advice for a first time flyer!
March 15, 2008 11:37 AM   Subscribe

In about two and a half months, I'm going on my first flight. What should I know, or otherwise be prepared for?

At 21, I'm not only taking my first international flight, but my first flight, period. (Okay so technically I've been on a plane before, but it was a tiny one and just went over the city, and I was pretty young and only vaguely remember it so I don't really count that.)

So basically, my question is: what kind of advice can you offer, or what sort of things should I know about or be prepared for during my first ever flight? How long before the flight should I arrive at the airport? Will my ears pop? Will there be loud noises that sound like something bad but are actually completely normal? Things that might be a good idea to bring on the plane with me that I might not even think of? I feel pretty confident in saying that I don't think I'll freak out too much, but knowing what to expect will definitely help me out a bit.

Thanks in advance!
posted by lisawin to Travel & Transportation (51 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You'll hear the gear stow and deploy at the beginning and end of the flight. It occasionally sounds kind of loud/grinding and involves a thump or two (when the gear deploy before landing, I usually feel it). All perfectly okay!

If you're going internationally show up 2 hours early. For some reason my international flights always have the longest check-in lines (more people checking luggage, maybe? Not sure). At any rate your luggage needs to be checked in 60-90 mins before, so it's a good idea to make sure you have plenty of time to deal with that. Don't forget your passport.
posted by olinerd at 11:39 AM on March 15, 2008

Take cues from the people around you. If you're freaking out, but everyone else is still reading their newspaper/book, then that strange sound or sudden drop wasn't anything to worry about.
posted by sbutler at 11:44 AM on March 15, 2008

Yeah, you'd be surprised how many people forget their passports when travelling internationally.

Bring some books. I usually bring a couple of those silicone earplugs because there is nothing worse than a loooooooooong flight with a crying (expletive deleted) baby two seats behind you. If you take medications you might need make sure they are in carry-on but, and this is important, make sure the labels are all clear and have your name on them. Some medications you will not want to take to certain places; if you are flying in to Singapore I wouldn't bring Xanax if I knew what was good for me, for example.

Depending on the airport and time of your flight you might need to show up more than 2 hours early. Last time I flew out of LAX I showed up 4 hours early and barely made my flight.
posted by Justinian at 11:44 AM on March 15, 2008

(Now that I think about it, this wasn't so long after 9/11 though so that was probably why)
posted by Justinian at 11:45 AM on March 15, 2008

Depending on whether your flight originates or lands in the US, there will be security checks. You've never flown before, but these days security checks can be a real hassle (compared to pre-9/11 days).

As for changes in air pressure: airplane cabins are pressure-controlled, but not perfectly, so your ears might pop at some point as the pressure inside is adjusted. Nothing to be worried about really.

Pay attention to the stewards/ stewardesses who'll give a safety briefing at the beginning of the flight. Most people'll never have to use what they tell you, but if it comes in handy you'll be glad you paid attention.

I'd suggest 3-4 hours early in case of some unforeseen snag; some airports seem to have a propensity for delaying people, e.g. London's Heathrow. Factor in the early luggage check-in requirements and you'll need a lot of time to minimise any chance of missing the flight.

When choosing seats, try SeatGuru! It can save your life! (Depending again on how long the flight is and what class of flight you're taking. If you're taking a trans-Atlantic flight this is absolutely crucial.)

Airplanes usually only have accidents at landing or take-off, so if you're going to freak out those are the best times. (Kidding!)
posted by WalterMitty at 11:46 AM on March 15, 2008

Bring (airport sized) facewash and a small towel. At the end of international flights I find nothing better than going to the bathroom (abour an hour before landing - before the rush as to not slow down anyone), and washing my face, reapplying makeup, even putting my contacts/taking off glasses (wearing glasses is easier cause you can sleep better). You feel better and refreshed when you get off.

Entertainment for yourself (a book, a journal is usually too short, maybe mp3 player). Laptop is useless unless you're positive you'll have an outlet.

Planes are very noisy; good headphones help if you're planning to listen to music; noises are nothing to be worried about. Mostly its a really really loud white noise, with the exception of take off and landing as mentioned above.

Your ears will pop a couple of times rising and a couple of times landing - having some candy to suck on is supposed to help. Generally some snacks are nice - you can munch on your own schedule, and not the plane's.

I like planes because they are a transition between there and here - enjoy the flight!
posted by olya at 11:50 AM on March 15, 2008

Your ears may pop or they might not. You might lose your hearing a little and need to clear your ears, you can do that by closing your mouth, holding your nose, and blowing hard.
posted by fire&wings at 11:51 AM on March 15, 2008

Don't joke about bombs while standing in the security line. Wear socks unless you don't mind walking barefoot through the metal detector. Don't refer to the TSA people as Agents of the Great Satan to their faces.
posted by found missing at 11:57 AM on March 15, 2008

Flights longer than an hour are boring. You can only make so much small talk with the person in the next seat over, so bring books and maybe a portable DVD player if that's more your bag.
posted by cmonkey at 12:17 PM on March 15, 2008

Try to limit the amount of carry-on baggage you have.

Make sure that you pack or bring suitcases so it's easy to wheel them around without the help of a baggage cart.

When you check in, ask for a seat next to the emergency exit. Usually there is more leg room.

