What to expect on my first airline adventure?
July 11, 2011 2:28 PM   Subscribe

I'm Mefi's 18 year old intern and I haven't been on an airplane since I was 18 months old. On the 18th of July, the boss (mathowie) and I are heading to New York. What should I expect now that I'm about to consciously experience my first plane flight?
posted by Dominic. Allen to Travel & Transportation around New York, NY (86 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Seeing the outline of the north part of the island of Manhattan at night is one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen.
posted by goethean at 2:31 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just search the tag TSA, and you'll know exactly what to expect.
posted by dirtylittlecity at 2:31 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hopefully you'll get a window seat. Takeoff and landing can be exciting, but the in-between bit is mind-numbingly boring, except sometimes you'll pass over some very beautiful scenery.
posted by Runes at 2:32 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lots of people will give you answers about being groped by the TSA.

Here are some quick actually-airplane-related ones (given to me for my first consciously-experienced flight, by my mother, who flew airplanes for a living in the Air Force):

-- Yes, the wings are supposed to bend like that
-- Yes, that thumping noise (and sometimes feeling) is totally normal shortly after takeoff and shortly before landing. It's either the landing gear being stowed or deployed.
-- The circulating air has little to no moisture and it dehydrates you. Drinking water regularly will make you feel much better when you land.

On preview, I agree about the window seat, unless you're afraid of heights. Afraid of heights != afraid of flying, but you probably wouldn't want to be gazing out the window.
posted by olinerd at 2:33 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Noise, a lot of air noise, especially if you're not in business class.

If you're tall: no space for your legs.

The airplanes wings are quite flexible, so they (and the airplane) might shake more than you'd expect (but they're quite strong, no worry).
posted by flif at 2:34 PM on July 11, 2011

wait, you're actually a real intern ?! I assumed you were just an in-joke among the mods and regulars.
posted by fizzix at 2:34 PM on July 11, 2011 [9 favorites]

Upside: Continental Divide from 30,000 feet, it looks like a giant green wrinkle; the amazing and truly beautiful tapestry of farmland in the plains states - if you get a good view of it, it looks like a never ending massive modern painting; taking off is pretty thrilling until you become jaded.

Downside: Feeling like a sardine in a can, particularly if you have long legs; turbulence can be unsettling if you aren't used to it; the general cow-like feeling you get when you realize you're not an honored guest on an airplane, just the cargo the airline has to shift from point A to point B.
posted by contessa at 2:35 PM on July 11, 2011

Cherish the sense of wonder at being able to cover 3,000 miles in six hours that has yet to be knocked out of you by security, bureaucracy and the overwhelming sense of despondency that permeates commercial airlines in the US. If you have a seat-back screen on the coast-to-coast, put it on the real-time map tracker.

Make sure that #1 gives you the window seat, and depending on where you're landing, pick the side that gives you the best view of the descent.
posted by holgate at 2:36 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Boredom. Nothing much to see so take enough reading material, iPod, etc.

Make sure you know what ID you need and have it all.

If your boss brings up the mile high club, play dumb.
posted by biffa at 2:36 PM on July 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

Long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of controlled panic.
posted by cosmicbandito at 2:38 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

What airline are you flying and are you in coach?

If you're flying Southwest, you need to check in online AS SOON AS IT OPENS in order to get a good seat choice.

If you're tall, you'll probably be uncomfortable. I'm only 5'7" and my knees hit the seat in front of me.

Security is a bitch and a half. Have your laptop out, have your liquids in the right size containers, in a ziplock, and out, have your belt off, have your shoes off, and be ready to opt for a groping (if you're into that) and are flying out of somewhere that uses the pornoscanners.

Take some gum in case you have trouble with ears popping. Take a dramamine beforehand just if you're prone to motion sickness. Take ear plugs if you don't like loud noises. (Planes are loud. That is normal.)

Just a couple of things about being on the plane: it's OK to get up and pee before takeoff (while the plane is just sitting there) and during the flight when the seatbelt sign is on (as long as it's not actively landing or taking off). The flight attendants might tell you to go back to your seat, but I've found that a firm, "look, dude, I've gotta pee" is fine. Usually there's no problem, though. Also, they will bring you something to drink (usually just water, though) outside of drink service time. They might grumble about it, but they'd rather bring you a drink than risk you passing out or something. (Knowing that I have access to water and toilet if needed reduce all the confined-in-a-small-space anxiety I get.)

Have fun!

It should be noted that I really hate flying.
posted by phunniemee at 2:39 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I recommend noise canceling headphones if you are sensitive to noise, the drone of the plane is pretty loud and makes it difficult to listen to music or watch a movie.

If you're flying United, you might be able to listen to the pilots' communications on one of the radio channels. I really loved doing this and learned a lot about flying and what the pilots are really doing during the flight (apparently, worrying a lot about the best altitude to fly in to keep you comfortable with less turbulence!)

