Ever wondered how to travel by air with the minimum fuss and stress? Here is an air travel how to guide to help smooth your journey, before, during and after the flight.
The guide includes information on everything from passports, plane seats, how to pack, luggage and hand luggage, airport parking and hotels, passenger rights, dealing with officials and regulations, duty free and lots of other air travel tips.
Please feel free to add your own tips for how to travel by air.
Do I renew my passport before it expires?
Before you book your holiday check your passport expiry date. If your passport expires before or during your holiday you will need to renew it before you go. However there are a few points you need to be aware of regarding the amount of time your passport is valid for after you return, depending on which country you are planning to travel to. Some countries require you to have 3 to 6 months remaining before the expiry date and that is based on the day you leave the country you are travelling to.
The rules for travelling across borders vary according to where you are travelling from and travelling to and there are too many to list here. It is best to check your home country government foreign office website for advice.
The same applies to visas, the rules vary depending on the nationality of your passport and which country you are travelling to. Again it is best to check your home country government foreign office website for the latest advice.
Here are a few useful website links as a starting point:
You can also check the government website of the country you are travelling to for both passport and visa latest requirements.
Get the best plane seats
You have booked your flights and now you need to get the best seats available to meet your preferences. There are a number of things to think about regarding where you want to sit on the aircraft:
- If the flight has all the same class of seats (i.e. no business or first class seats) and the entrance/exit is near the front, then most people prefer to sit in the first 5-6 rows so they can get off first when the flight lands. Sitting in the first few rows means not having to drag your bag down the plane to get to your seat and is also near the front toilet.
- Aircraft are generally quieter at the front because you are sitting in front of the engines. The back of the plane can be noisy and feels the most turbulence. Seats in the middle are somewhere between the two.
- If the flight has business or first class then the seats towards the front are usually reserved for the passengers who have paid the extra and they are given priority to enter the aircraft first while boarding and leave first on arrival.
- If its a budget flight and the airline does not allocate a seat to you or allow you to pre-book a seat then your only option is get to the boarding gate as early as possible and wait at the front of the queue to get your choice of seat. Some airlines operate a priority boarding policy, which you pay extra for, to allow you to board first on the flights where the seats are not allocated.
- If you are a tall person and have long legs you might want to go for a seat just behind an emergency exit to get the extra leg room. Airlines usually expect you to be able bodied if you sit in these seats so that you can operate the exit door in an emergency.
- If you are travelling on an overnight long haul flight and want to sleep some of the way, you might want to avoid seats near to the galley kitchen area as it is more noisy here and the lights remain on when the rest of the cabin lights have been dimmed.
- If you can book your seats when you book your flight my advice is to do so rather than wait to be allocated a seat when you check in at the airport. You can use the following websites to see which are the best seats to get for the airline and aircraft type you will be travelling on – SeatGuru, Skytrax, Seatplans or SeatExpert
Tips for air travel with children
For lots of tips and information about travelling with children see our Kids travel How To Guide.
Print off travel documents in duplicate
Its a good idea to print off all the documents for your trip in duplicate and carry the two sets in different bags. This is easy if you are not travelling alone and each traveller has a hand luggage bag. However, if you are travelling alone then at the very least put the second set in the bag you check in. If the worst happens and one bag gets lost or stolen you will still have the second set of printed documents as a fall back.
This is particularly important if for example the airline on which you are travelling charges check in fees for not printing your boarding pass before hand, the cost of which can be pricey. Some hotels require you to present an accommodation voucher on arrival as proof of booking and it could be a problem if you can’t produce one. The same applies if you have booked a transfer from the airport to your hotel via an independent company, they might not let you travel.
This is not an exhaustive list but the type of travel documents I would ensure I had in duplicate are:
- Booking receipts for flights, hotels, airport transfer, car hire and airport parking
- Boarding pass
- Accommodation vouchers
- Airport transfer vouchers
- Car hire vouchers
- Travel insurance
- Photo copies of passports (keep separate from your passport)
- Photo copies of driving license (keep separate from your driving license)
Use a travel documents organizer or holder to keep them altogether
When travelling I put the primary set of documents I will be using in a folder. The one I use is hard plastic A4 size with elastic fastening straps across the corners to make sure none of my documents fall out inadvertently.
