How to Fly

I don’t know how to fly airplanes. I’m not a pilot. However, I have learned to be a passenger on planes — I travel quite a bit, for both business and personal reasons. I want to share the lessons learned from flying, and to help readers become better passengers.

Why should you care? Being a better passenger means a better experience for you, *and* better experience for the people around you, who will hate you less for being a nuisance. Unfortunately, in flying, it is easy for one person to hold up entire lines, causing a lot of damage.

Packing for your trip

When flying, you are usually allowed to bring on the plane:

  • One personal item
  • One carry-on item
  • Either one or two pieces of luggage, depending on the trip length and other particulars.

The pieces of luggage can usually be up to 50 pounds each. They will go in the plane’s luggage hold, and you will not see them until the end of your trip (mostly — see exception later), *if then*. Airlines have been known to send your luggage to different locations, or just to take their time getting it to the right one. On rare occasions, they have been known to lose luggage. Try not to put something you would absolutely kill yourself if you lose (mementos, etc.) there, but be aware that losing your luggage is an extremely rare thing (I have put signed CDs in luggage — they are not irreplacable, merely sentimentally valuable). Definitely do not put anything you cannot do without on your first day in your luggage — for example, if you need to shave when you land, do not put your shaving machine there. Likewise, make sure your on-board packs have enough clothes to last you 1-2 days, unless you really do not mind having to buy clothes at your destination (you might not — if you’re going to a shopping trip in New York City, that should be fine!).

The pieces of luggage that go in the plane’s luggage compartment are called the “checked luggage”. Other than having more room for stuff, you are also allowed to check-in things that you cannot bring on-board. Scissors, knives and similar slashy things are not allowed on-board. Put them in your checked luggage, or don’t carry them at all. Liquids — you are allowed to bring a limited amount of liquids on-board (usually used for “travel-size” cosmetics) in a zip-locked 1 quart (that’s about 1 litre) plastic bag, which are no more than 3 ounces each (that’s about 75ml). If you have a large shampoo bottle, or anything similar, put it in your checked luggage — and remember that you might not have it with you on your first day, and possibly at all.

Carry-on bags usually go in the overhead compartment. If you are out of luck, by the time you board, they might not have enough room in the overhead compartment for your carry-on, and you will need to check that into the plane. Usually, they will let you check it in to a special compartment that is made available when you leave the plane (“deplaning” in fly-speak). Luggage companies usually make carry-on sized bags which are quite large and fit in the overhead compartment, usually as roll-ons with handles. If you are planning to fly more than once or twice, I highly recommend buying one of these (the cost can be 100$-400$ depending on quality and other things).

Your personal item needs to fit under the sit in front of you, so it should be smaller. A backpack is usually ideal for these purposes. If you have back issues of any kind, you can get backpacks with handles and wheels so you will need to carry them on your back only short distances. Another option is to use a “laptop bag” — in that case, it is smart to make sure it is one of those bags that are roomy enough for a little extra stuff in there. Again, for those with back problems, it is possible to get one with handle and wheels. It is smart to pack some food so you will be able to eat when you’re hungry, even if they’re not serving food right now. Don’t pack water though, unless you’re flying somewhere non-USy.

You can also wear a pouch. Especially for women, who are known for having pants without any useful place for pockets, this is a great place to put cellphones, money purses and other things. I have started flying with a pouch just because it is easier to get through security (more about going through security later).

If you are on a short trip, you can forgo the need to check any luggage and pack everything in the carry-on and personal item. You can stuff a surprising amount of underwear inside backpacks, and you can bring an extra pair of shoes and quite a bit of clothes in the carry-on. Stuffing means physically forcing things in, and sometimes using a bit of force when closing the luggage. This is where quality luggage makes a difference — it will handle the strain well. If you do this, and you’re not a barbarian, you will probably need to use the “zip-lock” bag method to bring on board cosmetics. Make sure that this zip-lock bag is easily accessibly — front zipper on your backpack or carry-on, or inside your pouch — something you can take out in less than 10 seconds.

Remember to pack identification (passports if you are going on an int’l trip) and money. I cannot stress the important of money enough. Money has a way of solving problems that come up and you did not think of. If you are new to travelling, you will make mistakes. Plan for this — pack a little extra money. Unless you are going into a place rife with crime, just carry it in your purse or wallet. Of course, if someone actually robs you, give them the goddamn money. It’s not worth your life. Bring credit-cards or debit-cards if you have them, and know the PIN. This way, you can get more money if you need to.

