First Time Flying? What to Expect Step By Step – 2021

April 30, 2019

Last Updated on September 23, 2021 by Candy Wafford

First time flying? Or maybe it’s been a while? From packing to security to boarding, there’s a lot to think about when flying and it can be overwhelming. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know when flying for the first time.

This is the first in my Travel 101 series of posts on the basics of travel. This series will primarily be geared to the new or infrequent traveler. However, as someone that travels a lot, I find there is always something new to learn so hopefully seasoned travelers will find something helpful here as well!

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First Time Flying on a Plane

I fly so frequently that I forget there’s a lot to remember before going on a flight.  Things that I just take for granted.  And I regularly encounter people flying for the first time and they often appear lost and overwhelmed.

So for all of you that may be heading out on your first flight (yay you!) or you just don’t fly that often here’s what to expect. I’ve detailed things you should do from the time you purchase your ticket until you board the plane. Following these steps will make airline travel easier and allow you to enjoy your trip more quickly!

After You Purchased Your Ticket

Domestic Travel (United States)

  • Ensure that you have an appropriate ID to present to the TSA.  A list of valid identification can be found on the TSA website.
  • If you are using your driver’s license for identification, make sure it is REAL ID compliant.  This new TSA requirement is going into effect on May 3, 2023, and details can be found here.

First Time Flying – International Travel

passport in a bag
  • Make sure you have a passport, that it is valid, and that it will be valid when you are traveling.  Some countries have requirements that a passport can’t expire a certain number of months before you travel to their country.
  • Check to see if the country you are traveling to has any VISA requirements.
  • Review any vaccine requirements the country (or countries) you’re visiting require.
  • Also review any health-related entry requirements (i.e. health check form, proof of a negative COVID-19 test, quarantine requirements, etc.)
  • Passport validity and visa requirements can be found on the State Department’s website.

Before Packing

  • Decide if you are going to check your bag or carry it on.  If you are checking a bag, make sure you pay any checked bag fees online before you go.  It’s generally less expensive to pay baggage fees online than paying at the airport.
  • Review your airline’s baggage policies.  In the US, the universally accepted carry-on luggage size is 22” x 14” x 9”.   
  • If your first time flying is on a smaller jet you may have to valet check your carry-on bag which involves placing a special tag on it that you will receive from the gate agent.  Then you simply leave your bag on the jet bridge.  Valet-checked bags are available for pick up on the jet bridge when you exit the plane.  There is no charge for this.
  • I have had to check my carry-on bag at the gate if the gate agent or a flight attendant doesn’t think it will fit in the overhead bin.   This has happened even when the bag I am using is the acceptable size.  It’s frustrating, but what can you do? This doesn’t happen often, but be aware that it can happen.
  • International airlines often have more restrictive size requirements.  Check the airlines’ website to review their carry-on size requirements and then measure and weigh your packed bag to make sure it meets them. 
  • Buying new luggage before your trip? TJ Maxx and Marshall’s are great places to get name-brand, quality luggage for less.
  • If you aren’t using packing cubes, I strongly encourage you to pick up a set.  You will be amazed at how much more you can fit in your suitcase.  Here are my favorites.
  • Make a packing list to use when packing to make sure you don’t leave anything behind.

First-Time Flying Tips When Packing

suitcase and packing list list preparing for a first time flight experience
  • Determine what you are going to wear to the airport and leave that out.  Comfort is key and consider leaving behind anything that might slow you down in security.  That includes items that may have to be taken off such as belts, shoes, and heavy coats.  I would also leave behind heavy jewelry and shoes with any extra bling as they can set off metal detectors. This is what I typically wear to travel.
  • If you are using a carry-on, make sure you have a TSA-compliant plastic bag for your liquids.  Liquids must be in containers 3.4 ounces (100ml) or less.  The bag can’t be larger than one quart and must be clear.  Each passenger is allowed one one-quart size bag.  This is the reusable plastic bag that I use.
  • There are exceptions for medications and baby formula.  More details on what liquids can and cannot be brought on board can be found on the TSA website.
  • Anything that you must-have during your trip (prescription glasses, medication, itinerary, identification, money, etc.) should be packed in your personal item. This is the only way you can be 100% certain these items will be with you throughout the flight and will arrive at your destination. Even if you are planning on carrying on your luggage, it is always better to have these items with you.
  • Place your liquids bag in your personal item or an exterior pocket on your carry-on bag.  This makes it much easier to pull out when going through security.
  • Weigh bags you are planning on checking to make sure they meet the airline’s weight requirements.  This will save time, frustration, and potentially money at the airport if your bag weighs too much.
  • It seems like every other person uses a black suitcase! Make sure yours stands out with some type of identification both to make it easier to find on the luggage carousel if you check it or in case it gets lost.
  • Pack your personal item.  Verify it meets the airline’s requirements for a personal item and will fit under the seat in front of you.  Don’t forget to include your identification, itinerary, electronics (and chargers), snacks, and anything else you need to have easy access to during your flight.