People who have bad experiences with the TSA are a lot more vocal than those of us who have had mostly prosaic experiences. Something annoying can happen to you, but most likely you will get through without experiencing spectacular abuse (talk about low expectations).
posted by telegraph at 2:40 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

For security, you're going to have to take off your shoes and any jacket/big sweatshirt (especially things that zip up the front, but they usually make you take off bulky sweatshirts), as well as your belt and anything in your pockets. Your laptop has to come out of your bag (unless you have a fancy TSA-approved bag that you just have to open). So if you have easy on/off shoes, it's good to wear them, and keep jackets in your bag until after security if possible. Also put any extraneous pocket stuff in your bag. And just be ready to move as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The plane tends to be sometimes too cold and sometimes too hot -- layers are good if you are temperature sensitive. Eyemasks are good if you want to sleep. Noise-cancelling headphones were basically designed for planeflight (the loud monotonous hum can get to you). Your ears may feel weird on takeoff and landing -- lots of people like to chew gum during those events.

But really, it's not that bad. A few hours and it's over. Mostly it's just boring. Good luck!
posted by brainmouse at 2:41 PM on July 11, 2011

When you get seated at the start of the flight, make sure you have a puke bag in your seat pocket, and if you don't, secure one from your neighbor or a flight attendant. You probably won't need it, but if you do you'll be really sorry if it's missing.
posted by thirteenkiller at 2:42 PM on July 11, 2011

Of course it goes without saying that the whole thing could be quite uneventful and bland as well so keep that possibility in mind, too. It's not really so much fun since the TSA started, and stewardesses don't wear awesome uniforms anymore, and food is now served in plastic wrap if at all (bring your own!).

Ah, the good old days (and I'm only 33 but I've been flying since I was 6).

My only advice is to prepare for security so that you're not making everyone wait: wear shoes that are easy to take off, take off your belt and any jackets before you get to the x-ray table, and put your keys and anything in your pockets in your bag as well. I also haven't found a need to be anal about the whole "only 3 oz per liquid container and keep them in a clear ziploc" rule either. I always keep that stuff in my bag, and it might be 4-5 oz, and they haven't ever said anything to me. I also keep all my electronics in my bag. The only time I have every been stopped is when I had a swiss army knife in my bag that I forgot to take out after a recent camping trip. They let me go back to the check-in counter and put it in my checked luggage.
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 2:42 PM on July 11, 2011

Because you are 18, your drinking should be done before the airport. One or two shots will be sufficient, the altitude will take care of the rest.

I'm assuming you are flying out of PDX. I know that airport. You'll arrive one way or another and go to the ticket counter. And by counter I mean row of kiosks. It will ask you to stick in your license or credit card or some way to verify who you are, request confirmation numbers and the like, and hopefully spit out some boarding passes. If you have checked luggage, the people at the counter weigh it and tag it. You take your luggage to the TSA people and they scan it.

You get to go through TSA. You may get scanned or fondled. Request fondling and complain when the guard doesn't help you finish. Offer a reach-around. (okay, don't do that).

Wander to your gate, wait. Get on the plane. Take in the mad rush of people trying to bogart the overhead bins. The worst will be business travelers as they must rush on the plane for they can't spare a minute for the next 6 hours flying to New York. The best part of airports is people-watching. All sorts of people are around, and it's good to take them all in.

Taking off is my second favorite part. Landing alive is my favorite. If you are lucky and flying during the day, the planes take off towards Mount Hood most days and do a fly-by of Timberline. You can even spot the chairlifts. Watch the world go underneath you at 550 knots.

It will be loud, earplugs are recommended. Drop by Bi-mart and get them for $0.59. You may experience turbulence, which to me feels like a scary as shit roller coaster ride. Zone out for 3000 miles. Bring a book and an mp3 player of some sort.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 2:44 PM on July 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Checking in is a pain in the butt. Wear shoes that you can easily slip off as they will be asking you to do that. Likewise, try to wear comfortable clothing; a plane is big, but it's pretty crowded. Takeoff and landing are going to be the only nervous-making parts of the flight. On takeoff, the plane is going to make a lot of noise as it fires up the engines and then you're going to hurtle down the runway at what looks like hundreds of miles an hour. Once you're in the air, it won't be as noticeable how fast you're going. You'll only notice it again when you land.
If you have a window seat, do take the time to look at the sights the pilot mentions. Maybe you'll be flying over the grand canyon.
If there are any bumps along the way be assured that the pilot can handle that. Turbulence is seldom as bad as it might seem.
posted by Gilbert at 2:44 PM on July 11, 2011

You can take your own bottle of water on the plane if you empty it before you go to security then refill it from a tap or drinking fountain. Alternately, you can probably buy a bottle of water or some other drink from a vendor in the airport secure area. It's nice to have your own drink and not rely on flight attendants to bring you one.
posted by thirteenkiller at 2:45 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, re security: make sure you don't drop the laptop or leave it behind in the confusion (security dude at Tel Aviv airport sprinted to bring it back to me, but that doesn't happen normally), and wear pants that don't fall down without a belt.
Do some yoga before leaving so you're geared up for the cramped environment.
You'll be fine.

(so what's up with 18? Magical number or what?)
posted by Namlit at 2:46 PM on July 11, 2011

Taking off is an awesome experience.
posted by ouke at 2:48 PM on July 11, 2011

Yeah if you are planning on bringing a laptop with you, make sure it is in the FIRST bin you send through the scanner. If it is the last bin, with all the confusion and grabbing things and putting shoes back on and whatever, it is easy to forget about it. And that would suck if you forgot about it.
posted by contessa at 2:49 PM on July 11, 2011

Avoid DVT/blood clots (occasionally fatal) by flexing your feet and curling/uncurling your toes. Basically whatever weird foot or leg motion you can think of is going to help. Getting up and walking around is even better, if you have that opportunity.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 2:50 PM on July 11, 2011

Don't put all your underpants in your checked bag.

