Airports and planes can be intimidating places. Especially when it is your first time flying.
There are all the rules and regulations and the mean-looking security agents. There’s the fear of getting lost in the airport and missing your flight.
There’s plenty to get you feeling a bit nervous and apprehensive.
And there’s the fact that you’re about to fly 6 or 7 miles up in the sky!
It’s only natural to have questions and qualms.
If some of the tips on this guide seem obvious… that was deliberate.
We wanted to write a guide in simple language to help first-time fliers so you know what to expect.
When you finally take your first flight everything should happen exactly as you imagine. Because we’re going to tell you every little detail so you won’t get any surprises.
We divided the guide into sections. You can jump ahead to any area you want to read about.
Let’s jump in!
Before The Airport
Your flight preparation begins long before you reach the airport. Especially if this is your first time on a plane.
Step 1 – Check The Date Of Expiration On Your Passport
US citizens don’t always require a passport to fly domestically. But you will need some form of ID. Check what ID you will require and make sure it will be valid on the date you’re planning to travel. Forgetting to check that their ID is still valid is a classic beginners mistake.
If it’s your first time flying internationally then make sure your remember your passport!
Step 2 – Booking Your Flight
Flights are usually cheaper if you book them 1-4 months in advance. I won’t go into how to find cheap flights etc because that’s a whole other topic.
Let’s just assume you have booked your 1st flight and it’s getting closer to the date of travel.
Step 3 – Learn About Flight Safety
Even if you’re a first time flyer I bet you’ve seen a flight safety demonstration sometime before. This is the talk that the flight attendant gives a few minutes before take-off.
But everyone knows the best time to study is not right before the exam! The best time to learn what to do in a plane crash or “emergency landing” is not 10 minutes before it happens!
So now that you’ve booked your flight and it’s really happening you should go ahead and memorize these tips.
Learn these basic safety points now, days or weeks before your first flight! Not when you are sitting on the plane 5 minutes before take-off!
These bullet points tell you what you should know. Since we are not an airline we won’t sugar coat things. There is no need to be scared of flying, all the same, memorize these tips, knowing that you are prepared will help to ease your anxiety.
- Seatbelts Stay Buckled – If the window near you broke and you were not wearing your belt you could be sucked out of the window. Yes, it’s horrific and sadly has happened. But your seat belt would keep you safe. When you sit down buckle your belt. Only unbuckle it if you go to the toilet or want to stretch your legs. In extreme turbulence, you can even fly out your seat and crack your head. These horror stories are very rare so don’t worry. But if you are sitting down just buckle up. It’s the most sensible option.
- At Altitude There Is Not Oxygen So Grab That Oxygen Mask Quickly – When you are 6 miles high in the sky there is not enough oxygen to breathe. Airplanes keep the cabin artificially pressurized so that the air you are breathing has enough oxygen. But if a window were to break or there was some other leak all the air in the cabin and the oxygen would rush out the window. If this happened an oxygen mask would automatically drop down above your head and you’d use this to breathe. You put it on yourself first and then any children after. You have about 18 seconds to put this mask on before you lose consciousness. Meanwhile, the pilot will be taking the plane to a lower altitude. Once you are at a lower altitude there will be oxygen in the air again. Loss of cabin pressure is not a reason to panic. It doesn’t mean you are going to crash. Just put the mask on quickly if you see it and remain calm. You are learning this now so that when you are given the safety demo you already know what they are talking about and why.
- Falling Objects Hurt So Be Careful Using The Overhead Bins – This is probably the most dangerous part of flying. If you are putting luggage in overhead bins be careful of the heads below! It’s easy for things to fall out and hit people. I once went to get my phone out my carry on and dropped it on my flight neighbors head! He yelped and it was extremely awkward. You could do a lot of damage dropping a 30 lb suitcase on someones head so watch what you are doing here. If you need help lifting your case ask for it! For safety reasons pack a lighter case too!
