I barely remember my first flight since I took it when I was quite young as an unaccompanied minor and it wasn't a very long flight anyway. The one I consider my true first flight was when I went to study abroad in Milan. I was excited, but also a little bit nervous - was this a good idea? What if something terrible happened? In the end, I am so glad I took that first flight as it catapulted me onto my journey as a solo traveler.
Taking the first steps of solo travel can be a daunting experience - believe me I get it. But it is 100000% worth it! Whether we're talking about international flights or domestic flights, I'm here to ease you into taking your first flight alone. These are some helpful tips that will be useful for first-time flyers.
Packing Like a Pro for Your First Solo Flight
Efficient packing ensures you have everything you need during your flight. You don't want to get to your destination and realize you didn't pack something you really needed - especially if this first big trip happens to be a big move across countries. If you are making an international move, you'll want to check out this moving abroad packing list.
Carry-on/Personal Item Essentials
Pack your essentials in a carry-on bag. Include a water bottle (empty it before security and refill afterward), snacks, a good book, and your electronic devices. It's also good practice to always have 1-2 changes of clothes in your hand luggage -- just in case your checked bag doesn't arrive to the final destination on time.
Another thing to keep in mind on your first solo trip is to make sure you have any medication or other important item you can't do without in your personal item bag. Sometimes if there isn't enough room on the flight, cabin crew might instruct you to gate check your carry-on bag so you won't have it handy during the flight.
Packing Your Checked Bag
Don't make my mistake and overpack your checked bag with things you think you'll need but wind up never using! And if your first solo flight happens to also be a big move abroad, you should check out my ultimate moving abroad packing checklist here. Also as mentioned above, take out an outfit from this bag and put it in your carry on or personal item, so you aren't left without clean clothes/underwear if your check-in luggage doesn't make it on time. On my first flight my luggage was delayed for a whole three days and I was NOT happy that I didn't have any spare clothes in my carry on. But you live and you learn.
I find that the best way to maximize space is to use the rolling method of folding clothes (Google this if you haven't heard of it before - it's a game changer!). You can pack more clothes this way, but make sure to be wary of the weight limit for your check-in luggage! The agent at the check-in counter will weight your luggage and you don't want to get hit with the overweight fee.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep track of during the whole process is time. Check-in usually closes 45 minutes before boarding for an international flight and 25 minutes before boarding for a domestic flight, but these time windows can vary depending on the airline as well as the airport. A general rule is to arrive to the airport 2 hours before domestic flights and 3 hours before international flights.
The check-in counter closing isn't the only thing you have to worry about. Boarding also ends at a certain time. Just because you've made it past the security checkpoint does not mean you're in the clear! Boarding usually ends 10-15 minutes before your scheduled flight departure time and gates are not always close to the security line.
Lastly be mindful of your layover time if you have a layover. Ensure you have enough time to explore without risking a stressful dash to your connecting flight. 2-3 hours is usually enough time for a layover, but if your initial flight is late, you may run the risk of missing your connection.
Smooth Check-In Strategies
A seamless check-in process sets the tone for a stress-free journey. You don't want to be flustered at the check-in desk because you forgot your travel documents!
Online Check-In Mastery
If possible, take advantage of online check-in! It not only saves time but also allows you to choose your seat and breeze through the airport because you'll be able to skip the check-in step and go straight to dropping off your checked luggage or even security if you're a carry-on luggage kind of traveler like me.
To check in online, go to your airline's website and enter the reference number ( also called a confirmation code, booking number, reservation number or something similar) which you can find in your flight confirmation email that was received after booking. From the airline's website, online check-in is pretty straightforward and you will be able to take it from there.
Note that you will still absolutely need to bring your passport or other travel document to the airport even if you've checked in online.
Pro Tip: Check your email or search for your airline's policy to see how early you can check-in online. Additionally, some budget airlines actually require that you do online check-in and will charge you an extra fee if you try to check-in at the counter. Better to be safe than sorry!
