If you're preparing for your first time on a plane, you are probably wondering what to expect. You may have many questions and concerns, and this is normal.
Let's face it: 30,000 feet above sea level isn't the natural habitat for humans, and for many of us, getting on an airplane for the first time can seem like an unsettling prospect.
We've all heard stories and seen movies and read books about flying, but the thought remains: what's it really like to fly on a plane for the first time?
In this article, I'm going to explain exactly what to expect your first time on a plane, in vivid detail.
Although there's no way to truly know what it's like to fly until you've actually done it, my goal is to address all the most common concerns that first time flyers have, and to give you a complete and accurate idea of what to expect on your first airborne journey.
(Note: I'm detailing what to expect on an average flight with a typical commercial airliner. If you're flying on some other type of aircraft, like a very small plane, your experience may differ.)
I'll be giving you many valuable "things I wish I would've known my first time flying" insider tips, so you can avoid potential pitfalls, set yourself up for a smooth trip, and have the best first time flyer's experience possible!
What To Expect Boarding The Plane
Once you've gotten to your gate at the airport terminal, you will hear announcements being made. Listen to these, as they will tell you when to board.
When it’s time to board the plane, you’ll show your boarding pass and i.d. to the attendant at the gate (and passport if you're flying internationally), then you’ll exit into the jet bridge.
The jet bridge, also known by its industry official name, “passenger boarding bridge”, is essentially just a moveable tunnel that connects the airport gate to the plane itself.
Walking through the jet bridge is much like walking down a long, winding, metallic hallway, but there are usually several ramps along the way, so watch your step!
It’s also important to note that the jet bridge has less insulation than the inside of the airport, so you’ll be more subjected to outside temperatures during this part of the journey.
If it’s exceptionally warm or chilly, don’t worry! You’ll be on the climate-controlled plane soon!
Depending on your boarding zone and how crowded your particular flight is, this part of the journey might take less than a minute, or it might take quite a bit longer if there is a big line moving slowly. Standing in the line usually takes no longer than 15-20 minutes.
When you get to the end of the jet bridge, you will reach the entrance to the plane. It's a good idea to have your boarding pass handy at this time, as you will need to be sure of your seat number.
Flight attendants will usually be standing at the door to greet you and to give you any assistance if you have questions about your seating.
Finding your seat on the plane
The seats are often assigned with a combination of a number (usually two-digit) and a letter. For example, your seat might be indicated on the boarding pass as 51F.
The number usually refers to the row that your seat is in, with the low numbers starting in the front of the plane and getting higher the farther back you go. The letter usually refers to the actual seat within that row.
Look on the panels above the seats to see the row numbers and letters. Walk down the aisle until you see your row number, then find the seat that corresponds to the letter of your seat.
Once you've located your seat, you can go ahead and sit down if you've got no carry-on luggage. If you do have carry-on luggage, you'll need to stow your bags in the overhead bins.
Most of these usually remain open during the majority of the boarding process, and you'll probably see other bags inside them already.
Find an empty spot that's big enough to fit your luggage, and store your bags securely inside it. But don't close the overhead bin yet if there's still room, as other passengers may need that space to store their belongings.
I recommend storing your luggage in a bin that's as close to your seat as possible. This will make it easier and quicker to access your luggage during the deboarding process at the end of the flight.
Once you've stowed your carry-on luggage, you can sit down in your seat. At this point, you can usually expect to wait a few minutes while other passengers board the plane and stow their luggage.
Now that you're seated on the plane...
Once all the passengers are settled in, some announcements may be made. You will hear the voice of the pilot and/or flight crew coming from speakers located within the plane's cabin.
On some flights, the flight attendants may give a visible demonstration of the safety guidelines and emergency procedures, following in synchrony with spoken announcements over the speaker system.
If you have a screen in front of your seat, a safety demonstration video may be displayed here as well.
When the safety demonstrations are done, you will be asked to fasten your seat belt. If you have a seat with reclining functionality, you may be asked to put it in the fully upright position.
The features of the seat itself, as well as the seated experience, will vary depending on the type of plane you're on, the airline you chose, and the seating class you're in.
For example, if you're in a first class seat with a high-end airline, your experience will be much more comfortable than if you're flying economy class on a low-ticket airline.