- Emergency Exits Are Crucial – A lot of people think that flight safety doesn’t matter because all plane crashes are fatal. This couldn’t be more wrong. Many flights crash without fatalities. In fact most plane accidents are not fatal. If you do crash land you might need to get out fast to avoid fires, smoke, or flooding. You should always know where your nearest exit is. We advise booking a seat near an exit! You are learning this so you can NOT worry about it. You are learning it so you know what to do when you fly for the first time!
- Try Not To Break Any Bones By The Brace Position – This relates to the point above. The brace position is a way of sitting in your seat that will reduce the chances of you breaking any bones or being knocked unconscious in a crash. After a crash there may only be 60 – 90 seconds to get everyone out of the plane before fire or smoke causes death. You don’t want to be trying to make that escape with 2 broken legs. Learn the brace position now. Memorize it. Don’t leave it until 5 minutes before your 1st flight.
- Your Carry On Bag Is Not Important – Again this relates to a potential evacuation. There is nothing in your carry on bag that is more valuable than your life or the lives of your fellow passengers. If you are evacuating your flight DO NOT consider taking your luggage with you. Remember every second could be important.
Okay, that’s the end of the scary section!
But you shouldn’t let these safety tips scare you or make you more anxious about flying.
Here are some crib notes to pin to Pinterest or safe so you remember.
Flying on a plane is a very safe way to travel and you probably take greater risks all the time without realizing.
So don’t freak out about these safety lessons. It’s all about being prepared for your first time flying in a plane.
You learned to look left and right when crossing the road. And these tips are just the equivalent for when you are flying in a plane.
This video from American Airlines is a good example of a flight safety video.
Step 4 – Your Phone Plan
Okay, take a breather… let’s get back to more simple planning points…
Is your phone going to work where you are headed? Don’t make the mistake of not planning ahead and paying expensive roaming charges.
You might need to let your cell phone provider know if you are traveling internationally. Or you might need to get your phone unlocked so it can take a local sim card.
Think about it before flying for the first time.
Step 5 – Arranging Currency
This one only applies if you are leaving the country. You might want to arrange to have some cash in the currency of the country you are going to.
Or check if your bank card will work and what charges you will encounter.
Let your bank know if you will be traveling internationally and plan on using your card.
Step 6 – Packing Your Case
Luggage is a great source of anxiety for many people when traveling. There are so many horror stories about lost luggage. And imagine arriving somewhere without any clothes to wear!
We recommend traveling with carry-on luggage only. Especially for first-time fliers. It’s cheaper than checking a bag and it’s one less thing to worry about. If you can travel light it will help to keep things easier for your first flight.
If it suits you might feel better with a backpack strapped on your back. I often feel more secure with my luggage strapped to me. That way I don’t worry that someone will grab my case and run off with it.
When you fly with carry-on luggage you take your bag onto the flight cabin with you. It never leaves your side. You either store it under the seat in front of you or in the overhead storage bins. Don’t freak out, your bag doesn’t have to go in the bin directly above you. You can put it anywhere that you see a space.
But keep an eye on your bag and even tie a ribbon or something unique to your bag. There have been reports of in-flight theft where other passengers open your bag and remove belongings during the flight! We recommend putting a lock on your carry-on luggage so nobody can tamper with it while you are staring out the window.
Using the space under the seat in front of you is sometimes convenient but you can’t take such a big bag when you do that. This also impacts your legroom. It might work for short flights but is probably best avoided for long flights.
Noise-canceling headphones can really increase your comfort in a plane. It’s noisy in there because of the engine noise and air noise.
They also let you enjoy your stuff on Netflix that you have downloaded because you’ll be better able to hear the voices, get absorbed in a good drama and forget you are 6 miles up in the sky flying at 500 mph in an aluminum can. Getting stuck into your favorite show is a great way to feel a bit more normal when you are a first-time flier.
They’re not essential for short flights but for longer flights they are really great to have for comfort. The same goes for other comfort aids like pillows and sleep masks.
Make sure you don’t pack anything that you are not allowed in the cabin. Check the rules if you are not sure about anything.
