Traveling checklist for a first-time international flier

August 17, 2017

The wife is all set to fly for the first time ever, and it’s going to be international! I’m sure there are tons of material already available out there, but thought I’d put together something that is more personalized; something that’s likely to make her smile, and still ensure she has a trouble-free journey. Since she’s going to be flying out of an Indian airport, there might be a couple of additional India-specific points, in an otherwise generic list.

Prior to departure

  1. Ensure you have all necessary paperwork, prior to travel. Be aware that certain countries require that you need to have transit visas, even if you simply need to change flights. The UK is an example of this, and so is Canada. Ensure that you are aware of paperwork requirements, for all countries you transit through.

  2. Baggage policies differ across airlines, and class of travel; ensure you are aware of how much you can carry, in terms of both weight, volume, and number of pieces.

  3. Most airlines offer web check-ins, starting from 48 hours prior to departure time. Ensure that you complete your web check-in, to avoid delays at the airport. Many budget airlines also charge a steep fee for check-in assistance at the airport, so don’t keep this till the last minute.

  4. With the exception of a few budget airlines, most airlines work perfectly with paperfree options, so downloading that bar code onto your mobile phone is good enough, but read the instructions carefully when checking-in, and take all the documents you need, when you travel.

  5. The immigration authorities in many countries ask to see printed return tickets; have it ready, before you travel.

  6. Remove any unnecessary jewelry, ornaments, and metallic objects, as that would mean less things to take off before the security check.

  7. Carry a small water bottle with you, filled with just enough water you might need till you make it to the security check, as only empty bottles are allowed through security screening. You’ll be able to refill this bottle after the security check, to use on the actual flight; it’s handy to have your own water, as you’ll not need to call a flight attendant, or wait for one to respond to your request, when you feel thirsty.

  8. Try and read up about items you can and can’t carry, in cabin baggage, and checked-in baggage; for instance, sharp instruments, tools, and even nail clippers, aren’t allowed in your cabin baggage, but things like lithium batteries, USB battery packs etc are strictly prohibited, from check-in baggage. Use this information, to pack accordingly.

  9. Always pack the bags yourself, and make an inventory of everything you pack, so you not only know exactly what you are carrying, but also in which bag.

  10. Liquids are not permitted, if the container is over 100 ml, irrespective of the actual quantity of contents. If you have a half empty 200 ml perfume bottle, you’ll still be asked to throw it away. Best thing is to simply not carry any liquids, and only carry a small tube of toothpaste.

  11. Wear your most comfortable footwear, even if it’s not super stylish; your feet will thank you for it!

Day of departure

  1. International flights often require that you present yourself at the airport, as many as three hours prior to departure; don’t cut it close. You’d rather have a couple of hours to kill, at the airport, than be refused boarding!

  2. Indian airports clearly state, with signs, the see-off points, beyond which only the travelers are permitted. This is where you bid goodbye to family and friends who may be accompanying you. Don’t worry, you’ll be just fine!

  3. Indian airports have armed guards manning the outer gates at the departure terminals, and they only permit passengers inside, after inspecting their boarding passes, and sometimes passports. If your boarding pass is a bar code on the phone, open it and have it handy.

  4. Once you enter the airport premises, one of the first things you’ll be guaranteed to find, are the check-in counters of various airlines. Enquire which one you’ll have to use. Note that even for a given airline, there might be multiple counters, i.e. for business class, economy, pre-checked-in members etc; find the correct queue.

  5. At the check-in/bag dropoff counter, present your passport, and document stating your right of admission into the country, such as visa, residence permit etc, and mention you are already checked-in online. Have the barcode/printout ready for them to inspect. Place your check-in luggage item(s) on the weighing machine, one after the other, wait for the counter person to complete the bag dropoff formalities, and ensure that you collect the following items, without fail
    • Your passport.
    • Your boarding passes, for all the legs of your journey.
    • Acknowledgement stickers, for your checked-in bags. Pay attention to gate information, airline boarding zone, if they are available on the ticket, and confirm that the bags are check through all the way to the final destination, and proceed to security check. Countries like India and the US require you to clear customs at the first point of entry into their countries. This means that even if your bags might be checked through to the final destination, you’ll get them at the first oint of entry, where you should claim them, get through customs, and drop the bags again, before proceeding. More on this in the **Changing flights and Customs sections.
  6. Never put your bags anyplace, out of your sight, even for a short time. If you need to use the restroom, take your bags with you. Don’t ever leave it with anybody else.