If you can avoid checking a bag altogether, which you probably can, it makes life 500x easier at your destination.
posted by thirteenkiller at 2:51 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

During the flight, be sure to stand up and walk around and do stupid ankle-wriggling exercises every hour or so - there's a small but real danger of blood clots from sitting in a confined space and being dehydrated, but you can manage this by drinking water and moving your feet.

I always print my boarding pass and check in before going to the airport.

I fear flying like nobody's business, but even though I've been terrified by turbulence and funny noises on every flight, I haven't crashed yet.
posted by Frowner at 2:52 PM on July 11, 2011

You have the right to recline your seat all the way, but recline it slowly.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 2:52 PM on July 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Some things I wish I knew when I took my first few flights:
1. Sometimes the plane makes a turn (with a steep bank) shortly after takeoff. If you're on the side that rolls toward the ground, no, you're not really facing straight down.
2. Sometimes the plane is on the ground for a very long time. Take advantage of every opportunity to pee beforehand because they might not let you get out of your seat for a while.
3. Air traffic around NYC is very busy. Expect numerous turns and altitude changes while making your way through it.
4. Jet lag is not fun. Try to adjust to your future time zone the day before you leave.
posted by rocket88 at 2:52 PM on July 11, 2011

Fuck that window seat advice. Aisle seat is the best. Being able to get up without disturbing anyone is crucial. Having to pee with a stranger sleeping between you and the aisle makes for unpleasant times.

Also when they ask you what to drink, you want tomato juice. Honestly, try it regardless of your real life preferences. Normal rules do not apply on planes.

Try to enjoy the weirdness of the food they serve. If you relate to it like normal food, it's disappointing, but if you savour the weirdness of it it's like a carnival funhouse. I swear to god this is true: airline food is fun.
posted by neuromodulator at 2:53 PM on July 11, 2011 [7 favorites]

Hopefully you'll get a window seat.

This isn't necessarily "hopefully." I refuse to sit in window seats. If you're a) at all claustrophobic or b) at all prone to motion sickness, a window seat will be wasted on you. If either's the case, try to get an aisle seat (that is, if your tickets haven't already been purchased).

If motion sickness is an issue, take dramamine before the flight. Do drink something if it's offered, or bring water on with you if can; don't eat too much (I've always found something light like a bagel to be useful). Mint-flavored gum helps settle the stomach as well as getting rid of ear pressure issues.

Also, make use of the little air-squirter thing that'll be up above you next to the light. I've always found the cold air jet comforting amidst the too-warm, over-breathed air in the cabin.

Get something lightweight-ish to read--don't expect to be able to focus deeply on anything. (I like short stories when I fly and don't read them often otherwise--the smaller bits are somehow easier to digest.)
posted by dlugoczaj at 2:53 PM on July 11, 2011

it's cheaper to buy toothpaste & travel size shampoo at your destination than pay $25 to check your bag
posted by askmehow at 2:54 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Okay, no, I can see for your first conscious flight a window seat is a big deal. I retract my "fuck this".
posted by neuromodulator at 2:54 PM on July 11, 2011

Air travel is extremely safe, by far the safest mode of travel per kilometer and one of the safest per hour.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 2:56 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

It is very dry inside airplanes. Make sure that you have a beverage. I think you can still buy them at the overpriced concourse side of things once you're through the security checkpoint -- but I haven't flown in a few years, and they change the rules a lot.

Taking off and landing is a lot of fun, if you can ditch the hard-wired primate fear of leaving the ground and concentrate instead on: whoa, we're fucking flying. Dramamine might help with this, since it's a mild tranquilizer - it'll also take care of any motion sickness you may or may not have.

Maybe this just happens to me, but I only ever experience turbulence when I am in the tiny closet-sized bathrooms. Make use of anything that can work as a handhold, even if you don't think you'll need it. I cannot stress this enough.
posted by cmyk at 2:57 PM on July 11, 2011

- wear comfortable clothes and shoes[you'll be walking or standing a lot] if possible without a belt, because you'll have to take it off at security [it's a small annoyance].
- layer clothes. Temperature changes will occur. Plus, you'll be able to use the extra layer as a pillow if you get tired/warm on the plane.
- don't forget to bring a snack with you on the plane [your flight is probably long,]

- bring an empty [no liquid inside it] water bottle. you can fill it up after go through security at one of the drinking fountains.

- You'll probably want a carry-on [that you bring with you onto the airplane and you'll have access to at all times, unless you decide to put in a bin that is above your seat, which means you can't access it take off, and landing, if when there's turbulence - turbulence is some slight shaking of the plane, due to weather, wind patterns].

For your carry-on, your bookbag from high school is a good bet. Note: can't have any liquids over 3oz in them. Bring stuff in it that you would want to survive with for the next 24-36 hours, in case your luggage gets lost, stolen.
in the carry-on, somethings you'll want in there:
- any medications you need
- toothbrush, deodorant, travel sized toothpastes [less than 3oz]
- some small, dense food that doesn't make a lot of noise eating it and can be smushed. I like trail mix, beef jerky, clif bars.
- ipod or your preferred digital audio player
- reading material
- cell phone/ipod charger.
- a change of clothes
- cash [avoid ATM fees and in case Matt ditches you - haha].

