Air Travel for Beginners – An Easy 7 Step Process

Traveling is one of my passions. I mean, isn’t it for a lot of people? If you ask a bunch of people, “If you go anywhere you wanted for free, where would it be?” my guess is that very few answers would include a location in their hometown. Instead, when I’ve asked that question in the past, I’ve gotten answers such as Hawaii, Australia, Europe, Las Vegas and many other out-of-state or out-of-country locals.


Where would you want to go?

And how does it make you feel to think about traveling alone? Are you overwhelmed by the idea of finding your way through a bustling airport? According to DataBlog, over 1.7 MILLION passengers pass through Atlanta’s airport each WEEK! (1.2 mil for Chicago and over 1.1 mil for both Los Angeles and Dallas).

I remember when I was a new traveler, my excitement to get to my destination was clouded a bit by my anxiety for the airport portion of the trip. I was never scared to fly. I love it. In fact, I’ve enjoyed jumping out of airplanes on many occasions. However, the whole process of getting to the airport on time, finding parking, lugging luggage, waiting in long lines, going through security, finding the right gate, and hoping you get through all of that before the gate door closes was stressful.

The more I traveled, the less stressful the airport became.   I think it was simply a matter of doing it enough times that I knew what to expect. There is usually more anxiety in situations in which we feel unaccustomed. So I thought it would be helpful to put together a how-to document for people who’d be flying for the first time. This is also useful for people who have flown before, but may still be in the dark a bit on airport procedure.

This is a document created from my own experience. I have never worked at an airport or for TSA. If you would feel more comfortable getting information straight from the source, you should visit the website of the airline you will be traveling with. You may be able to find some of this information there as well.


Your Arrival at the Airport is the Key to Starting without Pressure

You must arrive at the ticket counter at least 1 hour before your flight is scheduled to leave. Arriving any later than that gives the airline the option to cancel your flight reservation. If you need to park at the airport, plan for at least 20-30 minutes to find parking and catch an airport shuttle. So you’d want to arrive at parking 80-90 minutes before your flight is scheduled to depart.

For international flights, you must arrive 1.5 to 2 hours before your flight leaves. You’ll also need a passport.

Take into account drive time to the airport. Will you be driving during rush hour? If so, make sure to give yourself extra time to get there.


Step 1: Check in at the airline’s ticket counter

  • Have your six-character confirmation code (usually letters and numbers) and ID to make it faster. Many airlines have you check in at a self-check-in kiosk. The kiosk will ask for your confirmation code in order to find your flight. In most cases, you can also swipe a credit card that is in your name and it will find your flight without you having to enter the code.
  • If you check bags, you’ll be charged – usually $25 or more per bag. Keep the tag they give you with a bar code on it as you’ll need it to find any lost luggage.
  • Many airlines allow a maximum of 50 pounds per bag at that price. Any heavier, and they’ll charge you extra. Some airlines allow for less weight per bag. You should check the website of your airline if your bag to be safe.
  • If you are dropping someone off at the airport who will be flying alone, you will not be able to proceed through security unless you get a pass from the ticket counter. To accompany a minor to the gate, ask the ticket counter agent for a security pass.
  • Get your boarding pass (multiple boarding passes if you have connecting flights). You’ll need this to board the plane.
  • If you are not checking bags, make sure your carry-on bags are small enough to fit under the seat or in the overhead bin. Many airlines will have something near the ticket counter for which you can check the size of your bag to see if it is carry on size. You are only allowed two carry-on bags maximum. This include all bags. Two bags plus a purse will count at three.

