With Christmas break coming up in the next couple of days, many people will be hitting the road or the air for a family getaway. I, for one, prefer air travel over roadtrips when it requires long hauls across many states or country borders. In the past couple of years, I have become no stranger to airports, and the ridiculous rules handed down by Homeland Security and the TSA to “keep you safe.”
Food For Thought
So you’ve decided to travel by air? Well, to get started, you should probably buy the tickets. Hopefully, you aren’t waiting until the last minute. There’s a great Wall Street Journal article that gives you the statistics of when you should buy your tickets, but I’ll give you the basics. Buy your tickets around 60 days before you leave, if you’re flying domestically, and on a Sunday afternoon. If you’re lucky enough to take international getaways, buy your tickets around five-and-a-half months-170 days-before you depart on a Sunday afternoon as well.
The trickier part is which airline you want to fly with. This is probably the hardest part of buying tickets in my opinion, and here’s why: airlines are tricky, greedy, and very competitive.
There are many things that set airlines apart from one another. For example, Delta is no small airline. The benefits of flying with a larger, more well-known airline is that if your plane is over booked, or there is a delay or cancellation, Delta probably has three more flights leaving within ten minutes of each other because they have that many planes to their disposal. Southwest Airlines is another fairly large airline, but not as large as Delta. They offer their passengers two free checked bags, which usually would average to about $50-$75 per bag, for free. This does not include carry on bags which you are also allowed to have on board for free. So these are two prime examples. Do you want to save more money, or do you want to have more assurance that you won’t miss your connecting flight and be stranded in some random city? The choice is yours.
Phase One: Packing and Preparation
First things first: you need to pack your luggage. I wish I could help you out with this one, but one thing I’ve learned about travelling is that everyone packs his or her luggage differently; however, I will give you some tips.
Firstly, I’d suggest that if you need to check a bag, any bag that you are not taking on the plane, that you should also pack a carry on bag with a change of clothes, electronics and chargers, and any valuables that you may want to keep. According to SITA, an aviation communications and technology company that tracks baggage performance each year, airlines last year mishandled 21.8 million bags, or 6.96 per 1,000 passengers. So, if you’re one of the very unlucky 0.696% of passengers that have their bags lost, you may want to have some essentials just in case the airport/ TSA can’t locate your bag for a day, week or ever. That being said, make sure that your carry on bag is light and easy to manage. You have to haul this thing around the airport with you wherever you go.
Secondly, in no instance can you have liquids that are above 3.4 oz. in a carry on, although 3 oz. would be my suggested max. I’m pretty sure I was almost interrogated because of a bottle of lotion that I forgot I had packed. If you need to have liquids like contact solution, stores typically have a travel size, meaning 3 oz. or under. All of your liquids or toiletries should be placed in a Ziploc bag. Also, you cannot pack any drinks with you. Instead, you will have to buy the airport vendors’ overpriced drinks when you pass through the security checkpoint. You may, however bring dry snacks, and I recommend that you do bring a snack or two due to the fact that airport food is also typically more expensive than usual. For a full list of rules on things you can take and things you can’t, refer to this list of prohibited items straight from the TSA (Transportation Security Administration). Also, take a look at this list for the TSA’s handy 3-1-1 liquid rule.
Thirdly, check your airline’s website for weight restrictions. Some airlines may only let you have up to 50 lbs. for a checked bag. Other airlines will be more or maybe less. To weigh your bag, pack everything and then find your nearest scale. First, get on the scale and look at your weight, then pick up your bag and figure out how much weight was added. Do not just put your bag on the scale because you may have to hold your bag up which could add more weight, or the suitcase may touch the floor in which case there is weight that isn’t being accounted for.
Finally, do not dress up to the airport. You may hear your parents talk about how they used to dress up to go to the airport, but this was well before metal detectors and advanced scanning measures were popularized for security measures. Not only is this for your own comfort, but also because people in security lines do not want to have to be stuck behind someone who had to put on every piece of jewelry they own, and the person that wore the boots that laced up to their knees. Instead, wear something like jeans and a t-shirt without jewelry. If you’re like me, or you have an early flight, you can rock the sweatpants, t-shirt and hoodie look. The main point is to be comfortable. Also, wear shoes that you can slip on and off easily. This will be explained in depth when I tell you about some common mishaps in security lines. That being said, if dressing up makes you feel comfortable, be you (without the jewelry, complex shoes and obnoxious outfits).
Now, take a break. You’ve done well if you’ve made it to this point. Have you caught your breath yet? Now that you are adequately prepared, I’m going to guess you are ready to hear about the actual trip.
Phase Two: Transportation
Whether you have to go three hours or three minutes to your nearest airport, transportation is important. There are many options you have for transportation.
