Tips for First Time Flyers and Aerophobics
Never before has travel been so straight forward. Just hop on a plane and before you know it you’re on the other side of the World. It's amazing, but for someone who has never flown before it can also be a scary & uncertain prospect. Equally, a fear of flying can be a serious obstacle to many people’s travel plans. So, to settle any nerves and help you prepare for what’s to come, here are my travel tips for first time flyers and aerophobics.
I used to be terrified of flying.
The whole thing just felt insane.
I mean, I was literally strapping myself into a seat inside a glorified tin can with wings, suspended thousands of feet above land by some magical force that somehow kept us all from plummeting to earth, with only a few millimetres of metal between me, the outside world and the huge drop below.
And, after the initial fear subsided, I’d be uncomfortable and hot; cramped and tired; frustrated by the screaming babies and generally a little unhappy about the experience.
Flying wasn’t a pleasant thought for my younger self.
However, as I’ve travelled more I’ve gotten used to it and, amazingly, actually come to enjoy the experience of flying.
Now it all seems just a little surreal, like my mind can’t quite comprehend what’s happening. Thankfully, pre and mid flight nerves aren’t really an issue anymore and I can settle into everything, stunned by the beauty of the World from above; amazed by the wonder of it all.
That’s all well and good for someone who is used to it, but for an aspiring traveller who has never flown anywhere before, I bet there’ll be some mixed feelings about the flight to come.
And for those with a fear of flying (sometimes known as “aerophobia”), getting on a plane from A to B is obviously an undesirable process!
So, I wanted to put together a piece that I hope, at least in some small way, might help.
Read on for a fairly comprehensive guide to international flight that I hope will be useful to all first time flyers, as well as anyone who struggles with aerophobia.
A general rundown of the long haul flying process
- Make sure your passport is in date (if it isn’t, you’ll need to renew it).
- Purchase a ticket (usually online & week/months in advance to save money). I use Skyscanner.net.
- Check in online if possible before your flight. Print E-ticket.
- Arrive to the airport in good time (rushing to a flight is not fun).
- Search for your flight number on the giant boards scattered throughout the lobby and find your check in desk (there will be your flight number, destination and a letter-number combo that shows the check in area you must head to (e.g. D4)).
- Go to the check in desk (you’ll probably have to queue) with your passport in order to check in (if not done online) and check in your hold luggage (make sure your luggage is under the weight limit set by the airline).
- Head to security, ensuring you don’t have liquids in excess of 100ml and that all liquid/toiletry items are together in a clear plastic bag (usually provided at the airport)(follow the signs and crowds to find security; this is when you and your hand luggage go through the scanner to ensure you’re not carrying anything illegal onto the plane).
- From security you’ll head through into the airport main waiting area, which is usually host to huge numbers of shiny shops trying to sell you things, as well as restaurants, bars and cafes.
- Check the giant boards again for your flight to see whether you’re being called to the gate (if so, it will tell you the gate number to go to; if not it will give the expected time; if your delayed it will tell you here too).
- When you’re called, head to the gate by following the signs. Depending on the airport this can take some time, so make sure you’ve given yourself enough leeway.
- After another wait at the gate, you’ll be called to board the plane.
**For short haul flights, if you only have hand luggage and have checked in online beforehand (often a requirement these days), you can skip out the check in desk and head straight through to security, which speeds the process up massively and usually means you can get to the airport later than you’d need to otherwise.**
Buying your flight tickets
There are lots of theories when it comes to buying your plane tickets for the best price.
Honestly, in my opinion there’s no one method that’ll work every time.
Usually, it comes down to how far in advance you book your ticket (where booking further in advance equals cheaper airfare) and the time of year you want to travel (peak season and holidays can hugely impact ticket prices).
If you book in advance, using a price checking website (see below), for an off-peak season trip, then you’re onto a winner.
Here are some other tips and tricks that might help though:
- Book your flights in an incognito window on your computer browser.
Flight prices often fluctuate incredibly quickly and it is said that this is due in part to the cookies left on your computer by the websites you use.
Essentially, you check a flight price, leave the computer, come back and check again later what do you know, it has gone up! The sneaky websites know you’re interested and whack the price up for when you get back to the website.
- Book late! Just because I like contradicting myself.
Basically, when airlines fail to fill up their flights they’ll crash the ticket prices in a last ditch effort to attract sales. So, although it’s risky, you can sometimes wait to the very last minute to find the cheapest flights going.
