Beginners Guide to First Time Flying

Last week my goddaughter and her mum were finally visiting us in England for the very first time. They both live in Germany, in the village I grew up. And although both have been outside Germany before, neither of them had ever travelled by plane. My goddaughter is 14 and visiting London was her birthday / Christmas present. So ever since she’d been making plans of what she wants to see and do. Busy four days this were (more on that here). With the flights booked already, I decided to write them a little beginners guide to first time flying, since they were rather nervous (or at least mum was) giving step-to-step advice on flying as a first timer.

And since I figured they might not have been the only first time flyers out there, I decided to share my Beginners Guide to First Time Flying with you all, just in case there are other anxious first-time flyers out there.

How best to prepare for your first flight.

Beginners Guide to First Time Flying: Booking a flight and checking in

Ok ok, I know. Captain Obvious reporting for duty here. Goes without saying that you need to book a flight before you can actually take a flight. But when doing such things for the first time, it can be a little difficult, so let’s be thorough (obviously you are more than welcome to skip this section and come back to our little journey a little further down).

Most flights nowadays will be booked via the Internet, although you can still go a travel agency if you want (or at least I assume you still can, I haven’t actually set foot in one for quite some time). Unless you know exactly which airline you want to go for, I would recommend checking available routes, airlines and flight times via a flight comparison site (Skyscanner for example), which helps you see everything at one glance and then narrow it down by using the filter options (preferred times, airports, airlines, direct flights and connecting flights etc.).

However I personally would not actually book via those comparison sites or any other third party booking site. I would always go directly to the airline’s website and book there. If your travel dates aren’t fixed, have a little play around and see if you can save yourself some money by moving your dates around (my goddaughter and her mum originally planned on coming from Thursday to Monday, but by switching dates and flying Friday to Tuesday instead the price came down by a third… and since it will be school holidays, it didn’t really make much difference which exact dates they come).

When comparing flights, bear in mind that not all airlines are equal. Some will automatically include checked luggage or two items of hand luggage, for others you might have to pay for pretty much every little bit you want to take on board. Some let you choose your seats for free and/or in advance, others you will have to pay. So be sure to check such details, to avoid nasty surprises or even hefty fines at the airport.

OK, fast forward a little … you’ve done it. You’ve booked your flight.

Next step is Check In.

This varies a little depending on airline, so again, you will have to check your airline’s website (or your booking confirmation) to see when exactly you can check in online.

Some airlines allow check in 24 hours before your flight (British Airways) or even just 23 hours before (Lufthansa), others give you a couple of days (72 hours for Germanwings / Eurowings, 4 days for Ryanair, extended to 30 days in advance, if you purchased priority boarding).

To check in, you will need your booking reference and your passport / ID card.

Follow the steps on the website, until you reach the end and you get your boarding pass (as a pdf download to print out and/or as a mobile scan pass to use on your smartphone). If you do not have a printer, you might be able to print your boarding pass when you get to the airport, however be careful and check the Terms and Conditions for your chosen airline. Some (like Ryanair) will charge exorbitant amounts for printing you a boarding pass at the airport, so you are better off visiting a print shop (or your neighbour) and get your boarding pass printed there. Honestly, you might even be better off just quickly buying a cheap printer.

Beginners Guide to First Time Flying: Pack your bag(s)

What you pack obviously depends on your destination, season, length and purpose of trip. So this is NOT a packing list for your first ever flight.

It is however a quick check of Do’s and Don’ts, to help you prevent any catastrophes when arriving at the airport for your first flight.

Certain items are prohibited in your luggage or are at least best to be avoided if you don’t fancy a full body search at the airport. Other items are fine in checked luggage but not hand luggage and vice versa.

A few useful tips to packing for your trip, so you know exactly what is allowed in hand luggage and what needs to go into checked luggage.

