.
Let's say you put $250 worth of bills (on the low end) on your card each month. That's 250 points. In one year, that's 3,000 points. I've seen one-way tickets for around 3,000 with Southwest. So just by paying the same bills you'd normally pay anyway, you have now earned one free flight. And just think about all the other things you could (responsibly!!) put on a credit card too—groceries, décor, movie tickets... You get the gist.
Not to mention they'll usually give you anniversary points. AND it's good for your credit score—assuming you pay it off. Duh.
20. You can travel with minis!
Ahh, the best for last. 😉😉
For those 21+, TSA guidelines say, "For carry-on you are limited to containers of 3.4oz or less that can fit comfortably in one quart-sized, clear, zip-top bag. If it's overflowing from the bag, that isn't comfortable."
The funny thing is I've even seen bottles of foundation get checked because of the 3.4 ounce limit.
How'd I do? Did I miss anything? If so, comment below!
There is something about travel that frees the soul. I always say it's like a "reset" button; it wipes the slate, clears the mind, and rejuvenates you.
Life is short. Start traveling young. With some of these tips, you don't have to break the piggy bank. There are always alternatives!
Until next time...