Keep valuables and passports close to you at all times...don't leave them in the overhead luggage compartment.

Wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off during the flight.

Always wear shoes when going to the bathroom, especially towards the end of the flight, when the lavatories can get quite dirty.

When I took my first international flight at age 23 (a 12 hour flight from Vancouver to Seoul) I thought I would go insane from boredom. There comes a certain point in the flight when reading is no fun, watching movies is no fun, listening to music is no fun. The only thing to do is to get drunk.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:21 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, yeah. Try not to get drunk. If you do, make sure you drink plenty of water. Airplane hangovers can be brutal.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:22 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Bring gum. It'll help with the ear-popping and inevitable airplane-air induced drymouth. Drink water. Wear shoes that aren't too tight, or can be loosened (your feet may swell a little - it's common).

Keep your seat belt buckled when you're in your seat, regardless of what the little seatbelt sign says. Only get up to pee if the light is off. Despite technology, turbulence can still happen with no warning, and if it's really bad, stuff (including you) can and will go flying.

That said, in the hundreds of flights I've been on - domestic, international, big planes, teeny planes - I've been on only one flight where turbulence was so bad it scared me a little, and made me want to yak (though I didn't), and it only lasted a couple of minutes.

Bring more to read than you think you'll need. Make sure your earbuds are comfy if you're going to be using an mp3 player. For flights, I sometimes find that listening to podcasts is more distracting and makes the time go by faster than listening to music.

If you're using a manbag/purse/backpack/shoulderbag for the flight as a carry-on, and it's one you often use in the rest of your life, purge it before you pack it. That little pocket knife that you carry around so much you forget it's there? Don't bring it. Nail scissors with pointy tips? Nix. Tube of lotion that's more than 3 oz? (Though I've got two in my bag that keep getting carted across the country and not confiscated - I always forget to take them out! Do as I say, not as I do!)
posted by rtha at 12:24 PM on March 15, 2008

You need to stay hydrated during the flight. Taking your own water through security isn't allowed, but you can usually buy some after you go through. If you run out during the flight, just go to the galley on the plane -- there'll most likely be bottled water and cups there.

Feet often swell on a long flight -- tight shoes probably won't fit on your feet when you land.

Here's a page that shows exercises you can do on the plane to help with circulation and such.
posted by wryly at 12:26 PM on March 15, 2008

If you have any kind of head cold, take some pseudophedrine before you fly. It has only happened to me a couple of times in my life, but if your sinuses are clogged, it can be extremely painful, not to mention deafening. It's not something I can really say I have ever planned for in advance however.

You should expect to take your shoes off when you go through security.

Statistically, you have a much better chance of surviving a crash if you actually pay attention to the stewards or stewardesses when they give you safety instructions. (There was a program on Frontline or Nova about this a number of years ago.) People love to act nonchalant and bored by the instructions, because they are such sophisticated travelers, but if you want to survive a crash it is important that you know (especially) where your nearest exit is.

Keep your seatbelt fastened at all times, except when you have to get up to go to the bathroom.

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES use the water on an airplane. Studies in recent years have found that airplane water is extremely dirty. Bring hand sanitizer.
posted by thomas144 at 12:36 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

On long flights, I bring an eye mask. It helps me sleep and is a clear signal to a chatty seatmate that I'm done chatting. The reason I need to sleep is that I'm loaded with Dramamine. If you have trouble on amusement rides like rollercoasters, you might have trouble during takeoffs and landings. Dramamine helps me a lot.
posted by PatoPata at 12:38 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

For whatever reason, I've had a pocketknife confiscated out of my checked luggage, and I've heard stories of that happening to others too. If you want to have it on the other side, maybe at least pack it deep in your bag.
posted by lostburner at 12:40 PM on March 15, 2008

Another tip: if you plan to listen to music or podcasts (or even if you are just going to watch the movie), a pair of noise-cancelling headphones can be awesome. Sennheiser makes a really good, inexpensive pair. A lot of people are using larger, more expensive Bose noise-cancelling headphones but Sennheiser is the choice of nerds everywhere on long flights.
posted by thomas144 at 12:44 PM on March 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

Wear sweatpants!
posted by bertrandom at 12:55 PM on March 15, 2008

nThing the "it's astonishing how bored it's possible to get while 5 miles off the ground" thing.

I can't read in moving vehicles, so it's the iPod for me... I can't say enough good things about noise-canceling headphones: often I turn them on even if I'm not listening to music, just to cut out the incessant white noise.

By the way, it's not uncommon for even constant fliers to have heightened anxiety around flying. For a lot people it's around takeoff and landing, for some it's the general rushed feeling of the airport -- getting through various lines, making the flight, etc. For me it's a general travel pre-anxiety -- I have trouble sleeping the night before, but really enjoy the airport and the flight (until I get bored).

In any case, keep in mind that it's a very rare person indeed who finds the whole travel experience stress free. Knowing what to expect will help a lot, but some of what you should expect is that you'll be a bit stressed out at times.
posted by tkolar at 12:57 PM on March 15, 2008

One more thing; don't get on the plane with plugged sinuses. If you have bad allergies or a cold or whatever take lots of sudafed/antihistamines.