- I also agree with the window seat. you get great views of the sky, particularly in the morning.
- the plane may shake. don't worry.
posted by fizzix at 2:58 PM on July 11, 2011

if you are flying on the smaller Airbus models (A-318, A319, A320) which is likely if you fly Delta, Virgin America, or jetBlue, you might hear a loud mechanical whirring/dog bark sound before you take off as plane is at gate or taxiing. It is OK, it is the hydraulic system. Apparently Airbus planes hydraulics are louder than Boeing planes, but you usually can't hear it on the larger airbus models. Airbuses are usually quieter inside in general - it is just this one thing.

Could scare the crap out of you if you don't know what it is.

Pee before you get on the plane, if there is turbulence you could be stuck in your seat with a near bursting bladder. PS - Contrary to advice upthread, if seatbelt sign is on, don't get up. Don't be one of those people. Pilots can't micro-pinpoint every bump and if the seatbelt sign is on it is for a reason. Anyone up and about (other than F/As) who get hurt during turbulence kind of brought it upon themselves.

nthing window seat.

If you fly into or out of LGA, then you can definitely get some thrilling Manhattan shots. Now in the summer the landing pattern for LGA is very often right up the east river, sharp turn over the Bronx and you are in LGA.

For JFK, at least for me as someone who majored in coastal geology in University, seeing Jamaica bay, and all the barrier islands on Long Island is a thrill. It must have been an extraordinary tidal ecosystem before civilization. You can see why New York harbor gave rise to a city like New York, it is a huge excellent harbor.

If you fly into EWR, well you'll see a lot of factories. (Plus the NY skyline but more distant than for LGA)
posted by xetere at 2:59 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you drink coffee, cut back a bit on the day you're flying. Empty your bladder before boarding. Boarding takes forever, so don't rush to get on the plane. Just means you have to sit longer. Definitely have a bottle of water but don't drink any until the plane takes off.

Don't let your boss order too many drinks, even if he says he just likes to collect the little bottles.
posted by perhapses at 3:00 PM on July 11, 2011

If you've had a cold or any kind of stuffiness or congestion in the previous few days, you'll probably find that while you feel fine, your ears won't pop with altitude change as easily as they should. This isn't noticeable on the way up, but can be very painful on the descent (usually about 20 minutes preceding the landing). You might also notice a baby or babies start not just crying during the descent, but screaming their heads off, because they're in pain due to recent or present congestion, and nothing can stop or sooth that pain.

So if you have been recently congested, bring some strong decongestants, just in case. And bring some boiled sweets or something to suck on, as the constant swallowing action helps too.

You can store your carry-on in the locker above, or under the seat in front. I prefer the under the seat because it means I can easily get to my snacks/books/gadgets etc, without climbing over people to get to the overhead bin (you'll have to climb over people to get to the bin because you'll be in the window seat, because this is your first flight, so it's The Rules that you have to spend the flight with your nose (and/or camera) pressed into the perspex window pane). I'm tall, so that doesn't leave much leg room, but generally I can slide a foot onto each side of the bag and get a little bit of room.
posted by anonymisc at 3:02 PM on July 11, 2011

Read the little security pamphlet. In an emergency, it may (or may not) help. I would rather not die because I didn't read the directions.
posted by punchtothehead at 3:03 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, when the plane is pointed down the runway, and they open the throttle, and the acceleration pushes you (slightly) into the back of your seat... reflect on the enormous size and mass of the aircraft, and consider the raw power involved in giving more acceleration to something so huge, than even a hundred-plus horsepower can manage on your car.

Now there's a throttle that would be fun to push to the metal! :-)
posted by anonymisc at 3:07 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

@Fizzix wait, you're actually a real intern ?! I assumed you were just an in-joke among the mods and regulars.

You know what they say about assuming... Yes I am an actual intern, not an in-joke between moderators. Have you not seen my daily Mefi Intern blog?
posted by Dominic. Allen at 3:07 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Even though I have come to hate flying because of how crowded the seats are and the security theater, I still love the take off. It's magic! And I love banking. And yes, I always get a window seat and complain as much as I dare whenever the attendant tells me to close it so that "the other passengers can enjoy [sic]" the bowdlerized version of Transformers 3 or whatever movie they've decided to foist on us.

Bring your own headphones.
Bring an empty, clear water bottle so you can fill it up once you're through security.
Bring your own trail mix or dried fruit.
Bring underpants and a toothbrush in your carryon.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:09 PM on July 11, 2011

Window seat. Even if you don't look out of the window at all, even if you close the blind before takeoff because it would make you airsick to look out of it, it's still nice to have the fuselage to lean against when you're sleepy.

Dramamine is just diphenhydramine, which is an antihistamine that's also sold as a sleep aid. So look in the allergy section and the sleep aid section and get whatever diphenhydramine is cheapest.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:09 PM on July 11, 2011

Bring snacks. Food is usually served towards the beginning of the flight so by the time you're flying over, say, Ohio you might be hungry again. As far as I know there are no rules about non-liquid foods. (I might avoid bringing something salty, though, just because it'll make you thirsty.)
posted by madcaptenor at 3:13 PM on July 11, 2011

US Airline pilots are really good, and planes are in good condition. It's safe.

The world, as seen from above, is beautiful, even clouds are lovely.

The middle seat is a drag.

There are a lot of ask.me questions about flying.