The more obvious choice would be driving yourself to and from the airport and using the airport’s parking. This may seem like a good choice at first until you get back from your stress-free vacation and then realize that you have a $100 parking fee to pay before you can leave the crowded and security-lacking airport parking.
This brings me to option number two: have a friend drop you off. If you have a close friend that would do anything for you, you could test them and ask them to drop you off at the airport. Offer to pay for their gas, which you can estimate using this handy calculator. This option allows you to have some alone time with your friend to sit, talk, or jam out to that new Taylor Swift song on the radio (not that I know from experience). This is also a stress-free way of transportation as you don’t have to pay a parking fee on top of gas money. However, this puts a lot of stress on your friend, or you may not be comfortable enough to ask a friend. Tip: try family first before asking a friend.
This brings me to my third and final option: take a shuttle from a nearby city. This is my favorite and most frequently used option. Every year, I fly out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and every year I use an inexpensive shuttle service. A shuttle service will transport you, and your luggage, to and from the airport for a fee that averages around $50. The pros of this are that you have assured transportation, they eliminate the overpriced parking fee, they make sure you are to your flight on time, and their fees usually cost less money than if you were to drive yourself. The cons that I have seen is that sometimes they leave a lot earlier than you think they should so your early flight might cause you to miss an hour more of sleep. Also, when you take a shuttle, you are surrounded by strangers, unless you’re travelling with a group, and depending on how shy you are, it could be a long, awkward ride.
Sweet! You have made it to the airport! Do you have your luggage that you packed according to the airport rules? I sure hope so! Now begins our adventure of the airport.
Phase Three – Airport Part One: Ticketing
Thanks to modern technology, most airports come fully equipped with automatic ticket printing stations which is good if you ordered your tickets online. Once you get the little slip that the machine will spit out, you can find your airline’s queue and wait to have one of the workers help you. At this point you will want to have your ID, your flight confirmation number, and anything else that your airline requires. This means you will have to check their website for information on needed materials. After the attendant determines that you do indeed have a reservation, he or she will print out your ticket, or tickets if you have a connecting flight, and boarding pass. The attendant will probably have you these items in a nifty little folder device that they have. Do not forget to get your ID back. If you have bags to check, the attendant will either put your bags on a scale next to the desk where you will hopefully be standing at, or the attendant will ask you to go to a separate bag checking area.
If you’re checking a bag, you should have remembered to check the website of your preferred airline (as mentioned previously) and you should be under the weight limit. Your bag will be tagged and put underneath your plane with everyone else’s luggage. If you’re worried about things being knocked around, Delta made a video that tracked some luggage from baggage check to baggage claim.
After you get all of your luggage taken care of, and you have your tickets, it’s time to make your way to the hardest part of your entire journey: security.
Phase Three – Airport Part Two: The Struggle That Is Security
This part of travelling is my biggest struggle. There is always something that I mess up in this process; however, the mistakes are mostly because I’m nervous to go through security. Am I nervous because I am a potential threat, or am I nervous because almost every time I’ve passed through security I’ve had a bad experience? Well, the answer is the latter.
Before getting into the security line, make a checklist in your mind and make sure you have the following items:
- Ticket or tickets (for connecting flights)
- Boarding pass
- ID (I hope you remembered to grab it at the ticketing counter)
- Carry on bag
Those are essentials before you get into the security line. Now, if you decided to check all of your luggage, you shouldn’t have a bag with you. If you do, turn around and drop it off, and then continue to the security checkpoint. I recommend bringing a carry on even if you don’t have that much stuff. Plus, it’s usually free, so there’s no harm.
As you get towards the front of line, you will start to notice that there are a couple of TSA agents that will be directing to a security line after scanning your boarding pass/tickets. Make sure that you have these items out and ready. The last thing that you want to do is make the people behind you mad because you were ill-prepared. Also, if you are under 16 years of age, the agents usually won’t card you; however, if you are any older, make sure your ID is ready as well. Always practice your manners when speaking to TSA because they can make your airport journey either a great one or a journey you will never forget (not in the good way).
The next step is what you have been preparing for. If you have dressed according to the guidelines I laid out above, you should have worn shoes that you can slip on and off easily. Once you make your way to the line, you need to move and move quickly. Anything that you have in your pockets you need to take out. I take things out of my pocket while taking off my shoes because it saves time. I will admit that no matter how prepared I am for the security line, the person behind me is always finished well before I am. There is always a sign that tells you everything that you need to take off. This is a basic list to think about:
- Take out laptops and put them in a separate bin
- Take out things in pockets
- Take off shoes
- Jewelry should go in a bin
- Carry on bag should be placed on conveyor (no bin needed)
- Take out all liquids (which should be in a clear plastic Ziploc bag)
- Take off your belt if you wore one
I’ve seen people take care of all of these things in under 15 seconds. I am not one of those people. Recently, airports have invested in advanced scanning technology that eliminates the need to keep going through a metal detector and causing everyone to hate you. I suggest that if you have had surgery where something was put in you, such as and artificial knee, metal plate or screws, that you tell the TSA agent so they are aware of it prior to the scanning. Once you get out of the scanner, one of two things will happen: you will be let through without any problems or you will be pulled aside.