How to pack for air travel
Airline charges for checked in luggage have become more expensive in recent years. If possible use one of the carry on bags or suitcases. Make sure your bag conforms to airline hand luggage size restrictions – see hand luggage restrictions below. Often there are 5Kg to 12g weight limits on hand luggage, you need to check with your airline for the hand luggage weight limit on your flight. If you can manage with less, load up your hand luggage so you don’t need to pay for a checked in bag. Some airlines have 15Kg limits on stowed bags rather than the normal 20Kg. How to pack a suitcase efficiently – roll your clothes and stuff shoes with small items like socks or underwear, this saves lots of dead air space in your bag. Use lightweight luggage wherever possible which can save a lot of weight – some of the hard suitcases weigh in at several Kilos taking up precious weight allowance before you have even packed a single item. Be sure to follow airline rules, put restricted hand luggage items in your checked luggage.
Prior to packing create a spreadsheet with one column for a list of items to pack and a second column which allows you to tick that you have packed the item. Include all items you could possibly want to take and just cross off the items you will not need on this trip before starting to pack. Once the spreadsheet is created you can use it for each trip you go on. Print this spread sheet off before packing and just tick off the items as you pack which saves a lot of time.
Wear the items of clothing taking the most space in your luggage
The more items you can wear the less you need to pack in your luggage. If you are travelling in winter, perhaps on a skiing holiday, and need to take a few bulky sweaters with you, wear the bulkiest. Wear a coat with lots of pockets and load them up with lots of small items you would normally pack in your luggage. As long as you don’t break airline security rules on what you can carry, collectively the small items can add up to quite a bit of weight saving in your checked in luggage.
Carry on baggage restrictions
For the latest hand luggage restrictions for USA, UK and EU countries take a look at this Wikipedia page
Airline compensation lost luggage or delayed luggage
If you are traveling with a partner or as part of family pack a spare set of clothes in another person’s luggage and get them to do the same. If your luggage goes missing at least you’ll have a change of clothes. If you travelling alone, at the very least pack a change of underwear in your hand luggage.
To prove ownership of your luggage and to assist you in the event of any claims you need to make regarding lost luggage, take a photo of both the luggage you will be checking in and your hand luggage before setting off or when you arrive at the airport. On digital cameras or smartphones the photos will have a date and time stamp and record any distinguishing features of your luggage.
The Montreal Convention is a multilateral treaty ratified by over 100 member states of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, including the European Union and the United States. Under the Montreal Convention airline carriers are liable for proven damages up to 1131 Special Drawing Rights (SDR) per passenger. The value of your home country’s currency units per SDR varies each day and is linked to exchange rates – click here for current rates.
If your baggage is damaged, delayed, lost or destroyed, you must write to the airline and complain as soon as possible. In the case of damage to checked baggage, you must write and complain within seven days, in the case of delayed baggage within 21 days.
In case of delayed baggage, the airline is liable for the same as damaged baggage unless proven it took all reasonable measures to avoid the damage or it was impossible to take such measures. The liability for baggage delay is limited to 1131 SDRs.
Some airlines offer immediate one-off cash payments at a set amount to cover emergency purchases until the delayed bag is delivered. Others will pay a set amount per day, up to a maximum number of days. Other airlines do not make immediate cash payments, but prefer to reimburse a passenger’s expenditure on essential purchases and will often therefore insist on seeing receipts. If your bag has still not been returned to you more than 21 days after your flight, the airline should treat it as lost.
Your travel insurance or home contents insurance may give you a better settlement even after taking any excess due on the policy into account (check your policy). Your insurer will want evidence of the loss or damage that you incurred. This may mean reporting the loss to your local police within 24 hours. If you have replaced any essential items that are lost at your own expense, e.g. toiletries or clothing, keep the receipts, as your insurer may ask for copies. Also keep receipts for any essential services that you have paid for too. For more information on buying travel insurance see these guides How to buy travel insurance online and Where do you buy travel insurance.
How early should you arrive at the airport?
Leave yourself plenty of time to get to the airport in good time, at least two hours before your flight departs. This might seem like a lot of time but during busy holiday periods and with enhanced security to get through at the airport, the two hours soon passes. Allow time for travel delays. If travelling to the airport on public transport, check local travel news or websites for news of any delays and set out early if necessary or use an alternative mode of transport. If you are travelling to the airport by car, use road traffic websites before leaving to ensure there are no traffic problems expected and allow time to park your car and your transfer to the airport terminal if you are parking in long term car parks away from the terminal or off airport. Also make sure your car fuel tank is filled the day before so you don’t need to stop for fuel on the way to the airport.