Airplane seating classes
The classes of airline service are generally seated in different sections of the airplane, with the most expensive seats up front, and the cheapest seats in the back. The classes are usually broken up into these categories, from cheapest to most expensive:
• Economy Class (aka coach class): Standard seating, includes basic accommodations, lowest cost. On many airlines, this includes rows of 2-4 seats, packed fairly tightly together. Typically includes basic beverage and snack service (sometimes meal service), Nowadays many commercial planes have TV screens installed on the back of the headrests, allowing each passenger his or her own personal viewing screen.
• Premium Economy: Similar to the Economy Class, but with several key upgrades. These usually include greater leg room, wider seats, more room between seats, seats with a wider reclining potential, and other moderate comfort upgrades.
• Business Class (aka executive class): Commonly purchased by frequent business travelers, this class includes greater levels of comfort, space, entertainment, service, and sometimes better food and beverage service.
• First Class: The most expensive class, First Class passengers enjoy the highest levels of accommodation and luxuries.
After all passengers are buckled in and all overhead bins secured, the plane will start to drive on its wheels toward the runway area. This process is known as "taxiing".
Your first time on a plane, you might expect some anxiety during this part. As you sit there feeling the plane moving, seeing the wobbling of its wings out the window, and anticipating what's to come, the taxiing process can seem to drag on forever.
But not to worry, a little anxiety is normal. If you have concerns about safety, it's a good idea to remind yourself in these moments that, statistically speaking, air travel is one of the safest forms of transportation. You're far safer in a plane than you were in the car driving to the airport. Reminding yourself of these facts can help to quell anxiety.
After some time taxiing (in my experience, this part has usually taken anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes), the plane will eventually reach the runway. The pilot will steer the plane on course, and will begin accelerating down the runway.
This is the really fun part. This is the beginning of takeoff! I find this part to be exhilerating, if a little nerve racking.
You will hear the engine start to roar and the plane will begin to move down the runway. For a few seconds, the plane will seem to accelerate in much the same way that a car would if the accelerator pedal was floored.
But it will quickly become clear that this is no car ride! After a second or two, the plane will start to accelerate very rapidly, and you will feel like you're being pressed back into your seat (it's similar to the feeling of being on a high-speed roller coaster).
You may also notice some minor bumpiness on the runway during takeoff. Not to worry, this is totally normal and should be expected.
After a few seconds of exhilarating acceleration, you will feel the plane tilt upward as the pilot lifts the nose of the plane. The plane will start to lift off the runway.
Shortly after becoming airborne, it is normal to hear a bumping sound. This is a result of the pilot raising the landing gear, and should be no cause for concern.
Now the plane is in the air...
The plane will climb steadily for a few minutes. This is a great time to take in the view out the windows of the plane, if possible.
After a few minutes of climbing, you may feel a sensation like the plane is slowing down. This is due to the pilot adjusting the angle of the plane and reducing the acceleration. This is a completely normal procedure, and is to be expected.
While the plane is climbing, all passengers must remain seated with their seatbelts fastened. After the plane reaches a certain altitude, usually around 10,000 feet, flight attendants are often allowed to leave their seats. Passengers usually have to remain seated until the plane reaches its cruise altitude.
You will probably notice your ears popping as the plane climbs. This is due to changes in air pressure caused by altitude. As altitude changes rapidly, so does air pressure, and "airplane ear" is cause by the resulting imbalance between the pressure in your middle ear and the pressure in the cabin of the airplane.
*TIP: To get rid of airplane ear, try yawning or swallowing. Both of these activate muscles that open the eustachian tubes in the ear, which will relieve the pressure.
Cruising at Altitude
Eventually the plane will reach its cruising altitude and will stop climbing. During this part of the flight, passengers are generally permitted to move freely about the cabin of the plane.
From time to time, the pilot may turn on the seatbelt signs, indicating that passengers should be seated and fasten their seatbelts. The pilot will usually also make an announcement over the plane's speaker system when the seatbelt signs are activated.
When the plane is cruising at altitude, it is essentially gliding on a cushion of air that gets created by the structure of the wings. When the plane encounters patches of air that are unstable or rough, it can create what's known as turbulence.