Usually you will get your tickets as “e-tickets” — that it, bytes on the computer. Print out those bytes (either the e-mail from your travel agent or the web site you booked from). If you are staying at a hotel, print out the details of the reservation, including the hotel’s address. If you are staying with friends, print out their address. If you are planning to rent a car and reserve it in advance (you should — it costs much less that way), print out the details of the reservation. Keep all the print outs in a handy place that you can pull out straight away if you need to. Pack a book or two. You will spend considerable time waiting, and you need something to occupy you. If you have an ebook reader, a gameboy or whatever feel free to pack them — but also pack a regular book. There are too many times that you will not be allowed to use electronics.

Getting to the airport

Airports are divided into “terminals”. You should have some way of knowing which terminal your flight is leaving from. Small airports will have only one terminal, which makes it easy. Other airports divide terminals based on the airline, which you should know. If you are not sure, feel free to call the airline’s support number (it should be on their web site) or your travel agent (if you booked through an agent) and ask. But make sure you know this — it is possible to spend a lot of time bumbling around between terminals and missing your flight.

The rules say you should get to the airport 3 hours before your flight. No experienced traveller does that, but unless you know the airport well and have flown out of there once or twice, do try to get there at least two hours before. Yes, you will usually waste most of that time waiting for your flight — but in case you take a bit of time to find something, or something else goes wrong, you will have enough time to correct this.

Unless you have printed out your boarding pass in advance (I have never done this), you will need to “check-in” and get your boarding pass. The airline you are flying on will have many desks. Approach the right one (do not approach the business one unless you’re flying business, do not approach the “elite/frequent flier/…” one unless you are one, do not approach the “no luggage to check-in” if you have luggage, do not approach the “I already printed out my boarding pass” if you have not done so). This is crucial. I cannot stress this enough. You will only waste your time, and the time of other passengers, if you try to do this.

Getting your boarding pass

At the desk, you will either be greeted by a person or an automated system to print out your boarding pass. If you are greeted by a person, say your name, hand them your identification, and mumble out which flight, and about which time, you think you are on. (“I’m Moshe Zadka, and I’m supposed to be on the 16:05 flight to Newark”). They don’t really need this data, they are going to look you up anyway, but it makes for good error checking, and gives you something to say as you’re handing your identification. If you are greeted by an automated system, it will need some way of knowing who are you and what boarding passes to print out. You can input your confirmation number, which will be on the mail that you printed out. You can put in the credit card through which you reserved, if you did so. You can scan in your passport. If none of these work, wave for help from one of the people behind the desks, and see the instructions for the manual procedures.

If you need to check in bags, now is the time to do so. Hand your luggage to the nice people behind the counter (even if you checked in through an automated system, someone will be along to mark your bags if you made sure to click the “I want to check-in bags” button). Usually they will just take your luggage and put it out of your sight, to be claimed at your final destination. Sometimes they will direct you to security where they will check your luggage. If you are not absolutely sure what to do with your luggage, *ask*. The nice helpful people will tell you exactly (unless they grab it from you, in which case, you’re done).

Going through security

You will get your boarding passes in a “jacket”. If you checked in bags, this jacket will have, taped to it, the “claim cards” for your luggage. Hang onto those! If the airline does not deliver your luggage to where you expected, you will need them to claim your bags. Now that you are without your bags, and with your boarding passes, you will need to pass through security. On your boarding pass, you will have a “gate number” that you need to board on. The gate will usually look like a “Letter-Number” (C138). Do not confuse it with your seat number, which looks the same way (A23 or 23A), read the label! Look for signs to your gate (“Gates A,B,C” or “Gates C 1-40”) to know which security line to stand in. When you get in the line, someone will check your boarding pass and ID, so have them ready. If you’re in the wrong line, they’ll tell you that, and direct you to the right one (remember those two hours of extra time? They’ll come in handy now!)

The demands for security vary, depending on the country you are in. Nowadays, almost everyone will require you to take the laptop out of your bag, if you have one. In the US, you will also need to take off your shoes, and take the zip-lock bag out of your backpack/carry-on. There will be signs explaining that, and the nice person who will greet you might also explain that. Look at what everyone else is doing — if they’re taking off shoes, take off your shoes too. If you are wearing a belt with too much metal on in, you might need to take it off too. Definitely take everything out of your pockets, and take off your pouch if you got one. There will be plastic bins to put your stuff in. The laptop needs to be in a separate bin, all your other things (jacket, shoes, zip-lock bag, pouch) can go in another bin, and your carry-on and backpack can go by themselves. Put them on the converyer thing as soon as you get to it, and get ready to pass through the metal detector. If you’re selected for “special searching”, accept this with understanding. If you do not have extra time before your flight, make sure to let the security guys know this — they’ll bump you to the front of the line. Maintain a look, and outlook, of bored patience. Be friendly to the security people — it costs nothing, and makes your path through them much smoother.

