A friend of mine recently traveled for the first time by airplane. She contacted me to ask whether I had any tips. My response: Why, yes, I do! Settle in and get comfortable, because this is long...
1. Dress Comfortably. Jeans turn into a straitjacket for your legs after a couple of hours in the air. Also wear comfortable shoes, since you will be walking a lot, that slip off and back on easily, for security. I also like to wear shoes with socks so I don't have to go completely barefoot through the security checkpoint. You don't know whether the plane will be warm or cool, so dress in layers, like short sleeves with a light sweater. Consider taking a pashmina (wide scarf) - it can be wrapped around your shoulders, laid across your lap like a blanket, or rolled up for a pillow. [On a personal note, ladies, you may have heard that an underwire bra will trip the metal detectors, but I have never ever seen or had that happen.]
2. Food and water. Bring a snack or two in your carry-on bag, something that won't get squished and isn't smelly. Buying water or other beverage in the airport is expensive, but I need water. I like to pack an empty bottle (Nalgene, Sigg, etc.) that I can fill in the water fountain after I pass through security, along with an assortment of water flavor packets (like Lipton or Crystal Light).
3. Know the 3-1-1 Rule. Liquids/gels in your carry-on luggage must be 3.4 oz (100ml) or less. All those little containers must be in a 1 quart-sized ziploc bag. 1 of those bags per passenger. (This rule limits the total liquid volume you can have in your carry-on. Larger volumes may be in your checked luggage.) Place this baggie in a screening bin.
Exception: liquid medications are not included in the restriction but must be separated and declared at the security checkpoint (placed in a screening bin). [Side note: I keep medicine (pills, not liquid) in a day-of-the-week divided container in my purse. Technically, you should have all medication in original containers when flying, but I only worry about that when traveling out of the country.]
4. Entertainment. Bring something to read (book, magazine) and something to listen to (mp3 player and headphones). Bring earplugs and an eye mask if it is going to be a long flight. I bring sunglasses in my carry-on as well - useful for eye shades on the plane and keeps them handy for when I get to my destination.
Many people like to watch a movie on a DVD player or laptop, especially if the flight is long or you have children with you. Make sure the battery is charged! To make a laptop battery last longer, dim the screen as low as you can stand it, turn off the wi-fi signal, and don't plug anything into it. You may also want a handheld game system (Game Boy, Nintendo DS, etc.). Be advised that electronic devices can only be used when the flight is at cruising altitude, not during takeoff or landing.
5. Miscellaneous. Gum or hard candy (for equalizing your ear pressure during takeoff and landing). Hand lotion, lip balm, eye drops, and possibly nasal saline spray (all because airplane air is very dry - don't forget to add these to your 3-1-1 baggie).
6. Luggage. You can carry-on one bag (anything from a backpack to a small pilot-size rolling suitcase) and one personal item (like a purse, briefcase, or tote bag). Your jacket or coat, umbrella, and newspaper don't have to go into your carry-on. Do not pack weapons of any kind in your carry-on (nail files and clippers are ok, but blades of any kind are not; tiny sewing scissors with blunt tips, sewing needles, knitting needles, and crochet hooks are all ok).
Even though most airlines now charge for checking luggage, it is worth it to not have to schlep everything through the airports. See individual carrier websites for specific luggage restrictions. [Alternative: ship your checked items to your hotel by UPS one week in advance for about the same price as airline checked luggage.]
Have an identification tag on the outside *and* the inside of your luggage. Especially If you have a black suitcase, do something to identify it at a glance - tie a colorful ribbon on the handle, for example. *Always* check the luggage tag when you claim it.
7. Security. Check in your suitcase when you check in for the flight and get your ticket (have your photo ID out and ready to show the ticket agent). Proceed to the security checkpoint. TSA will check your boarding pass and photo ID, then put your ID away.
Take off your shoes and your jacket or coat. Place them in a bin on the x-ray belt. Take your laptop, DVD player, and/or handheld game system out of your bag and place them on the belt. They may remain in a protective sleeve as long as there is nothing else in the case with it. Take your 3-1-1 baggie out of your bag and place it in a bin, along with your purse. Also in the bin: keys, coins, belt if it has a large buckle, and your cell phone. Keep your boarding pass in your hand. After you go through the metal detector, and all of your stuff has gone through the x-ray machine, collect your belongings and step forward out of the way to get re-dressed and re-packed.
8. What to Pack. You will need enough tops for each day plus one (so if you will be traveling for 5 days, pack 6 tops, just in case). You will need half the number of bottoms (plan to wear each pair of pants or skirt twice). If you will be traveling more than a week, consider doing laundry in order to minimize packing. Lay out your outfits before putting them into your suitcase - lay out each bottom with its two tops and enough underwear and socks for each day.
If you plan to work out, pack a gym outfit and shoes. If you plan to swim, bring a suit, coverup, and flip-flops (check to see if your destination provides swim towels). Think about double-duty items - your gym outfit can also be your swim coverup; your tee from the first day can also be your pajama top so you just need to pack pj bottoms).
9. Packing methods. Some swear by the rolling method - roll each item or bundle of small items and place them side-by-side in the suitcase.
I place all my toiletries (liquids in large ziploc bags in case of leakage), shoes (stuffed with socks to keep their shape), underwear (in a "dry bag" compression sack, found with camping supplies), and any other items in a layer in the bottom of the suitcase. I roll and stuff pajamas and tees/tanks/camisoles in empty spaces to make sure everything is snug. Then I stack all of my clothes together, with most wrinkle-prone on the bottom and most wrinkle-resistant on top, and fold them once together. I place this folded stack on the top of the suitcase and zip shut.
10. Timing. Get to the airport one hour before your flight; more if you intend to eat there before the flight. Boarding starts about 30 minutes before the flight, and the boarding door will close about 15 minutes before flight time. Go to the restroom before boarding, because the airplane lavatory is tiny and often icky.
I end with a request, on behalf of tall people and their knees: just because you *can* lean your set back does not mean that you *have* to recline it all the way. Take note of the person sitting behind you. A simple, "Do you mind if I lean back a bit?" goes a very long way.
Pack It Up, by Lyida's Next Step
How to Make Sure Flying Doesn't Suck Out Your Soul, by Nothing but Bonfires