Turbulence causes the plane to bump and shake a bit, but it is generally mild. Your first time on a plane, this can be unsettling if you don't expect it. But it is a very common occurence, and it generally doesn't last more than a few minutes in most cases.
On most larger commercial airplanes, restrooms are usually located in various places within the cabin. Airplane restrooms are usually quite small, so be prepared if you're a little claustrophobic.
After reaching altitude, most of the flight is similar to riding on a bus (except commercial airliners often provide more amenities and entertainment options). You are basically just sitting there in your seat for the duration of the ride.
Entertainment on the plane
Because many flights are hours-long, entertainment is extremely important. Realizing this, many commercial airliners offer in-flight entertainment. You can watch movies, play games, and even interact with other passengers on the plane.
If you're planning to watch movies or listen to music, you will probably want to bring your own headphones, as some airliners will not provide them. Some airliners do provide them, but many charge a fee.
You are also usually allowed to use smartphones and other devices on airplanes, provided that they remain in "airplane mode" for the duration of the flight (the pilot and/or flight crew will usually inform passengers about this during the pre-flight announcements).
One of my personal favorite forms of in-flight entertainment is listening to podcasts on my iPhone. When I'm preparing for a flight, I usually download a few podcasts, as well as music playlists, to my phone's hard drive.
If you plan on using your smartphone for entertainment, I would recommend doing like I do and downloading everything that you need to your phone's hard drive before the flight.
You may be able to stream if the airline offers WiFi, but many airlines don't. And the ones that do usually charge money for its use, so it's a better bet to preload your own entertainment!
If you're more of an old-school type, you can't go wrong with books, magazines, and other non-digital forms of entertainment. Just be sure to bring along whatever you need!
If you didn't bring along any reading materials or games, and the airliner doesn't offer much in-flight entertainment, you can always just talk to the people seated next to you!
*TIP: The air inside most airplane cabins tends to be pretty dry, so it's probably a good idea to bring moisturizer along if you’re prone to dry skin!
Food & beverages on the plane
Light snacks and beverages are commonly offered on commercial flights. Peanuts, pretzels, cookies, and crackers seem to be popular. Water is usually available, as are soft drinks on many flights.
Entire meals are served free of any extra charge on some flights, but not on all flights. Sometimes airlines will offer meals, but at a cost.
In some cases, First Class and Business Class passengers may receive free meals and other refreshments, whereas Economy or Premium Economy passengers may be offered the option to purchase meals.
Alcoholic beverages are also sometimes offered on flights. In some cases, full beverage service may be provided free of charge. In other cases, the airline may offer alcoholic beverages at a cost. Sometimes, alcoholic beverages aren't available at all.
In my experience, this often depends on the quality of the airline (pricier flights tend to offer better accomodations) and the length of the flight (longer flights, like transcontinental flights, usually include more luxuries and accomodations).
*TIP: To get the best value for the price, I recommend booking your flights through high quality, traveller-oriented websites like AllTravelCentral.com (anywhere) or Crystal Travel (US only). You'll usually end up paying less!
About a half hour prior to landing, the plane will begin its descent. While the plane is descending, pilots usually turn on the seatbelt signs.
This is a great time to sit and look out the window, if your seat permits a good view and there's enough daylight.
Just before the plane lands, you may hear a bumping or knocking noise. This usually happens when the pilot lowers the plane's wheels. This can be alarming if it's your first time on a plane and you're not expecting it, but the sound is completely normal!
In order to safely land the plane, the plane must decelerate. The pilot accomplishes this by raising the speed brakes. Speed brakes are panels on the wings of that plane that use air resistance to produce drag and slow the plane down.
The moment that the wheels touchdown onto the runway, you may feel a little bump as the plane stabilizes. The plane will rapidly decelerate as it goes down the runway, eventually coming to a complete stop. The plane will then taxi over to the appropriate gate, and the deboarding process will begin.
You've now completed your first flight!
At this point, you will probably sigh a huge sigh of relief! You've made it and all is well! This is a good time to congratulate yourself for successfully completing your first flight!
After reading this guide, I hope that you've learned how to prepare for your first time on a plane, what to expect at each step of the process, and how to set yourself up for the best possible experience your first time flying!
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