Love at First Flight?
Here are a bunch of things I've learned about flying, especially for the for the first time (Mostly through trial and error).
Booking your flight
Book your flight as soon as possible to get the best rates and the best dibs on seats and class. Waiting may not only cost you in dollars, but in time if you can’t get the right dates and times for your flight.
Whether you’re booking through a bundling site like expedia.com or Travelocity, it’s always a good idea to check with the airline directly and see if you can select your seat. This is good for couples or parties of travelers that want to sit together, or people who prefer the window or isle seats, or people who just want to see how booked the plane might be. There may be an additional fee but its well worth it if you don’t want to leave the seat assignment to the powers that be. It just may be worth your while to splurge for some extra room and a better area of the plane for the longer flights.
Another thing to compare is the differences between classes. Economy will be very different from Business and First Class, but the prices may not really justify the additional comfort and amenities for some. There are also “premium” economy and business classes that might look like it’s worth the slight up-charge, but do read the fine print.
Check in/Missed Flights
Please don’t do what I did. On my way to the airport, there was a string of Jim Carey like unfortunate events leading to me missing my flight home. What I didn’t know is that I could have checked-in on my phone while I was stuck in traffic fighting to get there, then would have to book it through security and “Run, Run, Rudolph” to the gate. But as such is life, we were denied at the terminal and had to rebook for the next day at the cost of another ticket. One thing that should be added to your checklist is to know all the emergency procedures in case something like this might happen.
Flight Insurance may also be a good idea if you’re a little unsure on what your transportation is looking like in your destination city. It’s usually always offered at the completion screen of your booking and looks a little gimmicky, but you may want to take the precaution and buy it if it works within your budget.
Some airports have different means of screening, which is something we should keep in mind when visiting a new airport and city. For example, the Columbus Airport has fancy machinery that scans your entire body. Everything you attempt to enter the airport is screened including laptops and electronic games and is a lot more stringent than the airport in Las Vegas. A word of advice which will help you as well as security, don’t try and prepare your items or remove anything until they tell you to do so. Just wait for instructions since every airport may do things a little different.
You may also want to give yourself some extra traveling time, literally on foot, in the airport. Some have trams that will take you from terminal to terminal and gate to gate, others are just moving walkways. Depending on the size of the airport and how soon you make it through security, you may just have to make a mad dash, or sit and wait a while for your flight.
Prices/Food/Carry on vs. checked bags
Depending on how long your flight is, you may not need a carry on. Some airlines allow you to bring a personal bag, included in the ticket price. A carry on would constitute as a small piece of luggage, about 30-50 lbs. max, and something you can store in the over head bin on the plane. Although it’s only a few more dollars to have the airlines store it in the larger cargo area underneath the cabin of the plane, you may find that it’s a lot more convenient to already have your luggage with you, if you can cram it all in. Your flight attendant and even some of your fellow passengers will be patient and help you with storing and bringing down your carry on if needed.
Food on the plane isn’t as lackluster as the 90’s comedians have painted it. Most airlines, even the smaller and more economical ones, do offer some sort of in-flight snacks and beverages, for a fee of course. Although the prices will range from one airline to the next, it’s always a nice option. If you can make it happen, bringing your own beverages and snacks on the flight is going to be the most preferable (especially alcohol).
What is turbulence? Imagine you’re in a submarine and you’re gliding underwater at break neck speed. You’ll feel ripples from the water caused by other things in the sea, maybe even another close by submarine. The ripples will hit your sub and cause the body of it to shake and sway, but the instruments inside the sub controlling the apparatus on the outside will always keep your sub stable and on course with your destination. There will always be outside force from the water moving around you, but it will never dislodge, twist, or shake you off balance.
Another example: If you close your eyes while riding in a care (not driving of course) you’ll get a dippy swaying, shaking, and bumpy sensation. This is exactly what light to moderate turbulence feels like. Normally this feeling shouldn’t concern you, but being 20-30 thousand feet up in the air while this is happening is a horse of a different color.