What to pack in hand luggage What to pack in checked luggage
There is a limit to the amount of liquids you can pack. The rule is no individual container to be larger than 100ml (regardless of whether the container is full or only half full) and all to be placed in one clear plastic bag, no larger than 1l (20 x 20 cm).Some airports provide those plastic bags for free (like Heathrow), others will charge for them (like Düsseldorf). So to make it easier, get a plastic zip lock bag before you travel and pack everything at home. You can pack as many liquids as you like in any size you like. Just make sure it is all packed safely to avoid any leakage into your suitcase.
You can pack a power bank and batteries in your hand luggage, as long as they don’t exceed 100Wh. Do not pack any batteries or power banks in your checked luggage. These will be removed when your luggage is screened (believe me, I learned this the hard way and it took me a good two months to get back to that airport to actually collect the power bank from ‘Lost Property’, which would have been absolutely fine in hand luggage)
Do not pack any sharp items, large scissors, knives and blades in hand luggage. Scissors with blades shorter than 6cm are fine (although I would avoid if not absolutely necessary… the less discussion the better). Scissors, knives, blades etc. are generally fine in checked luggage. But double check that none of these count as an offensive weapon at your destination (as rules vary in countries and you don’t want to be done for weapon possession whilst on holiday).
Fine to pack hair dryer, straightener, charger etc. in hand luggage, although you might be asked to take them out of your bag to be screened separately when going through security. Fine to pack hair dryer, straightener, charger etc. in checked luggage.
You can pack medication in your hand luggage, but please place it in a clear plastic bag and ideally get a doctor’s note confirming the requirement, just in case. And whilst the 100ml rule does not apply, I would keep the unit as small as possible. You can pack any medication in your checked luggage, no problem. Provided we are talking legal medication obviously.
You can pack baby food in hand luggage and the 100ml rule does not apply. But again, stick to what’s necessary for the actual flight. Pack as much baby food as you like in your checked luggage. But same as with the other fluids, you will want to make sure that it is all safely wrapped, to prevent any spills.

Beginners Guide to First Time Flying: Arriving at the airport for your first ever flight

As a first time flyer, I would advise you arrive a little early, giving you enough time to find your way around. Usually boarding (so getting onto the actual plane) starts around 30 minutes before departure (or earlier, if you have a long-haul flight), so my advice would be to arrive at the airport at the very least an hour, if not one and a half hours before your departure time.

As you enter the airport, find the departure board and see which check-in area you need to go for your flight (your flight number is on your boarding pass).

Go to the check-in desk.

When it is your turn, hand over your boarding pass, passport / ID card and put your checked luggage on the conveyor / scale, so that it can be weighed and checked in. Your luggage will be tagged and you will receive the counterpart of the tag. Keep the little sticker save (staff will usually either stick it onto your boarding pass or the back of your passport), as you might need it again when collecting your bag (or god forbid when your luggage gets lost on the way… which – touch wood – has never happened to me once in all those years, so don’t start panicking just yet).

Before you leave the check-in desk, remember to collect your boarding pass and passport / ID card again.

If you travel with hand luggage only, skip this first step and go straight to the next step:


Beginners Guide to First Time Flying: Going through Security

Follow the signs ‘Go to Gate’ until you arrive at a barrier. Either it is an automated barrier where you can scan your boarding pass or staff is seated there manually checking your boarding pass. Either way, you will need your boarding pass to gain entry. This is the moment to say Good Bye to any loved ones that accompanied you to the airport, but are not travelling with you. From now on it is travellers only and you are on your own. Well on your own with all your fellow travellers obviously.

Once you’ve passed this barrier, you will either arrive at border control or at security.

If it is border control first, hand over your passport / ID card to the police officer and pray that they let you through without arresting you (just kidding obviously, unless you have any open warrant in your name, you should be fairly save and just be whisked through). If your journey requires a visa you should obviously have this ready as well and be prepared to answer some questions. If you are flying within Europe and therefore within Schengen countries (so most European countries, but not UK), you might not need to go through border control at all. So don’t be surprised if no one asks for your passport / ID card until you get to the gate (or not at all, however you should still have it with you whenever you travel abroad).

Arriving at security for the first time can make you feel a little anxious. Especially as there is quite some activity around you and hardly anyone fancies waiting. So let’s go through this in detail to help you blend in and pretend you know what you are doing.

Take your liquids (already nicely pre-packed in an approved clear plastic bag) out of your hand luggage and place them in one of the trays. Take out your laptop, tablet and e-reader (if you carry any or all of those) and place them in the tray (make sure none of this overlaps, if necessary get several trays).

If you have to carry any medication with you, also place this in a tray separately and preferably in a clear plastic bag. If in doubt get a written confirmation from your doctor as a proof that you need to carry this medication with you (especially if it is a syringe).

Remove any coats, jackets, hats and scarves and put them in a tray (NOT on top of the electronics and liquids or you will be instantly shot – ehm told off).

If you wear heels or boots, remove them and place them in a tray (preferably not on top of your clothes, to avoid any stains). If in doubt, just ask the staff if you should remove them or not. Flat shoes can usually stay on (unless you are told otherwise, then totally ignore my advise and do as you’re told).

It’s also advisable to remove your belt (especially if it is a big and bulky one, thin ones might be fine, as they usually don’t set off the alarm).