Get the best deal on airport parking and hotel deals
You’ve decided to drive to the airport and want to find the most convenient and safe place to park your car for the best price. Unless you can afford the usually very pricey short term parking right next to the terminal or slightly cheaper valet parking you should go for one of the long term parking options. Most airports have long term parking run by the airport authorities with a shuttle transfer to the terminal. These are generally secure facilities with CCTV monitoring. The other option is to go for off airport long term parking, which can often be the cheapest deal but can be further away from the terminal so the transfer takes longer. More parking companies are offering ‘meet and greet’ options these days, where you meet them at the airport with your car, they park it in their car park and then they meet you at the airport upon your return to deliver your car back to you. It is always cheaper to book your parking as far in advance as possible, preferably as soon as you know your flights. Check the reviews from previous customers to give you ideas on the best places.
A word of warning, watch out for airport parking scammers. There have been cases of people leaving their car with one of these airport parking con artists only to return from their trip and find lots of mileage added to their car that wasn’t theirs, their car has just been dumped on the street somewhere or worse – beware!
Ensure you book your airport parking with a reputable company, you could use an airport parking comparison site that compares prices of reputable companies that offer parking at all major airports – in the article Best price for airport parking we review companies offering airport parking price comparison for UK, US and worldwide airports.
If you have booked an early flight and would like to stay in a hotel near the airport the night before your travel, on the Holiday Extras website you will also find price comparison of UK airport hotels and UK airport hotels with parking packages. Both have reviews available from previous customers.
Try to avoid travel in peak holiday seasons
Try to avoid travelling near to peak holiday dates, which will also save you money. Christmas, New Year, Easter, Thanksgiving and other bank holidays can get notoriously busy at the airports. If at all possible travel a few days in advance before and a few days after the holiday period. You can check public holidays for whichever country you are travelling to on the calendar page at TimeandDate.com. Select the year and country at the top of the page and the holidays and observances you want to see below the calendar. Book early to secure your flight booking for the days you want to travel.
Avoid the busy airport terminals by travelling early or late in the day
Travelling really early or really late in the day can help in avoiding some of the crowds. You will be able to check in faster and get through security faster. Getting to or from the airport is easier during the night time hours when the roads are quiet. Travelling early will also give you more options for finding alternative flights if your flight gets cancelled. If you arrive at your destination airport really late in the day, just be aware of your tiredness levels if you need to get in a car and drive from the airport to your final destination. Travelling either early or late you can catch up on some sleep on the flight to compensate.
You have air travel passenger rights for a cancelled flight or delayed flight
EU passengers have passenger rights no matter whether you are travelling in one member country, across EU borders or borders of countries outside the EU, the same rights apply, regardless of the mode of transport.
US passengers – For more information on US passenger rights when travelling by air – click here
You may be able to claim compensation if your flight was cancelled, delayed, re-routed or you were denied boarding due to overbooking. A search on Google for “air passenger rights compensation claims” should display results showing many companies that can help you with your claim.
Dealing with airline staff
It is advisable to be courteous when dealing with airline staff, both at the airport and during the flight. Airline staff have to deal with grumpy travellers all the time so you are much more likely to get what you want by being polite. If you turn up late for a flight and are refused entry because the gate has already closed, the airline staff are unlikely to let you board the flight just because you start shouting at them. I personally have seen a member of staff working for a budget airline on the check in desks walk off the job because he was getting harangued by too many people. This left a long line of passengers with a choice of waiting for someone to turn up and take over or move to the end of even longer adjacent queues.
You also read stories in the news from time to time of travellers being abusive to airline staff on the flight, usually with alcohol involved somewhere in the scenario and the culprit getting themselves arrested on landing. In extreme circumstances the pilot will divert the aircraft and land at the nearest available airport to eject the abusive passenger. On the subject of alcohol, don’t expect to get on a flight these days if you are showing visible signs of being under the influence. Airline staff have every right to refuse to let you board for the safety of all passengers and the staff. So be ”nice” and you might just get your own way!
How to deal with border officials and getting through airport security quickly?
Being courteous and polite applies even more so when dealing with border control officials. In the UK customs and excise officers have greater powers of search than the police and it is a very bad idea to start an argument with one if they want to look in your bag as part of the security checks. This applies even if you are late and likely to miss your flight. Their main priority is to make sure you are not carrying anything that the law and airline say you shouldn’t be carrying. In this day and age where the occurrence of some nutter trying to board the aircraft hell bent on destruction is becoming more commonplace, it is much better to board the flight knowing that all the luggage on that aircraft has been thoroughly checked through the scanners or visually inspected by the border control guys where they feel the need to. It’s for everyone’s safety after all and if you are not carrying anything you shouldn’t you have nothing to worry about.
