It’s normal to feel anxious the first time you fly, but to help ease the nerves it’s good to know what you can expect at the airport, on the plane, and after getting off the plane.

In this article, we cover everything you can expect your first time flying, airport procedures to be aware of, and statistics that show just how safe air travel is to put your mind at ease.

The following step-by-step guide will be particularly useful.

What to Expect Your First Time Flying

Before the Flight

  • Assuming you have already booked your ticket, double-check the flight time and luggage restrictions, including the maximum weight and size of bags allowed.
  • If it makes you more comfortable, consider paying extra to sit by the window or aisle.
  • Make sure you don’t pack any liquids, gels, or aerosols larger than 3.4oz/100ml in your carry on because they will be confiscated at airport security if you do.
  • Place your liquids, gels, and aerosols that are within the regulations inside a clear, resealable 1-quart sized bag.
  • Place a TSA-approved lock on your checked bag because if they want to take a look inside your bag, they’re getting inside through any means necessary.
  • Make sure you travel with one of the acceptable forms of ID the TSA requires for flying. Note that a passport is required for all international flights, though not necessary for domestic flights.
  • Dress comfortably, with many passengers preferring loose-fitting clothing.
  • Plan to get to the airport 2 hours before your domestic flight and 3 hours if flying internationally.
  • You may want to get to the airport even earlier, as it will be your first time flying.
  • It’s a good idea to check how long it will take to get to the airport through Google Maps or a similar service.

At Check-in

  • When you get to the airport, what you need to do next will either depend on if you have checked in online and/or you need to check in a bag.
  • If you have checked in online and only have a carry-on, you can immediately go to airport security.
  • If you haven’t checked in online and/or need to check in a bag, you need to go to the airline’s check-in counter at the airport.
  • You will know which counter to go to by the screen that will show the airline’s logo behind the counters.
  • If in doubt, you can always ask one of the passengers in the queue if this is the check-in for your airline.
  • At the check-in counter, you will be asked for your ID, which you will hand over to the agent, who will then enter your details and print your boarding pass.
  • You will also be asked if you need to check in bag.
  • Once you have your boarding pass, it’s time to go through airport security.

At Airport Security

  • Going through airport security can be nerve wracking, as there are usually queues, so you might be nervous about holding people up, but there isn’t much to worry about.
  • Place your carry on bag along with the clear, resealable bag that contains your toiletries in a security bin.
  • Empty your pockets, take off your jacket, hat as well as any other items that might set off the airport body scanner and place them in the security bin. You will probably need to take off your shoes, too.
  • If you’re traveling with a laptop or tablet, these will need to be placed in a separate screening bin.
  • If in doubt, look at what the people ahead of you are doing.
  • Hopefully, your bag passed through the scanner without any problems, but in some instances, a TSA agent may want to take a closer look at your bag.
  • Once your bag has been cleared, it’s time to place the items you took out of your bag and pockets and place them back inside your bag and pockets.

After Airport Security

  • After you have passed airport security, take a look at one of the many screens that will inform you of the gate you need to be for your flight, as well as the time the plane will board. Your boarding pass will also display gate information.
  • Note that the boarding time might not immediately be available.
  • You’ll probably have time to kill, so do some shopping, or grab a drink or bite to eat while you wait to board.
  • It can also be a good idea to go to the bathroom before your flight, so you won’t have to use those tiny airplane bathrooms.
  • Go to the gate, where you will find other passengers waiting to board the aircraft.
  • Depending on the airline, you may be asked to board depending on whether you are sitting at the front, middle or back of the plane.
  • Once your seating section is called, it’s time to board the plane, at which point a flight attendant at the desk will want to scan your boarding pass and may ask for your ID.

On the Plane

  • Once you have stepped onto the plane, a friendly flight attendant will inform you where your seat is, according to what is printed on your boarding pass. If you have a middle seat, follow our guide to How to Survive the Middle Seat on a Plane.
  • Find your seat and place your carry on in one of the overhead compartments or under the seat in front of you if it fits.
  • Take your seat, put on your seatbelt, put your phone in airplane mode, and get ready for takeoff. If you’re overweight, you may have to ask for a seatbelt extender or bring your own, the best of which is the Mirone Adjustable Airplane Seat Belt Extender.
  • Remember to stay hydrated due to the lower air pressure and humidity level on a plane. The Aerospace Medical Association (AsMA) recommends drinking about 0.25 liters (or 8 ounces) of water per hour while on an airplane.
  • Your ears might feel a little weird due to the change in air pressure when on a plane, but this is nothing to worry about and will pass.
  • Your feet may swell if you have a long flight and you stayed seated for the duration of your flight.