Taking off is no problem. Landing, on the other hand, can be exquisitely painful if your sinuses can't equalize pressure. It's like hot needles boring into your forehead and around your eyes.
posted by Justinian at 12:59 PM on March 15, 2008

If you choose to drink alcohol on the flight, be aware that it will affect you more profoundly than it would on the ground. So you'll get drunk faster. If you're going to a country where you're not fluent in the language, you really, really don't want to be drunk when you get there. Airports can be big, noisy, confusing places.

Most airline magazines have maps of major airports in the back. I find it nice to plan ahead and know how to get from the gate to baggage claim to transportation. Actually, just take the map with you, or the whole magazine.
posted by desjardins at 1:02 PM on March 15, 2008

You'll hear the gear stow and deploy at the beginning and end of the flight.

In novice traveller terms this means the wheels come out of their place under the plane and lock into place. It sounds scary as hell, about ten minutes in and ten minutes before you land or something like that. It's a big CLUNK sound.

I travel a few times a month and here are a few things that I do, in addition to the other good advice you've gotten (gum, packing etc). You might want to check other AskMe threads about flying or travelling generally.

- check-in - check in online if you can. This will mean you can print your boarding pass and maybe depending on the airline, choose seats. You can often do this a day in advance and it's helpful because you can do more of the at-airport check in yourself. You'll need ID at the airport to assure you're you. Don't forget your passport.
- security - They'll check your boarding pass and ID and then you wait in line. Once they've checked your passport/ID, you can put this away. you'll need to check your luggage and then bring your carryon with you through security to your gate. This involves, usually, taking off shoes, belts, emptying pockets of change/cell phones, taking laptop totally out of case, etc. The more you are prepared, the more smoothly this goes. It's often stressful, so just do whatever calmdown routine you have and you'll get through it.
- baggage - you are really limited to what you can bring in a carry on. Check with the airline. Usually you can't bring any containers of liquid more than 4 oz and everything you have in a carry-on that is a liquid/gel/paste needs to be in 1 one quart ziploc. If you do not do this your options are to throw your stuff out and/or mail it home. It's easy to be in compliance but can be confusing if you're dealing with it for the first time. Tip: put all your liquids in checked bags except some moisturizer for the trip & medicine you might need. Don't buy a drink in the airport and expect it to get through security [you can buy drinks once you're through security]. You can also not bring lighters, possibly matches and anything that might be a weapon. TSA people are generally stressed out, in my opinion, and don't always have time to explain things to you and they can be bossy.
- flight. noise, bumpiness, not enough food, tight quarters. I bring headphones and earplugs. I'm much more relaxed if there's not a jet engine hollering in my ear for ten hours. You will not have a place to plug in your laptop. You can't use your laptop or other stuff when the plane is taking off or landing. They'll announce this. You'll have a small underseat space and you can put another bag in the overhead compartment. Depending on where you're sitting, this may be hard to get to, so bring when you want handy in an under-seat bag. I tend to bring food on the plane and then ignore most of the food service stuff they offer and just zone out and read my book
- customs - if you're flying internationally this is likely to be the most annoying part of your trip. You'll have to go through customs at whatever airport is the first one you go to after the US (assuming you're in the US) even if you're continuing on someplace else. You'll need to collect your bags and then walk through with them through customs. There will be one stop where they check your passport and ask you some questions (name, where are you staying, why are you going to country X, etc) then they'll send you to someone who asks abotu your bags, anythign to declare etc. You'll get forms to fill out for this on the plane and you can ask the people on the plane if you have questions. It shoudl be pretty standard, but if you have food in your luggage they'll ask you a lot about it. I always got grilled when I brought maple syrup to other countries.

Generally, if you're not the freakout type, you shoudl be okay. There are a lot of weird rules and a lot of rule enforcers who can be a pain to deal with but if you don't get really aggressive with them, you'll often do just fine.
posted by jessamyn at 1:05 PM on March 15, 2008 [6 favorites]

Statistically, you have a much better chance of surviving a crash if you actually pay attention to the stewards or stewardesses when they give you safety instructions.

Listen to it and pay attention, yes. But I worry that all this attention on safety is going to get you worried. Flying via airplane is actually one of the safest means of travel. Think back to your days in grade school, when you'd have fire drills seemingly every month: I used to be all worried that the school was going to burn down any minute since they always talked about what to do when the school would inevitably burst into flames and kill us all. But I think it's astronomically more likely that my house would have burned down than my school. They're just being insanely cautious.

sbutler's "Take cues from the people around you." is perhaps the best advice here. If you've never flown before, a lot of seemingly-scary things are going to happen, including: lights flickering/dimming/going out during takeoff, violent shaking during takeoff, turbulence in the air causing you to feel like the plane is dropping out of the sky, and, on landing, bouncing and screeching. If you've never flown before, you may have about 20 different occasions to think, "I'm about to die!" when, in actuality, nothing out of the ordinary is happening.

I'd worry mostly about airport security. Make sure you know all the rules about not bringing liquids above 1.75 (?) ounces in your carry-on, and so forth. Double-check that you didn't stash your handgun in your carry-on bag (oddly, people actually forget this... somehow). Expect to be inconvenienced and annoyed at security, and to wait a long time.