And check with your airline about the size and weight allowances for your luggage. Some airlines will allow 1 carry-on bag and 1 small personal item, but this depends on which airline you are flying with.
Step 7 – Checking In
It’s getting closer to experience your first time flying. You should let the airline know you are still coming. You can usually check-in online. Most airlines allow you to check-in online in the 24 hours preceding your departure time.
It’s at this point that you often get to choose your seat if you didn’t choose when you bought your ticket.
When you check-in online you will be given a boarding pass. This can be emailed to you or sometimes it will be in the airline’s app. You can print this out if you want but you don’t need to you can usually show the boarding pass at the airport using your cell phone.
If you are checking larger suitcases into the hold of the aircraft you will still go to the check-in desk to hand over your bags. Sometimes this is a little faster if you have checked in online since they won’t have to print your boarding pass.
If you are checking a bag make sure that you will be able to easily identify it. A unique luggage tag or a scarf tied to the handle can help with this.
Step 8 – Choosing Your Seat
The seats closest to the front are often the most in-demand. That’s because it’s easy to get on and off the aircraft.
Flying for the first time is thrilling. And modern aviation is extremely safe.
Frequent fliers often take an aisle seat because it’s easy to go to the toilet and you don’t need to disturb other passengers if you want to get up.
As a first-time flier, you will want to experience all the magic.
It has to be a window seat!
Seats in the rear where you get good views but can also see the wing can provide some stunning views and great Instagram pics.
Also with a window seat can be great for longer flights as it allows you to lean your head against the wall.
If you are tall you might want to try to get an exit row seat. These seats have a little extra legroom. However, if this is your first time flying we don’t recommend it. You may be expected to open the exit door in the event of an emergency. I don’t think that’s pressure you want on your first time flying!
You can also calculate what side of the airplane the sun will be shining on and choose a seat on the other side to avoid the glare.
This is pretty simple if you are flying north to south. Or south to north.
In the morning the sun is in the east. So if you’re flying from north to south the sun will be on the left side of the plane in the morning and the right side of the plane in the afternoon.
As to figuring it out for international flights heading east to west well that’s for a more advanced guide!
Step 9 – Getting To The Airport
It’s usually best to arrive at least two hours before your flight.
If you are not checking luggage and not flying internationally you can sometimes arrive 60 minutes before your flight.
But this is your first flight so why not arrive 3 hours before? There is no sense in running to beat the clock when it is your first flight. You can master that once you are a pro.
If you are parking then consider not parking directly near the airport. It will be expensive. You can usually find places to park nearby that offer a shuttle bus.
Often the best way to travel to the airport for your first flight is to ask someone to take you or to use public transport. Then parking your car will be one less thing to worry about!
Having company and someone to chat to on the way to the airport will take your mind off worrying about your first flight.
At The Airport
Step 10 – Checking In
If you didn’t check-in online the first thing you do at the airport is look for “Departures” and then find the check-in counter for the airline you are flying with.
This is where you will hand over any large bags that are going into the airport hold (that’s what the call the trunk of the plane).
Don’t let anyone else pack your bag for you. You are responsible for what is inside your bag. You should know everything that is inside it.
Step 11 – Going Through Security
After check-in (online or in-person) you will have your boarding pass whether in printed or digital form.
This is your ticket to get on the plane and you may need to scan a barcode on your boarding pass before you enter the security.
Don’t waste time going for a coffee now. Your next priority is to get through the security check. Sometimes this can take a while so it’s better to do is as soon as possible.
If you are taking only carry-on luggage and are not checking any bags you can go straight to security as soon as you arrive at the airport.
Security can feel intrusive and a little stressful. Everyone lines up like cattle and goes through security gates.
When you get to the front of the line you need to put your luggage onto the conveyor belt so it can go through the x-ray machine.
You might need to take your shoes off so wear easy to remove shoes.
You will put all your belongings into a tray i.e. your phone, your keys, your purse, any coins, any belt that you have on. You are required to take your laptop and any liquids out of your bag too. This is so they can be easily scanned and inspected.