Airline food is not great - bring some food, or pay a lot for limited choices.

Planes are noisy - bring earplugs. Now some airlines show ads on a screen 12 inches from your face - bring a bandanna to cover it.

Airlines always stock bloody mary mix. I always drink it on ice when flying. tasty.
posted by theora55 at 3:13 PM on July 11, 2011

You might want to bring some gum to chew to help equalize the air pressure in your ears with that in the cabin ("popping your ears").

Some people have issues with this and others don't. If you've never experienced a rapid change in altitude before, you might not know if you will have problems before you get on the plane.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 3:18 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Watch the scene in Up In The Air where Clooney and the young woman [also taking her first flight] arrive at the airport for a good primer on getting through the airport quickly.

My specific advice: divide the stuff in your carryon into related areas and put each in a separate ziploc or mesh bag [chargers, camera stuff, flash drives, etc]. If your bag gets picked to be searched, it's awesome to be able to empty it into easily inspected chunks and then pack it back up in seconds.

If you're bringing your clothes in a carryon, don't bury anything in the clothes. Clothes in the suitcase, then bagged chargers or poker chips or jumprope or whatever stuff on top of the clothes. Again, the idea is that when the TSA dude opens your bag, he doesn't have to go rummaging around. The thing that set off the extra search is sitting right there on top when he opens the bag, not buried down amongst your undies. He's got an idea of what set it of, so when he opens it up and sees an Altoid tin with a couple AAs in it right on top, he'll take that out, set it aside, and run the bag through the xray again without pulling every last thing out of the bag.

When you go through security, you'll need to:
  1. take off your shoes [sometimes they want them in a bin by themselves, sometimes on the belt by themselves, sometimes they can go in a bin with your jacket/belt/wallet; the TSA dudes will probably be yelling this as you approach]
  2. take off your belt and any other metal stuff. I wear a web belt which allows me to just pull the buckle off the belt as I go through.
  3. have your little bag of 3-oz toiletries out of your bag and in the bin with belt/jacket/etc [another reason why it shouldn't be buried]
  4. have your laptop out of its bag, unless you've got one of those TSA-friendly "butterfly" bags like mine. In that case, your laptop has to be by itself on the one side, you can't have cords or whatnot over there with it.
Oh, and that Airbus noise...sounds like someone's down below the floor changing a tire with an air ratchet. Unnerving the first few times you hear it.
posted by chazlarson at 3:18 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just here to nth:

- Window seat for your first flight. After that, aisle is easier to get in and out of.
- Bring entertainment.
- Empty bladder before boarding.
- You're quite likely to wait on the runway at JFK or LGA coming or going.
- Layers.
- Hydrate/walk periodically.
- Planes are loud and likely bouncy at times during a 6 hour flight.
- Whohooooo, you're flying!!!!

Only rush the plane at boarding if you have a big-ish bag you think may be tough to fit in the overhead compartments.

I am probably in the minority on this, but I like to bring a real pillow on long flights. Makes it so much easier for me to sleep (especially if I have a window seat to lean against.) I also bring earplugs and a face mask.

Don't tell the internets when your boss is going to be away from home.
posted by semacd at 3:25 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice here, particularly about drinking, bathrooms, and carry-ons.

For footwear I suggest a pair of low boots if you own them over shoes that tie (worst) or slip-ons (not good). A friend whose parents work for the NTSB as crash investigators has told me that in the extremely unlikely instance of a survivable crash, the one thing that makes the most difference in your survival is keeping your shoes on. It means you can get out of/away from the plane more quickly.

The fact that this is directly contradictory to having to take your shoes off for security in most airports is one of life's cruelties. Low boots are the best compromise I've found between the TSA and the NTSB.
posted by immlass at 3:35 PM on July 11, 2011

I love flying. Work sends me everywhere. Here's what I hate, so you can avoid these things:

-Don't line up as soon as they announce boarding. Most US airlines (Southwest being a notable exception) board by group number now, so frequent fliers get on first followed by group 1, group 2, and so on. If you're in group 4 and you stand in front of the little boarding kiosk, you are slowing everyone down. The plane won't leave without you.
-Decide ahead of time if you want to stow your bag in the overhead and get out the things you might want before you board (headphones, book, little neck pillow thingie) so you can just throw your bag up there and sit down quickly.
-Be pleasant! Flight attendants' first priority is your safety; all the dispensing of drinks and food is secondary to that. They are not flying waiters and waitresses (not that you should treat those people badly, either). Same goes for gate attendants, check-in people, and the TSA folks. A smile and a thank-you will go a lot further than getting annoyed and yelling.

If you're worried about getting sick on the airplane, there is good news and bad. A coworker of mine did some research into this and modeled the airflow inside a typical airplane cabin. Turns out that the cabin air tends to circulate around the circumference of the cabin but not travel up and down the length very much. So, if someone within a row of you is coughing and sneezing you might be out of luck, but any further from that and you've got a very low risk of catching something.
posted by backseatpilot at 3:58 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

No matter what weird sounds you hear, look for the flight attendants. If they're chilling in the jump seat, chatting with their co-workers, or still serving drinks, everything is fine.
posted by headspace at 4:08 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might want to check out the classic, "Cortex Sees America" for some travel tips as well.
posted by effluvia at 4:20 PM on July 11, 2011

Pack light and carry on (don't check).
posted by hapax_legomenon at 4:28 PM on July 11, 2011

Something that an aeronautical engineer, flight instructor and test pilot wrote on a forum that I used to frequent went something like this:

Don't be alarmed by any noise that the plane makes. Expect to hear roaring, whining, whirring, grinding, thuds, thumps and even the occasional bangs; these, at all sorts of pitches and volumes, are fine. The only scary sound in an aircraft is total silence. As long as you can hear the engines running and the air conditioning hissing you can relax, because all is right with the world.