I think the worst thing is you're always kind of excited about where you're going, with a bit of anxiety about the flight. So overall, you're really freaking anxious. And then you just... sit there... on the runway.... for hours. Nothing in aviation is ever on time (unless you are running late, in which case, things mysteriously start running ahead of schedule). Recently, my ~45-minute flight from JFK to Boston was delayed about two hours, and then, when we finally go on the plane, sat for at least another hour. If you're prone to anxiety (maybe I'm just projecting onto other people), expect the most awful feeling of suspense.

Get there very early, but if you do get held up (e.g., at security or customs or whatever), know that things usually work out--especially when it's the airport's own doings, airlines tend to be accommodating in getting you onto another flight.

Oh! Be nice to the flight attendants. They're probably stressed and used to rude people, but I've discovered only recently (sadly) that if you're friendly to them, they're awesome people. They don't advertise it, but there's usually lots of extra snacks / soda / etc. on board. (13 hours on one plane and you start to learn all sorts of these helpful little things...)

For some reason, air travel brings out the worst in some people. Expect to sit next to someone annoying, and to have some crazy lady try to cut you, in the most edgy and confrontational manner possible, in line at security. When you forget to take off your belt with a metal buckle going through security, don't expect the security guard to smile.

Above all: don't take any of our advice too seriously. Flying is safe and can be quite fun. Read the advice here to know what to expect, but know what we're mostly pointing out the worst-case scenarios of what to expect, and how to guard against unlikely problems. Chances are that you'll have a pleasant, enjoyable flight.
posted by fogster at 1:11 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Carry some chewing gum. Swallowing saliva help with ear popping by drawing down any blockages in your Eustachian tubes, pulling air through to equalize the pressure. Make sure you're plenty hydrated. Water helps equalize the pressure, too. Have a Seven & Seven (or your favorite cocktail) and a meal of some sort before you get on. Make sure it's got protein and salt. Remember Ford's advice in Hitchhiker's?

On the plane, take a couple benedryl, sit back, put in your earbuds (when the captain say's it's ok) and relax. Heck, if you have some vicodins or oxycontins, one of those'll do the trick, too. But limit your alcohol if you do.

Have another drink or two on the plane every couple of hours, along with snacks and water.

Snooze away the flight, but if you wake up with leg cramps, make sure to get up and walk it off (to the lav - don't pace or you'll probably get tackled).

You'll probably be a little anxious, but that's normal. Riding in an airplane is safer than crossing the street. Your pilot's job it to get you there safely. And the overwhelming majority of air travelers get there in one piece, no worse for the experience.
posted by valentinepig at 1:18 PM on March 15, 2008

  • Check in online the day before, and see if you can get a better seat.
  • Pack the day before you fly, and have a list of stuff you need to take in your hand luggage - and try and keep hand luggage small, as there's not a lot of overhead room. Remember all the gel/liquid and pointy things rules. Bring hand wipes, moisturiser, toothbrush and toothpaste (you can get travel size). Nothing worse than sleeping, and having fuzzy teeth when you arrive. Also bring earplugs and an eye mask.
  • Wear comfortable but respectable clothing. Wear layers. You might live in California/Hawaii/the sun, but planes get cold, and if it's long-haul then you'll want to be warm while you sleep.
  • Leave more time than you think to get to the airport - if going by train, get the earlier one.
  • Check your baggage - you can do self-checking, which is pretty hassle-free, especially if you've checked in online.
  • Go through security. The first thing through should be your bag, then your laptop, then the rest of your stuff. Why? So you can immediately put your expensive machine back in your bag, and have hold of it. The rest of your stuff you can scoop up and put on out of the way. I find it also helps if you stand in front of the walk-through scanner, get eye contact with the agent, wait for them to nod/wave you through. Keep your passport and ticket on you at all times.
  • If your bag needs to be opened, be polite and obey instructions. Explain things simply and plainly. Especially in the US, call the agent sir or ma'am.
  • Buy a bottle of water, some snacks etc. Depending on the time of your flight, eat some food (of the meal variety).
  • Go to your gate (in good time. If you've been delayed etc., skip the buying things/eating things phase). Don't listen to music, in case a change of gate is announced etc.
  • Board only when called. Don't be one of the idiots who rushes to queue as soon as first class is called, even though they're in the back of economy. They board first, business, economy plus and certain cardholders, then exit rows. Then they start from the front. So if you're at the rear, you're in for a wait. Of course, if you need assistance boarding, make yourself known to the agent on the desk, and you'll get priority.
  • Stow your stuff overhead if you can, or under the seat in front. Take anything you'll want immediately out of your bag, as the seatbelt sign won't go off for a bit (especially if they're serving food straight away - and they tend to serve drinks and pretzels first anyway).
  • Pay attention to the safety briefing. Check underneath your seat (or wherever) for your life jacket.
  • Relax during takeoff. There'll be whirs, bumps and grinds, and the plane will probably climb quite sharply or even bank steeply. Relax, unless everyone is freaking out.
  • If you've got a choose-your-own movie system, fire it up straight away and get going (if that's your thing). Or read or whatever. Either way, remember that people want the toilet: after takeoff; after a movie has finished (so around 1.5 hours); after drinks/meals have been given out; when the pilot makes his announcement about landing. Try and avoid these crush times (esp. the last one) by keeping an eye on the flight-tracker map, thereby knowing how far away from landing you are.
  • Walk around every so often. Stretch.
  • Fill in any immigration forms.
  • Relax for landing.
  • Go through immigration. Be courteous, answer all questions. Try and be cheerful. Don't be nervous. Say thank you at the end.
  • Find your baggage carousel. Grab your stuff. Go through customs. Preferably walk like you know where you're going, and as if you have a purpose. If stopped, be courteous. (for your return leg, don't keep the receipts of anything bought. Mail them to yourself before leaving.)
  • fin
Gah. Everyone else beat me to the punch while writing. Ah well.
posted by djgh at 1:34 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Pack light and try to avoid checking any luggage at all costs. You are allowed two carry-ons. One can be a nice compact suitcase. I can't tell you how much hassle I have saved myself by not checking bags. Stuff gets lost, stuff gets stolen, you have to wait for your bags. Much better to keep it all right above your head.

