A Beginner’s Guide to Air Travel

A Beginner’s Guide to Air Travel

When I began writing this post, I was sitting in an airport doing some people watching. Hundreds of people walked by as I waited to board my plane, each one with a different level of experience in air travel. I saw many seasoned pros who appeared to know the ins and outs of air travel like the back of their hand. But, then there were the novice travelers who were unsure about what their next step should be. Which got me thinking, The Drive to Explore needs a Beginner’s Guide to Air Travel!

Believe it or not, I am the kind of person that is tentative when it comes to new experiences. I tend to worry about the unknown, but I don’t let it stop me. Instead, I get my hands on as much information as I can. Knowing those details helps me feel comfortable with the situation. If anyone out there can relate, this post is for you! I have listed as much information on the process of air travel as I reasonably could, in hopes it will help someone have a successful and enjoyable experience as you fly to a new destination.

Purchase the Flight

I’ve already written about the best ways to search out inexpensive flights, but here are a few other tips to keep in mind. When you look for flights, there are certain times of the day that are more or less busy at the airport. If you want to avoid lines, book a flight during the middle of the week, during the workday hours. Before and after traditional work day hours, as well as the days on and around weekends tend to be busy, because it helps to not miss work. Don’t sweat it if you aren’t able to find a decent priced flights during a less busy time. Just prepare to have your airport experience be more congested and slower moving.

Most airlines allow children under two to fly free, as a lap child.  You must alert the airline of this when you are purchasing tickets, and their name must be on your ticket noting they are a lap child. This means that the child does not get their own seat, and will need to be on your lap through the entire flight. At the airport, you will be required to present a birth certificate or passport for this child to prove their age.

Check In to the Flight

Most airlines expect you to check in to your flight online 24 hours before your it is scheduled to take off. When you book your flight, set a check in reminder on your phone or whatever calendar you use. It’s not the end of the world if you forget, but if you are flying on an airline like Southwest, your boarding time (and thus where you end up sitting) will be based on when you check in.

Pack your Bags

I plan on doing a full post on the best practices of packing, so stay tuned. In the meantime, here are my main pointers. In air travel, there are categories of baggage:

  • Personal item, which is a purse, backpack, or other small bag. The dimensions vary by airline but tends to be anything less than 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches.
  • Carry on bags are the size of a small suitcase or duffel bag. They are usually around or under 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches. Always pack essentials (underwear, toiletries, a change of clothes) in this bag in case your checked bag gets lost.
  • Checked bags are anything over the dimensions of a carry on bag and under 62 linear inches (the sum of the bag’s length, width, and height). In addition, these bags typically need to weigh less than 50 lbs.
  • Oversize items can include car seats, strollers, sporting equipment, or anything that is an unusual size from the standard checked bag. While some items, like car seats and strollers, are free to check, most other oversize items are subject to an additional fee. Take note, you will most likely have to go to a specific oversize item location to pick up these items.
  • Diaper bags may be allowed as a free item if you are traveling with a lap child under the age of two. Make sure to check on size requirements from your airline’s website before you go.

Before you Pack

Before you even start to pack, check your airline’s website for specifics of what baggage is included with your flight ticket. There are few ways worse to start off a trip than getting a hefty baggage fee surprising you at the airport. Some airlines, like Frontier, will only allow you to bring a personal item, and charge for each additional bag. Other airlines, such as Delta, will include a personal item and a carry on with the purchase of your flight ticket, and charge for checked bags. And then there are airlines, like Southwest, who will let you bring a personal item, carry on, and two checked bag(s).

Explorer Tip: All airlines have pros and cons. Do not discount the airline based on the baggage they allow or don’t allow you to bring. Look at the full picture and compare and contrast all of the criteria; ticket price, layovers, baggage fees, etc. before purchasing.

Strategic Toiletry Packing

When deciding what toiletries to pack, be aware that there is a limit to the size and amount of any liquid, gel, or aerosol that can be brought onto the plane. Passengers may only carry on liquids, gels, or aerosols that are smaller than 3.4 oz. Even then, you are not allowed an unlimited amount of small toiletries. All of the small containers you intend to bring must fit inside one quart sized plastic bag. All toiletries in the liquidy category over 3.4 oz should be placed in your checked baggage.

