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What to Expect Flying Internationally for the First Time

A woman stands in an airport with a backpack
PeopleImages.com – Yuri A/Shutterstock.com

I took my first international flight over seven years ago, and since then I’ve been to 21 countries, with a few repeats thrown in there. I’m a seasoned traveler at this point, but I still remember how stressful that first international flight was. From buying the ticket to figuring out how to occupy yourself for 10 hours, knowing what to expect when flying internationally for the first time will make your trip much more enjoyable.

Tickets are Expensive

Someone holds a plane ticket
PeopleImages.com – Yuri A/Shutterstock.com

If you’ve already looked at international fights, you probably learned quickly that those tickets are pricey. While your starting and ending airports make a huge difference in your total price, it’s no secret that these flights are expensive.

That being said, there are many ways you can save money on international flights so you don’t spend half of your travel budget just getting to your destination. Always start your travel search early to give yourself time to find better deals and prices. Start researching flights at least nine months in advance if possible, and book your flight no later than six weeks in advance—after this, prices usually start to skyrocket.

Here are some other ways to save money on international flights:

  • Subscribe for flight alerts: Free services, like Going (formally Scott’s Cheap Flights) and Pomelo Travel, scour the web for sales and price drops. Signing up for their email lists can help you save hundreds on your next flight if your dates of travel are flexible.
  • Track flight prices: Hopper is handy for this, as it uses historic price trends to predict the best times to book. It also notifies you when a tracked flight increases or decreases in price.
  • Be as flexible as possible: If you don’t have an exact date or location in mind, Skyscanner will find the cheapest routes from your destination. Its “Search Everywhere” feature allows you to find the cheapest flights to locations worldwide from any airport on specific dates, within a range of dates, or even during the entire year.
  • Don’t forget budget airlines: When comparing flight prices, always check Momondo. It will search tons of different airlines, including budget carriers, that most of the larger sites do not.
  • Book out of strategic airports: Large airports, like John F. Kennedy International in New York, tend to have the cheapest flights, and there’s a good chance you’ll be traveling through one at some point, anyway. You can save some money if you book your international flights from a large airport, and your flight from your hometown separately.
  • Sign up for a rewards program: This won’t save you anything initially, but you should never take a long flight without earning miles on it through a free airline rewards program. Over time, those miles add up and can cover the cost of a future flight.

Travelers Club Chicago Hardside Expandable Spinner Luggage

A solid carry on for any type of traveler.

Multiple Documents are Often Needed

A person holds their passport on top of their suitcase.
Atstock Productions/Shutterstock.com

Every person traveling to a different country needs a passport to do so. This includes children and even babies.

It can take eight weeks or longer to receive your passport after applying for it, so be sure to start the process early so you have plenty of time to get the document before your trip. If you need to apply for your first passport, we’ve written a guide that covers everything you need to know.

Passport and Vaccine Card Holder Cover Combo

Great for holding passports, visas, and more.

But in many cases, a passport isn’t the only travel document you’ll need to fly internationally. Some countries require that you have a visa to enter, which is an endorsement given to passport holders that lets them enter a specific location. If you’re a U.S. citizen, you can see if your destination requires a visa by checking the USAGov website.

Some visas can be obtained upon arrival to a country while others take weeks of processing. Be sure to check at least six months in advance to make sure you have enough time to get one if you need it.

In addition to passports and visas, some countries may require an immigration/customs form to be filled out prior to entry. You can see if your destination requires this by checking the U.S. Department of State website, as well as the official tourism website of your destination.

Sooez Folders

These are handy for holding larger documents you want to protect.

Some customs forms can be completed online prior to your trip, while others can be completed on the flight to your final destination. If the latter, flight attendants will hand out customs forms during your flight to be filled out before you land. (This is why I always pack a pen in my carry-on!)

Figuring out which travel documents you need can be confusing—I still stress about this part of traveling quite a bit. That’s why you want to give yourself plenty of time to research and make sure you can get all the documents you need well in advance of your flight.

Airport Transfers Can Be Tricky

Young man with backpack in airport near flight timetable/
Sergey Furtaev/Shutterstock.com

If you’re able to book a nonstop flight to your international destination, congratulations! Seriously, that makes things much, much easier for you.

However, if you’re like most people in the U.S., you don’t live in one of the country’s major cities and will probably have at least one airport transfer on your way to your final destination. Here are some things to be prepared for when it comes to airport transfers:

  • If you’re checking bags: Most airlines will check your bags to your final destination, even if you have multiple transfers. However, this will only apply if you booked your entire journey on the same ticket. If you booked a flight from Denver to London with a layover in New York, for example, and then purchased a separate ticket from London to Rome, your airline will check your bags from Denver to London. Then you will be responsible for picking up your bags from baggage claim in London before you can transfer to your flight to Rome.
  • If you have a domestic transfer: The same rules apply here if you are checking bags, so you may or may not need to get your bags from baggage claim and go through security again before boarding your international flight. If you aren’t checking any bags, a domestic transfer on your way to an international flight will be just like any other layover.
  • If you have an international transfer: Most airports connect international transfers within the airport. That means that if you’re flying from New York to Egypt with a layover in London, you should be able to stay inside the airport without needing to go through security again during your layover in London. (This is, of course, assuming that your bags have been checked through to Egypt or you haven’t checked any bags.) The bad news about international travel is that every airport does things a little differently, so there’s a chance you may have to exit the airport and reenter security during your layover, even if you have a connecting flight. If you can’t verify what your layover airport will require, it’s best to build in plenty of time during your layover to deal with any issue that comes up.

