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Beginners Guide to Plane Travel

Plane travel can be efficient, fun and exhilarating. It can also be frustrating, exhausting and time-consuming — but it’s still my favorite way to get around. I love flying; I get giddy when I walk down a jet bridge. Every time. Knowing what you need to do from the moment you leave your house to when you get on the plane can at least up your odds of a smooth trip. Control the things you can control. 

It wasn’t until I joined an advertising agency at the age of 46 that I started traveling via airline consistently. This is where I got most of my experience with flying. Through those flights, I learned these tips for plane travel.

Even if you have flown quite a bit, the tips below are designed to help you navigate airports and plane travel like a pro.

“It’s not all about you” is a good rule of thumb for life in general, but with plane travel it’s very important. Traveling requires cooperation from all to ensure a good experience for all. You can do your part. 

Please remember that experiences and rules vary from airport to airport and country to country. Therefore, please augment your knowledge with information specific to your location and destination.

Let’s dig into the beginner’s guide for plane travel.

Choosing your airport

I fly out of my home airport for 90 percent of my flights. It’s seven minutes from my house. I do not live in a big city. I highly recommend you use Google Flights to find flight prices and check your local airport and larger cities near you. If you can be flexible with your travel dates, you can often get a great deal close to home. Julianne covers this extensively in How to Use Google Flights and Save Money

I can drive to Indianapolis (two hours) or Chicago (three-and-a-half hours), and sometimes I do, but with the cost of gas and parking, I can often beat that price flying locally. Nothing beats coming back after a long travel day and being able to crawl into my bed 15 minutes after my flight lands. 

Check the prices at every airport near you, then figure in fuel and parking costs and see what makes the most sense. Even with park and fly, especially for those traveling solo, spending a little more to fly out of your local airport often makes the most sense.

Other considerations:

Have a friend drop you at the airport so you don’t have to pay for parking.

Being dropped at the door saves time. Driving, parking and taking a shuttle to departures all add time to your schedule.

Large airports can be complex places to navigate by car. I hate starting my trip stressed out. 

If you live in a big city, consider what combination of transportation might get you to the airport most cheaply, quickly and comfortably.

Julianne:

  • When I’m traveling with my daughter, it’s about the same price and more efficient to make the 35- to 65-minute drive to the airport (depending on time of day and traffic) and park in a long-term lot. At Denver International Airport, daily parking is just $8 a day, and shuttles to the airport are free and frequent.
  • When I’m traveling alone, I’ll get a ride (from a friend or a Lyft) to Union Station downtown, fifteen minutes away, and take the 40-minute train from there to the airport. The train departs every half hour, and it’s about $10.50 each way for a train ticket. It saves someone the round-trip drive on the terrifyingly busy interstate outside of Denver. 

Packing appropriately for plane travel.

I am team carry-on. Julianne is team checked bags. If you want the details on why I am team carry-on, you can read more about that in Carry-on Only Packing List — An Easy Guide. I cover everything from why to the logistics, including managing my liquids.

Things to consider.

Carry-on saves me time. I take one carry-on bag and one “personal” item. 

I arrive at the airport with enough time to get through security and get to my gate. If you are checking a bag, there are minimum check-in times for your bag. I’ll cover this more below.

man checking bag
This poor chap was scrambling and pulling items out of one bag and putting them in another. He was stressed and also slowing down the line. You can just pack appropriately at home and save yourself the stress.

Carry-on forces me to be thoughtful about how much and what I pack. The rules for carry-on luggage are different than checked bags, most notably the liquids rules. This handy site by TSA lays out all the rules, and you can search by item. 

Carry-on means there is almost no chance of a bag going missing. I have all of my items on the plane with me. So even if I have to gate-check a bag, I know it will be on my plane. I make sure my personal item contains any items I might need on my flight so I don’t have to worry if my bag is gate-checked, and I don’t have to access the overhead compartment during my flight. 

Gate check definition: When flying on a small plane, sometimes even small suitcases or bags will not fit in the overhead compartment. You will gate-check your bag, meaning it will fly in the belly of the plane. If you have a connecting flight, your bag will be brought to the jet bridge, where you will carry it to your next flight. It will not travel with the other checked luggage, so make sure you grab it!

When I fly carry-on, I don’t have to wait in baggage claim. I grab my bag and go! 

The nice thing about checked bags is they have more space and fewer rules! But there are still rules. 

When checking a bag, make sure you know when the cut-off is to have your bag checked. It’s typically at least an hour prior to departure if not longer.