When you arrive in a country and are proceeding through passport control and customs checks, be patient, answer any questions the officials ask you politely and you will be on your way quickly. Also, it’s always a good idea to dress respectably when passing through border controls and in some countries this is essential when dealing with officialdom.
Airport duty free shopping
Travellers for a destination outside the EU can buy goods duty free in tax-free shops in airports and ports. You need a valid ticket for travel so will get asked for your boarding card when paying for the goods. There are no limits as to the quantity or value of the goods that can be purchased duty and tax free. However, there will be limits to duty and tax allowances on the importation of these goods in the country of destination, similar to those applying to travellers that enter the EU from a non member state.
How much money can you carry?
EU – Travellers entering or leaving the EU and carrying €10 000 or more in cash have to make a declaration to the customs authorities. This follows the entry of a new European Regulation aimed at fighting money laundering, and the financing of terrorism. Customs authorities are empowered to detain the cash and take other measures against individuals, their baggage and their means of transport where the cash has not been declared.
US – Travellers entering the United States may bring as much money as they wish into the country. You may bring up to $10,000 in currency, including gold coins, travellers cheques or money orders without reporting it to customs. If you bring more than $10,000 into the country, you must report this to customs. If you fail to report your monetary instruments equal to or more than $10,000, customs officials may take the money from you. Customs officials may also impose fines or civil and criminal penalties for not reporting.
Avoid the crowds with airport lounges
If the thought of crowded departure areas make you nervous or just plain grumpy why not try relaxing in a departure lounge. You can book through Holiday Extras. Usually you get TV, newspapers and magazines to read, hot and cold beverages and snacks included in the price and you can wait in peace for your flight departure.
Buy travel accessories locally or on-line not at the airport
If you buy travel accessories at the airport you are likely to pay a premium. Everything they sell at the airport accessory shops such as travel adaptor plugs, inflatable cushions, money belts, luggage etc. can all be found much cheaper in your local shops or on-line. See our Travel Accessories Must Haves pages for reviews of the latest travel accessory products.
Airport food and drink rules
According to current airline travel restrictions you can’t take drinks you have purchased through security. That is not the case with food, but food items in your hand luggage might be mistaken by security staff for something more dangerous and subject you to a thorough search of your hand luggage. There are some exceptions – see hand luggage restrictions above. If you are flying on a budget airline where food is not included on your flight eat in the departure area before you board your flight as it will be cheaper than buying food on board.
Wear anti embolism stockings to prevent DVT
If you are taking a flight of more than a few hours duration it is worth considering wearing anti-embolism stockings. This is particularly true on long haul flights but also applies on long journeys by bus, train or car. Not moving around and sitting in cramped conditions can cause the blood flow to become sluggish, which can lead to DVT. The stockings help to prevent Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT), the formation of a blood clot in a deep larger vein within the body, predominantly within the legs. The symptoms of DVT can be difficult to recognise because it is possible to have no immediate symptoms, but common symptoms are redness and increased heat, tenderness or pain, swelling or heavy ache in your leg and can lead to complications such as Pulmonary Embolism. A Pulmonary Embolism can occur if some of the blood clot detaches into the bloodstream and causes a blockage to blood vessels in your lungs. Pulmonary embolism is potentially life threatening, as it can prevent blood from reaching your lungs. Symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing and feeling faint/dizzy. If you have a combination of these symptoms seek immediate medical attention.
Preventative measures on a long haul flight are:
- Wear loose comfortable clothing.
- Get up and walk around regularly to get your circulation moving in your legs.
- If you have to stay in your seat keep your circulation active by flexing your feet, rotate your ankles and wriggle your toes frequently.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Wear anti-embolism stockings. These are available at all good pharmacist in various sizes. Be sure to measure yourself and follow the size chart on the packaging so you buy the correct size for you. If the stockings are too loose they won’t work and if they are too tight, they will restrict circulation like a tourniquet. A selection of DVT Flight Socks are available on the Travel Accessories Must Haves – Comfort tips on long flights page.
Air travel with disabilities
For travellers with disabilities see the following links for further information on assistance and what to expect at the airport.
How to overcome the fear of flying with our simple tips
If you get scared every time you board an aircraft just because those irrational fears won’t leave you alone, see our article Get over fear of flying with a few simple tips to help you with getting over the fear of flying.
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