Bring hand sanitizer. Constantly reapply it during your travels. Airplanes / Airports are the worst for picking up the flu / cold, etc.

Get a window or aisle seat. Window if you want to sleep. Aisle if you like to get up.

Remember that big airplanes are incredibly well built. The plane is not going to fall apart in turbulence. Those things are designed to withstand ridiculous amounts of force

If you have two empty seats next to you, do not hesitate to lay down and build yourself a nest. As long as you have a seat belt around you, most flight attendants don't mind you laying down.
posted by jasondigitized at 1:40 PM on March 15, 2008

On my first flight, my body felt WEIRD. Random numbness, swelling, tingling. I figured out that it happened only when the plane would ascend/descend - my blood had inertia! Also, you'll be pretty gassy after the flight. Don't be surprised if you are exhausted by the end of the whole thing. One last safety tip, count how many seats away from the exit you are, ifyou need to escape then chances are that the cabin will be smoky.
Sleep, drink non-carbonated drinks.
posted by idiotfactory at 1:45 PM on March 15, 2008

One other thing, about customs. Unless you're a debonair guy who can talk his way out of murder, don't fool around at customs. No flirting. No joking. No tomfoolery. No ballyhoo. Just be straightforward and candid and things will be fine.

These people are like grocery store clerks, except customs agents have a lot more power and get paid to deny you entrance. They see hundreds of people a day; cuteness will only earn you a timeout in the corner.
posted by sbutler at 2:12 PM on March 15, 2008

There's lots of specific advice here. I fly about once a month, maybe half of the time on long international flights. I think it boils down to this for me:

- Err on the side of giving yourself too much time, rather than trying to cut it close. I would much prefer to sit at the airport with a book for an extra half an hour than be in a panic in a long security line because I tried to "just walk right onto the plane" which is now leaving in 15 minutes.

- Don't worry too much about packing the right things, etc. Worry only about having your passport and any necessary entry visas, a couple of credit cards with lots of spare balance on them (every crisis can, in the end, be solved by the judicious application of too much money), and whatever travel documents you need - ticket, e-ticket confirmation number, etc. I double check that I have these on me every time the circumstances change (I check in, I get on the planet, we're getting ready to land, I'm in the customs line, etc.) and make sure I put them in a secure place in my carry on.

- Long flights are dull as hell. Bring books and an iPod. Yeah, there'll probably be movies but they'll be bad, possibly hard to see from your seat and invariably something you've just finished watching at home on DVD. I don't bother trying to get my laptop out on flights - there isn't enough room to use it if you're in economy class anyway and no place to plug it in. I LOVE my iPhone for being able to watch movies and listen to music and the battery lasts a long time.

- Don't worry that much about safety. The odds are really in your favour that you'll have an excessively dull, uneventful flight. Maybe some turbulence, but that won't even be so bad. Keep calm if you do experience it, keep breathing. It'll be over soon.

- Bring your own water (buy it in the gate area, after security) - they never give you enough and you will get dehydrated. I also back some snacks - almonds are great for this - in case you don't want to eat what they offer. I don't get hungry at all when I fly but you don't want to be starved and light-headed when you hit customs.

- Be polite and stay calm when you have to encounter the invariable hassles of travel. That would be, basically, every time you have to deal with other people - checking in can take forever, the security lines are stressful and seem arbitrary, getting seated can take a while, etc. This is where having more time than you need will help keep you from getting cranky and escalating the other person's bad mood.

- The internet is a godsend for travel. Check out the websites of the TSA (or the local equivalent of whatever countries you're going through), your airline and the airports. They'll all have information about how to navigate their facilities, the latest rules about what you can bring, and tips for travel. The rules about baggage and security seem to change frequently so be sure to check them again about a week before you go so you have the most up-to-date info.
posted by marylynn at 2:48 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you're prone to congestion, bring a Vick's or Olbas inhaler and gum. I've blown my left eardrum twice on commercial flights before I learned this.

If you have a choice, choose a centre-aisle seat just where the back of the wing meets the fuselage. I find you get the smoothest ride there, but there's no view. If you're an inquisitive sort and you're flying over pretty much anywhere except sea or Siberia, there's neat stuff out there: sunset over the Cascades in winter, the Greenland coastline, tiny wind farms in Europe ...
posted by scruss at 2:55 PM on March 15, 2008

one thing to add to the excellent advice above: about 1 minute into the flight (after the gear have stowed, or gone "clunk"), there will be a brief pause where the airplane seems to nose down a bit and it may also sound like the engines slow down.

this freaks most first-time-flyers The Hell Out. don't worry.

this happens because the pilot is leveling off a bit in order to reduce drag by drawing in the wing-flaps (basically making the wings smaller and more speedy for fast section of the flight). once the flaps are back in, he'll resume climbing and get back up to ridiculously fast speeds.