Explorer Tip: If you are worried about the weight of your bag, I suggest investing in a bag scale. This small device will help determine the weight of your bag before getting to the airport. No bag scale? Have a backup plan of what you could rearrange to make bag lighter.

Prepare in Advance

My final tip about packing… Have everything ready the night before or at least three hours before you are scheduled to leave. I know this sounds a little ridiculous, but having everything ready will save you a lot of stress instead of furiously trying to meet your immovable deadline.

Drive to the Airport

Give yourself ample time to get to the airport. I prefer to pad our driving time by 15 minutes (more if you live 2+ hours from the airport), just in case of an accident, unexpected hold ups, or the awful chance that your car has problems (it’s happened). During the week before, it may be helpful to check on the traffic during the time period that you expect to be traveling to the airport. Sometimes a drive that usually takes 45 minutes can turn into a two hour drive (again, I write from personal experience). If this does happen, just breathe deeply, assess the situation, and call your airline if you think you will miss your flight. They will be able to help you with what to do.

Parking vs. Drop Off

Most airports charge hefty fees to park your car in the parking lot connected to the airport. It’s a classic debate of cost versus convenience. If you will only be gone a one to three days, those parking fees may not make much of a difference. But if you are gone longer than that, it can substantially add to the cost of your trip. We have found that nearby parking lots that can shuttle you to the airport are much less expensive. Bonus, they often have frequent customer rewards for free nights or discounts after a you have parked there a number of times. This is helpful if you plan on traveling a lot. Another option is to kindly ask a friend to drop you off at the airport. Use some of the money you saved on parking to pay for their time and gas.

Airline Check in Desk

Most airlines require that you arrive at the airport well in advance to your flight’s departure. The amount of time depends on the busyness of the airport, and where you intend to go. If you are flying international, you will need to arrive approximately three hours before your flight’s departure time. If you are flying domestic, around two hours will suffice. Because of the time it takes to get your checked luggage from the desk to the plane, the latest you can check in is 30 minutes before departure (which is also the time your flight starts boarding, so you will have to run to get there on time). Plan accordingly.

Upon arrival at the airport, you have two options for your course of action and it depends on your situation.

  • Go to the airline check in desk first if the following criteria apply to you: you have a checked bag or oversize item, do not have a printed or digital boarding pass, or haven’t checked into your flight online.
  • Go straight to the security check if the following criteria apply to you: you only have a personal item or carry on bag, you have already checked in to your flight online, and have a printed or digital boarding pass.

If you need to go to the check in desk first, find the check in desk for your specific airline. For example, if your flight is through Delta, go to the Delta Airlines desk, At the check in desk, you will need to present an ID (drivers license, passport, or birth certificate) for people in your party ages 18+. For international flights, ALL travelers must present a passport.  You will then be able to hand over your bags to be stowed on the plane and receive your tickets.

Explorer Tip: You can check strollers at the check in location or gate check during the boarding process. We have found that it is easier to push Rosalie in the stroller when we are walking to our gate because it keeps us moving efficiently, is easier to manage with checked bags, and keeps her from running off.

Security Screening

Everyone has to pass through security to get to the place where you board the plane. There will be signs directing you to where you need to go, and most people coming from the check in desk will head to this location. Please note, this is the area that tends to take the most time to get through. However, if you prepare accordingly, it will run smoothly.

You will first be asked to present your ID and flight ticket(s), so a security officer can confirm you are the right person for the ticket. You will then enter the area where you will need to prepare belongings for the check. Most airports require that you do the following:

  • Remove your quart bag of liquids, gels, and/or aerosols and place it in the provided bin. Beverages of any kind will need to be drunk or thrown away. Empty bottles are allowed.
  • Take off your shoes, jackets, belts, scarves, and pull out anything in your pockets and also place them in the provided bin.
  • Take any personal electronic device larger than a phone out of your bags and place them in individual bins. This could include a laptop, tablet, or e-reader.
  • Place the bins, your bags, and folded down stroller on the conveyor belt that goes through the x-ray machine.

Once all of your belongings are headed through to be scanned, you will need to walk through a scanning machine. Young children will need to be carried through the machine and you may be required to have a simple hand swipe test. This is nothing to be worried about, it’s just protocol to keep everyone safe.

