First Time Flying: How to Navigate the Airport Process

first time flyingApproximately 18% of Americans have never flown on a commercial aircraft. If you’re about to take off for your first time flying, there’s no need to be stressed about the airport process or the in-flight experience. Travel Maestro will take you through exactly what you need to know before, during and after the flight.

Before Departure

first-time flyersWhen your reservations are confirmed, your travel agent will issue an electronic ticket. Paper tickets are very rare these days. You’ll receive an itinerary and confirmation number by email. Within 24 hours of flight time, you can check in online to get seat assignments and receive a boarding pass which is required to pass through security and board the plane. You can print your boarding pass or save it to your mobile device. Alternatively, you can check in and get a paper boarding pass at the airport ticket counter or self-service kiosk. Travel Maestro tip: Check in online as early as possible to ensure your best seating options and boarding priority, even if you plan to get your boarding pass at the airport.

If you have luggage to check, you’ll do that at the ticket counter also. Label your bags both inside and out, and remove any previous airline stickers or tags. Know what items are prohibited from checked and carry-on luggage, never carry items for other people and don’t leave your bags unattended. TM tip: Make sure you’re aware of the airline’s weight and size allowances to avoid exorbitant overage fees.

first time flyingTo get to your departure gate, you’ll need to clear TSA security. First, you’ll present your boarding pass and government-issued ID (driver’s license or passport). TM tip: Take a screen shot of your boarding pass when you check-in online. It’s much quicker to open a photo on your mobile device than to wait for Wi-Fi to reload and you won’t hold up the security line.

Next, you’ll go through the security screening process where you and your carry-on items will be scanned using Advanced Imaging Technology to detect potential threat objects. You’ll place your carry-on, along with shoes, belt, outer jacket and pocket contents in bins for scanning. Liquids in your carry-on must meet the 3-1-1 rule and laptops must be removed from their bags. Travelers step into an open scanner for a brief image scan and exit the other side to pick up their scanned personal items from the conveyor. TM tip: Be sure to allow plenty of time to clear security. For most domestic flights you should arrive at the airport a minimum of 90 minutes before flight time, 120 for international flights, although exceptions exist at some airports.

Once you’ve cleared security, recheck the flight boards to confirm your departure gate and time. Feel free to shop, have a snack or just people watch, but be sure to be at your departure gate a minimum of 30 minutes before flight time, as boarding begins then and the doors are closed about 10 minutes before takeoff.

On Board

first time flying

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

When your boarding group is called (as noted on your boarding pass), the gate agent will scan your boarding pass and you proceed to the jetway that leads to the plane. A flight attendant will welcome you onboard and direct you to your seat. Row numbers are located at eye level, with the A seats being the window on your right (as you walk toward the rear of the plane). Often the aisle seat is labeled C, so if that side has only two seats, there is no B seat. TM tip: You’ll rarely find a seat letter I, presumably so it isn’t confused with the number 1, and some airlines don’t use row number 13, apparently out of superstition.

Carry-ons can be stowed in the compartment above the seats or under the seat in front of you. If the aircraft doesn’t have enough space, the airline will gate-check your carry-on. That means they will take it at the door of the plane and you pick it up at the same place upon arrival. Gate checked items are not retrieved at baggage claim. TM tip: Keep glasses, reading material and electronics accessible. You may not be able to get to your overhead bags easily during flight.

Longer flights usually offer meal service and flights under a couple hours usually offer drink and snack service. Some airlines charge for meals, snacks, and alcohol. TM tip: It’s fine to take your own food onboard, but please don’t subject your fellow travelers to heavy odors like garlic, curry or onions.

Many aircraft have entertainment systems with TV shows, movies, and music available on longer flights. You may have to pay for headsets, depending on the airline. Wi-Fi is available on most domestic routes; however, packages can be expensive and speed is typically slow. Improvements in in-flight Wi-Fi are expected in the near future. All flights are non-smoking, including the use of vapor and e-cigarettes.

On Arrival

first time flying

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

If you have a connecting flight to another destination, airline personnel will likely be available as you deplane to direct you to your next gate. If not, check the flight boards in the airport to confirm the gate and time. Your luggage will probably be checked through to your final destination, so you just need to go to your gate and wait for your flight, but be sure to verify that when you check your bags. TM tip: Don’t forget to reclaim any gate checked items at the door of the plane before you enter the airport!

When you reach your final destination, follow the airport signs to the baggage claim area. Find the baggage carousel labeled with your flight number and collect your bags. TM tip: Many bags look alike! Always check the luggage tag to be certain it’s your bag before you leave the airport. You might also attach a unique tag, strap or sticker to help you identify.

If you are traveling internationally, you’ll need to clear immigration (before baggage claim) and customs (after baggage claim) to leave the airport. Keep your passport accessible. TM tip: Random baggage inspections are standard procedure at any customs desk.

Congratulations, you’ve just completed your first time flying! If you’re ready to explore the rest of the world, contact Covington Travel and we’ll help you.


  1. Thank you for mentioning that longer flights usually offer meal service, and flights under a couple of hours usually offer drink and snack service. I am flying in an airplane for the first time to go visit one of my aunt’s and have no idea what to do and need some tips. I will definitely take all of your great advice and information into consideration when trying to navigate my way around an airport and fly for my first time.

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