Many airports have kiosks where you can walk up, scan your boarding pass, get your luggage tag and drop your bag on a conveyor belt. But there are many where you must check in at the airline counter, and the lines can be long. In a large airport, it’s a good rule of thumb to allow one to two hours before your flight to check your bag and go through security, especially if you don’t have Clear or TSA PreCheck. 

Another perk of checking a bag is not having to carry all of your luggage with you throughout every airport. This is especially nice when you’re traveling solo and need to use the restroom (or if you have back issues). Be sure to pack essentials in your carry-on, as well as a change of clothes, in case your luggage is lost. And check your credit card coverages: The Chase Sapphire card, for example, will reimburse you for essentials you need to buy until your luggage is found.

When checking a bag you might have to pay extra; however, if you have a credit card with your airline, you will often get your first checked bag for free.

Whatever way you go, carry-on or checked, remember there are size and weight restrictions, which vary by airline. Make sure you understand the rules and regulations so that you aren’t scrambling around at the airport at the last minute trying to get compliant. These are often included with your ticket when you book your flight.

Using technology

Technology has made so many things easier and is a key part of easy plane travel. Download the apps for the airlines you will be flying. On many airlines, you can check in for your flight up to 24 hours before your flight takes off. You can get your digital boarding pass and save it to your phone. I save it both in my Apple Wallet and as a screen grab in my photos just in case I have poor service at the airport. 

Make sure you are signed up for all loyalty programs; flight points add up! Another benefit to having an account with your airline is you can register for text updates, which have saved me so many times. I often will get flight delay information before the gate agents. Occasionally, my gate will move after I initially check-in and I’ll get a text informing me. 

Hot tip: When I am taking a trip, I put all of the apps I have downloaded for that trip in their own folder. Even if it’s an app I use for most trips, like my hotel or airline apps, I’ll move them to that trip folder so it’s all in one place,

At the very least, keep all of your travel apps in a single folder on your phone for easy reference. I download the following apps:

  • Airline — for each airline I will be traveling
  • Hotels
  • Public transportation
  • Visitor apps like tourism bureaus, city pass apps, museums
  • Ride-share apps like Lyft, Uber, Bolt

Consider subscribing to a VPN. I use NORD VPN and have for years. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most effective and easiest to use. Should you have one? Check out this piece on when and where you might need a VPN. This can keep your information safe when you are sitting in an airport using the free wifi during a layover or using the charging stations to top off your phone.

Understand security

Security at every airport is different. For example, here in the U.S. you will need to go through TSA — the Transportation Security Administration. The rules for TSA are “universal” but can be interpreted differently by different agents. 

I have TSA PreCheck. The current cost is $78 per flier and is good for five years. With PreCheck, you do not need to remove your shoes, belt, light jackets, liquids or laptop. I have had PreCheck since 2016, and it is worth every penny. The TSA PreCheck website says the average flier waits less than five minutes in security. On a recent work trip, I sailed through security at the Phoenix airport in two minutes. My colleague waited more than 45 minutes. 

If you have TSA PreCheck or Global Entry (which offers the same benefits, plus the ability to speed through customs in the States), be sure to enter your Known Traveler Number or your Global Entry number into your airline account so that when your boarding pass is issued, it has the TSA PreCheck info attached. After you check in online (up to 24 hours before your flight), make sure that your boarding pass shows the letters TSA and a green checkmark; if it does not, call the airline. Security will not allow you to go through those lines…even if you show them your  TSA PreCheck card. It has to be on your boarding pass. I’ve seen this debated on travel forums, but that has been my personal experience.

When you arrive at the airport, be sure to look for the designated lanes for PreCheck. They might be in a different part of the airport or at a different security checkpoint — there are three security checkpoints in Denver International Airport, and only one allows this access.

There are quite a few rules about what you can and can’t carry through security, and I suggest you check out the TSA website. Most notably, you cannot take liquids in quantities over 3 oz. onto the plane with you. I can’t count the number of people I’ve seen leaving the security line to get rid of water bottles, sodas, shampoo, etc. Also, checked bags and carry-on bags have different rules. Understand these before you get to the airport.

Plane travel can be quick when the security lines are short!
Move away from the security area to put coats, belts and shoes back on. There are usually tables set up to repack items you had to remove.

My biggest tip for going through security is understanding the process before you get in line. Just pay attention. Every airport is different. The protocol at one airport will be different than the next. And don’t worry; security is there to scream the instructions at you.