Explorer Tip: If you are planning to do a lot of traveling, it could be worth your time to invest in TSA Pre-Check. This is a service that allows you to have an expedited security check for a yearly fee. It requires an application and background check, but can save lots of time at the airport. Check out the details here.

Security Slow Downs

If you or your belongings set off an alert, you will be asked to undergo additional security checks. If you have something on your person set off an alert, you may be scanned with a metal detector wand or a pat down screening. Most of the time it will be something simple like a large button, zipper or jewelry. I’ve even had the bobby pins in my hair set off an alert.

As for bags, we have found that there are certain things that tend to raise concern. Bags filled with electronics, camera equipment, or unusual shaped objects may need to be searched. For example, an innocent Christmas ornament that looks like a throwing star may keep you at the security station for a while (true story). The security machine also shows “organic matter”. Which can range from a box of Teddy Grahams to wooden shoe horns.

Just remember that the security officers are double checking you for the safety of all. Show security officers respect and be cooperative and you will be out in no time. I also mention these things to remind you to be choosy with what you bring. If you know you have to bring anything that could appear less than innocent, plan your time for a slow down.

Children and Security Checks

TSA will allow you to bring pumped breast milk over the 3.4 oz limit. Before going through security, make sure to tell the officers that the breast milk is in your bag. I’ve had different experiences in all of the airports that I’ve gone through, but most airports will have you take out the bottle and run a scan test on it. The milk is not affected in any way. They may also test your hands by a quick and simple swipe test and do a quick exam of the bag it is in. Breastmilk pumps are considered a medical device and can also be brought through security.

TSA will also allow baby food and water for formula above the 3.4 oz limit. As with breast milk, make sure to let security officers know what it is before going through security so they don’t think you are trying to sneak things through.

Find your Gate and Boarding

Once you have successfully made it through security, find a departure sign. These signs will let you know the gate where you will board your plane. From there, use the plethora of signs to lead you where you need to go. On the way, refill water and use the restroom/change diapers to prepare for your flight. Once at gate, make sure the flight number displayed on the information board matches your ticket. It also helps to listen to announcements as gates can change or flights could be delayed.

Airlines tend to start the boarding process about 30 minutes before the scheduled departure. Your ticket will tell you the zone or boarding number that you have been assigned. An announcement will be made when it’s your time to board. Family boarding is offered on many airlines, which allows anyone with young children to board before most passengers. This helps for little ones to get settled before the plane gets crowded.

Depending on the size of the airplane, a carry on size bag may be too big for the overhead bins. If it ends up not fitting, most airlines alert you of that just before boarding. They will then take the bag to the drop zone area of the plane (aka check the bag), without a charge. Take out any medications, or other necessary/breakable items before handing over your bag and place them in your personal item. That drop zone is also where strollers should be left.

Enjoy your Flight

By this point, you have successfully made it through the airport and enjoy your time in the air. On every flight, attendants will tell you what to do and give instructions on safety precautions. If you ever have concerns, alert an attendant for assistance using the call button near your seat.

Connecting Flight

Upon arrival, deboarding will begin after a flight attendant’s announcement. If you are catching another flight, once again, look for the departure signs. These will tell you the most update gate for your next flight. If you arrive too late and miss your connecting flight, don’t worry! Go to the gate your flight left from and ask for assistance to get to your destination.

Collecting Baggage

Upon arrival in your final destination, you will need to pick up any checked bags. Follow the signs to Baggage Claim where you will collect your bag(s) off of the baggage carousel. In many cases, oversize bags will be in a separate area near the carousels. To know what carousel to pick up luggage many airlines will announce it before you get off the plane. There may also be signs with your flight number listed on screens near the carousels.

From here, you are off on an adventure!

Final Thoughts…

Air travel can get you worked up easily. You’re having to deal with people who are from many different places. There is tightened security. You may be travelling during odd hours or over a long amount of time, which will leave you tired. All that said, the biggest tip I have is to be kind, courteous, and patient. A smile and a hello has never failed me in making traveling a better experience for myself and those around me.

Best of luck with your travels! I hope that knowing what to expect will make your exploring easier. Comment below with further questions about air travel. Let us know if there is another subject on which you would like to see a detailed list. We are always looking for ways to make your travel experience more enjoyable and frequent.

*As a disclaimer, things change from time to time. I will keep this post updated to the best of my ability, but for the most updated information visit the TSA website.