Put your hand luggage trolley and handbag into trays and empty your pockets. Your pockets and hands need to be empty before you actually go through the security scanner (this means also your boarding pass and passport need to go into one of the trays, DO NOT cling on to them – as so many automatically do, despite being told five times to put EVERYTHING in the tray).

With all your belongings safely deposited in trays and on their way through the scanner, it’s now your turn to be screened.

There are different types of scanners. Usually there is an archway first that you walk through and wait for instructions. If it goes green and keeps quiet you will be asked to proceed and collect your things.

If it goes red and beeps you will have to step aside and await further instructions. Either you will be searched by staff (no worries, this does not include any undressing… you might be asked to open the top button of your trousers and/or open your belt if you still wear it, but nothing else) or you will be asked to step into a body scanner, which will do a thorough scan and reveal any potentially dangerous areas (which does not mean that you actually have anything forbidden on your body, it can be things like buttons, bra wires and other harmless stuff, but it gives staff a better understanding of where to search you).

If you feel uncomfortable being searched in front of everyone, you can always ask to be searched in private, which means you will be taken into a room nearby and searched there. However please expect this to be a little more time consuming, so unless you are really really really very uncomfortable with the public search, my advise would be to just get it over and done with.

As soon as you are released, go to the end of the conveyor and collect your things. Make sure you don’t forget anything (as it usually is spread over several trays and other people’s trays might have been moved in between yours) and put your empty trays away.

There is a chance that one (or if you are very unlucky all) of your trays has been separated from the others for further examination. If this is the case (this usually means your tray sits on a second conveyor behind, where you can see it but can’t reach it) go and see staff, who will then ask you to open up your bag, so that they can search it a bit more thorough and re-scan some items if necessary. Not to worry, it does not automatically mean that you’ve done something wrong. It might just mean that some of your items (especially if you have any electric items like hair dryer or computer equipment in there) might have been too close together, making it impossible for them to identify them clearly on the x-ray. Or your bag was randomly selected for drug testing… or you forgot some ‘liquids’ at the bottom of your bag (like that long forgotten lip gloss). Believe me, all of those scenarios happen to me on a regular basis, even as a frequent flyer…. Although for me it most often is the amount of electronics in my bag, making it a ‘busy bag’ as they call it… but since I need a certain amount of equipment for my job, there isn’t much I can do about it. So breath, keep calm and get it over and done with. Nothing you can do… so smile. They are only doing their job. And you’d rather be safe than sorry.

If you are interested in things going proper wrong, have a read of my experience of airport security at Tel Aviv Airport.

Woohoo, you’ve made it through security. Big scary hurdle done. You’ve made it to the inner circle; you are in the secure area, also referred to as ‘air-side’.

Before you get carried away with duty free shopping, first things first.

Check the departure board to see the current state of your flight. Assuming you’ve done as told and arrived early, chances are that there isn’t a gate number shown just yet. Good. Off you go to browse that long awaited duty free, get yourself some food, a drink or whatever you fancy. You might want to get yourself a bottle of water or some nibbles for the flight (especially if you fly on a budget airline that does not cater for free).

If you buy some duty free goods, please bear in mind that this will count towards your hand luggage allowance. So be careful not to exceed your maximum allowance, otherwise your duty free bargain might become quite costly, if your bag is rejected at the gate and needs to be checked in and potentially paid for. If you decide to buy some duty free alcohol there might be limits on how much you can buy. All purchases will be put into clear, sealed plastic bags and need to remain in those bags until you land and get out of the airport.

Throughout your browsing and shopping expedition keep an eye on the departure board. At some point your gate will be shown. A gate number does not automatically mean that you have to rush to the gate straight away, but some gates are quite a lengthy walk away and since you aren’t too familiar with the airport layout just yet, I would recommend you head towards your departure gate fairly early. May I also suggest a quick potty break, just in case? The whole process of boarding and take off can sometimes take quite a while and until your plane has reached its cruising altitude and the seat belt signs are switched off, the toilets are off limits. So let’s minimise potential inconveniences and think ahead.

