First-time Flyer Tips
You've booked your Trip...
You’ve booked your trip... you’re all excited to go see the in-laws. But there’s a little detail...ok..not so little. You haven’t flown in years (maybe never?), and you have no clue what’s involved to get to your local airport, check in for your flight, get through security (are they going to strip-search me?), get to your gate, and fly those friendly skies.
Don’t fear, we’ve put together some helpful tips to get you to and through airports. Keep in mind, each airport is different, so things like parking garages and their daily rates, the layout of terminals and gates, and the general number of available airport services, such as restaurants and stores, will be very different between the various airport facilities.
Restricted Items - things you can take with you. Due to the heightened security measures after 9/11 and following the exposed plot in the UK during the summer of 2006, the agency who regulates airport security, the Transportation Safety Administration, or TSA, has revised its guidelines numerous times. Clearly there are items that were and always will be prohibited, such as firearms, explosives, dangerous chemicals, etc. (seems like common sense, right?). But if you want to know if you can take that sewing needle on-board, of if your 2 gallon jug of hair gel will make it past airport security, its best to check on the latest advisory directly with the TSA, at www.tsa.gov.
Often a hotly-debated subject amongst flyers, there are certain advantages and disadvantages to each argument. But first, for those new to the game of flying or need a refresher, there are certain limits to what you can take, both in your carry-on (what you can physically take with you on the aircraft), and what you can ’check-in’ (what goes in the cargo hold of your plane - under the floor of the cabin). See How much can I take on-board, and what do I have to check?
- The airline won’t lose your bags! Always the scorn of travelers, lost luggage can be a real drag. And if this happens, the air carrier will do little to compensate you, except to deliver your bag to your home or hotel, often many hours or even days after your luggage was lost.
- When you get to your destination, you can just zip right through the airport to your rental car, taxi, or shuttle, and not have to wait endlessly for your bag to show up on that baggage carousel.
- If your flight is delayed (or canceled altogether) and you missed your connecting flight, you have your bags with you and are much more flexible. Perhaps there is another flight you can be re-routed to, or a flight going to a nearby airport. Remember, if you check your bags, those bags will stay on the scheduled flight (in most cases), even if that flight is delayed by hours and you can be re-booked on a different flight. The airline will simply send your bag on the originally-scheduled flight, requiring that you stick it out at your destination or return to the airport what that flight arrives (what a bummer!).
- Another advantage is that you keep your bag securely with you, thus eliminating the chance that your camera fails to zoom anymore after being zoomed into the cargo hold by a guy who used to work lugging concrete bags at construction sites, or worse, that it ’sprouted legs’ and disappeared en-route to your arrival airport.
- You can take a lot more stuff. Since airlines restrict what you can carry-on board the airplane, you have to pack very carefully (read: don’t take that kitchen sink). If you’re traveling on a trip of a few days, you can probably get by carrying your bags on-board the flight, but if you plan to fly with lots of gifts and goodies, you’ll be much better off checking your bags. See checked baggage limits.
- You won’t have to fight 280 people for that elusive overhead bin space (the area above your seat that always seems to be 1 inch smaller than your bag). Since most business travelers tend to take shorter trips and hence don’t check-in luggage, and they are priveleged to board before the rest of the masses, chances are the overhead bins might be full by the time you embark your flight, or, the only space available is all the way in the back over 49E, and your seat is in 12A (meaning you have to wait until all the passengers disembark at the destination airport to wait to get back and retrieve your bag at baggage claim.
As a very general rule, you can take one size-limited carry-on bag with you when you fly, not including a small laptop bag, backpack, or handbag. Alternatively, you can check two bags at the airport check-in counter. Bag size restrictions for carry-ons and weight-limits for checked-luggage are determined by each airline. See checked baggage restrictions or carry-on restrictions.
What happens if I am over the Checked-Baggage Limit?
If you arrive at the airport check-in counter with 12 bags of gifts for your nephews, be prepared to pay a hefty price. Airlines typically charge you to check bags that meet their size and weight limits (see checked baggage regulations). Anything over the limit can cost $75 or more per bag, so be aware! The ticket counter agent will be happy to take your credit card and charge you more than you spent on those gifts.
What happens if I carry my bags on-board, and there is no space?
