There’s nothing worse than turning up for an international flight only to discover you don’t have the correct visa or onward flight information, you’re a day late, or your luggage is over the limit and you have to pay $100 on the spot! If it’s your first time flying internationally, then this can be an incredibly daunting experience and it may feel like there are so many things that could go wrong. But provided you get organized early, double-check you have all of your documentation in order, and pack according to the rules, then it can also be a breeze.
Here’s a quick checklist to consider before your first time flying internationally.
- Check your passport
First and foremost (even before you book your flight), check that your passport is all in order and valid. Many countries require that you have at least 6 months validity left before you enter their country, so if you don’t have this, then consider applying for a new passport.
- Find out if you need a visa
Secondly, find out if you need a visa, where you can get it from and how long it may take to process. If there’s a consulate for your chosen destination in your own city, then it may be as simple as turning up in person and getting the visa on the same day, while in other cases you may need to send your passport elsewhere and wait weeks to have it returned. It’s important that you check this before you book your flights or make travel arrangements, as without a visa, you won’t be going anywhere!
- Check immigration requirements
Something else you need to check are the immigration requirements of your destination. Some require you have proof of onward travel out of the country before they will let you in, whether that be a flight, train or bus ticket. Some countries have these regulations but don’t necessarily enforce them, while some airlines won’t let you even board the flight if you don’t have documentation that is inline with the destination’s immigration requirements.
Most consulates have up-to-date and detailed information about exactly what you need to enter the country, or online forums are a good place to find out what is expected at the current time. If the country does require proof on onward travel and you plan on leaving overland by bus or train (and can’t buy the ticket online), you may need to purchase a return flight and cancel it once you have arrived and passed through immigration formalities.
- Make photocopies of all your documents
It’s also a great idea to make photocopies and scans of all you official documentation, including your passport, visa and onward travel, and keep them in a separate location from the originals (or on your laptop). Then if you lose any of them, you at least have proof of identity and permission to be in the country when dealing with local police or immigration authorities.
- Have digital and physical copies of your documents
Make sure you have a hard-copy (ie. print out) of your travel documentation to show at the airport. In this digital age, most airlines and immigration authorities will accept travel itineraries displayed on your laptop or smartphone screen, but it’s much more practical to be able to whip out a piece of paper (and still the preferred means in some less developed parts of the world).
- Check your airline’s baggage requirements
When it comes to packing, make sure you know the baggage requirements of your chosen airline(s) and keep in mind how much weight you are willing to haul around with you. As a general rule, pack as light as possible and keep a little bit of room for souvenirs or purchases when abroad.
You also need to keep in mind what is permitted on flights and rules have become much stricter in recent years due to security threats. No dangerous liquids or firearms are allowed at all, and hand luggage is now restricted to liquids of 100mL max and no sharp items (even tweezers, nail scissors are out). You can check what is and isn’t allowed on the airline’s website and keep in mind that these rules are strictly enforced at security screenings.
- Arrive 2 hours early
On the day of your flight, it’s really important that you arrive at the airport at least two hours before (three hours is preferable, particularly if it’s your first time flying). This will allow you to check-in, pass through security and immigration channels in a leisurely fashion and manage any delays or unexpected situations that may arise. Some airports are a breeze and you’ll be at your gate in less than 20 minutes after checking in, while others have long queues at check-in, security screening and immigration which you have no control over.
- If you’re late, talk to immigration
If you know that your flight is boarding and you’re still standing in the immigration queue, there is normally a personal in authority available who you can explain your situation to and be fast-tracked.
Flying internationally involves a lot of waiting – waiting in queues, waiting at the gate to board and sitting for long hours on a plane. Always bring a book to read, music to listen to and your laptop/tablet to keep you busy. Depending on which airline you are flying with, there may be free in-flight entertainment, but that doesn’t extend to the hours you’ll spend at airports in transit.
- Double check you have everything
Arriving into your destination after a long-haul flight can be stressful, especially if it’s your first time. If you’ve been sleeping on the flight and wake up a little drowsy, it’s really easy to leave something (such as your passport) in the seat pocket in front of you. Always double check you have everything you boarded the flight with before you get off the plane, as it can be near-impossible to go back if you forget.
- Do you need to recheck your bags?
If you’re connecting to another flight, make sure you know clearly if you need to collect your bags and recheck them in. This is often the case if you get off an international flight for a domestic connection, as you need to have your baggage screened by customs before you proceed. The airline should tell you at your initial check-in point exactly what the procedure is, and if they don’t, always ask!
- Fill out your immigration card early
Chances are you will need to fill out an immigration arrivals card and a customs declaration. The first is information about you and what you intend on doing in the country, while the second is a declaration of exactly what you are bringing into the country. It’s important that you fill out these accurately and truthfully as the punishments for not doing so can be severe.
- Take the immigration card seriously
Don’t base your answers on your own morals or what is acceptable in your own country, because this won’t stand up in a court of law inside your destination country if you are found to be doing the wrong thing. This is particularly true for bringing in (or taking out) any kinds of drugs, and in some countries the penalty is death, no questions asked! If you have got something in your luggage that is deemed illegal on the customs form, it’s best to declare it and they will probably be far more lenient than if they find it during a random search.
- Don’t exchange money at the airport
Once you’ve cleared customs and immigration, you’ll more than likely end up in an arrivals hall with money exchange facilities and ground transportation options. Airport money exchange counters generally don’t offer the best rates, so unless you know otherwise, only change what you really need to get to your accommodation or a bank/city money exchange office.
- Taxis: know what you’re getting into
If you are planning on traveling from the airport by taxi, clearly confirm whether it is metered or fixed-fare before you step inside. It’s a good idea to always check before you leave home the approximate fare to your destination online so you have some bargaining power if it is not metered.
- Be smart. Research
No matter where in the world you are traveling, there is lots of helpful information from airport websites and online forums about what to expect before, during and after your flight. From the most affordable (and safest) way to get to your accommodation, to where to find the best exchange rates, and if there’s free wifi in the airport terminal buildings, the online travel community offers loads of useful information just a click away!
Have a wonderful trip! Happy journey! 🙂