In Person Check-in:
If you aren't able to check-in online, or maybe you just forgot - fear not, in person is also an option! Make sure you have your passport or ID (in the case of domestic travel; you cannot use an ID for international flights) ready to present so you can get your boarding pass printed asap. Additionally make sure you already have any visas you may need for your trip depending on where you are going.
If traveling internationally, make sure you meet the requirements for visiting your country of choice! This can include visas, vaccination records (not super common), and proof of return flight (very common).
Pro Tip: The key to success at the check-in counter is to always be kind to the agent! I've found that patience and a genuine smile can go a long way and have gotten extra leg room or even seat upgrades without ever asking.
Getting Through Airport Security:
Familiarize yourself with security checks. Make sure there are no liquids greater than 100ml in your carry-on bag or personal item. The 100ml rule is set to be removed in major airports by 2024, but as of the time of writing, there's no confirmed date so best to be safe!
Some European countries (and possibly countries on other continents that I'm unaware of) require that you put all your liquids in a 1 liter clear ziploc bag. If they don't all fit in this bag, security will make you toss any excess. London airports are notorious for this.
Depending on the airport, you may have to remove your shoes, so make sure you're wearing socks to avoid making barefoot contact with the gross airport floors!
Pro tip: When you're going through airport security, you will be asked to remove laptops, tablets, and portable chargers from your bags. Keep these things near the top when packing so that you can have easy access to them, remove them easily, and not hold up the line!
Finding your gate doesn't have to be a challenge. With a little practice, you can navigate the airport with ease. If you're more spatially aware (I am not), it might help to look up your airport map ahead of time so you can have an idea of layout.
Once you get your boarding pass, take note of your gate number as soon as it's available. Memorizing this number will save you from constant checking and potential stress. However, just note that gate numbers can change, so even if the number is printed out on your boarding pass, double check your gate number on one of the flight departure screens. To do this look up your flight number on your boarding pass and find it on one of the screens. If it has changed, memorize this new number.
Pro tip: Stay near your gate when it is almost boarding time. This will ensure that you hear any announcements related to your flight.
Most flights will have in-flight entertainment, but only some flights will have Wi-Fi. So if there's something you know you want to watch, listen to, or read, it's a good idea to download it beforehand so that you can enjoy it on your first solo flight. I typically download episodes of the latest show I'm watching and update my music library before boarding so I know I'll be entertained the whole way. Of course, I just wind up sleeping the whole flight anyway...
The inevitable flutter of nerves before takeoff is a rite of passage for even the most seasoned travelers. First acknowledge that a touch of nervousness is perfectly normal; after all, you're about to embark on an adventure through the clouds. To ease pre-flight nerves, engage in a bit of pre-planning therapy. Familiarize yourself with the flight itinerary, including layovers and connections, so you have a mental roadmap for your journey. This can help relieve some of the anxiety buildup.
If possible, opt for a seat that aligns with your comfort – a window seat for the soothing view, or an aisle seat if you want nothing to do with the window. Pack a small comfort kit with familiar items, whether it's a cozy neck pillow or a playlist of your favorite tunes.
During the flight, distract your mind with in-flight entertainment, immerse yourself in a captivating book, use one of the travel apps listed on the in-flight section here, or try to get to sleep early on in the flight. Remember, the flight attendants are also there to assist and reassure, so don't hesitate to reach out if needed. Take a deep breath, visualize the thrilling experiences that await at your destination, and let the gentle hum of the airplane lull your concerns away.
Touching Down: Easing into the Landing Process
The landing process is the final act of your journey. When the cabin crew announces that they are preparing for touchdown, take a moment to double check that you haven't dropped any of your belongings and remove anything you might have placed in the seat pouch in front of you. And absolutely make sure you have your passport with you before leaving the plane!
Ensure that you know which carousel your plane's checked luggage is going to if you do have a checked bag. If you are unsure, you can ask the flight attendants to confirm. This way you can head straight to the correct carousel in baggage claim.
That's it! Everything you need to know/do for a smooth first solo flight. Now that the hard part is out of the way, you can rest easy and focus on enjoying the rest of your travel experience aka the best part - the destination!