You’ve made it to the airport, your flight is set for an on-time departure, and you’ve started the boarding process - only you’re in the back of a long line of fellow passengers, and by the time you get on board, there is no space left in any of the overhead bins! Well what happens in that case is the flight attendants take your bag into the cockpit, where the pilot gets first dibs on your stuff...ok, what really happens is that they take your bag off the plane and check it in. So now you have to go to baggage claim when you arrive at your destination to pick it up at the baggage carousel. No big deal, right?
If you fly on any one of the major US carriers or their large alliance partners, you don’t have to worry about calling to confirm your flight. However, if you’re flying Air Zimbabwe or other less-known carrier, its a good idea to call at least 24 hours prior to your scheduled departure. Check with your airline a day before your departure.
Checking on the Status of your Flight before you Leave
It is definitely a good idea to check the status of your departure prior to leaving for the airport. Check on iFly’s live departures to see the status of your flight. NOTE: remember, if your flight is listed as ’on-time 3 hours prior to your boarding time, that does not guarantee that by the time you get to the airport parking lot that the flight status will not have changed to ’delayed’.
After you’ve familiarized yourself with the directions to the airport, seen what the average drive time is, and viewed the parking options, you will probably now be asking: "when should I arrive at the airport"?. The TSA recommends arriving at least 2 hours before your flight. You might also want to check the average security wait times to see how long the lines are at the time you’ll be arriving.
Airport parking can be very frustrating, and very expensive, if you’re not prepared. It is very common for passengers to miss flights because they could not find appropriate parking, or getting stuck with huge bills because time ran short and the only option left was the high-priced short-term parking garage. Know your options. Check out iFly’s section on Parking Advice and Tips.
Public Transportation Options
If you live in an area which has public transportation, often this can be the cheapest and most reliable way to get into and out of the airport. Trains are not affected by rush hour (they only run more frequently), and often take you very close to your departure terminal. Check if the closest airport to you for info on ground transportation options.
Checking in with bags: If you’ve decided to check-in your bags, then you must proceed to the check-in counter for your airline. There you will wait in-line until its your turn to heave your bag on the scale, present your airport ID, and get your boarding pass issued, along with a baggage tag receipt. Make sure your bag is unlocked, or has a TSA-approved lock. Once you have that, you’re set to pass through the security checkpoint and on to your departure gate.
Checking in with only Carry-on Bags.
Should you be traveling light and have only a carry-on bag, your best bet is to look for one of those nifty self check-in ticket kiosks (machine) - most major airlines have them at most airports. That way you can avoid the lines at the check-in ticket counters.
These are machines which allow you to insert your ID - usually a valid credit card for validation - and print a boarding pass without having to wait on line at the check-in counter. Located near the airlines’ ticket counters, these great time savers also allow you to view your itinerary, select seats, and print boarding passes for all your flight segments.
Note: if you’re checking bags, you will still have to go to the ticket counters - but many have ticket kiosks right in front of the counter, and prompt you "Are you checking bags?". If you select yes, you will be assisted by an airline ticket counter agent.
The next step after getting your boarding pass will be to proceed through airport security. Follow the signs to your gate, as there may be a security checkpoint at the entrance to several groups of gates.
To avoid any delays, here is what you should be prepared for when entering the airport security checkpoint:
- Make sure any sharp objects, files, scissors or other items are in your checked bags. See the TSA’s site for the latest on what is allowed through security (www.tsa.gov).
- Be prepared to remove your shoes, belt, watch, and anything that has a substantial metal content. Bins are provided to keep lose items together.
- Remove your laptop from its case or bag, and place that in a separate bin.
- Keep your airport ID and boarding pass available to show any of the TSDA security screeners.
Before you board.
Should you get something to eat before you catch your flight? Its no secret that after 9/11, most airlines began cutting back on many in-flight services, such as food service. Many offer what is now referred to as ’buy on board’ - where meals and snack boxes are sold, depending on time of day and duration of flight. You might want to know in advance what the on-board options will be, otherwise you might have to make-do with what is offered, and shell out the $5 or $10 for your mile-high box.
Once past the airport’s security checkpoint, proceed to your gate’s boarding area. Look for departure monitors as you proceed, checking on the latest status and gate (yes, they can change) of your flight. Boarding typically begins about 30 mins prior to the scheduled departure time, so be sure to arrive there in time. You may risk losing your assigned seat (or even your flight) if you show up too late.
