If you struggle with anxiety around traveling, haven’t flown internationally before, or maybe it’s just been a while since you had to navigate an unfamiliar airport—this post is for you! I want to share my expert airport advice with you, starting with checking in for your flight and navigating the airport and ending with pointers for the actual flight itself.
These tips will have you traveling like a pro in no time!
Tip #1: Always Check In as Soon as You Can
Depending on what airline you’re flying, you may be able to check in online up to 72 hours before your flight, although 24 hours is always a safe bet. Check in as soon as you can in order to secure your reservation and look for upgrades (sometimes airlines will even offer you a bidding reward to get the first class ticket, which is not always as expensive as you may think!)
Also, check out SeatGuru! I love using this website to check the seat map and ensure I get the seat I want. You can even check the website within a few hours before the flight takes off to find the best spot, then move your seat around as you wish.
Tip #2: Get to the Airport at Least 3 Hours Before Your Flight
I sometimes get to the airport up to eight hours before a flight. There are many reasons why it’s super beneficial for me. I’m a digital nomad, so I often use the airport as my office! I arrive early, and locate an airport lounge or restaurant to chill out, relax, and be stress-free. Some of the advantages of early arrival include:
- You don’t have to rush checking in for your flight or going through security! More time = less stress.
- You can go through immigration.
- You can hang out in a lounge, get free food, and get work done.
- You can walk around and explore.
Definitely try this tip out, and go to the airport early to avoid any hassle. Plus, airports are really cool! You are surrounded by people from all over the world, and you may even have the opportunity to make a new friend. Also, there are no rules—you can sleep at 3 pm or eat McDonald’s at midnight. Use your time in airports to learn how to appreciate the journey, not just the destination!
Tip #3: Be Friendly With Your Ticket Agents
Put yourself in their shoes: they see hundreds of angry, impatient, rude customers every day. If you are friendly, smile, and treat them with kindness, they will be far more likely to help you out! I start my check-in process by smiling and saying, “hi, how are you?” Sometimes I say something like, “your eyes are beautiful,” or “how’s your day going?”
Just making some pleasant small talk can make a world of difference—you’re more likely to get excellent service, and you might even make their day!
Tip #4: Request a Seat Near the Front
If you’ve been nice to your ticket agent, they’re likely to help you out when you ask to sit near the front of the plane! (I’m not talking about asking to sit in First Class; I’m talking about the first row behind the First Class section.)
Why ask for a seat near the front?
I hate sitting at the back of the plane because when the plane arrives, people take forever. They stand up, stretch their legs, grab their bags from overhead, and you’re the last one out. Then you have to run to immigration because everyone is going to the same place, and there is likely to be a long line.
Take my advice—ask to sit in the front of the plane, and the ticket agent will likely be more than happy to help you out!
Tip #5: Have an Outbound Flight Booked and Ready
I never enter an airport without having an outbound ticket!
The ticket agent will likely ask for proof that you have a flight back out of the country you’re visiting. I’ve been screwed before and had to book a flight on the spot, so don’t make this mistake! If you get stuck, Orbitz and Expedia both offer free cancellation within 24 hours. Use this if you don’t know when you’re leaving: you can book a flight to show at Immigration and then cancel it for free after you arrive (you can then rebook the flight whenever you want.)
(There’s also a service called Fake Flight Tickets that will generate a fake ticket for $5, featuring real flight numbers, etc, to show for this purpose. Do this at your own risk! I’ve had to do it a few times, but it’s technically illegal, so I don’t want to recommend it to you guys.)
Whatever you do, it’s crucial to make sure that you have some kind of proof of an outbound flight. Trust me; you don’t want to get screwed!
Tip #6: I Never Check a Bag
This is one of my best airport tips! Here are some of the reasons that I recommend you not check a bag:
- Checking a bag is expensive! It’s $20-$50 every time you fly, which can add up really fast.
- You have to wait at the airport baggage claim to retrieve your bag after you arrive, which can literally take hours.
- You run the risk of the airline losing your bag (which has happened to me more than once, so I never check one anymore!)
So, how do I travel without checking a bag?
I have a travel backpack which I pack with all my clothes and wear on my back, and then I have a smaller bag that I use to carry my electronics (I have a complete breakdown of every item in my backpacks HERE!)
I’ve learned some tricks to get away without checking a bag, even if it’s overweight! When I get to the ticket agent, I make a comment, make small talk, and tell them I’m not checking bags. I also try to prevent them from putting my carry-on on the scale; if they ask to see my bag, I just turn around and show them my backpack.
You can also have a friend watch your bag when you check-in.
Have your friend stand somewhere else in the terminal, not at check-in with you. Check in by yourself, just carrying your small backpack/bag, and say something like, “Hey, my friend is in the bathroom. They will be coming later; I’m just checking in for my ticket.” After getting your ticket, switch places with your friend to watch their bag while they check in. This trick almost guarantees that you will both get your bags on the plane as carryons, even if they are 20lbs overweight!
If you’re a frequent traveler and want to try to hack the system, you should definitely try to get by without checking a bag.
Tip #7: How to Avoid Long Lines:
There are multiple systems in place for US passport holders that help you skip lines. These include:
- Clear — This company uses biometrics like your eyes, face, and fingerprints to confirm your identity instead of the usual documents. Once they’ve checked to make sure you are who you say you are, they will take you to the front of the TSA line, and you’ll enter security right before the scanner area (instead of having to wait in the long line to show your ID to a TSA agent.) Clear membership renews annually.