Beginners Guide to First Time Flying: Boarding the plane

Arriving at the gate you will need your boarding pass and your passport / ID card again. Keep an eye out for the screen and listen to the announcements. Most airlines board in stages. First to board are usually parents with small children and people that need assistance. Followed by those with priority boarding (be it business class travellers, frequent flyers or pre-booked priority boarding, this varies by airline). Finally followed by everyone else. Sometimes they will board by seat numbers (so back rows first, then front rows, to minimise people standing in each other’s way). Have a look at your boarding pass. If you do have priority boarding, it will show here. If not, probably safe to assume that you just join the normal queue.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter much whether you board first or last, the plane won’t leave until everyone is on board and settled. But boarding last might mean that there isn’t enough space for all hand luggage any more and some of it might have to go in hold. Which isn’t necessarily a big problem, it just means that you will have to collect your bag after the flight rather than take it off board yourself. But I am getting ahead of myself. Collecting bags will come later (just another 500 words or so to go, almost there… I promise – I do apologise, this does turn into quite a lengthy post, but I hope it at least proofs helpful with tips how to prepare for your first flight, not just endless).

There are two ways of boarding a plane. Either a jetty / gangway is attached to the aircraft door and you walk through that tunnel directly into the plane or you go down to the ground and board via stairs. If you board via jetty, most times boarding will happen through the front door only, so if you have a higher row number you will have to walk towards the back of the plane.

When boarding via stairs, there might be two sets of stairs, one in the front and one in the back. In which case it makes sense for you to board from the back if you have a higher row number (usually anything row 15 and higher).

Keep your boarding pass to hand. Some airlines (like Ryanair) will ask to see it the minute you step into the plane. And you might need it to check your seat number and find your seat. The row numbers are shown in the panel above the seats. If you can’t find your number, just ask the cabin crew for help.

Once you’ve found your seat, store your hand luggage (small bags should go underneath the seat in front of you, large bags in the overhead compartment) and take a seat. Try and vacate the aisle as quickly as possible so that others can pass and boarding can be completed on time. As mentioned before, the plane will not take off until all of you are on board and settled, so let’s try and keep this swift and quick to avoid any delays.

Once seated, please fasten your seat belt. Now might be a good time to familiarise yourself with your surroundings. As this is your first time on an aircraft, have a look for the nearest emergency exit (which might be behind you, usually there are emergency exits at the front and end of the aircraft and via the wings). There will be a safety card in your seat pocket or displayed in front of you. Have a quick read. I am not trying to scare you here; I just want you to feel comfortable. And I find the more you know about your surroundings the safer you feel.

You will be briefed on the safety procedures, either by staff demonstration or by safety video. As it is your first time, it might be worth paying some attention (sorry to say, but it does get a little boring the 100th time you see it).

For your first flight, I would recommend bringing some chewing gum and popping it into your mouth just before take off. It keeps your jaw busy and therefore your ears clear. Nothing worse than your ears blocking thanks to a change in pressure.

For take off (and later for landing) everyone must wear their seat belts, all window blinds and curtains must be open, all tables folded away and all seats in the upright position.

You will see the actual getting up in the air bit is fairly quick. One moment the plane is accelerating on the runway, next moment you are in the clouds. If you have a window seat, enjoy the moment when you break through the clouds and go into the open skies for the very first time. I hope you have decent weather and beautiful views. I love the fluffy white clouds in the early morning with beautiful sunshine and bright blue skies above. I must have taken a hundred photos at least of those cloud sceneries (no worries, I won’t add EACH AND EVERY ONE OF THEM to this post, it’s already a little longer than originally planned).

When the plane has reached its cruising altitude, the seat belt signs will be switched off and you are allowed to leave your seat. My advice would be to keep the seat belt on whenever you are seated, in case of any sudden turbulence. Most of the times the seat belt sign is only on for take off and landing, however in bad weather it might be switched on again during the flight.

The crew will soon start with the on-board service. Depending on airline, this might mean everyone gets snacks and drinks for free, or you might be offered a selection of food and drinks to buy.

This is then followed by the opportunity of duty free shopping. Have a look at the airline magazine, to see what they have to offer. If you buy anything on your way out, remember that you need to take it back home again, so keep your overall luggage allowance in mind as well as the fluids rule for hand luggage. You don’t want to buy yourself a nice bottle of whiskey on the way out, only to bin it on the way home (well or down it, but that’s not really worth it either).

Depending on length of flight the cabin crew might come through several times offering this and that (like landing cards, sometimes even train tickets for the airport train at your destination, rubbish collection, maybe another round of food and drinks etc.), so keep an eye out for them if you want (have a read of my ‘Diary of an eight hour flight’ from London to New York to get an insight how a long-haul flight might be like).

Eventually it is time to come down again. The pilot will make an announcement around 10 minutes before landing that the ‘Fasten Seat Belt’ sign will be switched on in a moment and therefore toilets will no longer be available, luggage has to be stored, tables folded away, arm rests down and seats upright. Oh and the window blinds to be fully opened.