  7. If you have any water in your water bottle, either drink it up, or get rid of it, to be able to keep the empty bottle, through security screening.

Security check

  1. At the security screening center, get in line, and when it’s your turn, remove your laptop, tablet, phone, etc, and place it in a separate basket. Place the remaining things in a basket or two.

  2. Remember to take off any headgear, jackets, fanny-packs/belts, etc, and place them also in the baskets, and push them along the rollers. You should only have your passport and boarding passes in your hand.

  3. If there are any liquids at all, such as perfume, deodorant, etc, remove them from the bag. Tip: carry these in a see-through ziploc bag, so you can place the entire bag outside.

  4. Count the number of baskets, and note the contents, so you remember to reclaim everything, without forgetting things.

  5. Make eye contact with the security check person, and wait for him/her to be done with the passenger ahead of you, before you ask to pass through the metal detector. Only walk through, after being given an acknowledgment to do so.

  6. Follow instructions provided to you, and answer any questions you are asked. An often-asked question is ‘Did you pack your bag yourself?’. Since you packed the entire bag(s) yourself, you should answer with a simple ‘Yes’. A follow-up question may be ‘Did anybody help you pack your bag?’ Now, your grandfather may have stood on your suitcase lid to close it, but your answer should still be ‘No’, as you packed the contents yourself! :)

  7. Once you are done with body screening, get all your stuff back. The items may not be in the same order as when you pushed them in, but count the baskets, and verify the contents, to make sure you have everything. Once you leave the security screening area, you’ll not be allowed to go back there, so ensure you have everything you brought in.

Emigration/Passport Control

Shortly after security screening, you’ll come to the emigration desk/passport control.

  1. There are very likely many queues, but not all queues are for everyone; in India, there are separate queues for PIO (persons of Indian origin), foreign passports, airline crew etc. In other countries, you’ll see separate queues for EU Passport holders, etc. In India, you should look for the ‘Indian passports’ queue, and when abroad, it’s generally the ‘All passports’ queue.

  2. Greet the passport control officer, and hand over your passport, relevant boarding pass, and permit card, if any, to them.

  3. If you speak the local language fluently, by all means use it, when interacting with the officer; he/she’ll appreciate it. Airports are busy places, and often stressful, so any attempt by you to be courteous and pleasant will generally be acknowledged, and reciprocated.

  4. Generally, the questions are about the purpose and duration of your visit, and related topics; answer them, and when done, ensure you collect the passport and any other documents you handed them, and wish them a nice day.


You are now done with most of the cumbersome tasks, prior to flying. You can now try and find a place to refill your water bottle, and/or a restroom. When done, find the way to your departure gate.

  1. It might be a good idea to take a look at a gate information terminal (‘TV screen’), to reconfirm the correct gate for your flight. Note that the gate might not always be the same one as printed on your boarding pass.

  2. Get to your gate, and confirm with the TV screen there, that it’s the right one for your flight! Find a place to sit, but ensure you have the TV screen within your line of sight. You can now call loved ones, or try to connect to the complimentary airport wifi, if you have time (which you should!).

  3. Airlines board flights by zones. They first issue a call to disabled people and those with children, to board first, and follow them up with boarding calls by class of travel or zones/rows. Pay attention to the zone/seat number on your ticket, and only queue up, when you are actually called. Have your passport and boarding pass ready, to show to the boarding attendant.

  4. After a barcode/boarding pass scan is completed, you’ll make your way through the sky-bridge, to the aircraft. There will be flight attendants greeting you as you enter; tell them your seat number, and they’ll point you in the right direction.

On board

  1. When you get to your seat, ensure that you retrieve all the things you need from the bag, before you put it away. Your bottle of water, noise-cancelling headset, notepad and pen, novel, etc are some of the things you might want to retrieve. Do your best not to block the aisle, while you are doing this. Place your items on your seat, and stove away your bag in the overhead bin. If the bin exactly above you is full, you could use neighboring bins. Ask for assistance, if you need it.

  2. You can use the seat pocket in front of your seat to stash your stuff, but remember to retrieve everything, before you leave the aircraft. Take your seat, and buckle up the seatbelt. Keep the seatbelt on, even when the sign is not on, for your safety. This is important, as turbulence can occur without prior warning.