Travelon Luggage Tags

Your much more likely to be reunited with your luggage if it has a bag tag.

If you have several transfers, you might also be wondering, “Should I lock luggage when flying internationally?” The answer is yes. Your luggage will be moved around a lot if you have multiple transfers, and the easiest way to keep it safe is to lock your bag.

Master Lock TSA Lock

A TSA-approved way to lock your luggage and deter thieves.

You can purchase TSA-approved locks that can be opened by airport security if necessary. These will help deter anyone from opening your bag unless it is necessary, and reduce the chance that your bag will be stolen, since the thief will have a lock they have to deal with.

Time Needs to be Added on Both Ends

People stand in line in the airport
PeopleImages.com – Yuri A/Shutterstock.com

It will take you longer to get through the airport at the beginning and end of your flight when traveling internationally than when traveling domestically. It is generally recommended that you arrive at the airport at least two hours in advance of an international flight, or at least three hours if you are traveling during a busy time of the year.

If you are bringing unique or important items, you should also build in plenty of time to make sure these items get through without issue. One example is medication—do prescription drugs have to be in original containers when flying internationally? Yes, it is highly recommended that they are.

While the TSA does not require that medications be in their original containers, they note that, “states have individual laws regarding the labeling of prescription medication with which passengers need to comply.” Play it safe and keep prescription drugs in their original containers when flying.

VITEVER Travel Pill Organizer

Keep your OTC medications and vitamins organized.

You’ll also want to build in extra time after you arrive at your destination, especially if you’re meeting someone or have a time-sensitive activity you’re hoping to do. Once you land in a new country, you will have to wait to deboard the plane and go through several security points before you can exit the airport.

When do you go through customs when flying internationally? This is one of the most commonly asked travel questions, but it’s not too confusing once you’re actually in the airport. In almost every case, customs is the last portion of the airport that you will walk through before you can exit. If you have checked a bag, you will need to retrieve it before you go through customs in case you have any items that need to be examined by airport security.

While “customs” is sometimes used to refer to the entire airport process, passport control and customs are technically two different parts of international airport security. Generally, you will exit the plane, go through passport control (where you will get a stamp in your passport), get your bags from baggage claim, go through customs, and then exit the airport.

Sometimes this process will be quick and sometimes it can take hours, and it can be hard to know what it’s going to be like for you. Even if you didn’t check a bag and get off the plane quickly, you may still get stuck behind hundreds of people at passport control from different flights.

Anker PowerCore Slim 10000 Portable Charger

Keep your phone charged while you stand in line to go through passport control and customs.

The best way to avoid stress during this process is to leave yourself plenty of time to get out of the airport and to your next destination. I generally give myself at least four hours after my flight is supposed to land before I even think about doing something at my destination, and I never plan anything high-priority. Sometimes it takes forever to get through the airport, sometimes the journey to your hotel takes even longer, and sometimes flights are delayed or even canceled.

Whether you’re supposed to arrive at your final destination in the morning or evening, I recommend keeping that day as free as possible in case issues arise.

You’ll Have a Lot of Down Time

People on an airplane
Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock.com

So, you’ve booked your flight, you have your passport and other travel documents, and you’ve planned plenty of time after you arrive to get to your hotel. The last thing you need to do is prepare for the flight itself.

We have lots of articles recommending what to pack in your carry-on if you need ideas about what to take with you on the plane. International journeys can take a long time on and off the plane, especially if you have multiple layovers. (It once took me 45 hours to get home!)

Kindle Paperwhite

Keep yourself busy for hours with books and magazines.

What you need on your flight will vary, especially if you have kids, a fear of flying, or another special circumstance. Generally, you’ll want to prioritize comfort as much as possible. That means dressing cozy and warm, having ways to block out sound and light, and bringing options to fight boredom in the form of snacks and media.

If you want more guidance on dealing with the flight itself, check out some of our articles on the subject:

When do you go through customs when flying internationally? Should I lock luggage when flying internationally? Do prescription drugs have to be in original containers when flying internationally?

Flying internationally for the first time can be really exciting, but also really nerve-wracking! Here’s what to expect so you can enjoy your international trip to the fullest extent.

Anne Taylor Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor is a writer with a BA in Journalism and a passion for storytelling. Her work has been published on a variety of websites including Mental Floss and Well + Good, and she recently published her first novel, What it Takes to Lose. When she's not writing, Anne loves to travel (19 countries and counting), spend time outside, and play with her dog, Pepper. Read Full Bio »
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