A few specific tips:

  • Stay calm and be cooperative. 
  • If you do not have PreCheck you will need to remove your shoes, belt, coat or jacket. Laptops and other electronics often need to come out of your bag. Sometimes this includes camera equipment or large batteries, depending on the airport.
  • Remove any watches or jewelry that might set off the scanner. Remove keys or change from your pockets.
  • Push your bags all the way onto the bag scanner conveyer belt; don’t leave them stuck outside and walk away.
  • Be patient with the people in front of you; don’t try to push around them. 
  • Wait until TSA waves you through the X-ray machine; don’t just walk right in. 
  • At the other end of the bag scanner, stand back and leave room for the people in front of you to gather their things.
  • When you get your things, grab the tray that you put them in and return it to the stack. Then, step away with your stuff before you put yourself back together. Don’t try to put on your shoes or belt or reorganize your things at the end of the security belt. Many airports will have benches and/or tables just for this purpose a few feet away.

I have found security at European airports to be a much calmer and gentler experience, generally with better signage, but it is what it is. Once you get through security, it all gets easier from there. 

TSA PreCheck vs. Clear and What is Global Entry?

This breakdown by Nerd Wallet really helps you understand the differences

As previously mentioned, I have had TSA PreCheck for seven years. I love it. It is easy to apply for, lasts for five years, and many major credit cards will cover the cost. Make sure you add your known traveler number to your airline account to get the green checkmark — which signifies TSA PreCheck — on your boarding pass. When you get your boarding pass, make sure it is there! If it fails to appear, call the airline and make sure it gets added.

Clear is a secure identity platform that has locations in airports and venues around the U.S. It’s a very interesting company, and female co-owned if you want to read more about it. 

Clear uses scan technology to read your fingerprint and retina at scanning stations, confirming your identity. I had Clear when I was traveling in and out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport every month, and it was a huge time saver. There are around 59 locations in the U.S. My local airport does not have Clear, and it takes about five minutes to fly through but Clear is very handy when I am flying out of larger domestic airlines. The fee is $189 per year and is covered by three of my travel credit cards.

I recently acquired Global Entry, which is very handy when traveling internationally. When you arrive back in the U.S., you must go through customs and immigration. With Global Entry, you are able to scan your Global Entry card at a kiosk that gives you a receipt. Then, you take that receipt through the Global Entry lane and breeze right through. It saves a lot of time but only when re-entering the United States. On a recent trip from Portugal to the US, I sailed through Global Entry in about 10 minutes, my daughter waited in line at O’Hare customs for over two hours – we almost missed our connecting flight.

Choosing your airline

The cheapest option doesn’t always mean it’s the best value. Make sure you read the fine print and understand what you will give up to take that flight. Some airlines charge for a carry-on or a reserved seat.

This is where Google Flights comes in handy again. How much are you saving with that discount fare? Some airlines and certain routes are more reliable. Additionally, some airlines are just more comfortable. 

At a minimum, make sure you sign up for every single airline rewards program. I have credit cards for each major U.S. carrier, which often give me additional perks, like free checked bags. 

Dressing appropriately

Airplanes are cold. Airplanes are hot. Often within minutes of each other. I can not stress enough how important layers are — especially easy-to-remove layers. I nearly clocked a seatmate once trying to wrestle a sweatshirt over my head. If I have a long flight, you can count on me wearing the following layers: cami with shelf bra, lightweight zip-up sweatshirt, and midweight jacket. I might switch it up with a light sweater (one that is easy to remove), or a heavier coat depending on my final destination. I can go from freezing to sweating several times a flight, and not just because I am 50-plus! I also travel with a large but lightweight scarf. It’s great to use as a blanket when I’m cold, and behind my back as lumbar support.

I highly encourage comfortable shoes, preferably easy to slip on and off. Even if you have TSA PreCheck, sometimes you’ll need to take them off in security. On a long flight, it’s nice to discreetly slip them off under the seat in front of you. See our blog on how to survive long flights comfortably for other tips. You’re feet may also swell on a long flight so make sure your shoes are roomy and compression socks should be worn for any longer flight.

Note: If you have smelly feet, try using LUME Deodorant on them before you fly or leave your shoes on. Also, don’t ever put your feet on the seat in front of you. I kid you not, I have had people slip their feet onto my armrest, putting their feet next to my face. And always put your shoes on before you get up to use the restroom. That’s not water on the floor in there. 

I know high heels are cute and fun, but when you sprint from terminal to terminal trying to catch a flight with a quick layover, you will regret those platform heels in about .02 seconds.