Other than that, flying is dull and dehydrating. Get a window seat (unless you have long legs and it's a long flight, in which case get aisle), bring a book and drink plenty of water.
posted by metaBugs at 4:37 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

[few comments removed - be helpful or step off, thanks]
posted by jessamyn at 4:43 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Window seat, definately --- because the plane will be pretty high, your best view will be at takeoff and landing, or of large geographical features (someone upthread mentioned the Continental Divide). If you're flying at night and you're lucky, flying over a thunderstorm is *amazing*: watching lighting fill up the clouds below you? Awesome.

Airsickness --- if you don't normally get motion-sick (carsick, seasick, etc.), you probably won't get airsick, and vice versa. I wouldn't go the Dramamine route unless you already know how it affects you, though.

Pack snacks (trail mix, water, etc.).
posted by easily confused at 4:43 PM on July 11, 2011

Seconding the ears thing. I hate, hate, hate the ear popping -- or lack thereof. I bring good earphones (either nicely fitted in-ears or noise cancelling over the ears), gum (only because it makes you swallow saliva a lot) and yawn a lot to try to make the ear/head thing stop.

If you get motion sick at all, don't bother reading or writing -- just watch something stupid on an iPad or listen to mellow music. There's a reason that Us Weekly and stupid books sell in the airport -- planes and heavy mental process thinking don't mix.
posted by Gucky at 4:44 PM on July 11, 2011

Tomato juice is an excellent tradition, IMO. It tastes better on the plane somehow. It's also a very tiny throwback to the good old days when flying was a big deal and slightly more glamorous. I realize this sounds insane now that I've typed it out, but give it a shot.

Have your security drill all planned out per earlier advice. I keep everything out of pockets so it's easier to get through. Wear shoes that go on and off quickly. Wear comfortable clothing and have a fleece or light layer in case there's crazy air conditioning somewhere.

I recommend packing light and not checking your bags.

Have your papers (boarding pass, ID) somewhere you can get to them easily.

This will show my age, but don't wear your scuzziest clothing. You don't have to wear Sunday best, either, but I really think that you get better service IN SOME CASES by dressing just halfway decently rather than jean shorts and dirty flip flops. Also stay off my lawn.

Have fun! My dad was a pilot and my mom a flight attendant/stewardess and I've done this a lot. I would be happy to answer any MeMailed questions if you'd like.
posted by theredpen at 4:47 PM on July 11, 2011

A lot of people have mentioned to wear easy-to-take-off shoes among the other good bits of advice, but I see no mention of WEAR SOCKS so far. It is nasty going through a TSA checkpoint barefoot.

Wear socks.

Have fun!
posted by vers at 5:06 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Downside: People smell.
Upside: eat lots of beans and blame it on the dark haired guy with glasses sitting next to you.
posted by plinth at 5:09 PM on July 11, 2011

I don't like flying much but I do it a fair bit. I realized after a while that I think about death a lot when I fly (my own of course). As I revealed this to people, people on the ground mind you, I learned that about half of flyers seem to do the same thing. So, if you find yourself thinking about who is going to miss you and how much, don't worry about it. It's normal. A vote for earplugs, the soft cheap silicon type. Not for engine noise. That's nothin'. They are for babies having meltdowns. And I'm pro-baby.
posted by Prayless at 5:10 PM on July 11, 2011

Don't sit with your nose glued to the window pane the whole time. I did that on my first airplane flight and landed with wicked crick in my neck.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:11 PM on July 11, 2011

I had the same experience recently. Enjoy the wonder of soaring above the crowd.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:49 PM on July 11, 2011

I happen to be really pressure-sensitive--sometimes my ears pop in the elevators of tall buildings or when driving through steep valleys. If that's ever happened to you, do this:

Bring gum. Chew the gum. Don't wait to find out whether your ears will give you pain on pressure changes, just chew the gum and avoid it to start with! Another good trick is to plug your nose, close your mouth, and blow--make your cheeks puff out like a monkey face. You'll feel an expanding sensation in your ears, and it may help to relieve pressure.

Bring lots of gum.
posted by equivocator at 5:53 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

food is now served in plastic wrap

That's more like a description of the halcyon days, long ago. It's the norm not to serve food on domestic flights. The only exception is that they might hand out something very small like pretzels or crackers. But I fly a lot and the only times I've been served an actual meal on a flight in the past decade has been on international flights. So I like to bring my own food, either from home or from one of the stores in the airport (which is more convenient but will cost more than you'd normally pay for the same food, due to the law of supply and demand).

Long flights (2 hours or longer?) have a free beverage service with soda, juice, coffee, tea, and water.
posted by John Cohen at 6:02 PM on July 11, 2011

But I fly a lot and the only times I've been served an actual meal on a flight in the past decade has been on international flights.

Last time I flew there was in theory a "meal" (well, a ripoff sandwich, but that counts, sort of) but there was turbulence before they got to my row and somehow they never got started again. Fortunately I had snacks!