Once you’re past security, you’re in the “secure area”. Do not leave it unless there is some sort of emergency. Remember your gate number? Look for signs to it, and follow them. Make sure you know where it is. There will be a counter, and seats, in front of it. If you have free time, now is the time to eat some horribly expensive food if you are hungry, buy things in the duty free and so on. Do this only *after* you have found your gate. On the boarding pass, you will have not only the departure time, but also the boarding time. It is a good idea to be near the counter during the boarding time. They board by rows and it is a good idea to board when you can to have room for your carry-on (especially on packed flights).


Do not attempt to board before you should be. If they’re boarding business class, and you’re not flying business, wait. If they’re boarding elite passengers, and you’re not elite, wait. If they’re boarding rows 13-25, and you’re at row 12, WAIT. Nobody likes it when people push through. You’ll only annoy everyone, and won’t be doing yourself any favours.

Unless you’re on an airline like Southwest, you have a sit number. This is composed of a letter (A-I) and a number. The number is which row you are in. The airplane starts with “1” and goes on from there. When you get to the right row, there will be a cute drawing at about eye-level to your left or right, near the row number. It should be self-explanatory which sit is yours. The drawing of the steward is the “aisle” seat, the drawing of a “hole” is the window seat. Put your carry-on in the overhead compartment (the suitcases you buy should go in handle-first, they fit better) as soon as you locate your sit. If you cannot lift it by yourself, ask for help from the passenger behind you. They will be happy to help, usually, since this means they are getting to their seat faster. Two people should have no problem lifting this.

Once you are done, step into your row. Do this immediately. Everything else that you need to take care of (taking off your backpack or your jacket or thanking the good goddess for getting you here) can wait. There are other people behind you who want to get to their seats as well. Inside your row, get to your assigned seat and sit down. Take off anything you need to now. Your backpack goes beneath the seat in front of you. Strap in your seat-belt, and relax. It will take some time to get airborne. Take the book out of your pack, and start reading. Alternatively, put on your mp3 player, and start listening to music. Or put in your blinds and sleep. There will be a security demonstration. There is no need to watch it. If you want to know what to do in case of emergency, just get the nicely illustrated explanation from the pocket in the seat in front of you, and read this.

Until the end of your flight, you wait. You can use the rest-room, it is likely that you will get some sort of food during the flight, and almost certainly some water. Get some sleep if you can. Read if you cannot. Take out your laptop and play solitaire. Find some way to occupy yourself. Do not jostle the person sitting next to you. If you do that, by mistake, kindly apologize, and really try not to do it again. At some point, you will be landing. Before landing, you’ll want to put your book or laptop back. Technically, you should also turn off your mp3 player. I never do this, and I’ve never been asked by the stewards to do so. If you are asked, smile, nod and turn it off. Never argue.


Sometimes you get a direct flight. Often, you cannot, or they cost too much. In that case, you have a “connection”. After you get off the plane you will need to get on another one. If you are connecting through the US, you will need to pass through immigration and customs. Otherwise, you will get through a “pseudo-immigration” who will look at your passport and wave you on. If you go through the US, and have not started in Canada, after getting off your plane, you will also need to claim your baggage, and pass it through customs, before giving it to someone to put on the rest of your connection (see later, claiming baggage). In that case, you also need to go through security again. Otherwise, you are staying in the secure area, and will be able to get to your gate again, and repeat the whole process. Note that the boarding passes are all usually printed at the beginning of your trip, so there’s no need to get a new boarding pass.

Ending the trip

After you get off your plane, you will follow signs to “baggage claim”. If you checked in your baggage, it will be coming out of a conveyer belt. Please know which ones are yours. Get them off the conveyor quickly, and you’re done with flying. Getting where you’re going is a different matter (look up trains, taxis, etc.)


2 Responses to How to Fly

  1. Christopher Kelly says:

    Perhaps this could be the start of a series that could be published as a book? Other suggestions:

    – How to get dressed in the morning
    – How to make a cup of tea
    – How not patronise

  2. dimrub says:

    Someone’s been having a very long and boring flight recently, eh? 🙂

    Anyway, you are only required to turn off the electronics during the take off and landing, so one can safely give up on the book, which takes up too much place anyway (though I usually do bring one, only to give up on it in favor of the PDA).

    Also, you forgot to mention the need to exercise – especially during a long flight.

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