I wrote this for someone going on their first international flight alone and so I thought I’d share it with you. What I found surprising was the number of steps involved, steps that we seasoned travellers take for granted but may not be obvious to a first timer. I do hope that you’ll pass it on to whoever might need it.

    1. Weeks before you travel, make sure your passport has at least 6 months validity from the date you arrive in the foreign country. Some countries require a Visa, so check if you need to apply for one. You should also obtain some foreign currency, checking to see where you can obtain the best rates. If you intend to use your ATM card overseas, you may need to tell the bank which country or countries you’re travelling to and dates you’ll be there.
    2. Pack your stuff. Learn to travel light. It makes travelling so much more bearable. Check the maximum weight for your check in baggage and don’t exceed it. You may have purchased the baggage weight or it maybe included free in your flight which may be 20kg or more. Make sure you pack your passport and a pen in your carry-on luggage or handbag. 
    3. You can check-in online if that’s available. Otherwise, don’t worry, as it can still be done at the airport.
    4. With your mobile phone, take a photo of (i) your flight details including the flight booking number (ii) the personal information page of your passport and (iii) any other important travel documents, such as a visa.
    5. Make arrangements to get to the airport on time. Make sure you’ll be going to the correct terminal. Some cities use different terminals for different airlines. Check the confirmation email from the airlines for terminal details. Set your alarm if you’re on a morning flight.
    1. Arrive early for your flight, especially if it’s your first time. Make sure you’re at the international terminal for an international flight. Get to the terminal at least 2 hours before an international flight. Some airports may require more than 2 hours so it’s worth checking before hand. Give yourself extra time during busy periods, such as holidays.
    2. Sometimes there’s security to get into the airport itself. So, go through Security if you have to. Make sure you put everything in your clothes pockets (wallet, phone etc) into your handbag / carry-on luggage. You may have to bring out your laptop and put in on a tray. Sometimes you may even have to take off your belt and/or shoes.
  1. Once in the airport Departure Area, check the flight information screen for your flight. Make sure you’re looking at flight departures rather than flight arrivals! Knowing your flight time you can easily find your flight if you’re confronted with a long list. It should tell you which row to go to to check-in or bag-drop. If there’s no screen, which may be the case for smaller airports, then wander down the check-in area and look for the check-in counter for the airlines you’re flying with. Always ask the airport staff if you’re unsure.
  2. Check-In/Bag-Drop Counters usually open 2-3 hours before your flight. (i) If you’ve checked-in online then go to the Bag Drop Counter. This is only for those who have checked in online. (ii) If you haven’t checked in on-line, then you can use one of the Check-In Machines (if they have one) which will issue you with a boarding pass and luggage tag and then proceed to the Bag Drop Counter. This is where having a photo of your flight details and booking number on your phone comes in handy as the machine will require this information. You may also need to scan your passport here. You can also go to the Check-In Counter which should be beside the Bag Drop Counter. Some airlines at certain airports may only have Check-In Machines so you’ll need to use them. If in doubt always ask the airport / flight staff.
  3. Once you’ve checked in, you’ll be given a boarding pass. Keep both you passport and boarding pass safe and easily accessible. 
  4. Transfers: If you have to get onto another flight after this one, make sure that (i) you have been given a 2nd boarding pass for this next flight and (ii) your check-in luggage will be sent to your final destination. If not, you may have to go through passport control at the next airport, collect your luggage and check-in again. Make sure you use the correct boarding pass for each flight!
  1. Next, you’ll head to through Security (see 2b above). You’ll need to show your passport and boarding pass to enter this area.
  2. After Security, you’ll go through Passport Control. Some counters may be for locals and some for foreigners. Again you’ll need to show your passport and boarding pass. At some airports there will be no immigration staff, so you will go through an electronic gate. In that case, just follow the instructions and watch those people ahead of you to see what they’re doing.
  3. At some airports, Passport Control comes before Security.
  1. After Passport Control, you are now in the Departure Hall. Check the screens to find out the Gate Number for your flight. 
  2. The Gate Number should also be on your boarding pass but not always. Check to make sure that the Gate Number on the boarding pass and on the screen are the same. If not, follow the one on the screen as sometimes the Gate Number is changed. If in doubt, always ask the airport staff.
