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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

First Timer's Guide to Flying

Alisha McDarris

So you're about to embark upon your first adventure that doesn't require filling up the tank and loading the car with snacks. Bravo. You're doing it. And whether you're flying across the country or across the world, flying for business, pleasure, or missions, it may feel like there's a lot more to consider when choosing air travel as opposed to, say, a train or automobile. Probably because there is. But there's no need to stress about it. It might take a bit more planning and prepping, but with these tips for flying for the first time, you'll handle it like a champ, I'm sure.

Planning and booking your flight

I find planning and booking air travel to be the most stressful part of the journey. I'm always afraid I'll miss a good deal, forget about an important event, book on the wrong day, or some such other nonsense. So when you're ready to purchase those tickets, follow these tips to save money and sanity:

  • Check search engines and airline websites and check them in an incognito tab. I'm told multiple searches can cause prices to rise the more you search, so search for flights incognito to prevent that. As for flight search platforms, I forgo sites like Priceline and Kayak for Google flight search and Skyscanner. The list of airlines included is often more comprehensive and they allow flexible search options. When you figure out what airlines are the cheapest, go to their websites to book or see if they are having any sales or specials coming up. 
  • Search for one-way tickets in addition to round-trip. Especially if you try different airlines, sometimes you can get a better deal by flying there with one airline and back with another. It all depends on your destination and time of year.
  • Be flexible. The more flexible your travel dates, the better deal you'll most likely get. If you're traveling for business or spring break you'll be stuck with whatever is available, but if you can postpone your flight for as little as a few days you can often save big bucks. Also choosing not to fly during peak seasons and over holidays can save you some money.
  • Check then double check your schedule. And not just yours, but your family's and anyone else's who will be flying with you. Make sure you won't be traveling over any important dates or missing and events that you'll regret later. I once booked a flight and realized the next day we'd be gone during a good friend's wedding. Doh!
  • Purchase a cancellation option. If you're worried about having to change or cancel your flight, purching flight protection may offer peace of mind. Price can vary from airline to airline and some even offer it at no extra charge, so check your airline's policy.
  • Just click "purchase." Stop vacillating and just buy the tickets already. If you're not sure if you've found the best deal, hand it off to a travel agent. They don't charge to help book travel and sometimes they can find options you didn't think of.


Josh and I are master packers. The last time we traveled we only had a carry on each and neither of them were even full. You don't need as much as you think you do and packing less can save tons of money.
  • Only pack a carry on. Forgoing a large checked bags can save as much as $50 per bag on budget airlines when flying domestically. Usually international flights will let you have one free checked bag, as will more expensive airlines, but if you're trying to save, less is best. Some airlines, like Allegiant, won't even let you have a roll-aboard, only a "personal item" like a backpack or small duffle. Read the airline's baggage policies to find out then follow our packing tips to get the most out of your budget ticket.
  • Pack two bags in one. By which I mean stuff a structureless reusable shopping bag or ultralight pack (or even a hefty trash bag) inside your backpack or laptop case. That way, when you arrive at your destination you can remove your clothes and necessities, place them in your packable spare bag, and use the personal item when walking around town without having to leave your other effects strewn all over your hotel or hostel room.
  • Pack only what you need. Then remove half of it. Seriously, you don't need that much. You think you do, but you don't. Just trust us.
  • Pack multi-functional items. Especially if you'll have access to a washer and dryer, pack items that have multiple functions. Leggings for ladies work as pants or sleepwear. A tank top can be used for going out or working out. A button up can be worn on it's own or as an extra layer in cooler evenings.
  • Use the outside of your bag, too. thread your jacket through the handle of your backpack, stuff snacks in the pockets of that jacket, clip a water bottle to the zipper pull, wear your hat, carry a book or tablet in your hand. Just because you can only have one bag doesn't mean you can't make the most of it.

In the Airport

AIrports are large and confusing places, but usually well mapped out with decent signage. Only once have I gotten so utterly turned around in an airport that I had to ask for directions. And in my defense, Josh got lost in the exact same place in the exact same airport two days later. So yeah, that was an exception. But fear not the sprawling airports that are LAX, JFK or (said with a growling snarl), Charlotte.
  • Ask an employee. Josh and I both hate talking to strangers (Okay, people in general), but when in doubt, airport employees are super helpful and can always point you in the right direction. And if they don't know the answer right off the top of their head, they'll go to a computer and find out. Just make sure to smile and say thank you!
  • Flight boards. Everything you need to know about your flight is on those giant TV screens located in every hallway and gathering place. Find your flight on the board and it will tell you if it's on time, when it starts boarding, when it takes off, what gate it's in, and more. When it comes to locating that gate, signs are posted everywhere pointing travellers to their destination. 
  • Security. It's the worst part of flying. Most airports have those stupid naked scanners that it's been reported have done nothing to increase safety, grumpy TSA agents, and rules that change from airport to airport (do I have to take off my shoes or don't I? Watch in the basket or on my wrist? Take my laptop out or leave it in the case?). The one thing that's fairly universal is liquids. Nothing over 4 ounces can go in your carry on and any liquids under that size (like travel shampoo and such) go in a quart-sized clear plastic bag like a Ziploc or similar and you're usually asked to take it out of your carry on, so pack it near the top.
  • Get there early. But not toooo early. I don't think there's anything worse than showing up and having to sit in the terminal for two hours waiting to board, but that's just me. But you should plan to arrive at the airport at least an hour before boarding (not take off) for domestic flights and an hour and a half to two hours early for international flight to give yourself enough time for check in and security. Longer if you'll have to go through customs. You don't need as much time if you're not checking bags and have already printed off your boarding pass (or are using your phone), but don't push it. Most of the time you won't be allowed to check in less than 30 minutes before your flight's scheduled departure.

On the Plane

When flying budget airlines, especially domestically, expect there to be absolutely nothing to keep you entertained. Some airlines don't even offer free snacks or beverages anymore. So come prepared so you don't get cabin fever on a three hour flight to Miami.
  • Pack snacks. Preferably ones that don't make a mess or have a strong odor. We had to rush from flight to flight one time but were starving so we grabbed some Chinese real quick. We only managed three bites before we had to board and I'm pretty sure everyone on the plane hated us for making it smell like sweet and sour sauce. Stick with granola bars, fresh fruit, or trail mix. My personal fave is vegan jerky.
  • Have a book or movie on hand. I prefer paper books, personally, but load your phone or device with something to read (or listen to) and a few of your favorite movies or episodes. It'll help the time go faster if you're like me and can't sleep on planes. Don't forget your headphones!
  • Comfort is key. Neck pillows make look like an old lady accessory, but holy crap do the make a long flight more comfortable. A thin blanket or sweater also comes in handy on cold planes and if you do plan to sleep, an eye mask isn't a bad idea either, especially if you have a freaky peculiarity like sleeping with your eyes open, which I totally don't have...

Now you can take your first flight with confidence (and maybe only get turned around once or twice in the airport). Is there anything we didn't mention? If you have any questions, feel free to ask away in the comments below!

Alisha McDarris / Author & Editor

Alisha is a freelance writer and photographer based in Austin, TX. She loves her tiny house, vegan food and experiencing the community of travel in far away places. She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. [Portfolio]


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