First time flyer tips: Step by Step!

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For first time air travelers, knowing what to expect at the airport can make air travel more enjoyable. We all get a little nervous when we face the unknown, even if it’s exciting. This article lays out what to expect so you can navigate airports like a pro! Confidently!

Airplane seet with a title that says, "How to navigate airports like a pro."

This guide provides first time flying tips so you can fly with less stress, no matter what surprises pop up!

One of the most important tips for first time flyers is to plan ahead before you even go to the airport. Preparing for your flight will make the airport part a lot easier.

Things to do before going to the airport

Check in 24 hours before your flight.

To navigate the airport like a pro, make sure you check in for your flight the day before!

Most airlines send a reminder email that it’s time to check in for your flight. Follow the link. Confirm how many bags you plan to check (there can be fees involved). And then either download your ticket to your phone or print it out.

When flights are over-booked, those who check in last are the first to get bumped. When it comes to air travel, the early bird gets the seat!

Dress and pack for the TSA!

Everyone goes through a security line (the TSA line) and screening before they can fly. At the TSA checkpoint, you’ll have to take off your shoes, empty your pockets, and remove your belt. Occasionally, they’ll make exceptions for the elderly, but it’s not guaranteed.

Seasoned travelers know that slip-on shoes make the TSA check easier. First time flyers are often surprised by the rules.

To navigate airport TSA checks like a pro, put belts and jewelry (including your watch and hair clips, though wedding bands can stay on your hand) in your purse or carryon bag until after you complete your screening. I pack my belt and jewelry in my computer bag until after I get through TSA.

Do not wrap Christmas gifts before travel. (Mail them ahead if you can!)

If carrying a laptop computer, pack it where it’s easy to reach. Digging to the bottom of your carryon bag increases the risk of losing items when pulling it out. The laptop has to go in its own bin to go through the screening equipment.

AND, the TSA 3-1-1 liquids rule still applies. Only travel size liquids are allowed on planes.

Tips for first time flyers: Toothpaste is a liquid! Bottled water is a liquid, even if it’s still sealed. But, you can carry infant formula.

To navigate the airport like a pro, here you go:

  • Wear slip-on shoes,
  • Keep all accessories (belt, wallet, cell phone and jewelry besides your wedding ring) in a carryon bag or purse until after clearing TSA,
  • Keep your computer or tablet handy so it’s easy to remove from your bag for screening.
  • Once you get through the screening area, gather your things and move away from the conveyor belt to put your shoes and belt on so others can get their things.

Here’s another airport traveler pro tip: Don’t try to talk the TSA out of doing their job. They can’t be cajoled and other passengers will be annoyed with you.

Arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes before your flight (domestic). For major airports make that two hours!

Busy airports suggest arrival for domestic flights at least 90 minutes before departure to allow for ticketing, baggage check, security screening and the walk to the gate. Kristen Hamlin at USA Today explains,

This recommendation refers to the time you actually arrive in the airport terminal, though. If you need to park, return a rental car or ride a shuttle from the airport parking area, include time for that.

Take it from me, forgetting to factor in the shuttle time from parking lot to terminal is a BAD idea! And, the airplane is not going to wait for you because you were late. That just doesn’t happen!

Keep track of parking ticket, parking space and your luggage.

You need your parking ticket when you leave the airport so they can properly charge you for the length of your stay. If you lose your parking ticket, you’ll probably pay a lot more!

Wherever you decide to park, whether at the terminal or the remote lot, take a photo of the lot marker to remember which section you parked in. I find it easier to drive through the crowded “close” spots to the back of the lot. Shuttles drive through the whole lot before heading to the airport anyway.

Photo of an airport shuttle station with an orange arrow that says, "Take a photo. Remember where you parked."

Before you leave the car, count your luggage! Let me say that again, count every piece: purse, laptop bag, kids backpacks, and luggage.

When you get to the shuttle stop, count again. Do you have it all?

Count again when you get on the shuttle…. TRUST ME! We left a suitcase behind at the shuttle stop once. Horrible!

Count again when you get to the terminal! It’s a bit obsessive, but it will make life easier. I promise.

I actually take a photo of my luggage now so that if a piece gets lost, I can show airport personnel what it looks like.

How to navigate the airport like a pro

Now that we’ve covered the basic first time flying tips, here’s what to expect at the airport. When you know what to expect, you’ll be able to navigate the airport like a pro!

Know where to go.

If you checked in for your flight online AND you do not have checked bags, proceed directly to the TSA security check area. You can bypass the ticket agents!

If you did not check in before arriving at the airport, if you have checked bags, or if you forgot your boarding passes at home, stop at the ticket desk. Lines here can get long, especially during peak travel times (mornings) or the holidays. Be patient! If you don’t know what line you should be in, ask an agent for assistance. They’ll want to know your destination and flight time.

Keep your party together. It’s a bit chaotic here and if you stay together, you won’t worry about losing a kid or a bag!

Be kind to the TSA agents!

Whether we like it or not, the age of airport security is here to stay! TSA agents are not the enemy. If you prepared with our first time flyer tips for the TSA stop, security will be easy. Lines are really long during the holidays. Be patient.

A lot of airports use police dogs to sniff for drugs, so if you have a kid who’s afraid of dogs, prepare ahead. Kids cannot pet the dogs.

When it’s finally your turn, the TSA agent will need to see tickets for each member of your traveling party. They’ll confirm names and ages, even for kids. Adults need to provide photo ID (drivers’ license or passport) as well as their ticket. If you keep all these items together in their own pocket of your carryon or purse, it’s easier.

NOTE: As of May 2025 in the United States, you will “need” a REAL ID for domestic flights. It’s an extra screening process to confirm your identity and citizenship or residency. If you’re comfortable carrying your passport for domestic travel, that is a suitable substitute to the REAL ID requirement.

Back to the airport… The TSA agents will direct you to the screening line they want you to use. Take off shoes (kids under age 12 can leave theirs on) and jackets. Double check that no one is wearing a belt or metal hair clip. Make sure everyone’s pockets are empty.

Pass through security. On the other side, gather all your items. Move away from the conveyor belt to get shoes and belts on. Make sure you have cell phone, laptop and all your bags. Yes, that means count them again!

Confirm your gate and proceed there.

Double-check that your assigned gate hasn’t changed since arrival at the airport. Proceed to your gate. Consider other travelers. Stay to the right if you walk slow, just like cars on the highway! Business travelers rushing to make a tight connection will appreciate your consideration.

Airport flight departure board shows all flight destination cities in alphabetical order.

Remember to count that luggage if you stop anywhere to eat or to go to the restroom on the way to your gate. Never leave bags unattended either.

Board the plane!

Once you arrive at your gate, you’re ready to go. Unless you need assistance to check a stroller or wheelchair, you don’t need to check in with the agents at the gate. Listen for your flight number to be called and board with your group. Your ticket will have an assigned boarding group. If you can’t find it, ask a nearby traveler and they’ll show you. We’ve all been first time flyers before and know there’s a learning curve!

There are some exceptions for passengers who need special assistance.

Some airlines (like Southwest), allow families with kids under age 5 to board first to ensure they get seats together. Other airlines assign seats and will rearrange passengers once everyone is on board to keep families together as much as possible, but it’s not guaranteed.

To board the plane, you’ll present your ticket to the gate agent. Photo ID is not required at the gate.

Place larger carryons in the overhead bins (wheels should go in first). Be careful not to bump anyone in the head! Put smaller bags under the seat in front of you. Sit down. Buckle seat belts and wait patiently for takeoff.

That’s it! No one will know you’re a first time flyer if you follow these tips to navigate airports like a pro!