- TSA PreCheck — You’ve probably seen these dedicated lines when you’ve entered security at just about any US airport, but did you know that you can get access to this shorter line for a small annual fee? Not only will you spend less time in line, but you won’t have to remove your shoes/belt, take out your laptop, or show your quart-size bag of liquids. It’s much more convenient and will get you through security and into your gate or the comfortable lounge area faster. Purchase of TSA PreCheck lasts five years.
- Global Entry — This program will help you get through US Customs faster when coming back from an international trip. This program allows you to skip the long customs lines, whether you’re crossing the border by air, land, or sea. Instead, you’ll go straight to self-serve kiosks that scan your eyes and your passport, and then you’re done. You will also skip any paperwork that would otherwise be required. Purchase of Global Entry lasts five years and now includes TSA Precheck.
Global Entry is available to US citizens and select foreign nationals, including citizens of Argentina, India, Colombia, the UK, Germany, Panama, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Mexico.
I’ve purchased membership in all of these programs, and you should too! They do cost a bit of money, but it’s well worth it (even if you only travel a couple of times a year.) Sometimes the travel credit cards give you them for free as a bonus, so make sure you check with your rewards card company!
Tip #8: Bring a Water Bottle With You
An empty one, that is!
If you carry an empty bottle with you, you can fill up your water at one of the filling stations after security, either in the airport or in the lounge. This is a must for me; I always get dehydrated on planes, and I always want to have water with me. Spending $3, $4, $5, $8 for water in the airport? Trust me, that’s not happening!
Tip #9: The Priority Pass
Have you ever wondered how to get inside airport lounges? You need to get the Priority Pass!
Priority Pass is a badge or card that gets you into 1,300+ VIP lounges worldwide for free. These lounges often include free Wifi, comfortable couches, an open bar, a cafeteria or restaurant, and sometimes even massages, showers, and buffets—all for free!
These lounges are also why I like to arrive at the airport so early: I show my Priority Pass to get into the lounge and then just chill, get work done, hang out, or have a drink. It’s like going to a cafe, but you’re actually at the airport! Having access to a lounge is especially great if you have a long layover: I’ve even slept overnight in several different airport lounges around the world because they’re so comfortable.
Priority Pass also has an app that shows you the lounge’s location in whatever airport you happen to be in. Usually, there’s more than one lounge: for example, the London airport has multiple lounges.
How to get Priority Pass:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve®
This is hands down the best travel rewards credit card. If you’re from the US, you should definitely get it. The Priority Pass is a bonus that comes with the card!
- Check with your bank or credit card.
Some credit card companies and banks offer the Priority Pass as a perk. It’s worth looking to see if yours is one of them!
- Buy the Priority Pass outright.
Priority Pass has three different membership tiers, from $99/year and $32/visit to $429/year and unlimited free visits. You can choose the plan that works best for you, whether you’re a frequent flier or only travel a few times a year. With the free food and drinks offered in the lounges, you can actually end up saving a significant amount of money in the long run.
This pass has saved me thousands of dollars on food and drinks, and it has allowed me to work countless hours in comfort (which is truly priceless!)
Having gold or platinum membership in one of the airline alliance programs will also give you access to that lounge. For example, United is the main partner of Star Alliance, so if you can get gold status in United or in Star Alliance, then you will have access to the United Lounges.
Tip #10: Try to Get on the Plane Earlier
When the airlines do the boarding process by number, sometimes (honestly, more times than not), you can just get on whenever you want. The reason they do the number thing is just to organize people. Don’t be a jerk about it, but it’s always worth trying: the gate agent is unlikely to stop you from boarding with the wrong group.
I like to get on the plane first because I can get comfortable, get everything set up the way I want it, charge my phone, and even lie down on some flights. It’s definitely a tip I can recommend!
Tip #11: Be Nice to the Flight Attendants
You want to start off on the right foot with the flight attendants when you get on the plane! Like the ticket agents, they deal with many rude, frustrated, cranky passengers every day. If you’re kind and do something nice for them, they’ll usually take care of you and spoil you for the flight. They may give you unlimited wine, or they may just be your friend. Something I’ve done a few times is offer them a lollipop or chocolate.
Kindness costs you nothing, but it could earn you some nice perks!
Tip #12: Get off the Plane First
This one is really important: when your flight lands, you always want to get off first (or as quickly as possible) because everyone is going to the same place: Immigration. If you’re in the back of the plane, then you have probably three hundred people walking to the same line as you are, and you’re likely going to have to wait for hours.
If there is an open seat closer to the front, definitely move up there during the flight (and bring your bag so that you’re ready to hop off!). If you are stuck at the back, grab your stuff and jolt up the aisle as soon as the plane pauses at the gate, before the “ding dong” sound where you can officially get up and disembark. There’s a short window, like three to eight seconds, between the plane stopping and the “ding dong” when people get up. Use those precious few seconds to get to the front of the plane! Many people do this anyway because they have tight connections, so it’s normal for people to want to get off the plane first.
If you’re traveling to many places in one trip, or you’re a frequent traveler, or you just don’t want to waste time, then using these tips to get to the front of Immigration is vital.
I love sharing everything I’ve learned while traveling around the world.
Let me know if a tip from this list helped you out or if you have a first-rate travel tip that you think I missed. (And seriously, try out Priority Pass—it’s a TOTAL game changer!)