If you pass through, get your things as quickly as possible and put everything back on at a bench or someplace not in the line. If you’re like me, and you do get pulled aside, don’t panic. TSA agents have seen the scan of your bag and something isn’t sitting right, or the TSA finds something fishy on your body scan. Do exactly what they tell you and everything will turn out fine. Unless they are violating your rights, do not question what they are doing. The more cooperative you are, the faster the matter will be solved. If you have a substance over 3.4 oz, then shame on you because I told you not to when packing. Most of the time, I have an object that was turned on its side in the scanner, and it looks suspicious from the angle it’s in.
After TSA has cleared you, hopefully, then you are officially done with security (again, hopefully).
Phase Three: Airport Part Three – The Wait Begins
Now, if you were smart, you arrived early to the airport so you didn’t miss your plane. Now, look up. Don’t look at the ceiling, but look at the signs that have all of the letters, numbers and colors. Now, take out your ticket and boarding pass and look for “Gate.” It should be a letter followed by a number (for example: G13). Finally, follow the arrows on the sign until you hit your gate area (in this case gate G) and then look along the various signs until you see your gate letter and number. Congratulations! You’ve found your gate.
If you ever have any problems, you can find an information desk nearby security checkpoints or you can ask a cart driver to take you there. The airport staff are typically very friendly and are there to help, so use them whenever you find it necessary.
Now, sit down and relax. For some reason, airports now want you at the airport at least an hour and a half before your plane is supposed to leave; however, two hours is something I suggest if you are travelling around Christmas or spring break time. Sometimes, you have ten minutes to spare, and at other times you might have an hour. I find that once I sit in my gate area, everything starts to hit me at once. I realize that I’m hungry, that I woke up at 3:30 am, that I had a bad experience in security, but mostly just the fact that I’m hungry.
Phase Three: Airport Part Four – The Hunger Game
So, you’re hungry? If you’re like me, you’re almost always hungry at the most inconvenient times. Being in the airport is one of those inconvenient times.
Remember when I told you to pack some snacks in your carry on? Well if you did, now would be a great time for you to break them out. If you did not, then you have no choice, but to buy food at an extremely high upcharge as this USA Today article illustrates.
First things first: I suggest that before you search for food that you set a limit. Setting a limit is important so that you aren’t spending all of your money at the airport and not having enough to spend in paradise, wherever that may be for you. I usually go with $10.
Secondly, I hope that your carry on is light and manageable. It is? Great! I knew you were paying attention! If you stopped to take in the busyness around you, you might have heard a male voice that said something like: “Attention all passengers. Please keep an eye on your bags at all times. If you see a bag that is unattended, please let our personnel know. Thank you.” The reason why this is important is because someone might try to take your bags or even slip something inside of it that could get you in a lot of trouble. Also, under no circumstance should you have a stranger watch your bag. There are no exceptions to this rule besides airport personnel.
Okay, grab your bags and all other belongings and hit the tarmac. Make sure that whenever you make a turn that you remember how to get back. I guess you could just look at the signs again, but if you are about to miss boarding, you might want to know where you’re heading.
Now, I strongly advise you to only get snacks to eat or something to drink. Ordering large meals is not only extremely expensive, but you can save money by eating at your destination in the city instead of eating in the airport. Because airports restrict the items that you are able to bring into the airport, vendors and chain restaurants know that you don’t have what they do. Therefore, they can charge any price they want knowing that you won’t have a choice but to buy their food.
Avoid the magazine places as they will have the highest priced food. Chain restaurants or fast food may be the place if you decide to get some fries or a small burger although they are still typically sold at higher prices. My recommendation is to look for a food place that has a shelf of sandwiches and fruit cups for you to use. They have a wide variety of foods to choose from, and they also have a lot of foods that aren’t heavy on the grease or fats. The greasier the food, the greasier you will feel, and if you have a three hour flight to sit through, greasy is the last way you want to feel. Grab yourself a sandwich or fruits/vegetables, and something to drink then get back to your gate. You’ll probably notice that the seats are more full and that someone else has taken the spot that you mentally marked as your own. However, you will find a new seat, like a mature adult would, and enjoy your snack.