Step 2: Head to the security line

  • You’ll need your boarding pass and picture ID to enter the security screening area.
  • Everyone goes through security.
  • You cannot have any sharp objects, weapons (or anything that could be perceived as a weapon), drinks, etc..
  • Do NOT carry any liquids over 3 oz. They can’t be bigger than 3 oz or in a container that is larger but only has 3 oz or less in it. This includes toothpaste, shampoo, eye drops, etc.
  • All liquids that are 3 oz or less must be in a clear plastic 1 quart size bag and taken out of your carry-on bag to put through screening.
  • Laptops must be taken out of your bag to put through the scanner in a plastic bin. Nothing else can be in the bin with the laptop.
  • You’ll be asked to remove your jacket, sweatshirt, shoes, belt, and hat to be put through the scanner, before you walk through the body scanner.
  • All bags will go through the scanner


Step 3: Head to your gate

  • Your boarding pass usually has the proper gate printed on it.
  • If you need to check your gate location (which is recommended because they change sometimes), you can check the monitors listing arrivals and departures.
  • Find the city you’re flying to, then your airline carrier, then your flight #, and it will list which gate (and terminal) you need to go to.
  • Follow the signs (usually near the ceiling) to be directed to your proper terminal/gate.
  • If you need to switch terminals, the bigger airports will have trains. Just follow the signs to the terminal or gate and it will lead you to the train also.
  • Flights usually board 20-30 minutes before the flight is scheduled to leave. Some boarding passes have the boarding time printed on it.
  • If you’d like to have a drink for your flight, you can buy a beverage in the airport (after you’ve been through security. Most airlines will allow you to take a bottle or cup that is larger than 3 oz as long as you purchased it in the airport, after security.


Step 4: At the gate

  • Usually the gate will have a TV monitor that displays the destination city and flight # so you can double check that you’re at the right place.
  • You can also ask the gate attendant for any info you need regarding your flight.
  • Listen for announcements by your gate attendant. They’ll let you know when to board based on your seat or group # – which is printed on your boarding pass.


Step 5: Hand your boarding pass to the gate attendant to board the plane

  • Find your seat based on the row # and letter that corresponds to your assigned seat. If you are flying on Southwest Airlines, you can sit in any seat you’d like once you are on the plane.
  • Put your bag under the seat in front of you or in the overhead bin above you. If yours is full, find any overhead bin that has room.
  • Listen for announcements by your flight attendant to know when you can or can’t use electronic devices like cell phones, ipods, games, etc.


Step 6: Enjoy the flight

Step 7: Once off the flight, head to baggage claim.

  • Follow the signs for directions to baggage claim.
  • Even if you didn’t check bags, this is where you’ll find the airport exit and ground transportation. This is where people are usually picked up or find taxis or shuttles.
  • If you did check bags, this is where you’ll claim them. Some airports will have a TV monitor as you enter baggage claim that displays which baggage claim carousel your flight’s bags will be on. If not, the carousel itself often displays the flight for which it will have bags. You can check them until you find your flight listed.
  • If your bag does not show up on the correct carousel, check the others. If it is no where to be found, see the baggage claim office in the baggage claim area. This is where you’ll need the stub you were given when you checked in for our original flight.


Other tips:

  • Having a jacket or sweatshirt comes in handy, because even during warm weather, planes tend to be cooler when at cruising altitude. Sometimes they are downright chilly.
  • You can carry snacks from home with you, but not drinks. You can’t even buy a drink in the airport while still outside of security and carry it through security. If you’re going to buy a beverage, do it after you’ve gone through the security line.
  • Airport snacks and beverages are higher prices than normal. You’ll usually need more money to buy things than you’d need in other stores.
  • Many airports offer spots to plug in devices such as cell phones and computers.
  • No airports allow you to park at the curb. If you plan to leave your car, you’ll need to find a parking lot. You’re not allowed to sit in the car and wait for anyone either. You can only be at the curb long enough to drop someone off or pick someone up.


Since airports can be stressful to many people, it is great if you try to be understanding of the workers and other passengers while there. The more pleasant you behave the better you tend to be treated. If you are able to offer help to another passenger, it is usually greatly appreciated. On occasion, I’ve given up a seat in the gate area to someone who seemed to need it more than me or to people who’d like to sit together but can’t find any seats left which are together. I’ve helped parents carry baby carriers and similar objects when they’ve needed it.

If you are pretty comfortable and stress free at the airport, it is an opportunity to help others feel the same. Even if you only focus on maintaining your own low stress level, that alone will be positive for those around you.


Happy travels!


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I’d love to hear about your fun airport and travel experiences. Please leave your comments below.

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