To help find them there’s a website I’ve seen recommended, called LastMinuteTravel.com, though I’m afraid I’ve never used it before so can’t vouch for its usefulness!
- Flexibility can save you money
If you’re willing to fly at funny times, outside of peak season and/or even go out of your way to get to your destination (eg with a layover somewhere (more on this below)), you can save yourself a lot of money.
- Fly clever
By this I’m referring to a clever technique that some people use to save money on their flights.
Essentially, you find a cheap flight to a destination that has a layover in the country you actually want to fly to. Here, you get off and simply miss the second leg of the flight.
It sounds weird, but it is fairly common to find an indirect flight (i.e a flight with at least one layover) that stops over at your destination of choice and that is actually cheaper than a direct flight there.
Another technique (that requires flexibility on your part) is to fly first to a country that offers incredibly cheap flights to your destination of choice.
Obviously, this can get a little fiddly with timings and depend on how much you prioritise your money over your time, but it can be a clever way of negotiating high prices if you’re particularly strapped for cash.
Here’s a short list of budget flight sites you can use to check air fares across the web:
And here’s an amazing comprehensive guide to booking cheap flights from Thrifty Nomads, packed full of advice on how to secure the cheapest flights possible. You should check it out!
Ideas for what to pack in your hand luggage/carry-on
Though many of the following list applies to both long and short haul flights, some of what you pack depends on the length of your flight.
So, consider how many hours you’ll be airborne when sorting out your hand luggage.
Otherwise, here are the things I tend to include in my hand luggage that I think cover all the bases.
Having a pen is always a good idea for a flight.
Not only could you play games (crosswords, squiggle, Sudoku etc) and start your travel journal, but it will also help with the immigration and customs forms that often greet you on flight and in country (depending on where you’re headed!).
To go with the pen!
I always find a notebook handy to have with me. I take a small one to go in my pocket and it’s always good for games and noting down any thoughts I’m having/ starting my journal on the plane.
This isn’t essential, but having a pair of comfy socks on a long flight never goes amiss! Take your shoes off and get comfortable. They’ll also help you keep your feet warm. You could also consider compression socks too, to help with circulation.
A jumper/warm item of clothing
Planes can get cold! It is easy to get a bit chilly, especially when you’re flying throughout the night and the aircon is on. Having a jumper or something warm with you (to go alongside the blanket you’ll get on long haul) to wrap up can help.
On longer flights, having your own mini toiletries can be handy! I usually take a tooth brush, mini toothpaste and a mini deodorant.
For entertainment and passing the time. In today’s busy world how often do you get a spare few hours to sit and read? Having a Kindle is great for saving space, but I love a good ‘old fashioned’ book to thumb through even more.
Collapsible water bottle
This is an idea borrowed straight from this great piece by IndianaJo.
Having a water bottle is always handy, but a collapsible one obviously helps you save space too (both on flight and in country). There are usually water fountains in airports too, so you could fill up before takeoff.
Sucking a sweet helps to pop my ears when taking off and landing (...and I just love sweets).
Having blocked ears can be uncomfortable and downright painful, so having a way of depressurising them is important (you could also try yawning, or holding your nose while blowing through it!).
Having a way of listening to music/podcasts is another way to alleviate boredom and pass the time. There are only so many films you can watch on long haul flights, so having a backup plan is handy!
Sleep related kit
This applies to long and short haul. Having certain items to help you get to sleep can be handy too.
There will probably be all sorts of sights and sounds preventing sleep, not to mention uncomfortable seats and cramped conditions. Having earplugs, a neck pillow and eye mask could be something to consider bringing along.
Change of clothes
Some people opt to take a change of clothes with them on a long flight (e.g. spare under wear and t-shirt etc). I’d say it is totally up to you whether you do this, but it definitely isn’t essential.
I just make sure I have comfy clothes on to begin with and accept that come the end of the flight I’ll be a sweaty, smelly mess. It’s just another of the joys of long haul flying!
What to wear
What you wear on a plane can be the difference between hours of comfort and hours of awful, frustrating, sweaty fidgeting.
On a short flight it is less of an issue, but as a rule of thumb think comfort over style when it comes to what to wear on your flight.
Honestly, imagine sitting on a plane for over 20 hours in skinny jeans and a hot, sweaty top? That’s no fun. I tend to wear stretchy, loose fitting clothes with shoes/flip flops that are easy to get on and off.
