Surviving Airports: Essential Tips for Stress-Free Travel

Travelling through airports doesn’t have to be a daunting experience. I spend a fair bit of time navigating my way through airports, both domestically and internationally, each year, so I’ve gathered a wealth of tips to help you navigate airports with ease, whether you’re a seasoned traveller or embarking on your first international journey.

The Timeline

If you haven’t been to an airport before, or it’s been a number of years before you have, the first thing to bear in mind is the timeline between arriving and getting on your flight:

  • You arrive at the airport
  • You go to the check-in gate and check-in any luggage that you’ve got with you (some airlines this is included, other you need to pay extra)
  • You go through to security, have your passport checked, and your bags scanned
  • You go through to ‘duty-free’ and find something to do before you fly
  • When boarding is announced, you head over to your departure gate and board your flight.

Simple, right? Now, that that’s covered, let’s move on…

Pack Simple, Pack Light

Pack light whenever and wherever you can – trust me when we say, you won’t need five spare pairs of underwear, or three pairs of sunglasses to go with your outfit changes. You don’t have to be an ultra-minimalist, but if you think you might not need something, it’s probably best to leave it at home.

Why is this important in an airport? For two reasons: one, to save you the hassle of dragging around something that’s 20% heavier or bigger than it needs to be, and two, the lighter/simpler you pack, the easier your bag will be to navigate when trying to access those airport must-haves, or if your bag gets searched by security.

So if in doubt, leave it out.

Arrive At The Airport Super Early

Let’s face it, unless you’ve got a really early morning flight, getting to the airport earlier than you need isn’t exactly a hassle – you’ll either be sat at home waiting to leave, or sat in the airport waiting to fly off.

Fights are expensive, and they don’t run as regularly or easily as trains or buses, so missing one can be a very big deal indeed. Wherever you’re flying to, we recommend getting there at least two hours before you fly – one hour to deal with check-in and security, the second hour is contingency time. And if the flight’s a particularly long or expensive one, particularly international flights, get there three hours before you fly.

Trust me there is nothing worse than the panic you might face for potentially missing a flight being caught up in traffic delays or security lines.

Regulations – Airports & Airlines

There are two things to bear in mind when dealing with airport regulations – the regulations of the airport itself (i.e. security), and the regulations of the airline. Airport regulations are solely for the interest of safety, whereas airline regulations are usually in place for the purpose of making money. But it’s crucial to adhere to both before getting on the plane.

Airports – nowadays they’re stricter than they’ve ever been. Of course, we all understand that safety is a big concern, so there are no complaints about this, but if you’re not prepared, it can make your airport experience a lot harder, as well as irritate the airport staff and other passengers.

Before you go, check the airport website to see what’s allowed and what’s not allowed, both for your check-in baggage and your carry-on. We won’t cover check-in baggage here, as there are very few restrictions nowadays, so you can do this yourself on the airport’s website. As for carry-on, there’s a lot more to look out for:

Things that are generally allowed in your carry-on are:

  • Clothes, shoes, and accessories
  • Electronics, cameras, cables – but have these somewhere easily accessible
  • Liquids under 100ml in size – this is the size of the container, not the size of the liquid inside a larger container
  • Small glass pots for things like nail varnish or perfume

Things that are generally not allowed in your carry-on are:

  • Any sharp objects at all – even things like nail clippers can be denied flight in some airports
  • Liquids over 100ml in size
  • Most flammable or hazardous liquids – you can usually get away with deodorant, but more dangerous stuff doesn’t usually get by

Also keep in mind for Airport Security:

  • When your bag goes through the airport scanner, they usually want a lot of your belongings put into separate trays, such as your toiletry bag, any electronics, money/belts/shoes etc. So try and pack things methodically so you don’t have to dig around at the last minute before security.
  • Always make sure your passport or travel documents are easily accessible – preferably zipped away so they don’t fall out or get lost
  • Any safe liquids in containers under 100ml are safe, but ALL of your carry-on liquid containers must fit into a single 1litre clear zip-lock bag

Airlines – in certain ways, they seem just as strict as the airports themselves. Before you fly, as with the airport, check the airline’s policy on baggage and how much you’re allowed to take. And if you’ve got anything delicate, check where it’s placed on the plane (under the seat in front of you, above your head, or thrown in the hold). Here are the main things to look out for, just so you don’t slip up:

Most airlines allow you to have two carry-on bags – one above your head, and one small handbag or laptop bag to go under the seat in front of you. But not ALL of them allow this, and if you turn up with two bags, some will charge you silly amounts of money to take them both on. So triple-check online before you fly.

Both your check-in bag and carry-on bag must fit into the size AND weight limits in order to avoid any extra fees – this means if your bag is well within the size limit, but still five grams over the weight limit, you’ll likely incur a fee. Check what these limits are online before you fly.