[but you can easily spot the nervous flyers around you when this happens, as they usually seem to grip the armrests tight and throw darty looks around the cabin. enjoy!]
posted by garfy3 at 3:06 PM on March 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

Possibly obvious, but relentlessly practical:

-Wear shoes you can slip off and on effortlessly. You'll have to do this for the security checkpoint.

-Have your boarding pass and ID ready. You will need it as you enter the x-ray line, and again once you step through the magnetometer.

-If you take a laptop, have it easily accessible. It has to be out of the case for the x-ray machine. There will be plastic tubs at the x-ray line. Generally, they want your shoes in one, your carryon in another, and your laptop in a third. You may as well make sure your watch, cell phone, change and any other metal objects are in your carryon case. It's a pain to go back and forth through the magnetometer while trying to figure out what's beeping.

-I put a small separate case in my carryon. I put my iPod, book, magazines, kleenex, and anything else I might need during the flight in it. Once on the plane, I remove it before stowing my carryon. The little case also has to be stowed for take off, but it can usually fit in the pocket of the seat in front of me. If it's too big, I put in on my carryon under the seat in front of me.

-Unless I have a connecting fight on a tight schedule, I never rush to get off the plane. Everyone seems to be in a hurry, and they end up standing in an awkward half-hunched position for 10 or 15 minutes waiting for the door to open. I just sit back and listen to music and read while everyone else gets off the plane. You can usually also make phone calls once the plane has stopped at the gate.

-Don't be shy about asking for directions to get around the terminal. Even an experienced traveler can get lost in an unfamiliar airport. Pay attention to signs, terminal numbers, etc.

-There's a nozzle for fresh air above your head in the plane for your comfort. You can control the flow by twisting it and the direction by swiveling it. Don't hesitate to mess with it to make yourself comfortable. While taxiing, there may not be much pressure behind it, so don't panic if it cuts off, but once airborne it should flow pretty freely.

-Even though I am pretty gregarious, I really don't like to converse on a plane. As soon as I am seated, I put in my earbuds (low enough volume to hear instructions) and close my eyes and relax. This is the internationally accepted I'm-not-rude-but-leave-me-alone sign. That's just me. You may want to chat. If you do want to converse, be very sensitive to your neighbor's body language as to when to cut it short. For example, if they put their earbuds in, they are done.

-Although I am hesitant to recommend indiscriminate pill-popping, I agree with the above statement that a benadryl or something similar might be good. It's easy to get very antsy on a long flight and being able to relax, or even better, to nap through it can be a life saver. I generally am a patient traveler, but one trip last year was about 4 hours and I thought I would crawl out of my skin. I was able to doze off, with a little pharmaceutical help, and that was great. It's different than being on a long car trip. There is nothing to see out the window (clouds... more clouds...) and you don't have much room to get comfortable, as you would in a car.

-If you want a drink or 2 help you relax once airborne, bring have a pocket full of small bills to pay for them. But remember, they don't mind if you are relaxed. But if you are drunk, they can keep you off a connecting flight if you have one.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 3:43 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I fly at least once a month and these are my tips:

-Listen to the inflght safety precautions but do not freak out if you can't memorize them all. Nothing bad will hapen to you on this flight and in the unlikely event that it does, the flight attendents and other passengers will help you with whatever you have to do.

-Wear shoes that are easy to take off, you will not want to wear them for the whole flight.

-During security you will have to take off your shoes, your socks, your coat and anything that contains metal. You will also have to take your laptop out of your laptop bag and put it in its own container. Also, if you have any film for film camera's you will need to place that seperatly. Digital cameras are fine.

-Turn your phone off when you get on the plane, you aren't allowed to use it for the whole flight, even as a clock.

-Take some vitamins before the flight, you are much more likely to get a cold on a plane than anywhere else.

-Relax! Planes aren't scary.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 3:47 PM on March 15, 2008

I’m sincerely glad that I didn’t have some of the more extreme advice in this thread when I took my first flight. Blown eardrums? Hot needles boring into your forehead? Random numbness, swelling, tingling? I’ve flown a million times, at least half of those times with a stuffed head due to my crazy allergies, and I’ve never felt any pain or weird bodily sensations. Are you people flying on the space shuttle by any chance? And, I’ve never felt particularly dehydrated, although I always drink my complimentary soft drink. I do recall that my first flights were just plan fun. I loved the exhilarating feeling of the plane accelerating down the runway. Nowadays it is more boring than fun. No longer do I book the window seat to look at the amazing clouds. Now I book the aisle seat so I can get up and stretch at will. Oh, and I heartily second the recommendation of seatguru, so that you can avoid the worst seats.
posted by found missing at 3:57 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wear clean socks so that you can take your shoes off during the flight and not feel self-conscious.

Despite what many people said above, there is NOTHING that you NEED to bring on the plane. I don't. And, yes, I travel internationally a lot. You don't even need some silly book or DVD player like the other jaded travelers here.