Phase Four: Wheels Up
You’ve managed to pass the time, and now the flight attendants have announced that it is time to get on the plane. Two things need to happen when they start boarding (besides:
Take out your ticket and look for your boarding group. A boarding group is the order that you get on the plane. Usually, there’s anywhere from three to five groups. If you checked in online, you will get an earlier boarding group than someone who checked in when they arrived at the airport. The first group is usually reserved for military members, the elderly, unaccompanied minors (kids travelling alone) and passengers that have racked up some miles or have a VIP card with that specific airline. Some airlines have a boarding letter and number to order people further, as everyone will be rushing to the plane. My advice would be to stay in the back of your boarding . You will have less people to hold up while trying to find your seat and putting your carry on in the overhead bin. Also, you will spend less time sitting in your seat on the tarmac when the plane actually starts moving.
Also, look at your ticket for your seat number. The number correlates to the aisle number, which starts at one and increases as you go further back. Then the letter determines which seat in that aisle you sit in.
Now, you’ve made it on the plane and you’re in the seat. Buckle your seat belt and relax. If this is your first time on a plane, listen to the flight attendant as he or she goes through the instructions. Southwest Airlines is famous for having hilarious flight attendants, so if you’re flying Southwest, you might get a little treat like these passengers.
Phase Five: Everybody has Baggage
If you happen to make it to the ground, congratulations! Now, wait to get up from your seat when the plane stops. Sit down and relax. While everyone is shoving past each other and awkwardly shifting their bodies, you’ll be safe in your seat. Until the door opens to the plane, you’re all going to be stuck on the plane anyway, so you might as well wait. After everyone starts clearing out, then get up and grab your carry on.
Now, I’m going to assume that you checked at least one bag. The whole process of baggage claim can be summed up in one sentence: follow the signs in the airport that say baggage claim and wait at baggage claim. Baggage claim is usually pretty easy to find. Another plus of waiting to grab your carry on is that you can usually follow the large crowd to baggage claim if you’re completely lost. If you did check a bag, the ticketing attendant should have attached a slip to your bag and then handed a slip to you. Check your slip for your carrousel number and look along the baggage claims for your number.
After what seems like an eternity, a loud buzzer will sounds with a light on your carrousel. Then, slowly but surely, your bag will work its way towards you. Once your bag is in arm’s reach, grab it. You will have about four seconds, give or take, to obtain your bag as it passes. If you miss it the first time, no big deal. Instead of chasing it, just wait for it to pass by a second time, and hope that no one mistakes your bag for theirs. As soon as you grab your bag, you’re pretty much home free.
By this time you should be greeted by your family, friends or group that you’re with. I’m guessing that if you don’t see anyone that you have arranged transportation to get to your destination, or you took a trip by yourself.
Whatever your post-airport plans, congratulations. You’ve officially completed traveling via the sky. I have some final tips for you that could make traveling a lot easier.
Tips and Tricks
- Take Airborne or some other Vitamin C source because a lot of people get sick when traveling due to the massive amounts of people from all over the world carrying their own versions of the flu or common cold.
- At your gate, ask the flight attendant if they have any first class seats that haven’t been taken. If they do, they might seat you first class for free.
- Go to the bathroom before you board or when you get on the plane. It will save you time and make the people you’re sitting next to grateful.
- If you want liquids or face cleaners over 3.4 oz., you will need to put them in a separate Ziploc bag and put that bag in a checked bag. You cannot take it through security.
- If your flight gets cancelled or you are going to miss a connecting flight, call the airline instead of rushing to the flight attendant’s desk. The airline will be a lot easier to reach instead of waiting for the crowds of people bombarding them, and the airline can do a lot more to help out.
- If you check a bag, ask for a “fragile” sticker. Even if you don’t have fragile items in your bag, these bags are usually placed on top of the pile and therefore hit the baggage claim before the other bags.
- Pack an empty water bottle for your carry on. The airport has water fountains that you can fill them up at once you pass through security. This will save you about $8 for a bottle of water.
- WEAR A JACKET! Even if you’re traveling somewhere warm, wear a jacket so you can stuff all of your things in the pockets. Then, you only have to take the jacket off and your shoes when going through security.
For more tips and tricks, here’s an article from Thrillist. Lifehacker also has a great article. If you’re prone to breaking out on your face, but you can’t pack your favorite face cleanser, this avid traveller has a great DIY face mask from aspirin tablets.
If you find yourself traveling around the world or really trying to figure out what to do in your city, not only is the city website a great source, but here’s a link to my favorite travel blogger, the Everywhereist.
Wherever you’re flying to and whatever you’re doing there, I hope this guide made traveling a little bit easier. As you embark on this journey in the airports around the world, remember that everyone has made a mistake in the airport. There are people around you that can help. When you travel alone, you are never really alone. Enjoy the experience. If you have a minute, stop and watch the many people around you. Chances are, many of them don’t speak your language or don’t share your culture. The abundance of people from around the world is surprising and something you can learn from. If you have a chance to chat with someone, you might find that every person you talk to has their own unique story. Maybe that story will inspire you to make a difference. Safe travels and enjoy the skies.