If you’re flying back with a different airline you’re flying there with, check both of their regulations for baggage, and make sure your bags are suitable for both flights – you don’t want a surprise fee just before you head home!

How To Kill Time At The Airport

So you’ve gotten past security, you’re well within the airline’s regulations, and you’ve managed to give yourself plenty of time before you fly… take a deep breath, because the hard part is over – the holiday has officially started!

Airports aren’t nearly as bad as everyone makes them out to be – they’re basically just over-sized shopping centres. But because of the contingency time you should’ve given yourself, you may end up spending well over 90 minutes hanging around inside. So… what’s there to do?

Don’t forget to board

Although airports might seem like a place to relax, and fun to explore before you fly, don’t forget the reason that you’re there. Many people get carried away in airports, only to find that their flight is boarding mid-meal, and have a mad rush to the boarding gate. Most flights start boarding around 30-minutes before departure, but some, particularly international flights, start to 60-minutes before, so always keep an eye on the time and any screens nearby.

Grab something to eat

Airports almost always have somewhere to get something to eat before you fly. Although some have very few hot snacks, some have a host of bars, cafes and restaurants that cater to happy holiday-ers. Get a hearty breakfast if it’s an early one, or sit down for a pizza before a mid-afternoon take-off, the choice if yours!

Get a duty-free discount

Leaving out the legal jargon, because airports aren’t trading to people who are going to remain in the country, their goods are exempt from certain taxes, meaning that the duty-free section of an airport is tax-free! So now might be a good time to buy yourself, or someone else, a gift before you fly. Just bear in mind that tax-free doesn’t always mean ‘cheap’, as airports can simply raise the prices because of this, giving themselves the discount rather than the customer.

Check out the customer lounge

Most airlines have customer lounges that offer food, drinks, and internet access as well. There may be a fee to use it, but it’s a great way to relax prior to your flight, and something cool to experience. Some even offer free food and drinks – winner! Some lounges even have showers to make sure you are completely refreshed before your flight.

Just relax

Most people treat airports like another living room by just picking a seat somewhere, and sitting down. Whatever you’re in to – having a chat with your travel companion(s), browsing Spotify for some new music, or delving into the chapters of your latest killer read, you don’t have to go wild in airports, sometimes it’s nice to just pick a seat near a departures screen and chill out before you jet off.

Random Things to Remember

Alcohol – Most airlines don’t allow you to drink alcohol on the flight unless you’ve purchased it on the flight itself. You can also be denied the right to fly if you’re too drunk, so be careful with those pre-flight cocktails.

Although liquids over 100ml aren’t allowed, you can still bring an empty bottle of water to fill up at the airport – this will save you paying silly amounts when you’re there, and it’s better for the planet too!

Although large liquids aren’t allowed in your carry-on luggage, you can still bring food into most airports – crisps, sandwiches, fruit, croissants etc. Having said that, ALWAYS check with the airport beforehand, as this can get you in BIG trouble if you bring in the wrong thing.

It’s also handy to have some local currency – depending on where you’re flying (even just enough to get a drink of water and a bite to eat) for your arrival, and to cover that first taxi, bus or train from the airport.

Quick Re-Cap

So we appreciate there’s been a lot to take in, and juggling these rules and regulations whilst avoiding any extra fees or trouble might seem like a nightmare, so here’s a quick re-cap of everything that’s been covered, just to give you a better understanding.

Arrive super early

Plan to arrive at least two hours earlier than the fight’s boarding time, three if it’s an expensive flight or a long trip to the airport.

Pack simply

Don’t bring what you probably won’t need, make sure electronics and liquids are easily accessible, keep your passport and passes in a safe place.

Airport security

No sharp objects or dangerous liquids in carry-on, all carry-on liquids must be in containers of 100ml or less, and all containers together must fit into a 1litre clear bag.

Airline baggage

Check how many bags you’re allowed, and make sure all your bags fit below the size and weight limits. If you’re flying with two airlines, adhere to the strictest of the two, and you’ll be fine.

Don’t miss your flight

Whatever you decide to do in the airport, keep an eye on the screens, pay attention to the announcements, and give yourself plenty of time to get to your boarding gate.

Random things

Don’t get wasted or you won’t be allowed to fly, bring an empty bottle to fill up when you’re there, bring food with you (but always check what’s allowed), bring some local currency with you.

So whether you’re flying around the world on an epic adventure, jetting off for a weekend with your other half, or escaping from the authorities to the far-away mountains thousands of miles from home in order to assume a new identity (ok… maybe you shouldn’t do that), we hope this article has been of some help, and we hope you feel prepared to take on any airport your passion for travel might throw at you.

For more travel tips, make sure you check out the rest of my blog posts as well.

Also, make sure you check out the travel tools that I use the most to help you save some money when booking your next trip.

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About the author

Rhys Vandersyde

Traveller, Photographer, Content Creator - I've spent the last 20 years actively seeking out new destinations and new adventures. Find out more about me here:

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