Air is like water, it’s fluid and sometimes undetectable when it changes direction. There are currents of air all around you, and when flying a kite, you can feel the inconsistent pulling of the air on it which you’ve got to monitor to keep it lifted. That’s the same with a plane. The pilot is always in as much control as humanly possible and they are greatly assisted with constant monitoring and controls. Turbulence does not crash planes.
One last example, picture a bird flying high in the sky, gliding through the air as it watches over its prey. It's feathers bend to the wind, it's body continually adjusts as the air current shifts and pushes him around. But he never falls or is pushed out of the sky. He was designed for flight, just like airplanes. You would be amazed how flexible airplane wings are. There's no force of nature that could take down an airplane. Modern airplanes are crafted to withstand much more force than what is found naturally anywhere in the world.
Some factors to keep in mind: smaller planes mean more noticeably turbulence. Drops might scare you or stir you from your slumber if you manage to fall asleep. The pilot will turn on the buckle up sign from time to time, not because there is immediate danger, but because it’s best to stay in your seat and fastened in while they maneuver through unavoidable and typically expected turbulence. Your flight attendants will often continue to roam the cabin and tend to the fliers unless they are told to do otherwise by the captain or co-pilot.
Turbulence ends up being more of a nuisance than a cause for alarm, but for a first time flier it can certainly feel like a huge deal. Sometimes it’s because it’s something you can’t control yourself so you wonder if the pilots are able to perform accordingly, and because it’s a new sensation and environment. Some people also don’t like the motion which can lead to sickness and pressure in the ears.
Things that can help is taking shorter flights, use your own favorite method of stress relief and meditation, and sometimes sitting the closest to the wing will often offset a lot of the motion you might feel during the flight.
Overall Health and Awareness
My biggest fear of all was never the crowded space, the turbulence or the take-off and landing (The two latter being my FAVORITE part I have found). It was actually how my body would react to the elevation changes and the difference in air pressure, which is something to be expected. It wasn’t uncomfortable during take off, but it was noticeable. Once the plane leveled out at cruising altitude my ears and head did its best to equalize the pressure. After a while, you may find that it comes creeping back, especially on a longer flight where you’re changing climates and the natural altitude of the ground goes up or down. But when we were preparing to make our first descent towards our destination I could certainly feel the “popping” of the ears. But it was pretty severe for me. It was absolutely uncomfortable and I wasn’t able to hear for a few minutes after we landed, but it went away eventually. Ear plugs and chewing didn’t really help in relieving the pain or pressure, it just took some time.
My hips were also upset at me. I should have got up to stretch and walk around while I could during the flight, but I didn’t want to be in the way on such a small aircraft.
It’s also quite cold and dry on the plane because of the air being pumped in. There are usually air conditioning vents that your isle mates might use that can make it seem even that much colder. Plan accordingly.
Leaving from Wintery Columbus, Ohio and sailing into Summery Las Vegas, Nevada was also a great shock to my system. More strikingly after landing back in Columbus, I was extremely sick with congestion and sinus pressure. All in all, a little more planning with medicine before switching environments might have alleviated this.
What to expect:
Book your tickets, print copies and send it to your email. You’ll want to have all of your paperwork squared away before you leave for the airport. This includes ID’s, passports, tickets and anything else you think you MIGHT need, and aren’t willing to take the chance in forgetting. You might also want to pack your luggage at least 24 hours before your flight, just in case you need something last minute and need to make new arrangements with checking your bag.
When you arrive at the airport, check in as soon as you can. Sometimes you have to wait until 30 minutes before boarding, some you can check-in hours before hand. If you can, check in even if you’re still on your way- some airlines allow you do it online from your phone. You’ll want to get your boarding pass before you arrive at security. You can claim them at the terminal, sometimes at a kiosk!
Get through security as soon as you can as well. You don’t want to be held up with any random checks or long lines you didn’t expect. Remember, it’s an adventure! Expect the unexpected!
Get to the restroom and stock up on fun things you might need for the plane like ear plugs, Chapstick, water, medicines, neck pillows, books, etc.
Arrive at the gate as soon as you can and take note of what priority you might be boarding in, it’s usually on your boarding pass. Priority members, members of the armed forces, and sometimes the elderly and those with disabilities will typically be boarded first, then in “zones.” Once you’re called, get to your seat and load up your luggage. Get buckled once you're settled!
