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I remember my first flight: I was 15 and my mom and I had a charter flight to Rome. For reasons I can’t recall, all the passengers on that flight were let through the security screening at the last moment, and at some point, I was sure I wasn’t going to see Italy that summer. Luckily, we boarded successfully, and ever since I saw clouds from above — on my way to a city full of art, pizza and Vespas — I’ve loved flying with my whole heart.
If you’ve never flown before, you may be worried about how it will go, especially if you’re flying internationally or with multiple stops. If that’s the case, you’re in the right place. Here are some tips for first-time flyers that can help set up a smooth journey from start to finish.
1. Plan your luggage and make cuts where you can
First, write down everything you want to take with you. Then, go over the list and try to cross out about half of it. After all, do you really need a new outfit for each day of your trip or several miniature bottles of shampoo and conditioner? If you’re staying in a hotel, you’ll most likely have access to travel-sized toiletries that can get you through your stay. Taking a beach read with you? Consider leaving the book at home and bringing your e-reader (even though I might or might not listen to my own advice here).
Also, note that airports and planes are notoriously chilly, so don’t forget to pack something cozy to put on as you travel. A light, compact jacket is a great choice since you can easily take it on and off and store it as you move through different temperature zones.
Additionally, weigh your luggage before your flight to make sure it isn’t over the weight limit. You can also buy digital luggage scales that are small enough to slip in your bag so that you can weigh your luggage on the way back (in the event that you purchase souvenirs that may add to your bag’s weight). Also, check what you can and can’t have in your luggage and carry-on bags — this may differ by destination if you’re traveling abroad.
Remember that if you check your luggage, you’ll typically have to pay a fee — for example, the first bag on domestic flights usually costs around $30. Heavy bags will require a higher fee, and so will your second and third bags. However, there are many credit cards that will allow you to get your first checked bag for free, which may be worth looking into if you plan to start traveling more frequently.
Finally, consider traveling light with a carry-on bag instead of a checked bag. I admit that I’ll do that wherever I go and no matter how long the trip is. It’s not just about the fees — to me, it’s simply more convenient. I learned this the hard way when I returned from an overseas trip and couldn’t get my luggage off the carousel because it weighed almost as much as I did. That was embarrassing and not worth the stress, especially since I hadn’t even used half the things I’d brought.
2. Sign up for an airline rewards program
Almost every airline has a rewards program that allows you to earn airline miles that you can later redeem for airfare, seat upgrades and more.
When you’re flying for the first time — whether it’s because you don’t travel often or you’re only starting your journey as a travel junkie — you most likely won’t have an airline you’re loyal to. That’s completely fine. For those who travel regularly, airline loyalty may pay off, while others (like myself) are only loyal to the best deal.
Whichever type of traveler you may be, there’s no reason not to sign up for a rewards program offered by the airline you’re flying with. It’s free and easy to sign up, and if you fly with them again, you’ll continue to earn miles. If not, you might be able to use them to book a flight with a partner airline.
Later on, you may want to consider getting a travel credit card that earns flexible rewards you can transfer to an airline loyalty program (if the transfer rate is good), which can help you save on airfare. For example, I have the American Express® Gold Card, and JetBlue is one of Amex’s many transfer partners. With this partner, 250 Amex Membership Rewards points will transfer to 200 JetBlue TrueBlue points.
So, let’s say I’d like to go to California for a few days to see my friends. Let’s also say I have 6,000 points on my Amex Gold and 5,000 points in my JetBlue TrueBlue account that I earned on previous flights. My 6,000 Amex points will transfer to 4,800 JetBlue points, and now I have 9,800 points in my JetBlue account — just what I need to buy roundtrip tickets, and I’ll only have to pay taxes and fees. Nice!
3. Plan transport to and from the airport
Plan to arrive at the airport ahead of time — you never know how long it will take to get through security. I usually arrive two to three hours before a flight, and I like giving myself extra time when I’m flying abroad. Additionally, I recommend checking in online so that you don’t have to stand in the check-in line.
You should also know how you’re going to get to and from the airport. I normally take an Uber since the Amex Gold offers up to $120 in Uber Cash per year ($10 per month, expiring at the end of the month). There are other cards that are great for ridesharing, too.
Alternatively, you may want to rent a car at your destination so you can use it to get around during a trip. If that’s the case, check if your credit card offers an auto rental collision damage waiver, which provides protection if you’re in an accident or your rental car is stolen or damaged. For instance, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers an auto rental collision damage waiver for car rentals purchased with your card, which will protect you against damage or theft up to the cash value of the car.
4. Apply for TSA PreCheck
Going through airport security isn’t fun no matter how short the lines are. To avoid the hassle, consider applying for TSA PreCheck. TSA PreCheck expedites your time in the security area since you can use a dedicated TSA PreCheck lane. You also won’t have to remove your shoes or liquids from your bag.
If you have a lot of trips planned that involve flying — and therefore dealing with dreaded airport security — there are many credit cards that offer reimbursement for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry membership fees. (Global Entry expedites your re-entry process at immigration if you have traveled outside the U.S.) For example, both the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and The Platinum Card® from American Express offer up to $100 in statement credits for Global Entry or up to $85 for TSA PreCheck.
5. Check your cards before you go
For example, the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card can be a good choice for traveling abroad since it comes with no annual fee or foreign transaction fees, and it earns 1.5 percent cash back on all purchases. But if you’re ready for a travel credit card, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card can be a nice starter travel card to consider since it comes with no foreign transaction fees, a lower annual fee for a travel card ($95) and the chance to earn 2X miles on all purchases.
Additionally, Discover credit cards charge no transaction fees either, but you may be more likely to run into a problem with your Discover card not being widely accepted. For instance, I love my Discover it® Cash Back deeply for its lucrative, rotating bonus categories — it offers 5 percent cash back on rotating categories each quarter (activation required; on up to $1,500 in purchases, then 1 percent) — but I know that if I go visit my family in Russia, I probably won’t be able to use it at many places.
The bottom line
First-time flying can be a breeze if you follow these tips. And when you’re ready to travel more, you may want to consider acquiring one of the top travel credit cards available today, which can help you to earn rewards and benefits that may pay for airline tickets, luggage, lounge access and more — all of which will help make your next trip even better (and cheaper).