  3. Pay attention to the in-flight safety announcement, and note your nearest exit. This is important.

  4. If you don’t care about the food, and just want to rest, inform a cabin attendant that you do not wish to be disturbed. If on the other hand, you’d want to be woken up when there is meal service, you could let them know that too. Some airlines have eye-covers with the ‘Do not disturb’ and ‘Wake me up for meals’ signs that you could use.

  5. Put your devices in airplane mode, when asked to do so. After a while, entertainment system and possibly, wifi, will be activated. Wifi, if present, would be limited to 20 MB or so, so use it judiciously.

  6. Drink lots of fluids. Water, and tomato juice are great options. Avoid soft drinks, and alcoholic drinks, as they dehydrate you.

  7. If your ears get blocked, you can pop them by simulating chewing. Chewing actual gum is also good.

  8. Don’t hesitate to ask the cabin crew, should you need anything.

  9. Keep moving your toes, and flexing and unflexing your legs, to prevent them from going to sleep.

  10. Take pictures and jot down notes for posterity; it’ll be nice to recollect details of your first flight, at a later date.

Changing flights

Depending on your itinerary, you may have to change flights in - the same country as your final destination - special zone to which your final destination belongs, ex Schengen region. - a third country

  1. When you alight from the aircraft, there may be multiple outbound buses heading to different terminals; make sure you get onto the correct bus, in order to reach the correct terminal. In some airports, terminals can be several kilometers apart, so a mistake could prove to be very time consuming.

  2. If you are changing flights in a a country belonging to the Schengen region, you’ll have to go through passport control, as the stamping is done at the first port of entry into the Schengen region. Customs however, is cleared at the final destination, in the Schengen region. Read details in the ‘Immigration’ section.

  3. If you are changing flights in a third country, not affiliated to any special region vis-a-vis your final destination, you’ll merely transit through, and not have to go through passport control.

  4. If the country you are transiting through requires a transit visa, you need to go through passport control, with your valid paperwork.

  5. It’s very likely that you are in a different timezone; make sure you note the correct time, and plan accordingly. You need to be extra vigilant if you have a short layover.

  6. Depending on the itinerary/airport, you may have to go through a security check again, or clear customs, so watch that clock.

  7. View the departure information, to know your departure gate, and proceed straight to it. If there is a security check/passport control requirement, it’ll be on the way, and you will not miss it.

  8. Duty-free purchases: Duty-free stores often have excellent deals at prices far below what you get in cities, but depending on the country of your final destination, different rules and limits may apply, about how much you are allowed to bring in. If in doubt, ask for clarification at the duty-free stores.

  9. You should be aware if you need to clear customs while transiting; if you need to, you’ll have to collect your checked-in bags, and go through customs. More in the Customs and immigration section.

Baggage claim

Depending on your itinerary, you may have to go through the baggage claim process more than once, i.e when in transit, and upon arrival at your final destination. The how is the same, in either case; head to baggage claim, and note the information screen, to know the carousel/belt that caters to your flight.

  1. Make your way to the correct belt/carousel, and keep an eye out on the bags. New ones keep getting added to the line, while the bags on the line already, make a long circuit around.

  2. It’s good to memomize as many aspects of your bag(s) as possible, before hand. You may have applied special tape etc, to aid in identification, but they may or may not have survived the trip. You’ll still need to recognize your bag, even if the colored marking tape etc has slipped off.

Customs and immigration

  1. Depending on your itinerary, you may have to clear customs, and then go through immigration, in separate places, or in the same place. For instance, in India, customs & immigration is handled together at the first Indian port of entry, wheares in the EU, immigration is handled at the first Schengen port of entry, while the customs is cleared at the final destination. Be aware of the rules, and plan accordingly.

  2. Use the ‘Green Channel/Nothing to declare’ line, only if you have no items that need to be declared. If you are bringing in goods that need duty to be paid for, failing to declare them is a crime, and can land you in trouble.
  3. Present your passport, visa/residence permit at the immigration desk, answer questions if any, and when done, remember to collect your documents back, before proceeding.

All the very best

I hope your first travel experience is a pleasant one, and you record lots of happy memories, for posterity, and I hope to hear from you, if this post helped. For seasoned travelers reading this post, if you see something incorrect, or if you feel something else merits addition, please drop a comment mentioning it.