The Airline will do a groovy little demonstration of what safety looks like in the sky and pre-takeoff activities will begin. Sometimes routine maintenance will be done during this time and you may hear some drilling. That’s the cargo hold being closed. On my first flight, they had to de-ice the wings of the plane. It was terrifying to think about, but I’m glad they took the time to make sure it was ready and safe! The cabin lights will go off and you’ll soon be taxied to the runway!
You’ll start jetting down the runway, somewhat slow at first, but by the end of the runway you’ll feel the more than decent thrust of the engine and you’ll start feeling the inclination of the plane as you are rocketed in to the sky. This part may be a little jarring at first, but it’s absolutely exhilarating. You may already feel some rattling and swaying of the plane while you’re climbing for a few minutes, but it’s only the aircraft passing through the clouds and drafts of air. This is normal. You may also feel the plane turn a little on its side, no more than 30 degrees, so it can start veering towards your destination! I hope it’s a vacation!
While you’re leveling off, look out the window! You’ll see your big city being reduced to cutting board gashes, or beautiful amber strings of holiday lights if you’re flying at night. Once you’ve reached cruising altitude, congratulations! You’ve just taken your first flight! You’re thousands of feet in the air and you’re traveling at great distances every minute. By the time I had left Columbus and leveled off, we were already over Cincinnati!
From here it’s smooth sailing. The flight attendants have brought over a cart full of moderately priced goodies and you’re enjoying the high life. Then suddenly, there’s a rumble. Then another rumble. Then there’s a jostle. Then a rumble and a jostle. Then there’s a boom towards the back, then a wiggle. Then the plane commences some strange Dance Dance Revolution move and you look around to see if anyone else is terrified by this. Nope. It’s normal. You’ll look out at the wing of the plane and see if flapping up and down, wiggly almost. This is normal too! Just close your eyes and imagine the air currents your airplane is fighting against. You’re like Benjamin Franklin’s kite, flying through the sky, flapping in the breeze. Except it will never come crashing down, it will, however, be entertaining to watch the folks waiting in line for the restroom balance themselves and their bladder.
The pilot may even light up the buckle up sign. This no cause for concern, right? I actually never took mine off; it’s really not a big inconvenience, even if it’s taught. It’s just like riding in a car with your buckle on- minus the strap across your body. It’s going to get a little louder and a little wicked for a second while they find a good altitude to fly and avoid the “chops.” You may also feel the plane stall or get very quiet, or speed up. Interestingly, the pilots are aware of a lot of the turbulence coming their way from reports sent in by meteorologists, Air Traffic Control, and other planes flying the same route. It’s an amazing buddy system! The pilot may come on the intercom and update you on the situation from time to time, especially if we can expect more moderate to sever turbulence.
The plane may drop a few feet (which may seem like hundreds), but that’s just to find that perfect through line to smoother airspace. Even if clear blue skies, a pilot won’t be able to see certain types of shifting air called, “Clear air turbulence.” You’ll go through maybe a few more bouts of this, depending on your flight time, and you’ll start to feel the engines wind down just a bit. You’re about to make you first attempt to descend.
The flight attendants probably won’t seat themselves until the final attempt is being made. You’ll hear the announcement and you’ll be instructed to strap in one final time. At this point, you may feel the airplane curl just a little to the left or to the right as they align themselves with the runway. A few lofty moments might happen in your belly while the airplane soars closer and closer to the ground and you’ll start to see life sized objects outside once again. A few more feet and you’ll feel the light bounce of the wheels touch down. You’ll slow to a stop and the taxi will pull you into your gate.
You’ve done it! It was scary, but it was exhilarating! Bet you can’t wait to do it again! I will say, I’m deep in “like” with flying. I might go out with it again sometime, see if there’s something I missed the first time. But for now, we’re just friends- with benefits. I think it’s a wonderful way to get to far places in a short amount of time, especially in emergencies, and when you barely have any vacation time left at work. It felt a lot safer and more personable than I expected and I might find myself cloud hopping more than I expected.