I like to joke about being a weird enough person that I actually enjoy the more mundane aspects of travel: packing, going to the airport, flying alone for long periods of time… all those tiny pieces of the logistical puzzle that everybody else can’t seem to hate enough. To me it’s all part of the bigger travel picture and that’s enough to make it wonderful in my eyes. As Robert Louis Stevenson says in my favorite travel quote of all time, “The great affair is to move.”
But I all too often forget that the excitement and wonder of travel doesn’t hit others, especially first-time solo female travelers, until they’re actually at that perfect postcard view that first inspired them to leave behind the comforts of home. The giddy anticipation of being somewhere new can become too clouded by the uncertainty and discomfort of the less fun bits.
And even more often, I forget how lucky I am to have had the luxury of traveling young. My first several plane rides were all taken in high school and college with the safety net of accompanying family and friends, so by the time I started traveling more independently, I knew what I was doing. So having a young friend ask questions about her first time flying alone was just the kick in the pants I needed for this epic blog post.
For anyone else embarking on their first solo flight, this is the advice I had for her:
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Table of Contents
Before Flying Alone…
Make sure your passport will be valid for at least six months after your return to the U.S. If you need a new one, get it well in advance of your trip.
Buy your ticket about three to four months in advance to secure the lowest price possible. You can set an alert on Google Flights or Airfarewatchdog to ensure you’re not missing a deal. My absolute favorite flight search engine, though, is Skyscanner. If your dates or destination are at all flexible, Skyscanner has awesome, really easy to use comparison tools that let you search for the cheapest dates in a month, or even across multiple destinations.
Make a packing list and do a test run about a month in advance to make sure everything fits comfortably.
Try traveling with only a carry on. You’ll save time and trouble by not having to wait at baggage claim. You’ll have less stuff to worry about on the road. AND you’ll circumvent any risk of your checked bag being lost, damaged, or stolen.
My trusty Osprey Farpoint 40L Backpack is the perfect carry-on size and can fit everything you need. (See how I fit over 250 outfits in it for a year of travel!)
If you’re using a luggage lock, make sure it’s TSA approved. If not, use twist ties to hold your zippers together and deter opportunistic thieves.
I like this TSA-approved lock because it has a flexible cord instead of a hard metal lock. Way better for backpack zippers!
Find ways to swap liquid products for solids in your bag. Swapping out body wash for bar soap is an obvious choice. You can also get solid shampoo and conditioner bars to replace the liquid versions. The fewer liquids in your bag, the more space you’ll save in that quart-sized Ziploc bag required by the TSA, and the less chance you’ll have of unfortunate spillage in your pack.
Wear your bulkiest clothes on the plane. You’ll save space in your bag and you’ll have layers for the infamously cold plane cabin. If these aren’t comfortable enough to sleep in, keep in mind that you can pack sleep wear and change into it on the plane.
Make sure your shoes can easily slip on and off and wear socks. You’ll save a little time at security and you won’t have to go barefoot on the airport floor.
Use an app like JetLag Rooster to gradually acclimate yourself to the change in time zones before you leave.
Double check your flight status the day before your departure. Charge all your devices the night before you leave, so there aren’t any dead battery mishaps.
If you’re really worried about losing power, consider getting an external battery. This Anker charger is about the size of a tube of lipstick and gives my phone a full extra charge, no outlet necessary!
Getting to the gate…
Don’t forget your mask! Regardless of your airline’s rules, airports and planes are crowded areas where thousands of people pass through every day. Wearing a mask in these high exposure areas is the safest and most considerate way for you to travel.
Many airlines now have online check-in. Take advantage of that service and save time at the airport. To check in online, you’ll go to the website of your airline and enter your flight confirmation number. Depending on the airline and flight, you may be able to select your seat. You might get a digital boarding pass that you can scan directly on your phone, or you can print out a boarding pass at home.
If you check in at the airport, many terminals have touch screen kiosks where you can check yourself in by scanning your passport and following the on-screen prompts.
Both online check-in and self-service kiosks are great time savers when you’re traveling carry-on only, but if you are checking a bag, you will have to wait in line anyway so you might as well take care of everything at the desk. Just tell the desk agent you’re checking in for your flight and hand over your passport for them to scan. They’ll tell you anything else you need to do.
If you want to save even more travel time, consider signing up for Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check which will allow you access to special expedited lines at security and customs.
Get to the airport two hours before your flight, especially if you’re leaving in the afternoon or evening. (Note: this is a common baseline but in some airports, you might need closer to three hours, while in others, one hour will be enough.)
Use a zippered document pouch to hold your passport, boarding pass, and other important papers. Keep it in an easily accessible place so you don’t have to dig through your bag in the middle of a security line. You’ll need these documents at several points throughout the airport.
Keep your laptop and your bag of liquids near the top of your bag or in a special pocket, so you can get them out quickly at security.
Stay calm, confident, and polite with every airport employee you meet. I typically have fine experiences with airport staff simply because I take the trouble to smile and remember my good Southern “Yes, ma’am’s” where very few others do. Going through security and customs doesn’t have to be scary – it’s all about your attitude. The vast majority of these folks are just doing their jobs.
When you arrive at security, don’t wait until you’re at the front of the line to prepare your things. Start taking off your shoes, jacket, jewelry, and belt right away and carry them through the rest of the line. Unzip your bag and make sure your laptop and bag of liquids are easily accessible. When you do get to the front of the security line, you’ll have all your stuff ready and can just grab a couple plastic trays, pop your things inside, and be on your merry way.