If this is your first flight, I suggest you get a window seat and stare out at the GORGEOUS clouds and landscape below you.
posted by vacapinta at 4:37 PM on March 15, 2008

^ UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES use the water on an airplane. Studies in recent years have found that airplane water is extremely dirty. Bring hand sanitizer

Really? Got a link for that?
posted by zippy at 5:19 PM on March 15, 2008

Wow, lots of advice. Since this will be your first flight, you may find it fascinating and stimulating and whatnot. If so, good for you. You did say "international" though, and if that means it's gonna be a loooong flight, then even the joys of first-time travel may not be enough distraction. Me? I like sleeping. Or more like trying to sleep. I never seem to really manage deep slumber, what with the noise and lights and vibrations and cramped conditions and all, but I find I can enter into a meditative, semi-awake twilight state. Close your eyes and try to get to that place. It can the flight seem shorter.

Oh, and bring a well-charged iPod with hours and hours of interesting podcasts. Bon voyage!
posted by mumkin at 6:30 PM on March 15, 2008

About your ears popping- most people don't have a problem a piece of gum won't fix, but for others (like myself) it's a little more painful. If you're worried about it, you might want to pick up a box of "Ear Plane" style ear plugs when you get to the airport at one of the little convenience stores. They don't cost more than $10 and you put them in for take off and landing. They really do help.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 6:51 PM on March 15, 2008

Quick disclaimer: I have recently beaten a life-long fear of flying that stemmed from severe motion sickness. I worked very hard and am now a relaxed flyer who looks forward to flying.

First of all, you should understand the following things:

1. Most people are not at all affected by flying. They do not experience nausea or anxiety, only relaxation and pleasure.

2. Most flights are extremely mundane. There are no drops or dips or swoops of any kind. You gently lift-off the runway, climb, cruise, and then gently come down.

3. The sensations will feel foreign, but only if you've never, ever experienced them in any sort of capacity in your life. Some amusement park rides feel an awful lot like flying in some parts.

Secondly, since you have so much time between then-and-now, I strongly recommend Flying With Fear by Duane Brown. I'm not suggesting that you're flying with fear, but the book is slim and takes you through the entire flight process.

Third, browse the civil aviation forum at Unfortunately, it's a pay-site so you won't be able to post, but you can read. And you should! The biggest thing this forum taught me is that flying is a very serious business and it's amazing how concerned each pilot, mechanic, and ramper is about safety and passenger comfort. Ignore the stuff you read in the mass-media from time-to-time. It's overhyped and not indicative of day-to-day operations.

Fourth, if you're at all prone to feel motion sickness, the drug that solves it for me is Meclizine. It's marketed over-the-counter as Bonine and/or Dramamine-2. I can't vouch how well it will work for you. Motion sickness can really ruin a flight, so consider something if you're at all prone to this.

Fifth and finally, relax and enjoy yourself. Flying is an amazing experience and in all likelihood it will be pleasureable and exciting. If you can handle it, look out the window and watch your ascent and descent, all the turns and banks. It's fun! Just remember, if you look out the window and see ants on the ground, it just means you haven't taken off yet.

Feel free to contact me in mefi.mail if you have any more questions.


posted by tcv at 6:57 PM on March 15, 2008

Will there be loud noises that sound like something bad but are actually completely normal?
Speaking as an expert anxious flier, yes there are many opportunities for sounds and other weirdnesses if you're paying attention, even after take-off and before landing, so I figure, once the door's closed don't sweat anything. The only people who can do anything about it are the pilots and anything I could do would just make it worse. I fly several times a year and different models of aircraft have different sounds anyway. Flying is magnitudes safer than driving pretty much any way you crunch the numbers. I deal with my anxiety with a number of little rituals that I've developed over the years that keep me busy. You might introduce yourself to your nearest seat mate and gauge if they're willing to talk with you about being new to flying. I feel a lot better when I'm with a confident friend.

I was pretty worried about security when I flew for the first time after 2001, but the new rules and the added wait aren't too bad and they're used to people not knowing the new rules. Hit the TSA website and read up on the liquid bans and the like and you'll be above average informed. Put anything that might seem weird or suspicious to the dumbest TSA agent in your checked luggage. Empty out your bags and purses and pack from scratch, so you don't accidentally leave some harmless but lowest common denominator TSA agent suspicion triggering item in your carry on (e.g. nail clippers, home electronics projects). Basically, unless you go the all carry-on route, put anything you absolutely don't need for travel or for a lost-luggage emergency in your checked baggage.

The only thing that really, really pisses me off when I fly anymore is that every single Sikh gentleman I've ever seen in line at security has been pulled aside. Without fail. So, be prepared to be pissed off and to maybe save that vigor for somewhere productive.

I feel like the real trick for a new flier will be following airport directions, because everything else takes care of itself. Be hyper vigilant for signs and directions and don't hesitate to ask others for help. The new electronic ticket systems take your credit card and it can be any personal credit card/debit card and doesn't have to be the one that you bought the ticket with, because all it's doing is checking your name on the card against the names of people who are expected to check in that day. Then you walk up to the agent to weigh your bags, then they direct you to the xray machine, where you carry your own bags and drop them off to be xrayed. Many more steps than the old days, but just don't be afraid to ask or ask twice to make sure you're going to the right place. Once you get your electronic ticket, put it somewhere where you won't drop it with your ID out also. The electronic ticket and my ID are the only two personal objects that I don't put on the carry-on conveyor belt.

