I've always imagined myself a future of bohemian globetrotting, a lifestyle that would allow me to become intimately familiar with the culture of BWI and Dulles. But when I was told that I'd have to fly myself home from college for winter break, my friend Anxiety backflipped into view and screamed You Can't Do That!
However, life goes on. I flipped the bird to my anxiety, suppressed my feelings into the back of my head like any healthy person would, and plowed on through all the metal detectors on the East Coast. I've survived my aggressively normal experiences, and I am here now to share with you my wisdom.
You: are going to the airport. No ifs or maybes. You're going to the airport. It is a fixed point in time.
What to Bring: Check the specific airline's policies regarding luggage (and what you can/cannot include in checked bags or carry-ons), but most allow you to check two items of luggage under 50 lbs. You can also bring two carry-ons on the plane with you, like a backpack and a camera bag, or a small suitcase and a purse. Make sure you also have your license (or passport/military ID) and your boarding pass (more on this in a moment). Earplugs optional, but recommended.
1. You Shall Eventually Pass: Most of my experience with flying solo is with Southwest Airlines, a domestic U.S. airline. After ordering your ticket, you'll get an email, which will have your confirmation numbers for all flights you'll be on (important for round trips!). 24 hours before your flight, you'll be allowed to check in on app or website -- just enter your confirmation number and name to confirm you'll be there. In return, you'll get your boarding pass, which you can request to be printed, texted, emailed, or saved to your Apple Wallet app. I usually just take a screenshot.
2. Getting There: Whether you order a Lyft or get your mom to drive you, make sure you're keeping an eye out for your terminal in the drop-off area. Once you head inside, there's going to be either a shit ton of people or a bunch of empty space and retractable stanchions. Either way, a ton of lines. On the far left is check-in, which is where you'll start.
[NOTE: Some airports have curbside check-in, which is literally the same thing as regular check-in, but directly outside the door. Usually has a shorter line and lets you go right to the security line.]
Some airports may have kiosks that let you do the whole process yourself, but I don't trust airport machines (see: ATM), so I'm fine with letting the employees do it. Pull up the boarding pass on your phone and scan it (sometimes they do it for you, sometimes there's a little scanner in front of you - make sure your phone screen isn't cracked, otherwise it won't scan!) and the unsmiling man behind the counter will print the traditional paper copy that looks like a giant bookmark. They'll also check your luggage -- only hand them the big luggage that you want to be stored as cargo. Once they wrap the big sticker around the handles and put your lovingly-packed brassieres on the conveyor belt behind them, you can make your way over to the longer, more painful security line.
3. Wait, Rinse, Repeat: There's a line for the TSA check, where an officer looks at your boarding pass, then your ID, then at you, then back at the ID, then they'll scribble on your boarding pass. Hooray! Now on to the dreaded Security Line.
4. [Spongebob Voice] No Shirt, No Shoes, No Serviiiiiiiiiice: When the long line finally divvies up into three or four smaller lines, that's the cue to start stripping. Off comes the shoes, jackets, and sweatshirts. If your laptop is in one of your carry-ons, take it out and put it in its own bin. Send bins through the flappy thingies and x-ray. When directed, walk through the metal detector.
[NOTE: A bunch of coins in your pocket or carry-on, or even wearing an underwire bra, can set off the detector. Don't get too nervous -- the employees see hundreds of people each day. It's also normal for security to pull your bag out, root around with a stick, and put it back through the x-ray, especially if you jammed a bunch of stuff in it.]
5. Clear! After that you're through security! Yay! If you have time (at least 30 minutes before your boarding time), check out the overpriced coffee and souvenirs.
6. Boarding: Using your flight number (which should be four digits, and different from your confirmation number), check the giant LCD flight info boards to make sure your flight hasn't been moved to a different gate. Find and sit by your gate plenty early; there are signs everywhere telling you where to go, and your boarding pass should tell you which gate, as well. When they announce to start boarding, you may notice a line of poles with numbers and arrows on both sides. Stand in line where indicated, based on your boarding number (they'll start by groups, then numbers. If you're B-25, wait until they call up group B, then stand between the 20-25 and 26-30 poles). This is when they'll tell you if it's assigned or open seating (which you can find out ahead of time on the website too) -- if it's assigned, just find the seat listed on the boarding pass.
7. Find Your Seat: Whether the seating is open or assigned, it doesn't matter which overhead compartment you store your carry-on in, just remember which one you choose so disembarking goes a lot faster. Don't worry about the line of people behind you, they're all doing the same thing! If you want to keep your backpack or bag with you during the flight (to avoid standing up, leaning over people, etc), just make sure it can fit underneath the seat in front of you, for safety reasons. Put on your seat belt as soon as you get settled; if it doesn't fit, mess around with it until it does, or ask an attendant. They'll walk up and down the aisles to check everyone is buckled in properly. Listen to the annoying obligatory safety briefings. Sit back. Relax.
8. Liftoff: It takes a long ass time to get to the runway. Everyone has to board, then the safety briefings, then taxiing to the right runway, waiting for other planes to take off, and getting clearance from air traffic control. When you're about to take off for real, you'll know; the engines will rev up and get kind of loud (but not deafening) and you'll be going a Lot faster. This'll go on for a bit, and you might think you're going to run out of road -- you won't.
During Your Flight: If you feel a headache coming on before the day of your flight, make sure to rest and take the right medication -- flying at high altitudes can make it a lot worse. Once you're at a cruising altitude (when the plane is no longer climbing and levels out), the attendants will come around with complementary drinks and peanuts (which you're allowed to decline). They'll come back towards the end of the flight with trash bags. Longer flights may distribute towels and blankets. The seats are notoriously uncomfortable, so bring a pillow to support your neck and perhaps some earplugs. Your ears may start to feel like they're imploding at higher altitudes; just pop them now and again by plugging your nose and "exhaling" through your ears. Wind turbulence is normal -- it'll feel like the entire plane is going over a speed bump. Don't get alarmed if the pilot tells the attendants to take their seats; this is normal procedure for turbulence. Listening to music or podcasts can help keep you distracted, but make sure they're downloaded to your phone before you put it in airplane mode -- the airplane's wifi always sucks and I never trust it to do anything.
is a lot more chill than departing. Once your flight lands, wait for the attendants to give you the all-clear to disembark (this is also going to take a long time). Get all your stuff from the overhead compartment, get off, and follow the signs to baggage reclaim. The LCD boards in the reclaim area will tell you which carousel matches your flight. Once the red siren atop the carousel starts buzzing, all the luggage will start making its rounds.
If this is just a connecting flight, don't go to baggage reclaim, the employees will move it onto the next plane for you. Furthermore, the attendants will tell you which terminal and gate to go to before you get off your first flight. If you forget, check the boards or ask the attendants at the desks. Don't worry, it's their job.
But, if this is your final flight, after getting all your stuff you're free to go out those doors to catch your ride, be it friend or taxi. Be sure to check ahead of time to see if Lyft or Uber are permitted to pick up from your specific airport. Most allow drop-offs, but not pick-ups. Taxis aren't as shitty as you think they are, so those are always an option.
Lastly, if you're at any point unsure of where to go or what to do, ask any of the employees, and they'll be happy to point you in the right direction. You're not bothering them, and I promise you're a lot nicer than some of the people they have to deal with. If they look tired or disdainful, I promise they're just tired.
Disclaimer: As a white woman, I've never been racially profiled and detained for extensive searches. If you or someone you know has experience with that, please comment with what to expect if this was to happen.
Any specific questions or tips? Leave a comment!