A Guide to Your First Time Traveling Alone in an Airport

Perhaps you’re one of those travelers that effortlessly breeze through Heathrow in London, or JFK in New York City, like nobody’s business. Maybe you get pretty damn flustered at the thought of checking-in, or you’ve heard some customs horror stories. But what if you’ve actually never traveled solo on a commercial aircraft, or checked-in to an airport before?

With some easy preparation, we’re here to ensure that your first time traveling alone in an airport before joining your tour is as seamless as possible. After reading our list of tips, we bet you’ll be moving through the terminal like a pro.

Arrivals at Toronto Pearson Airport, Canada
All great adventures start at the airport | © Miguel Carraça/Unsplash

What to do before you arrive at the airport

Avoid packing last minute

We know that sometimes life gets in the way, which, of course, means that packing last minute is unavoidable. Packing a week before your trip – or even two days before your flight – means you’ll be in a much calmer state of mind, and far less likely to forget one of your must-have items. In the month before you travel, make a list of everything you need, which will help you to be as prepared as possible. 

Be sure to check the airlines carry-on rules and the weight limit for your check-in luggage. The last thing you need before meeting your tour group is a hefty fee to carry one or two extra kilos on board.

Check your passport expiry date

Overlooking the expiry date of your passport is a surprisingly easy mistake to make, even for veteran travelers. Stay one step ahead of the game by checking your passport expiry the minute you even think about booking your flight or tour to avoid any nasty surprises at the airport. Depending on the destination, a minimum validity of six months is usually required.

Carry your passport in a secure, eco-friendly case.  

Triple check your itinerary

We all make mistakes, but arriving at the airport on a wrong day can be avoided by looking over your itinerary in the days before your travel date.  If you’re unsure about the dates or flight time, ask a friend to look at your itinerary for you, just to be sure.

Sunset at San Diego Airport
Before you arrive at the airport, make sure you check your flight details | © Cameron Stow/Unsplash

Check-in online 24 hours before your flight

Nowadays, the online check-in process takes all of 5-10 minutes. For some airlines, this is your opportunity to seriously upgrade your experience. You can select your meal, customise your entertainment options, choose your seat, and really start to get excited about your travels. Once you’ve completed the process, print off your boarding pass and store it in a safe place, or download the electronic version on your phone.

Organise your liquids

For all flights across the world, liquids must not exceed 100ml, and each of these containers must be able to squeeze into a 1-litre plastic bag. Triple check the size of your sunscreen, perfume, moisturiser, face lotion, and liquid foundation to avoid any nasty surprises at airport security.

Invest in a collection of TSA approved, leak-proof reusable containers to make travel even easier.

Wear comfortable clothes

When it comes to your first solo airport experience, it’s all about preparation. Try not to overdo it on the bulky layers (as you’ll be likely be asked to remove each layer), and it is best to wear shoes that are easy to remove when moving through security.

Ladies can buy airport-friendly sweaters here, while guys can find comfortable fleece sweatshirts perfect for long travel days here

What to do when you’re at the airport traveling alone. 

Arrive early

The recommended time to arrive at the airport is at least two hours before your flight is due to depart, or three hours for international departures. This might sound like an excessive amount of time to spend waiting before your flight, but in this case, it’s better to be overly cautious. Arriving nice and early provides ample time to drop your luggage, go to the security screening checkpoint, and grab a snack and find your gate. Most airlines impose strict rules as to when they will stop accepting check-ins, and this can vary between 30-60 minutes before departure.

For first-time travelers, don’t be afraid to speak up and make the airport staff aware that it’s your first time traveling alone in an airport. Remember that they’re there to help you. By making it clear that you’re really unsure about where to go, or what to do, they can put your nervous mind at ease by explaining the entire process for you.

It’s better to be safe, and arrive early to the airport | © Jan Zhukov/Unsplash

Keep a firm eye on your passport

Pick a spot in your handbag, your backpack, or in your front pocket and make sure your passport stays there. Remove it only when needed, and be especially careful not to misplace it at the security screening.

Be prepared for airport security

A security screening can take as little as a few minutes, or up to an hour if it’s a busy airport. To keep the line moving, be prepared to comply with the rules of a security screening. Before you enter the line, empty your water bottle, have your passport and boarding pass in your hand, and be ready to remove your shoes, belt, and bulky layers if asked to do so.

As you enter the security line, remove your computer or iPad, mobile phone, and your collection of small liquids, and place the contents into the tray provided for screening. Remember to place your handbag or backpack in its own tray for screening. As your items roll along the conveyor belt for screening, patiently wait to be called through the metal detector for a body scan. Once you and your items have been screened, simply pack up your items (triple check you have your passport) and start making your way to your boarding gate.

Follow the signs in the terminal or ask for directions if you are lost  | © Briana Tozour/Unsplash

What to do during the boarding process

Get to the gate on time

By this point, you will have now successfully navigated your way through the busiest parts of the airport. All that’s left for you to do is check your boarding pass, as it will inform you what time boarding will commence and which gate your flight will depart from. If there are any last minute changes to your flight departure time or gate, all updates will be announced over the speaker, and the changes will be communicated on the large screens that display all flight departures.

Assuming you’re at the gate, patiently waiting to board, at this stage you just need to listen for the boarding queues. The gate attendant will call your boarding group (often listed as zones 1-8, or group A-D) or sometimes you will be called by your row number. Those traveling with children, or in need of wheelchair assistance, are likely to be called first.

Once you’ve found your gate, all you need to do is sit back and wait to board| ©Iwan Shimko/Unsplash

What to do once you’re on the plane

As you walk onto the plane, the cabin crew will point you in the direction of your seat. Once you find your seat, step out of the aisle to let others pass, and stow your luggage in the overhead storage before sitting down to relax and enjoy your flight.

Ready for take off? It’s time for adventure! | © Nicolas J Leclercq/Unsplash

Have we missed anything? Share your tips in the comments below! 

Gemma is a travel-lover from Melbourne. When she's not surrounded by the great outdoors, Gemma can be found spending her time with family and friends or planning her next trip overseas.

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