Traveling on an airplane can be an intimidating prospect if you've never been before, or if it has been some time since your last trip. With added security regulations, and many airlines tightening down on how they handle carry-on and checked baggage, traveling on an airplane today is more complex than it was years ago. Still, with a few simple rules of thumb, and some basic inquiries to your airline or airport, you can make sure that the next time you are traveling on an airplane you have the best possible time.
Carry the Proper Documentation
Before you can fly, you'll need to get to the airport well before your flight and with the right documentation. A government-issued photo ID, like a driver's license or passport, is required to check any bags and to enter the security screening area. Children under 18 may not be required to have this identification. A boarding pass is also required to go through security; other than authorized personnel, only those who have a ticket on a flight can enter the gate area.
Get to the Airport Early
Airlines usually recommend that passengers get to the airport 90 minutes to two hours before a flight if traveling within the same country, and three hours if flying internationally. You should adjust this time depending on the time of day and day of the week; airports are often less crowded on a Saturday, for example, so you may not need to be there as early. On a busy day — especially around major holidays — it could take a very long time to check your bags and get through the security screening, so it's better to give yourself extra time.
There is usually have a deadline set by the airline for checking in or checking bags, often 30 minutes before the flight is due to depart. Passengers are typically required to be at the gate 15 minutes before the departure time. Many airlines allow passengers to print their boarding pass from home 24 hours before the flight; some airlines also have mobile boarding passes, which are sent to a cell phone. Checking in before going to the airport can save you time, especially if you aren't checking baggage and thus can go straight to the security line.
Getting Through Security
Once you've checked any baggage and joined the line to to through the security screening, you'll want to keep your photo ID and boarding pass handy. In many places, including the US, you'll need to show this to a security officer at a checkpoint before entering the screening area. At this point, you'll likely need to remove any metal objects from your pockets or body — including, in some cases, belts and jewelry — and place them in a provided plastic tub. Any carry-on baggage should be placed on the conveyor belt to pass through an X-ray machine. In many cases, laptops computers should also be removed from their bags to go through the machine separately; coats and shoes may also need to be removed and X-rayed.
After your carry-on bags and other objects are placed on the conveyor belt, you will also be scanned, sometimes by passing through a simple metal detector and other times by standing briefly in a full-body scanner, also called advanced imaging technology (AIT) equipment. In most cases, a security officer will let you know when you should step through the detector or scanner. The radiation used by the AIT is considered safe for pregnant woman; in the US, passengers can opt not to be screened by this equipment, and elect for a pat-down instead. Pat-downs may also be performed if the metal detector alarm sounds, the AIT indicates something unusual, or if the security officer suspects a problem.
People with disabilities, or who need assistance when passing through security, should ask for help. Most medical devices, including wheelchairs, prosthetic devices, and service animals, will be allowed to pass through the security checkpoint, although additional screening may be required. Carrying documentation explaining your condition can be a good idea, in case there are any questions.
Carry-On Baggage Guidelines
Many countries have guidelines about what can and cannot be carried when traveling on an airplane, so you'll need to make sure any items you have on you or in your carry-on luggage are allowed. In the US, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has a comprehensive list of prohibited items, and you should be sure to check it immediately before you depart. If you do end up having a prohibited item on you at the gate, it will be confiscated, and you cannot be sure of getting it back. You will want to make sure your bags, pockets, and jackets are clear of any items you aren't allowed to carry.
Although many of the items prohibited by the TSA when traveling on an airplane seem like common sense, others may not be so obvious. Sharp items like swords, knives, scissors, box cutters, and razor blades are prohibited. An exception is made for safety razors, as well as for knives with rounded ends or those made of plastic. A wide range of sporting goods items are also not allowed in carry-ons when traveling on an airplane, including pool cues, baseball bats, golf clubs, and ski poles. All guns and firearms, as well as flares and gunpowder, are also not allowed. You may be allowed to carry some of these items in your checked baggage, but you should check with the airline in advance.
Many tools are also prohibited when traveling on an airplane, including crowbars, hammers, and saws. Screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers, and other tools that are less than 7 inches (18 cm) in length are allowed, but any that are longer are not. All weapons and flammable items, with the exception of some common lighters, are also prohibited.
Non-flammable liquids, such as shampoos or shaving creams, are allowed only in containers of 3.4 ounces (100 ml) or less; anything larger, even if it only contains the permitted amount of liquid, will usually be confiscated. All containers should be able to fit into a clear, resealable plastic bag no larger than 1 quart (about 1 liter). Baby food, breast milk, and some medications may be allowed in larger amounts; if you're carrying these excepted items, you should keep them separate from your other liquid containers and declare them to the security agent, who may screen them separately.
In the Secure Area
From this point on, traveling on an airplane becomes quite easy, as every step will be carefully spelled out for you. If your gate information is not printed on your boarding pass, there should be monitors in the area with this information provided. Most airports have shops and restaurants inside the secure area that you can visit if you have time before your flight. Make sure you're at your gate no less than 15 minutes before the flight, and keep your ears open for any announcements about the flight, such as a delay or gate change.
On the Plane
Once you've boarded, and before the plane takes off, the flight attendants will give a run down of safety protocol on the plane. Pay attention to this instruction, for although it most likely will not be needed, in the event of an emergency you will be glad to know what steps to take to ensure your safety. Your cell phone should remain off once the plane leaves the gate. While on the plane, you should follow any instructions given by the flight crew, including when to keep your seat belt fastened and when to turn off electronic devices.