You can keep small electronic devices in your hand, but anything larger than a tablet needs to be switched off and stowed away safely into the bag underneath your seat.

The cabin crew will go through the cabin one last time, ensuring you are all safely strapped in and everything is in order, then it is time for them to also take their seats for landing.

It can be a little bumpy as the plane goes down through the clouds, but it usually is fine again once you break out of the clouds. This is also the moment when you see your destination for the first time (well the area around your destination, you might still be quite a bit away).

You will hear some noises coming from the aircraft as the wheels are coming out and the plane prepares for landing. All normal procedure and nothing to worry about. If you have a window seat overlooking the wings you can also see the wing flaps opening as the plane goes lower.

No worries, coming down is just as quick as going up. Most of the times, it is just a short bump as you touch down and then you will feel the plane hitting the brakes. Not in an emergency breaking kind of way, but obviously the plane still has quite some speed when it comes down and it will have to come to a halt at some point (preferably before it runs out of tarmac). It will continue breaking whilst going down the runway, then eventually rolling (also called taxiing) towards its parking position. Which can be either directly at the terminal or a remote location a little bit away.

The ‘Fasten Seat Belt’ signs will stay on whilst the plane is moving and will only be switched off once the plane has reached its final parking position. So even if the plane halts for a little while (as it sometimes does if the stand is still occupied), don’t be tempted to get up just yet. Wait for that seat belt sign to be switched off (or risk being told off by the crew).

As soon as the plane is parked up and the seat belt signs are off, you can start collecting all your belongings and get ready to disembark. If the plane is parked directly at the terminal, the jetty will be attached to the front door and you will all disembark via that one door (first rows first, back of plane last). If the plane is parked at a remote location, you will disembark via steps, in which case there often are stairs at front and rear of the aircraft (same as when you boarded).

If you get off via stairs, please be careful and don’t wander off. Follow instructions and stay clear of the aircraft wings and engines. You will either be directed to the terminal or asked to board a bus taking you to the terminal.

Either way, you will eventually arrive at the terminal.

Beginners Guide to First Time Flying: Arrivals

As you enter the terminal, you will have to follow the signs for Arrival / Baggage Reclaim / Border Control. Depending on airport and gate your plane parked on, this can be a short walk or drag on for quite some time (Stansted and Frankfurt are particularly bad ones when it comes to walking distances).

Just move with the crowd and keep on walking until you eventually arrive at border control. Have your passport / ID card and landing card (if needed) ready and follow the instructions. This will be the same procedure as before, so I won’t repeat myself, scroll up a few thousand words if you need a reminder.

Once through border control, baggage reclaim is your next stop. If you are flying hand luggage only, you can ignore this and just continue towards the exit.

If you checked in your suitcase earlier, now is the time to get re-united with it. Don’t make the mistake to forget about your suitcase and walk out of the security area. Once out you can’t easily get back in!

There will be a screen, similar to the departure board. Search for your flight number and it will show you on which luggage belt your suitcase will appear.

Most of the times luggage should arrive fairly swiftly (especially if you had a bit of wait at border control, chances are your suitcase made it to this point quicker than you did).

Collect your bag(s), double check it actually is yours (just in case, especially if you have a black or grey bag that looks like pretty much 80% of the other bags on this and all other belts). Once you gathered all your belongings, head to the exit.

There will be two, sometimes even three exits:

Go through the green exit if you have nothing to declare (which probably is the case).

Go through red if you do have something to declare.

There sometimes is a blue exit as well, which is for flights within EU. So if you arrive from a EU destination and there is a blue exit, go for it.

Regardless of which exit you take, there is always a slim chance of spot checks. Hasn’t happened to me ever, but you will sometimes see officers standing at the exit, just watching and randomly picking people for checks. If this is the case, just do as you are told, not much choice really.

Woohoo, you made it.

You survived your first ever flight (and this rather lengthy blog post – well done you).

Welcome to your destination. Whatever your plans for the coming days, go and make the most of it.

And I’ll see you back here in a few days, when we do it all again.

Beginners Guide to First Time Flying - Travel for a Living

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  1. Sue

    Love this post. Great guide for a first time traveler. Very thorough.

  2. Hannah

    This was very informative!! I have had alot of worries as it’s my first time flying alone in about 3 weeks time, and someone explaining it thoroughly about what I need to do has really been calming for my anxiety! Thank you so much 🙂

    • Travel for a living

      Hi Hannah, glad to hear you found my post helpful. And all the best for your first flight.