But I still ended up buying overpriced food at the airport I landed at, which seemed seriously wrong.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:05 PM on July 11, 2011

My own rule of thumb: If the flight attendants don't look nervous then I can relax.
posted by ian1977 at 6:09 PM on July 11, 2011

Long flights (2 hours or longer?) have a free beverage service with soda, juice, coffee, tea, and water.

Unless your plane is really big and it's late at night, they do beverage service on short flights (e.g. 40 minutes ATL to SAV), too.

Another thing I don't see mentioned yet, read your in-flight magazine (found in the seat back pocket)! Not for the articles, though, since those are all just thinly veiled ads. Flip to the back pages as soon as you sit down: they list the various amenities on the flight.

It'll tell you what kind of radio stations (if any) are available, what kind of beverage options are available (one airline, I forget which, has Vitamin Water available if you ask, but the flight attendants don't say it as an option when they're walking down the plane, and what movie (if any) is playing. They'll also have diagrams of the various major airports, if you want to map out your landing plan before you get off the plane.

If you're flying Delta, some of the newer planes have little screens in back of the headrests. These are awesome. There's a trivia game on there, and you can play against other people on the plane (lists their seat number and everything), which can lead to pretty fierce rivalries and taunting on long flights. (All in good fun, of course.)
posted by phunniemee at 6:12 PM on July 11, 2011

Oh! Here is a tip. If you are anything like me...despite bringing a book, you will most likely end up looking at the crap in SkyMall. At first you'll just flip through quickly. But then a sense of completion will make you read each description, even the boring ones. Do yourself a favor and just look at half of it. Then you will have something to look forward to on the return flight.

(I really want that Sasquatch lawn statue.)
posted by ian1977 at 6:18 PM on July 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

There is a point about 40 minutes before landing (on flights significantly longer than 40 min, obviously) when the plane will start drifting downwards. It's subtle, but I find it disconcerting, like maybe the pilot's not paying attention and the plane's flying itself, until I work out that we're almost there and they're just getting ready to land. If you do notice, it's a good time to go to the loo one last time, as it also means that the seatbelt sign is about to go on.
posted by kjs4 at 6:21 PM on July 11, 2011

posted by Jason and Laszlo at 6:43 PM on July 11, 2011

Upthread, there's a comment about not putting your laptop last. If you have two bags (a roll-aboard and a backpack/purse/messenger bag, for instance) and have to put stuff like your laptop in bins, I think it helps to put the bins in between.

So for example, I usually send it through the scanner like: (1) roll-aboard; (2) bin with my shoes and coat; (3) bin with my laptop; (4) backpack.

I think this way you're less likely to forget the stuff in the bins, because you might overlook a bin at the end if you're in a rush or nervous, but you probably won't forget a whole bag that you brought with you; you just collect everything in between your two bags and you're fine.

(Psychologically, this also makes me feel like it's less likely that somebody will steal stuff in the bins, even though this is totally an utterly stupid thought. But it makes me feel better!)
posted by andrewesque at 6:47 PM on July 11, 2011

Adding my voice to those suggesting you drink tomato juice on the plane. I almost never drink it unless I'm on a plane but almost crave it when I am flying. I have done an unofficial poll of friends and family on this and it seems I'm not the only one. I don't know why but it tastes better in the air.

I'd also suggest travel/pressure socks. I find whenever I fly even a short 1/2 hour flight I will get swollen ankles. On longer flights 2 hours plus they can get very painful and make me almost want to cry, so now I wear travel socks and I have no problems. I have no other circulation problems so I have no idea why it hits me so bad, they also help with blood clots etc.

Other than that what everyone else said. Oh and ask people if you have any questions, I have always found airport staff, both on the plane and in the airports helpful if I ask in a friendly and open manner for directions or help. Well except for at LAX, but LAX is hell in the form of an airport so the normal rules don't apply there.
posted by wwax at 7:06 PM on July 11, 2011

The highest value travel tip I have is this: make your luggage (either check-in or carry-on) easier to identify by adding any bright unique non-metallic doodad to its handle. I use friendship bracelets as I always have embroidery thread around. The ability to identify your bag immediatey and with 100% confidence will save you time and worry.
posted by Meagan at 8:29 PM on July 11, 2011

Repeating what many others have said, but:

1. Be grateful you're not doing the 25 hour flight (including a 4 hour airport stopover) that I have coming up.
2. Enjoy take off. Like someone said upthread, feeling a machine that huge accelerate itself and all it's occupants and cargo to a speed where it can just drift up into the air, on cue, is kinda incredible.
2. Yeah, grab a window seat if you can, for your first "adult" flight. Future flights - go the aisle seat.
3. Water
4. Noise cancelling headphones
5. Bring your own entertainment: book, iPod, whatever...
6. Comfortable, layered clothing
7. Enjoy landing. Someone else mentioned that slight descent you might feel about 40 minutes before landing. That is a GOOD TIME! That means you'll be able to get out of that flying cigar-container soon!\
8. [on preview] What Meagan says. Put some ribbons or something on your checked luggage so it's easy to identify at the far end of the flight, when all you want to do is get your bag off that damned carousel and get out of the airport.

Disclaimer: Not looking forward to my 25 hour flight
posted by Diag at 8:37 PM on July 11, 2011

Expect lots of people to give you advice, but don't sweat anything. People over-stress air travel, but its only as stressy as you make it.