After the Flight

  • Once you have landed, there will be a short delay before you are allowed to get off the plane.
  • Once you get off the plane, you may need to go to the baggage carousel if you checked in a bag and/or customs if you are flying internationally.

Make Sure to Bring the Correct ID

If you’re flying for the first time, it can be confusing to know what ID is necessary.

If you’re flying domestically, you need a form of ID that is recognized by the TSA, with most people using their driver’s license.

If you’re flying internationally, a passport is the only acceptable form of ID.

Related: What Do You Need to Fly Domestic?

Pay Attention to Carry on and Checked Luggage Restrictions

It’s important to be aware of the carry on and checked luggage size and weight restrictions, so you won’t be in for any costly surprises at the airport.

While it can differ by airline:

  • Carry on items must generally be no larger than 22 inches long, 14 inches wide and 8 inches high. A specific weight limit is typically not stated.
  • If a bag is larger than 22 inches long, 14 inches wide and 8 inches high, it will be considered a checked bag. Checked bags have a maximum weight restriction of 50 lbs (23 kg).
  • Personal items have a size restriction of 17 inches long, 10 inches wide and 9 inches high, and must be able to fit underneath the seat in front of you.

As mentioned earlier, any liquids, gels, and aerosols in containers larger than 3.4oz/100ml should only be packed in your checked bag.

Make Sure You Bring These Essential Items

Essential items may include prescription medicine, contacts, contact lens solution, glasses, cash and credit cards, your phone etc.

You will want to make sure that these items are either kept on you or in your carry on in the unlikely event that your bag gets lost while in transit.

Don’t Worry: Flying is Exceptionally Safe

Knowing just how remarkably safe commercial air travel is can help put your mind at ease.

According to Arnold Barnett, who has calculated the chances of a plane crashing, and is an expert in the field of aviation safety and risk and Professor of Statistics at MIT:

“If you take one flight a day, you would on average need to fly every day for 55,000 years before being involved in a fatal crash.”

Additionally, it has currently never been safer to fly on commercial airlines when we consider that airline passenger fatalities have fallen significantly compared to the previous decade.

In other words, the chances of a plane crashing is the lowest it has ever been in the history of commercial aviation.

Traveling by car is in order of magnitudes more dangerous than flying, but you probably don’t worry every time you get into a car.

So there certainly isn’t anything to worry about when flying, even if it is your first time flying.

It’s Normal to Feel Some Nerves When Flying For the First Time

It’s natural to feel nervous when flying for the first time, so there are a few things we recommend to ease the nerves.

  • Arrive at the airport early
  • Before your flight, eat a light meal, stay hydrated and avoid caffeine and alcohol
  • If possible, travel with a friend or family member
  • Familiarize yourself with the noises of an airplane, so you know what to expect
  • Inform a flight attendant that it is your first time flying
  • Pay attention to the safety instructions before takeoff
  • Bring a book, listen to music, watch a movie, or connect to the plane’s Wi-Fi service if available to keep your mind occupied
  • Picture your destination and how worth it will all be
  • Be proud of yourself that you are taking on your fears instead of letting them dictate your life
  • Sit near by an exit row if it helps calm your nerves, though exit row seats may not recline, and not everyone can sit in the exit row.
  • Remember just how incredibly safe air travel is
  • It may help to look at how calm the other passengers are to remind you that there is a good reason why they are so calm when flying.  Flying is completely safe and there really isn’t anything to worry about!
  • Remember to take some deep breaths

Turbulence Can Be Scary, But Isn’t Actually Dangerous

Anyone who has flown enough times has likely experienced turbulence at some point.

While turbulence can feel scary in the moment, you should know that turbulence isn’t dangerous and is perfectly safe and completely normal.

Airplanes are designed to withstand even the most severe of turbulence (1.5x force on their airframes, in fact), as well as changes in atmospheric conditions. 

You May Experience Airplane Ear

When flying, it’s quite likely that you will experience airplane air, which is caused by the changes in air pressure inside the cabin, resulting in discomfort inside your ear.

There are several ways to deal with this, including yawning, chewing hard candy or gum, and wearing ear plugs.

We go into more detail in our 8 Proven Ways to Pop Your Ears After a Flight article.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).