For an amazing set of resources on what to wear on the flight, check out this page from Chasing the Donkey.
How to entertain yourself on a flight
Things can get boring very quickly on an aeroplane.
Even on a long haul flight, with an inflight entertainment system, there are only so many films and old episodes of Friends you can watch before things get tiresome.
Having some things to keep you occupied is important!
This is where having a book/magazine or kindle in your hand luggage comes in useful.
Simply, being on a plane is a great chance to have a good old read. Disconnected from the internet and outside world, take the opportunity to bury your nose in a novel.
If worst comes to worst you could always resort to reading the in-flight magazine, browsing the long list of perfumes and snacks available for your buying pleasure…
Watch a film
This one is a classic time killing technique on a long haul flight. Slap a couple of films on the tiny screen in front of you and before you know it you’re half way to your destination.
Sometimes you can actually watch some great recent releases; other times the selection is far less appealing! This often depends on the airline you’re with.
Listen to music/a podcast
There are usually in flight music options on the plane, but what with the awful headphones you usually get given, I reckon it is best to bring your own portable music player.
Listen to a podcast that you downloaded before the flight is another great way to kill time. Plug yourself in, drown out the noise of the engines and crying babies, close your eyes and listen to something that’ll grab your attention.
Write a journal
If you’re planning to write a journal on your travels, what better time to start than on the plane journey over?!
Though turbulence and cramped conditions can make it a bit tricky to write, this is another good use of your time. Note whatever is in your mind down on paper as you set off on your trip.
So this is a classic use of time on any journey. Whether it’s doing puzzles (crosswords, sudokus etc…) or playing cards, having some games to turn to in moments of boredom can be another good idea on a flight.
Equally, having a few favourite apps on your phone can be just as good and save space too (why not download Sudoku onto the phone before you go? Etc).
This is a big one for me! Building some form of exercise/movement into a long flight is super helpful.
Not only is it something to do, but it also gets rids of the cooped up energy that develops while you’re sat down and reduces the risk of DVT (deep vein thrombosis), which is sometimes a danger on long flights.
Make the effort to get out of your seat every once in a while. Wiggle your hands and feet, do some calf raises, stretch off at the back of the plane…anything to help move about a bit!
So this might sound a bit creepy, but being on a plane is undoubtedly a perfect place to sit and watch the people around you. So many different people in one place, there’s always something to see!
Why not while away ten minutes here and there just observing the people nearby!?
Have a drink
Okay, so, this won’t be for everyone, but on long haul flights you often get free booze served throughout the flight.
Now, obviously this isn’t the healthiest way to kill time and definitely don’t go crazy with it, but why not have a cheeky one while you watch a film, or eat your dinner?
If you’re feeling a bit stressed out by the whole shebang, then a drink might help here too!
Be wary of this one though: apparently the dehydrating effects of alcohol (and coffee/tea for that matter) are meant to make jet lag worse later on. So, drink responsibly and top yourself up with water every now and again!
Watch the world go by
If you’re lucky enough to have a window seat, make the most of it! The views from 30,000 feet will blow your mind. Watching the sun set and rise from the air is very special, as is watching the cloud formations and colours.
Think about what you’re doing: you’re literally above the clouds! That’s insane and amazing. Drink it all on and savour the views.
How to avoid jetlag
Jet lag is when your body clock gets disrupted by travelling into a new time zone, altering your usual sleep pattern and upsetting your body’s usual routine!
And it sucks.
It’s literally the first thing to greet you in your new country, but it’s the last thing you really want.
You’d love to hit the ground running and make the most of a trip you’ve been dreaming of for months. But instead you’re lethargic, tired and feel a little hung over.
(Check out my tips on overcoming fatigue while travelling)
But there are definite things you can do to protect yourself from this pesky travel problem. Here are a few ideas.
Fly at a good time
If at all possible aim to land at your destination at night time, local time.
It is likely that you’ll be shattered after your flight, so doing this allows you to fall asleep and wake up in a normal routine.
There’s nothing worse than arriving tired in a country and having to delay your much needed sleep for hours in order to get into a proper sleep habit.
Prep before you go
Interestingly, jet lag is worse when you fly from West to East, as opposed to the other way round (going East apparently makes your body think the day is getting shorter, which our body doesn’t like…apparently).
And that’s important for pre-flight prep.
