6 tips for first-time flyers

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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 of 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 wonders of art, pizza and streets full of Vespas, I’ve loved flying with my whole heart.

If you were looking forward to starting to fly before the pandemic hit, you can start getting excited again. As more people are getting vaccinated, travel is becoming safer, and the CDC advises that people who are fully vaccinated can travel without worrying about self-quarantines or COVID-19 tests.

Still, 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 six tips for first-time flyers like yourself that can help set up a smooth journey from start to finish.

Tips for first-time flyers

  1. Plan your luggage and make cuts where you can
  2. Sign up for a rewards program
  3. Plan transport to and from the airport
  4. Bundle up to stay warm
  5. Apply for TSA Precheck
  6. Check your cards before you go

1. Plan your luggage and make cuts where you can

First things first, write down everything you want to take with you. Then, go over the list and try to cross out about half of it. Do you need a new outfit for each day of your trip? Full-sized shampoo and conditioner? If you’re staying in a hotel, it most likely offers 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).

Bonus tip: Weigh your luggage before your flight to make sure it isn’t over the weight limit. You can 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 weight). Additionally, 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 typically have to pay a fee—for example, the first bag on domestic flights usually costs $30. Heavy bags will require a higher fee, and so will your second and third bag.

However, some credit cards will allow you to avoid these fees. The Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card and Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card offer checked bag waivers. JetBlue Plus Card holders get one free bag every time they fly JetBlue. United Airlines co-branded credit cards from Chase also allow free checked bags.

Finally, you can travel light with a carry-on bag. I admit that I 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 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, since I hadn’t even used half the things I’d brought.

2. Sign up for a rewards program

Almost every airline has a rewards program that allows you to accumulate airline miles you can later redeem for awesome things like 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 don’t have an airline you’re planning to stay 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. Should you fly with them again, you’ll continue to earn miles, and if not, you might be able to use them to book a flight with a partner airline. Signing up is free, so one way or the other, you’re not losing anything.

Later, when you’re ready for a travel credit card, you can transfer your rewards to an airline loyalty program (if the rate is good), and you’ll have a little extra to book your ticket with miles.

For example, I have the American Express® Gold Card, which has JetBlue on its transfer partner list. I’d like to go to California for a few days in May to see my friends. Let’s say I have 6,000 points on my Amex card and 5,000 points in my JetBlue account that I earned on some previous flights. When you transfer Amex Membership Rewards to JetBlue, 1.25 Amex points gets you 1 JetBlue TrueBlue point.

My 6,000 Amex points then turn into 4,800 JetBlue points, and now I have 9,800 points in my JetBlue account in total—just what I need to buy my tickets. Currently, roundtrip tickets from Austin to LA in May can be found for $163.98, but if I pay with my points, I’ll only have to pay $11.20 in 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 the flight, and I especially like giving myself a bit of extra cushion 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 $100 in Uber Cash per year ($10 per month). There are other cards that are great for ridesharing, too.

Alternatively, you may want to rent a car at the airport at your destination so you can use it to get around during the trip. If that’s the case, check if your credit card offers primary car rental insurance, which provides protection if you’re in an accident or your rental car is stolen or damaged. Examples of cards that come with this benefit include the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve®.

4. Bundle up to stay warm

Airports and planes are notoriously chilly, so pack something cozy to put on as you travel.

A light compact jacket is a great choice, as you can easily take it on and off and store it as you move through different temperature zones. Treat yourself to a new jacket or shawl before your trip and put it on your cash back credit card. The Citi® Double Cash Card would be a great choice—you get 1 percent back at the time of purchase and another 1 percent back when you pay it off.

5. Apply for TSA Precheck

Going through security in an airport is not fun, no matter how short the lines are. To avoid having to deal with the hassle of all that, apply for TSA Precheck. TSA Precheck expedites your time in the security area, as you can use the dedicated TSA Precheck lane. You also don’t have to remove your shoes or liquids and gels from your bag.

If you have a lot of trips planned that involve flying, and therefore dealing with dreaded airport security, there are credit cards that offer reimbursement for TSA Precheck or Global Entry (which will expedite your re-entry process at immigration if you have traveled outside the U.S.). For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve and The Platinum Card® from American Express offer statement credits on TSA Precheck/Global Entry charges once every four years.

6. Check your cards before you go

If you’re traveling abroad, it’s a good idea to take a card with no foreign transaction fees that’s likely to be accepted everywhere. The Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card can be a good choice, as it can be either Visa or Mastercard (both widely accepted) and earns 1.5 percent cash back on every purchase. If you’re ready for a travel credit card, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card can be a nice starter card that will earn you 2X miles on every purchase.

Discover credit cards charge no transaction fees either, but you may run into a problem with your Discover card not being accepted. For instance, I love my Discover it® Cash Back deeply for its lucrative rotating categories, but I know that if I go to visit my family in Russia, I probably won’t be able to use it just about anywhere.

Relax and enjoy your flight

First-time flying can be a breeze if you follow these tips. And when you’re ready to travel more, check CardMatch for travel cards to pay for tickets, luggage and that relaxing pre-flight drink while earning rewards to help make your next trip even better—and cheaper.

Written by
Ana Staples
Credit Cards Reporter and Young Credit Analyst
Ana Staples is a reporter for Bankrate and an expert on all things credit basics and personal finance for the younger generation.