Unlike some other ways of getting around, in air travel the system operates by assuming you are cargo, so you may as well act like it. This is not a bad thing as its what makes air travel relatively cheap and efficient. (For those who hate being cargo, I can only recommend paying more and travelling first class. Or not going.)

Tell the people you interact with that its your first time or that you haven't done this before. Most air travellers and the staff involved do it all the time and often can't seem to grasp that its a bit of a mystery to first timers. Telling them its your first time is your inviting them to help you through the interaction, rather than treat you like an idiot.
posted by jjderooy at 8:45 PM on July 11, 2011

posted by neuromodulator at 9:04 PM on July 11, 2011

Do you journal at all? You may want to bring a pen and paper. Traveling by airplane puts me in a very introspective space, and I usually fail to bring the materials I need to really take advantage of that. The flight to Portland is particularly good for this but I don't know why.
posted by emkelley at 9:11 PM on July 11, 2011

Window seat so you can lean on the side! (Unless you have some kind of abnormally small bladder... pee in the airport before your flight, pee in the airport when you land--you will want to stretch and wash your face anyway... five hours is not that long to hold it.)

You might find these survival tips for Unplanned Freefall to be helpful.

If you have some extra space in your bag, consider packing a pillowcase. One, you can use it to contain your jacket and as many tiny pillows as you can scrounge so that you have a real pillow to lean against, and two, sometimes it's nice to have a normal smelling pillow when you're in a hotel. (I have been known to pack an entire pillow, but I'm weird.)

Generally agree that all long trips, plane, train, boat, or car, are interesting at the beginning, interesting at the end, and pretty boring in the middle.
posted by anaelith at 9:46 PM on July 11, 2011

Be pleasant to all TSA agents and flight attendants but do not make any jokes or contradict anything they say. Turn off your electronics immediately when the flight attendants tell you to. They have the power to get you thrown off the plane or arrested on arrival if they take offense at anything you say or do.

Don't ever put your iPod or tablet in the seat pocket in front of you. A fast recline from in front can crush your stuff and it's easy to forget stuff in the pocket when deplaning.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 11:17 PM on July 11, 2011

If you want to look out the window, sit on the shady side of the plane, left side eastbound, right side westbound.

Drink water at every opportunity. Void your bladder at every opportunity.
posted by Bruce H. at 12:12 AM on July 12, 2011

Turbulence can be scary but isn't dangerous. The plane is not more likely to plummet when undergoing turbulence. Seriously. Keep telling yourself that.
posted by troywestfield at 6:50 AM on July 12, 2011

The bathrooms are tiny, and the toilets make a sudden, loud, freaky noise when they flush.
posted by illenion at 10:07 AM on July 12, 2011

I get motion sickness and the seasickness patch works best for me (plus it lasts up for 72 hours). For OTC solutions, I prefer Bonine (Meclizine) over Dramamine (Dimenhydrinate) as it's a single 24 hour dose and doesn't make me as groggy. (I believe the new "less drowsy" Dramamine is also Meclizine these days as well.)
posted by kathryn at 11:41 AM on July 12, 2011

More normal stuff that could seem potentially scary: the plane sometimes makes ping noises, when the seatbelt sign goes on or off or sometimes seemingly at random. Sometimes they have meanings but that varies by airline. As everyone else has said, this doesn't mean it's broken. Also, there's lights of different colors in the middle of the roof, that may go on and off.

Also, the windows look double or triple glassed but sometimes have a small hole in one of the layers, and sometimes a spot of water in it. Again, nothing bad happened.
You have to leave the window shades up for take off and landing but otherwise can do what you like with them.

If you're worried about the having to get out quickly from a smoke filled cabin (!) then you can count the number of rows between you and each of the exits once you're in your seat.

The overhead lockers may shake far more than you think is healthy during take-off/landing/turbulence. Again, normal.

When you're looking at the wings, you'll be able to see them change shape when you're taking off/landing and in flight. On one of the planes I've been on (can't remember which) the outer cover of the engine raises up to slow it down too.
posted by kg at 1:50 PM on July 12, 2011

Most of the other advice has been covered, so I encourage you to play the game my girlfriend and I invented for airports:

On every long pair of moving sidewalks, attempt to get as many people as possible from the other side to give you a high five. It's awesome, especially when folks go for the slow ones and let the moving sidewalks do the work.

Younger people are generally better options, military folks will almost always do it, and try not to spook people or go for folks whose hands are all full.
posted by klangklangston at 5:20 PM on July 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

I have absolutely no attention span when I'm flying (and the anti-anxiety drugs I take on planes don't help). On my last flight, which was all of 24 hours ago, I had a tablet computer with a variety of mindless games, a page-turner of a book, my iPhone with some TV episodes I like, and snacks, and I leapt from one to the other to another like a flea.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:26 PM on July 13, 2011

Coming into this thread late because I just got back from South America (on a plane!).

Really good advise upthread about packing etc.

I really really really hate flying, and I get very anxious at even a hint of turbulence. That said, I find that if I take one or two Dramamine right before takeoff then (1) I become extremely calm for the whole flight and (2) I fall asleep almost immediately. If I take it too early, then I'm asleep before takeoff and the takeoff wakes me right back up.
posted by dabug at 12:16 PM on July 14, 2011

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