Basically, if, before you leave, you aim to get your body clock into a similar pattern to the one it’ll be in when you arrive, you stand a better chance of beating jet lag.
So (before you’re due to leave) if travelling from East to West, get into a habit of going to bed and waking up later than you would normally. If flying West to East, you should go to bed and wake up earlier than normal.
Set your watch to the new time zone
Another thing to consider before you fly.
Convince your mind that you’re in the new country by setting your watch to the local time zone. Win the battle in your mind to overcome the struggle that’s to come in your body!
Get a blast of light on the plane!
So, a brief disclaimer that I have no idea whether this really works, but I remember being told that getting a burst of bright light in your eyes during a flight can help allay jet lag too.
There does seem to be quite a lot of scientific stuff about regulating light exposure as a method of preventing jet lag, so this might stack up.
For more on it, here’s a great piece on overcoming jet lag by Life hacker, which goes into this in more detail.
For a full list of Jet leg prevention considerations, you should also check out this brilliant post from Off the Path.
How to overcome nerves and fear of flying
On to the big one then. How do you get over a fear of flying?
First off, I’m obviously no expert and if you have a serious phobia of flying, please seek professional support!
I do have a few tips of my own on overcoming your fear though, which I’ll go through below.
First, figure out what you’re afraid of.
Simply, define what it is that scares you about flying. Is it the potential to crash? The idea of dying? The possibility of having a panic attack? The prospect of not being able to escape? Claustrophobia?
Whatever it is (it might be all of the above!), try to put your finger on the fear.
It is far easier to figure out a way to overcome an issue when you know what it actually is.
Second, cultivate a feeling of acceptance around how you feel.
Before the flight and on the plane, get used to noticing and then accepting the way you’re feeling. As humans, we’re all too good at experiencing an uncomfortable emotion and fighting it to get rid of it!
This is understandable, but the stress and conflict created by this approach only exacerbates the initial discomfort.
Instead, strive to notice what’s there and don’t rush to change it. Paradoxically, this may help you overcome it even quicker.
Check out my piece on mindfulness and travel for more on this.
Next, prepare for the fear of flying way before your flight.
Visualisation is a useful tool that might help get you through your fear.
Essentially, prior to departure and even during the flight, you rehearse (in your mind’s eye) exactly what you’re going to do before the actual event.
Now, this might be harder for someone who hasn’t flown before but it shouldn’t be impossible.
This way, when it comes to the event itself you’ve been there and done it 100 times already.
Get used to the idea of flying.
Before you even consider a flight, get used to the idea of being on a plane.
Systematic desensitisation is a common therapeutic technique in psychology. Essentially, by incremental exposure to a fear, you build up your tolerance to it.
You could do something similar with your fear of flying.
Find pictures of a plane. Watch videos of them. Drive to an airport and watch an actual plane go by. Practice being in an enclosed space for a long time. Play a flight simulator game. Go on the shortest flight you can find. Gradually build up the length of flight time...etc etc.
Now, let’s consider tackling the flight itself.
Have some techniques you know help when you’re stressed out.
For instance, you could focus on your breathing.
This almost sounds clichéd, but it is a proven way of getting through distressing emotional situations. Now, there are many breathing techniques and it can be hard to remember them in the heat of the moment.
But, the simple premise is this: breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth and breathe out for longer than you breathe in.
Beyond that, try a ‘4-7-8’ breathing exercise. Here, you breathe in through the nose to a count of 4, hold for a count of 7 and out through the mouth to a count of 8. Repeat this process until you feel yourself calming down.
Here’s a video demonstrating it in action:
Fingers crossed this can get you through the worst of any emotional reaction you may go through!
You could also try distraction (play games, watch films, listen to music), visualisation again or bringing yourself back to the present moment.
If you know your anxiety about flying is extreme, you might also consider speaking to your GP or mental health professional about anti-anxiety medication or even sleep tablets.
If you’d like to learn more about the cause of your fear, this is a great article to start with:
There are many more ways to manage your fear and know that not one technique alone will work for everyone. This is about finding a bunch of methods to keep in your tool box, which you know will help you.
However you go about it, I hope your efforts to manage your fear of flying will be successful!
And that brings to a close my tips for first time flyers! I hope it was helpful!
Any comments or other ideas that I missed out? And how do you manage your fear of flying? I’d love to know that too! Let me know in the comments :)