Check your boarding pass. Most airlines board by zones or rows. Listen to the announcements regarding boarding, and proceed when your row section or zone is called. You will pass an airline gate agent, who will take your boarding pass and may ask for ID. If you printed out a boarding pass at home, you will surrender it there for a bar-code scan. Embark the plane, find your seat, and make sure you do not put anything too large under the seat in front of you, as the flight attendant may ask you to put it in the overhead bin. Then fasten your seatbelt... the flight attendant will show a video (its done manually on some aircraft types) explaining the safety features of the aircraft prior to takeoff.
Missed or cancelled connections If you arrive to your connecting city late, or your connecting flight was canceled outright, here is what you can or should do. First, its a good idea to have your travel agent or airline’s 800 number with you. If you have that, you can call them and find out what your options are, usually they can rebook you on another flight that day. This might save you a long line at the boarding gate counter, waiting in the queue to have your ticket re-booked on another flight. Otherwise, as soon as you learned that your connecting flight was missed or cancelled, you should seek out the airline’s customer service counter, or the gate agent at the gate where your departure was scheduled for.
Once you land at your connecting city airport, you will disembark, taking all of your belongings with you. Just because you are traveling on a direct flight, you may still need to change planes, gates and possibly terminals even though your connecting flight may show the same flight number as your flight from your origin had. Check the departure monitors when you de-plane to check on the status of your connecting flight.
Finding your bags. Once you have disembarked from your plane, follow the signs to Baggage Claim. Once you arrive there, check the monitors to find the carousel that corresponds to your flight number. Be prepared to surrender your luggage tags to any security personnel (to check that you haven’t walked off with somebody’s Luis Vuitton bag). In most cases, nobody checks anyway.
You’ve made it through all of this, only to be left as the last person standing at the baggage claim carousel. Horrible! Well, as you’ve probably figured out, you’ve been a victim of lost luggage. Don’t panic. Look for the airline baggage office, usually located right there at baggage claim, and be prepared to fill out the paperwork. Usually they will tell you when you can expect your bag to arrive, and will provide transportation for your bag to your home or hotel.
(in case you really wanted to know)? Why are all these airports so different? Well the answer lies in the fact that in most cases each airport is operated by a different government city, state, or municipality. Hence the difference in all their attributes. Their funding sources are not centralized (meaning the federal government does not run the airports). So if you live in an area serviced by a few airports (lucky you), chances are good that each is vying for your business, and there is a fair degree of competition between them, as all of their revenues from concessions, parking, and fees goes into the local coffers.
Top 40 US Airports
- Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta ATL Airport
- Chicago O'Hare ORD Airport
- Dallas Fort Worth DFW Airport
- Los Angeles LAX Airport
- Las Vegas McCarran LAS Airport
- Denver DEN Airport
- Houston Intercontinental IAH Airport
- Phoenix Sky Harbor PHX Airport
- Philadelphia PHL Airport
- Charlotte Douglas CLT Airport
- Detroit Metropolitian DTW Airport
- Minneapolis-St Paul MSP Airport
- Newark Liberty EWR Airport
- Washington Dulles IAD Airport
- Boston Logan BOS Airport
- Salt Lake City SLC Airport
- La Guardia LGA Airport
- New York Kennedy JFK Airport
- Memphis MEM Airport
- Miami MIA Airport
- San Francisco SFO Airport
- Orlando MCO Airport
- Cincinnati N Kentucky CVG Airport
- Seattle Tacoma SEA Airport
- Honolulu HNL Airport
- Baltimore Washington BWI Airport
- Ted Stevens Anchorage ANC Airport
- Chicago Midway MDW Airport
- Fort Lauderdale Hollywood FLL Airport
- Lambert St Louis STL Airport
- Washington Reagan National DCA Airport
- Portland PDX Airport
- Tampa TPA Airport
- Cleveland Hopkins CLE Airport
- Raleigh-Durham RDU Airport
- Houston Hobby HOU Airport
- Pittsburgh PIT Airport
- San Diego SAN Airport
- San Antonio SAT Airport
- Nashville BNA Airport