Remember the 311 rule. Liquids must be in bottles smaller than 3.4 oz (100ml). You can put them in a 1-quart transparent bag. Each passenger can only have 1 bag!
Keep in mind that these security checks are there for your own safety! It might be intrusive and annoying to go through airport security but it’s much better to make sure nothing dangerous is getting inside the cabin.
Just because the Transport Security Administration is there doing their job doesn’t mean that something bad is going to happen. They are there to stop something bad happening! So when you see them be grateful that the TSA is protecting you.
Step 12 – Finding Your Gate
Once you’ve made it through security don’t make the mistake of thinking you now just need to wait for your flight to be called.
Airports are often large places. Audio announcements don’t always cover the whole airport.
You will probably need to check the information screens to find out which gate you should go to.
Find your gate and go there.
Step 13 – Waiting To Be Called
You’ve made it through security and you’ve found your gate. Now is your chance to relax a bit and wait for your gate to open and boarding to begin.
You might double back to a cafe that you saw and get a coffee or a snack. It depends on how much time you have. But you’ll know where you are supposed to be going and you can use this time to relax and prepare for your flight.
Step 14 – Getting In Line For The Gate
Once boarding has been announced the herd all rush to stand in line. They want to be on the plane first to fight for a place to put their luggage in the overhead bin.
There is some logic to this, sometimes if a flight is very full and space is limited in the overhead bins you might be asked to check your bag at the gate.
If you have a smaller bag that can go under the seats you won’t need to do this.
Your actual seat will have been allocated so you don’t need to rush to get a good seat.
At this point the faster you get on the plane just means the longer you will need to sit in your seat.
It’s a good idea to pack a folded up bag. This way if you are forced to check your carry on you can remove any valuables or breakables and take them onto the plane with you.
Step 15 – From The Gate To The Plane
There are a few different ways to go from the gate to the plane. Sometimes you just walk across the tarmac.
Other times everyone squeezes into a little bus to go from the gate to the plane. These bus rides are often ridiculously short. For example, you all squeeze into a bus, and the bus drives 50 yards to the plane and you all get off. If this happens to you, enjoy it… human beings can be so silly sometimes.
Sometimes when the plane can park near to the terminal building you just walk across a special passenger boarding bridge. You don’t even go outside, just straight from the airport into the plane.
Just follow the herd here and you won’t go wrong. You’re not going to get lost or anything.
Keep your boarding card and your ID handy. You may need to show it when boarding the plane.
Cabin crew will welcome you as you board the plane.
If you are feeling especially nervous don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and let them know it’s your first time flying on a plane. Flight attendants are trained to deal with nervous passengers and they will appreciate you letting them know and will be able to reassure you.
Just don’t block the aisle when you are having the conversation, let people get to their seat.
On The Plane
Step 16 – Finding Your Seat
Make a point of checking where your seat actually is on the plane before you go to the airport. You can check airplane seating maps at SeatGuru. Is it on the left or the right side of the aisle? Are you at the front, back or middle of the plane? Be prepared before you walk down the aisle for the first time.
Often the aisles are too narrow to roll a carry-on bag down. You might need to carry your bag to make progress. This is another good reason to travel light. If you have a 4-wheeled spinner carry-on it’s best to turn your bag and wheel it sideways if possible.
The rows are numbered and the seats have a letter designation. So find your row first and then find your seat.
There is a chance you might find someone sitting in your seat. People make mistakes, or sometimes they are just being sneaky. Just check your boarding pass to be sure you have the right seat and then let them know they might be sitting in your seat.
If you have any problems just ask the flight attendant for assistance. You are entitled to sit in the seat that is written on your boarding pass. Don’t let anyone bully you!
Step 17 – Stowing Your Bag
If you have opted for a smaller bag like a duffel bag, a backpack or a large tote you’ll be able to put it under the seat in front of you.
We recommend under-seat luggage for first-time fliers if they are not taking a lot of luggage. It’s the most stress-free way to stow your bag. The space under the seat in front of you is always empty. You don’t need to compete with other passengers for that space.