As you're exiting the plane at your destination, feel free to ask the stewardess if they know which luggage claim your luggage will be at. Or ask a fellow passenger if you can tag along with them to help find the luggage claim. Luggage claim waits can vary, but I've dawdled before and caught them as they were locking it up in unclaimed luggage. There's plenty of time to stop at the rest room and get a drink of water and such, but not quite enough time to sit down and eat a snack sometimes.

This is all relevant to my experience on domestic flights, so maybe things work differently when you have to deal with customs and what not.
posted by Skwirl at 7:02 PM on March 15, 2008

Also, try to have sex in the bathroom.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:17 PM on March 15, 2008

All these people telling you there's nothing to see out the window, ignore them. Especially since this is your first flight.

If you're doing a transatlantic or transpacific overnight flight, there's not much to see out the window during the middle of the flight. But for most flights during the day, the view is incredible. Unless you're so nervous about flying that you don't think you can handle it, get a window seat and watch the world down below. All those mountains and little towns and highways are a sight to see.

I've been known to bring maps and try to follow along and figure out what I'm seeing. Helps pass the otherwise mind-numbingly boring hours, and I think it's cool to be able to see so much of the world in such a short time.

People say there's nothing to see because they fly so much and have gotten used to it, but on your first flight, it'll be pretty spectacular and you'll be glad you got the window seat.
posted by dseaton at 8:20 PM on March 15, 2008

Also, some airlines let you listen to the air traffic control using the audio system in the seats. If you're nervous, you might find that listening helps calm you down a little, since you'll realize that basically every movement the plane makes has been discussed with ATC and is carefully choreographed. (If you hear the controller tell the pilot to descend, you won't be sitting there panicking about why the plane suddenly started going down for no apparent reason.)
posted by dseaton at 8:24 PM on March 15, 2008

Despite what many people said above, there is NOTHING that you NEED to bring on the plane.

Technically true, but I am always reminded of an old (Far Side?) comic of two departed souls, with halos, sitting on clouds in heaven. One is thinking, "I should have brought a magazine." A long plane trip is not as long as eternity, but without a magazine it can seem like it.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:43 PM on March 15, 2008

I recommend using a good amount of anti perspirant / deodorant, but use the non scented kind.

If your ears feel pressurised, summon up the biggest yawn you can manage, that should help.

Get a window seat if possible, or just as good a seat next to the emergency exit because of the extra leg space.
posted by tomble at 5:25 AM on March 16, 2008

^ UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES use the water on an airplane. Studies in recent years have found that airplane water is extremely dirty. Bring hand sanitizer

Really? Got a link for that?

try and type in "airplane water" then hit the search button.
posted by thomas144 at 5:56 AM on March 16, 2008

If you bring a laptop, make sure it's fully charged, and also bring an extra battery, also fully charged.

Bring cash. If you need to buy something on the plane (earphones or alcohol, usually, but there could be other stuff), it's usually cash-only.

Most things that go wrong with a flight happen in the first few minutes. So as soon as you hear that 'ding' from the 'fasten seatbelt' sign going off, you know you're going to be okay. :)
posted by bingo at 8:19 AM on March 16, 2008

It's already been mentioned, but I want to underline that if you'll be flying from, or connecting through, a U.S. airport, you should spend some time familiarizing yourself with the latest rules on the TSA website, especially the list of items permitted and prohibited in carry-on and checked luggage. The rules have been revised a few times in recent years, so items such as corkscrews, knitting needles and nail clippers which were once verboten are now officially permitted (but don't take my word or anyone else's for it—check the TSA site in the week before you leave to make sure you have up-to-date information). The rules regarding certain items, most notably liquids but also things like matches, lighters, tools, scissors, and knives are a little arcane and fussy. TSA officers can, of course, be despotic exercise professional judgment and confiscate items that are not officially prohibited, but I don't think this happens much and I've had pretty good results from following the published TSA guidelines scrupulously.
posted by Orinda at 2:20 PM on March 16, 2008

Airplane seats are pretty cramped unless you're in first class so don't wear anything bulky or constricting.

When you're in line waiting for security, go ahead and take off anything metal and put it in your carryon bag or purse so you don't have to get all stressed out trying to do it in a hurry when you get to the front of the line. Underwire bras won't set off the metal detector and the few times I've forgotten to take off my earrings, they haven't either, but I usually err on the side of caution, and take off anything metal. I have had metal studs on my belt set it off as well as a cell phone in my pocket. If you have on even a light jacket or sweater, they will ask you to take it off also. You cannot stack the stuff up too high in the tubs so go ahead and use as many tubs as you need.

Check your purse for everyday items like nail glue, eye-drops or nose spray that you usually carry around. They have to go in the plastic baggy. I once forgot about the water globe we bought as a souvenir and had to have it mailed back from NYC.

Make sure your driver's license or ID is not expired.
posted by tamitang at 7:15 PM on March 16, 2008

Take an empty 1.5 or 2 litre water bottle through security. Fill it up from a water fountain in the boarding area. Then, as you hydrate yourself at will, enjoy the jealous glares from your parched fellow travellers as they wait for teacup-sized plastic cups of water from the attendant.
posted by rhinny at 11:05 PM on March 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

« Older Breakfast in Frankfurt?   |   Where should I live in Akron? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.