The Day Before Your Flight

  • Download the airline’s app on your phone.  You can use this in lieu of printing out boarding passes, to check on the status of checked bags, and to get gate information. 
  • You must check-in for your flight. Check-in is usually available 24 hours before your flight departs. Generally, the airline will send you an email letting you know when it is time to check-in and you can then complete the check-in process online or on the app you just downloaded. 
  • Print your boarding pass(es) if you are not using an app. You can print a boarding pass at the airport but be aware that some budget airlines charge for this service.
  • If flying internationally, you will need to provide your passport information to the airline.  You can do this on their website when checking in or when you arrive at the airport.  Providing this information beforehand will save time when boarding the plane.
  • Make sure that your passport, proof of vaccinations, and any other document you may need at the airport and/or hotel is easily accessible
  • Download any books, magazines or movies you plan to watch during the flight. Also, make sure your device(s) are fully charged.
  • If you are planning on using a device to watch something, listen to something, or do anything that makes noise, be sure to pack earphones.  I have a couple of pairs of these noise-canceling earphones.
  • Depending on the airline and/or if you have status with the airline you may be able to select or change your seats if you want.
  • Set alarm(s) if you have an early flight.  Sleeping the night before a trip can be tough and you don’t want to oversleep.  Here are some of my tips to help with sleep

Day of Your Flight

  • Make sure you have your ID/passport!  I was on a trip with my sister and she realized she didn’t have her driver’s license (or any other picture ID) when we arrived at the airport an hour and a half away from home.  She was able to get on the plane (and a cruise ship) without it but it created a lot of anxiety that could have been avoided.
  • Arrive at the airport on time.  Two hours is recommended for domestic flights in the US and three hours for international flights.   My local airport is small, and I generally arrive an hour before, but if I’m flying out of a larger airport, I aim for a couple of hours early to allow plenty of time to park, get through security and to the gate.  Also, keep in mind that holidays and special events mean longer lines so you should allow even more time.
  • Allow time to park your car and take any shuttles from the parking lot.  I generally allow an additional thirty minutes if I have to park in long-term parking.

At the Airport

flying for the first time what to expect - airport terminal
  • If you are parking a car, make sure you note where your car is.  I often take a picture of the row I’m parked in just in case I’m too tired to remember when I get back home.
  • If you are checking bags or need a boarding pass, go to the check-in counter for your airline.
  • Traveling only with a carry-on?  Head straight to security. 

At Security

Going through security is one of the most anxiety-inducing parts of flying for the first time? Following these detailed first time flying tips will help you sail right through security and make the process a little less stressful.

  • Enter the correct line.  If you have TSA Pre-Check your boarding pass will have TSA Pre printed on it and you can go through that line.  If your boarding pass does not say TSA Pre you will need to enter the main security line. 
  • Regardless of which line you are in, have your ID and boarding pass ready to keep things moving along.
  • Throw out any bottles of water or other liquids not in your one-quart bag.  Having a water bottle or other liquid in one of your bags will result in your bag being pulled and manually searched and may subject you to extra screening.
  • Hand your ID and boarding pass to the TSA agent.  If you are using the boarding pass on your app make sure the app is open and place your phone on the scanner.  Make sure the brightness setting is pretty high so that the scanner can read your boarding pass.

Airport Security – Regular Security Line

  • Empty your pockets and place the contents in a plastic bowl available in the line.
  • Take off your belt, coat, and shoes. Shoes do not have to be removed for passengers under 12 or over 75.
  • You can place your shoes directly on the belt.
  • Your coat and/or belt can be placed in a plastic bin.
  • Place your laptop in a plastic bin.  Nothing else in this bin!
  • Place any other personal electronic devices larger than a cell phone in a bin.  Nothing else in this bin!
  • Remove your one-quart bag with liquids and place them in a plastic bin.
  • Place your bags on the belt.  Don’t leave them until they have entered the scanner, or a TSA agent has instructed you to move forward.
  • Smile and be nice to the agents and other passengers.  Traveling can be stressful, and a little kindness goes a long way.
  • Go to the full-body scanner or metal detector as directed by a TSA agent. If you aren’t able to go through a metal detector or prefer not to, you can request a pat-down instead.
  • Gather your bags.  Move from the conveyer belt as quickly as possible.  There are usually benches just past security where you can put your shoes back on, etc. 