Food and drink

I carry a Mira water bottle everywhere. My friends call it my emotional support water bottle. As I type this it is sitting next to my laptop. I empty it before I go through security, and the first thing I do is look for a water refill station in the airport. I will often stop by a restaurant in the airport to fill it with ice first. I’m addicted to ice water. (Side note: Ice isn’t safe to add to your drink in all countries). Staying hydrated is important to me, and flying will make you dehydrated. 

I also travel with snacks. I carry protein bars and trail mix and sometimes throw an apple or two in my bag. Snacks in airports are so expensive, and depending on your flight, meals or snacks are hit or miss. I do not want to arrive in a new city or country thirsty and starving. That is a terrible way to start a trip. I fell asleep on a flight to Paris before dinner service and woke up after. I was so glad I had snacks so I could eat at least a little bit on my overnight flight.

Managing noise and light

Airplanes are noisy, with people, children and the sound of the plane. If you are sensitive to noise, download some white, green or brown noise and bring sound-canceling headphones or a good pair of earplugs. 

I like my Kindle Paperwhite, so I can read on flights at night without having my light on. Julianne uses the Kindle app on her iPhone with the dark setting. I also like to sleep on flights, so a sleep mask can be handy, or I use the scarf I travel with. It makes a good blanket if I get cold, and I can also wrap it around my head to block out light, dampen noise, and hide from a chatty seatmate.

Boarding and deplaning

Boarding and deplaning are my two least favorite things. However, here are some things to know.

Boarding: The later your boarding group (ie: higher the boarding group number), the less likely it is that you will have access to overhead bin space. If the desk agents ask people to check bags because it is a full flight, and you are in a late boarding group, you might check your bag. Make sure it is checked to your destination. If they are gate-checking bags make sure you have enough time to wait for your bag and get to your next flight if you have a tight connection. This is another excellent reason to join airline loyalty programs or use their credit cards; you’ll get to board sooner.

Don’t cluster around the gate before it’s your turn to board. It makes it hard for people who are allowed to board to get up to the front of the line, or to even know who’s in line and who’s just standing in the way. Be aware too, of the concourse behind you, allowing room for other travelers to pass through to their gates. 

Greet the flight staff with a smile and a hello. Some people bring gifts; I do not. But I make eye contact, smile and say hello, and I’ll tell you what, I’ve gotten more than one extra snack or glass of wine just by being polite.

After you have checked your boarding pass for the 800th time — we all do it! — find your seat. Put your carry-on in the overhead bin; your personal item goes under the seat in front of you.

Your suitcase either goes on its side or on its back, depending on the plane. The flight staff will tell you. Stow your items and sit. Quickly. Get out of the aisle as quickly as possible. Once you are in your seat, get set up with what you need. I get out my charging cord, phone, Kindle and water bottle and make sure they are accessible. My earbuds are already in my ears. I wipe down everything I might touch: tray table, seat back in front of me (because the tray table will touch it when folded up), screen, armrests, seatbelt buckle, window shade with Wetwipes I keep in my purse.

Being a good seatmate

Let’s talk about being a good seatmate. 

I know I am going to get some pushback on this, but I loathe having people bring food from the airport onto a flight. I do not want to smell your Chipotle, your McDonald’s or your — God forbid— tuna sandwich on the flight. I bring snacks, of course, and I understand with children, you need to bring whatever keeps them happy. But I have taken a 25-minute flight from Chicago to Fort Wayne and had grown men bring a full take-out meal on the flight. Not necessary and the whole plane ends up smelling like your food.

Be cognizant that a lot of people are sensitive to smells. Try to be freshly showered and skip perfume or cologne.

I try to avoid loud snacks like chips, with noisy packaging and crunching. 

I bring a small tin of Magic Face Oil salve for my hands, but a little dabbed beneath my nose can be a lifesaver for all those weird smells. If you get nauseated on flights, a little peppermint balm is also nice. 

Armrests. If you are the window you get the one by the window, if you are the aisle you get the aisle armrest, if you are the middle you get both next to you. That’s the rules, I don’t make them.

Don’t lean your seat all the way back. You’re probably crushing the knees of the person behind you. Or spilling their meal, if you do so during food or drink service.

I usually greet my fellow passengers with a smile. I will sometimes make small talk after we land. I’m not chatty. Pick up on context clues. If the person next to you has headphones on, don’t expect them to take them off to talk to you. 

This also is a good time to talk about picking your seat. I almost always choose a window seat. This is because I like to take pictures, and I like to sleep. However, if I have a long international flight, I will often choose the aisle so I can walk around and use the restroom without disturbing my seatmates. 