  3. Your boarding pass and the screen should also tell you what time you need to be at the Gate. This Boarding Time will be much earlier than your flight. 
  4. Ensure that you get to the Gate before the Boarding Time. Be aware that in some large airports, the Gate may well be a long walk away or you may even have to catch a shuttle bus or airport train. So give yourself plenty of time.
  5. You may have some free time now to look at the shops or even have a meal. Ensure that you’re at the Gate before the Boarding Time. Check the screen again to ensure that Gate hasn’t been changed or the flight hasn’t been delayed and that there is a new Boarding Time.
  1. Once at the Gate, check the signage to make sure that this gate is for your flight. You may again have to pass through Security. Find a seat and wait for boarding. This may take awhile as the plane may be late coming in or there may be other delays. But often, boarding takes place promptly. 
  2. You will have to show your passport and boarding pass to board the plane. Take note of your seat number on the boarding pass.
  3. First Class and Business Class board first. For Economy Class, sometimes, boarding proceeds by row numbers, so knowing your seat number may be important.
  1. Once on the plane, the flight attendant should direct you as to which row you should go down to find your seat. 
  2. Once you’ve found your seat, take out the essentials you need for your flight. Make sure you have a pen, your mobile phone and boarding pass on you. Then place your cabin luggage in the overhead compartment or, if it’s small enough, under the seat in front of you. You may also want to lock your cabin luggage as thefts have occurred on flights.
  3. During the flight, the flight attendant will give out Arrival Cards for the country you’re getting off the flight. Some countries may also require a Customs Declaration card. Fill these accurately and truthfully. Some countries, like Malaysia, have no Arrival Cards. Using the photo of your passport on your phone, you can easily fill out the form. This means that if your passport is in your bag in the overhead compartment then you don’t need to grab it from there. Fill these in accurately and truthfully as early as you can so that you don’t have to worry about it later.
  1. Once you arrive at the destination airport, and having checked that you’ve left nothing behind, exit the plane and follow the Transfers signage to the Departures Area. Follow the Domestic Transfers signage or International Transfers signage depending on whether you have a domestic of international transfer. You may have to go through Immigration and Security but these will be in a separate section for transfer passengers only. Next, check the screens to find out the Gate Number for your next flight. Your check-in baggage should be automatically transferred to your next flight. 
  2. If you have not been given the boarding pass for your next flight, go to the Transfers Desk to obtain your boarding pass or for more information. 
  3. Some airlines do not allow transfers. So you will need to to through arrivals (as in the section below), go through immigration, collect your baggage and then check-in again for your next flight.
  1. Once you arrive at the destination airport, and having checked that you’ve left nothing behind, exit the plane and follow the line of passengers but always ensure you look for the appropriate signage. 
  2. If this airport is your destination, follow the Arrivals or Passport Control signage. Show your Passport and the filled-in Arrivals Card at the Passport Control counter. There will probably be different counters for locals and foreigners. The Immigration staff may need to take your photo or ask you to place your fingers on a machine to be scanned.
  3. After Passport Control, check the screens for your flight number to find out what Carousel you need to go to get your check-in luggage. Smaller airports may not have this, so proceed to the Carousel area to find the correct carousel.
  4. Collect your cabin luggage. You will now pass through Customs. If you have no goods to declare, follow the green “Nothing to Declare” line. Some airports will screen your luggage at Customs Control.
  5. Once you’re in the Arrivals area, you may wish to buy a local SIM card. Always keep your eye on your luggage as the Arrivals area can be a higher-risk theft location. If you need local currency then go to one of the Currency Exchange counters. Rates here may be expensive so you may not want to change a large amount.
  6. Follow the signs to your chosen mode of transport (taxis, buses, trains etc) to your hotel / accommodation. If you’re travelling by taxi, you should find out if it’s a fixed rate or metered. Avoid touts who may come up to you offer you a taxi. They are unlicensed and will cheat you. If you now have a local SIM card with data, you may also opt for a driver service such as Uber or Grab if it is available.

That’s it!

It’s rather detailed but a lot of it is common sense. Don’t worry about your first international flight. Stay focused and you’ll be fine.

Going through airports can be tedious but the rewards are new experiences in a new destination. So enjoy the journey!