Airport Security – TSA Pre-Check Security Line

TSA Pre check graphic - flying for the first time step by step
  • If you are wearing a heavy coat, remove it and place it in a bin.
  • Leave your shoes on.
  • Leave everything in your bag (one-quart bag, laptop, etc.).
  • Place your bags on the belt.  Don’t leave them until they have entered the scanner, or a TSA agent has instructed you to move forward.
  • Smile and be nice to the agents and other passengers.  Traveling can be stressful and a little kindness goes a long way.
  • Walk through the metal detector. 
  • Gather your bags and move from the belts as quickly as possible.  There are usually benches just past security where you can put your shoes back on, etc. 
  • Some smaller airports do not have a TSA Pre line or it isn’t always open. At those locations, you will be given a card by a TSA agent with instructions on how you should proceed through the line.

After Security

first time flying - check the monitors to get the latest information about your flight
  • Verify your flight’s gate on the monitors displayed just past the security area. 
  • If time is tight or I’m at an especially large airport, I head straight to the gate. 
  • I always use the restroom, fill my water bottle and pick up any food or snacks I may want to take on the flight either on the way to the gate or at the gate.
  • If this is your first time flying you may think you have until departure time to get to the gate. But you don’t! You have to be at the gate no later than 15 minutes before your flight is scheduled to depart! Arriving at the gate at least 30 minutes before your flight is scheduled to depart is recommended.

At the Gate

first time flying anxiety - man waiting for his flight at the airport
  • Review your boarding pass to see which boarding group you are in. 
  • Take a seat and wait for your boarding group to be called.
  • Proceed to the gate when your boarding group is called and hand the gate agent your boarding pass or scan the pass from your app.
  • Be nice to the gate agent!  They have difficult jobs requiring them to deal with a lot of difficult people.  Don’t be one of them!
  • If you have to valet check your bag, take the tag the agent will give you and place it on your suitcase handle.  Keep the claim check portion of the tag.  Leave your bag in the designated area on the jet bridge.

On the Plane

first time flying - man looking in his bag sitting on an airplane as the sun comes through the window
  • Proceed to your seat.  The aisle and seat numbers are located just above the seats.
  • Remove any items you may need during the flight (tablet, headphones, etc.) from your carry-on bag so they are easily accessible.
  • Place your carry-on bag in the overhead bin.  Make sure it fits and that the bin will close.  A bag that doesn’t fit or isn’t placed in the bin properly will slow down the boarding process.
  • Move into your aisle as quickly as possible. 
  • Place your personal item under the seat in front of you.
  • Put on your seat belt.
  • Place your phone on airplane mode when the boarding door is closed. 
  • Be nice to your fellow passengers and the flight attendants!
  • Enjoy the flight!  You’re on your way!

Hopefully, this information will help you whether it’s your first time flying or your 500th!

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More about Candy Wafford

Candy Wafford is a US-based travel blogger and while she travels frequently for her job, she is happiest when traveling for pleasure. Preferably strolling along a cobblestoned street with an ice cream cone in her hand.

    1. Not a first time flyer but these are so helpful regardless of how many times you’ve flown! I just got my most recent suitcase @ tjmaxx too!

      1. There’s so much to remember, right? I’ve decided if I could only shop at one store it would have to be TJ Maxx. You can get just about everything there!

      1. Hi Della! I hope you get the chance to fly somewhere amazing soon! Thanks for the pin!

    1. I think something that you kind of forgot to mention is how to travel without a smartphone regarding the check-in process. This was quite difficult for my parents-in-law after not flying for years as if you don’t check-in online, you often get the worst seats. :/

      1. Thanks for the suggestion Karen! I know a lot of people aren’t comfortable with using apps and like to have a boarding pass in hand. I did mention that you can check in online and if not using an app you will need to print your boarding pass. I may update the post to separate those items into separate bullets. Thanks again!

    1. This is a really helpful article! While I fly pretty frequently now, this is information I would have loved to have the first time I flew! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Definitely sharing with some of my friends who are concerned about flying! This is definitely a helpful tool for those who haven’t flown in a while or ever! Great article

      1. Thank you! My hope was that having information would make the process easier.

    1. Congratulations on the most useful post I have read in a while! So many people go through this process every day, and there really are so few well-written guides to help them! Great job!

      1. Thank you so much! I’m surrounded by non-travelers that are always asking me questions so I decided to write down the answers!

    1. This is a very comprehensive list and is fantastic for first time flyers or those who don’t fly often. You follow the except same steps that I do. I find the most nerve-wracking part is getting to sleep the night before. I’m always afraid my alarm won’t go off lol. (I wish we had a TJ Maxx here in Canada. I love store and buy all of my luggage there)

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