No one wants the middle. Julianne and I have both ended up in the middle when traveling with a parent, child or friend who wanted or needed the aisle seat or window seat more. The middle is much better with company. Flying solo in a middle seat is less fun.

Deplaning: Once the plane lands and taxis to the gate, you still have to wait for the jet bridge to be attached to the plane. Once that is done, the flight attendants will start the deplaning process. I know it’s tempting to jump up and start angling to get off the plane, but you will be there for a minute. Take the time to put the items you’ve had out during your flight back in your personal item. Make sure you have everything (check that seatback pocket!). Now, patiently wait until it’s your turn. The end. Unless you need to get off the plane quickly for a short connection (good luck), be patient and wait your turn. 

If you have a gate-checked bag you will line up on ONE SIDE of the jet bridge. One. If you are the 40th person off the plane, you will go to the back of the long line. You do not start a new line on the other side. The space is limited in this area and many people are deplaning. Additionally, airport staff will be coming with wheelchairs to help those who are not able-bodied get off of the plane. If you line up on the opposite side so you can get your bag quicker you will be in the way of this process. 

If you have left the plane, you don’t need to wait for your party of six on the jet bridge. Meet once you are out in the corridor of the airport. Have a plan. Many people will be hurrying to get to their next flight, and having a little mini-reunion on the jet bridge will get you angry looks and possibly an elbow in the side.

Once you have made it to the airport corridor — ahhhhh — you might as well hit the restroom and freshen up. From here, you may have bags to collect before heading to the transportation areas. I like to use the restroom, brush my teeth and freshen my face depending on how long I’ve been flying. 

Stop and refill your water! Now get to your bags and transportation.

baggage claim
This right here is why I rarely check a bag.

Getting through baggage claim and transportation

Follow the signs for baggage claim. Most of the time when you land the airline will tell you which numbered carousel to go to, but there are also signs near baggage claim. Look for your flight number or departure city and go to the correct carousel. 

When you arrive at the baggage carousel, send one person in your party near the carousel to watch for bags. Don’t cluster there and block access for others trying to get their bags. Remember to give people room to swing their bag off of the carousel and set it down. When you have your bag, move away from the carousel before adjusting your belongings; other people are trying to get their things as well. 

If your bag fails to appear you’ll need to find your airline’s missing bags office and fill out a report *before leaving the airport.* Placing an Apple AirTag inside your suitcase is a helpful way to track it down. If your bag was damaged beyond repair during your trip, be sure to report that to your airline before leaving the airport as well. 

You will typically be looking for a rental car center, a hotel shuttle, ride share (Uber, Lyft, Bolt), a taxi, public transportation or, if you’re returning home, the parking lot. Sometimes the wayfinding is great; sometimes, it’s terrible. Universally, there are usually a fair amount of employees in the transportation area who can help direct you to where you need to go. Read the overhead and posted signs in these areas carefully. 

Making the most of a delay

I was on a work trip a few years ago, flying home from Atlanta. All planes in the area were grounded due to weather. I was having a beer in one of the restaurants, and the man next to me was having a complete fit. Calling the airlines, cursing people out. 

I asked him why he was so upset. Was he missing a wedding? A funeral? A child’s birthday? No. He just wanted to get home. We all did. I offered to buy him a beer. He angrily told me his company was paying for his drinks — he was half in the bag anyway. I told him he must live a great life if this was the worst part of his week. He didn’t like that at all. 

The moral of the story: Don’t be that guy. 

If I am delayed or just have a long layover, I use the time to walk. At Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta, the walkways between terminals have great art and history exhibits. If you walk around, you’ll often find plenty to look at. Some airports have gyms or nap centers. You can also buy day passes to the airline lounges — and some credit cards provide access. That allows you to work, relax, eat and drink in a quieter space. 

I like to find myself a relatively quiet, out-of-the-way place and read or work or people-watch. Airport bars are also fun, although I don’t like to drink very much when I fly, it dehydrates me, and it’s crazy expensive. However, the people who work in them and the other passengers are usually good for a story or two. 

If your delay or layover is long enough, you may be able to see a bit of the city, as Julianne and her daughter did on a trip home from Spain through Paris. I recently had a six-hour layover in Brussels, and I took the time for a quick trip to the city center, ate breakfast and headed back to the airport.

Air travel can be great or awful; part of it is how you prepare for and approach it. Like most things, knowing what to expect takes a lot of the stress out of the process. When things don’t go well, take a deep breath, and remind yourself, “If this is the worst thing that happened to me this week, I’m pretty lucky.”


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