Failing that you’ll need to lift your carry-on into the overhead bin. It’s best if you don’t need to go into your bag during the flight. So you should have kept anything you need like a tablet or a book in a smaller bag.
If you need help lifting your bag just ask someone. And remember… don’t drop your luggage on anyone’s head!
These moments are usually the most stressful part of the flight. It can feel a little claustrophobic. Everyone is trying to find their seat and stow their bag at the same time. But don’t worry this only lasts a few minutes and the actual flight won’t be scary at all.
Get settled in. Put your phone into flight mode. Enjoy the flight safety demonstration. Very soon you’ll take to the sky for the first time.
Step 18 – Take Off
In a plane, you don’t really get to see a lot during take-off. You will feel the acceleration push you back into your seat a little but it’s quite gentle.
It doesn’t feel like a rollercoaster or anything like that. Many people around you won’t even look up from their books or magazines. If you’ve ever been in a car and the driver has put the pedal to the floor it feels similar to that. But you can’t see the road ahead or worry about bends in the road or obstacles.
You will most likely have been on scarier taxi rides!
You will hear the noise of the wheels on the tarmac.
Look out the window once you start to climb. It’s strangely calm as you soar high into the sky. I’m sure if you were sitting out on the wing it would feel crazy, but inside the plane looking out your little window, it will feel smooth and safe.
After a few minutes, the acceleration will decrease and the plane will level out. You’ll feel the gentle force pushing you back into your seat go away.
Here is a little fact that I want you to remember at this point. There are more than 100,000 flights every single day. That’s more than 100,000 successful take-offs every single day. The odds of something bad happening are extremely remote. Enjoy this miracle of flight, you’re up in the air doing something that all your ancestors throughout the ages could only dream about doing.
The air pressure in the cabin changes during take-off and landing. This can lead to an imbalance between the pressure inside your ears and sinuses and outside in the cabin. It’s called airplane ear and can feel a bit uncomfortable.
This can usually be relieved by “popping your ears” you can read about this here if you want.
You can fix this by chewing gum or pinching your nose and blowing. You will release the pressure from your ears and start to feel normal again!
That’s you up in the air. The hardest part of your flight now will be fighting the boredom and the discomfort from sitting for a long time in an seat without changing position.
Time to get your Netflix on!
You will see a light above you with a seatbelt sign.
When the pilot has turned the seatbelt light off, this doesn’t mean that you should unbuckle your seatbelt.
It means that you can unbuckle your seatbelt if you need to stand up to stretch your legs or use the toilet.
Once you’ve returned from the toilet buckle your belt again, it could save your life. If the belt is uncomfortable, allow some slack rather than unbuckling.
Check this handy video for a walkthrough of an aircraft toilet.
And this is how the toilet flushes. Don’t be alarmed by the sound. And no it doesn’t just dump the poop into the sky. This vacuum sucks the waste into a holding tank that is emptied after the plane lands.
Okay, I will be honest with you. Landings are a little scarier than take-off. That’s mainly because of the bump that sometimes happens when you hit the ground.
Cabin crew will tell you to put your phones away and to close the table in front of you. The seatbelt sign will come back on but you will have had your belt on anyway.
Psychologically there is always the worry that when you touch the ground something will go wrong. What if the pilot approaches too fast? What if you can’t stop before the end of the runway?
That’s because you are not a pilot.
Yes, sometimes there is quite a bump when you hit the ground, but if you were a trained pilot or experience flier you’d know that this is perfectly normal.
The thing to understand is that a safe landing does not need to be a soft, gentle landing. A bit of a bump when you hit the ground is perfectly normal.
What this video by Mentour Pilot if you want reassurance. He says that about 30% of his landings are a “firm landing” and that it’s more common when the runway is shorter.
And now for the most infuriating part of the flight…
Seconds after the flight has landed, while the plane is still rolling along the runway other passengers will (against explicit instructions) turn on their phones and start calling people.