If a security agent wants to inspect your bag more closely, no need to panic. Sometimes it’s just a random check and you’re not in trouble. Even if there is something wrong — like you forgot a tube of sunscreen was packed outside your liquids bag or the agent has never seen tweezers before and believes they are not allowed — the worst that will likely happen is you’ll have to throw an item away and replace it during your trip. Mistakes happen. There are stores in your destination. It will be okay.
Stay hydrated! You can’t take a full water bottle through security, but you can pack an empty water bottle. Once you’re in the airport proper, fill it up at a water fountain and drink it before your flight. When you board your plane, you can also ask a flight attendant to refill your water bottle ensuring you stay hydrated in flight.
(I carry a Platypus collapsible water bottle that folds down flat when I’m not using it – huge space saver!)
Airport food is ridiculously overpriced. I once saw a $5 peanut butter and jelly sandwich in Detroit. Save your money and pack your own snacks. I like to have one for waiting at the airport and two or three for a long flight. Peanut butter crackers, pretzels, and granola bars are all perennial favorites, but don’t forget that as long as you finish it on the plane, you can also have fresh fruit or veg in your bag. Bananas and clementines pack pretty well, and water-heavy snacks like cucumbers, watermelon and grapes are great ways to stay hydrated.
Double check your flight’s gate on an arrival-departure board at least once after you pass through security, just in case you don’t hear an announcement of a change.
Boarding the plane…
While you’re waiting to board, use an app like Pocket to load up your phone, tablet, or laptop with offline reading material for the flight. You can also usually download movies or TV shows off your favorite apps for offline viewing, and Spotify allows Premium subscribers to save playlists for offline listening.
When it’s time to board, don’t hover near the gate. Large planes often board in zones, which are printed on your boarding pass, and you know first class will always get to go before economy. Standing in the way of others trying to board doesn’t get you on the plane any faster, so just stay seated until your zone is called and when it is, calmly walk to the gate. There are a handful of times when it’s reasonable to rush through the airport in a panic, but waiting at your gate for the flight to board is not one of them.
Don’t put your boarding pass away. You’ll need to show it to both the attendant at the gate and to the flight attendant on the plane so they can direct you to your seat.
If you’re among the last to board, you may feel like overhead space is limited, but resist the urge to shove your bag in the first compartment you see. Keep your bag as close to your seat as possible. When you don’t, it just creates a domino effect where no one’s bag is next to their seat.
Take out everything you’ll need during the flight before putting your main carry-on into an overhead compartment. You can organize this while packing by putting in-flight stuff in a separate day bag inside the carry-on. Don’t be the person who has to climb over their seat mates five times during the flight to get something out of their bag.
Airplanes were gross even before the pandemic. Use a wet wipe to sanitize your armrest and tray table before doing anything else.
On a similar note, who knows when that wimpy blanket and pillow were last washed? Pack your own and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. A large sarong can double as a blanket, while a fleece jacket could be bundled up like a pillow.
I think a big scarf or sarong is totally suitable and it is not worth buying a separate “travel blanket.” But a pillow is worthwhile, especially if you’re a lighter sleeper. This inflatable travel pillow folds up small when I’m not using it. It wasn’t just for flights either! When I checked into an atomic bunker hostel in Croatia, it turned out they didn’t provide linens!
If you have a smartphone, laptop, or tablet on board, turn it off or switch it to airplane mode.
Keep your blood flowing. Compression socks are popular in the fight against blood clots, but don’t forget that you can also take a walk as long as the seat belt sign isn’t lit and food and beverage service isn’t in progress.
If there’s a meal served on the plane and you have a vegetarian option, go for it.
If you’re on an overnight flight, try to take yourself through a normal bedtime routine. After dinner service, head to the bathroom and change into comfy clothes, brush your teeth, wash your face, etc. It may not be the easiest feat in a tiny airplane bathroom, but it will help keep your Circadian rhythms on track and make it easier for you to fall asleep. Likewise, when you wake up, try to go through as normal a morning routine as possible. It’ll help you adjust to the change in time zones.
Your flight attendant may pass out customs forms before landing. Use your own pen and don’t let anyone borrow it. More importantly, take advantage of the time you’ve been given. Don’t wait until you’ve landed to fill out your paperwork.
Be prepared for a long, slow customs line. Like security, this is a place where attitude is everything. Staying calm, confident, and polite will help the time pass faster. Getting rude and trying to hurry will not. The officials will probably have a few basic questions for you, like where within the country you’re going and how long you plan to stay. Additional questions or paperwork will depend on what country you’re visiting.
Don’t change your money at the airport. Order foreign currency in advance from your bank, or find a bank after you arrive. These will have much better exchange rates than the airport. If and when you do change money, double count it, even if the clerk counted it in front of you.
Have a plan for your transportation from the airport to your accommodations. Is somebody picking you up? Is there a metro or shuttle that serves the airport? Do your research in advance. Don’t just hop in the first taxi you see.
Airports can be super anxiety-ridden for the first-time solo female traveler. Allowing yourself plenty of time to prepare and keeping a level head will turn the chore of flying alone into one more exciting step of your travels.
I fly pretty frequently myself. Check out how many flights I planned for my RTW trip.
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