They’ll stand up and start trying to pull suitcases out the bins.
They’ll be ready to go a good 10 minutes before the doors are going to open. These are the same people who were desperate to get into the aircraft. Now they are desperate to get off!
These people are not going to get off the plane any quicker than you are. There is no reason for their behavior. It’s just that sometimes people are dumb! 🙂
Take some deep breaths! You just completed your first flight! You flew through the sky like a god or a superhero. Well done!
Just stay sitting in your seat while the plane drives to where it needs to park. This is a good time to have a window seat because you don’t need to worry about dumbasses trying to clamber past you.
You’ll feel a little funny when you put your feet back on the tarmac, back on solid ground. Because you’ll still be in a state of awe about what just happened.
Eventually, the plane will park where it needs to go and you’ll get to exit the plane. People will be rude they won’t let other people out their rows. They’ll push forward so they can get out faster.
Follow the herd, they’ll know where to go. You might need to go and collect checked bags at the baggage claim area. If you do watch for your case on the conveyor belt and lift it off when you see it. This is when that luggage tag will be handy.
You might need to go to passport control if you flew internationally.
But you can handle it all now… Your first flight…. You did it! I hope you never forget the magic of flying.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is it scary to fly in a plane? – Take off and landing provide a few moments where you might get jitters. But once a plane is up and moving you mostly don’t even notice that you are moving. Flying in a plane is less scary than riding on a bus or in a car.
- Can I use my phone on a plane? – You can use a phone but it must be in airplane mode during the flight.
- Can you bring water on a plane? – You can bring water on a plane but you can’t take water through airport security. This means you need to buy some water in the shop after you have cleared security. You can then bring this water onto the plane with you.
- Do planes have WIFI? – Some planes have wifi but it’s always best to download videos or other forms of entertainment before you take-off. I would not trust in-flight wifi to provide my entertainment.
- Can I bring snacks on a plane? – Liquids are tightly controlled. You can’t take liquids through the TSA security check point that are in bottles greater than 100ml. You can buy a bottle of water AFTER security and take that on to the plane.
- What’s the 311 rule? – The 311 rule is that you can bring liquids in bottles smaller than 3.4 oz, you can put these bottles in 1 clear quart-sized bag, and it is 1 bag per person.
- Can you watch Netflix on a plane? – Yes, but it is best to download the shows you want to watch before. Don’t rely on any airlines wifi.
- What documents do I need to fly? – Contact your airline’s customer service for the best information. You will need your boarding pass which you got at check-in. If you are flying internationally you will need your passport. Domestic flights in the US will still need ID.
- What does Turbulence feel like? – Pilots are not afraid of turbulence because it’s impossible for turbulence to cause a crash. You don’t need to be afraid of it either. Turbulence feels like when you are on a train, or in a car and you go over a bump. Usually, it’s just small bumps but it is possible in extreme turbulence to fly out your seat. Buckle up whenever you are seated.
- What can you not bring on an airplane? – You can’t bring knives or any weapons. You can’t bring things that you can make bombs with. You can’t bring large quantities of liquids or pastes.
- How do you sleep on a plane? – Often with great difficulty! Window seats are better because you can lean your head against the window. Try to find a good flight pillow and noise-canceling headphones.
Don’t Be Afraid Of The Unknown
Statistically flying is very safe. The experience itself is not hair-raising. It’s not a rollercoaster, it’s really quite boring.
I won’t go so far as to say there is nothing to be afraid of.
You do put your own safety in the hands of others. The engineers, the pilots, the cabin crew, the TSA security agents and all the other people involved in making 100,000 flights happen every day.
There is a risk something bad could happen.
But then there is a risk something bad could happen right now wherever you are reading this. There is always a risk whenever you travel somewhere.
If you want to travel somewhere far away and you want to get there fast it’s hard to beat air travel.
Everyone should take a flight at least once in their life!
We recommend that everyone takes at least one flight in their life. If only to tick it off your bucket list. Don’t let a fear of flying hold you back from living life!