How to Fly Transatlantic 101
This was originally intended for one of my lovely humans who hasn’t flown before. However, I’m realising that there are quite a few people in my life who have never flown, or at least never flown abroad, and I thought it might put some other folks at ease. With no further ado, I shall ramble forth about flying from the US to the UK. If you’re going anywhere else your milage may vary, but I’d like to think these are mostly all decent tidbits to take with you on any transatlantic occasion.
So you say the flying process makes you nervous eh? Well fear not my new explorer – we have you covered from airport to airport! I am going to assume you are a clever human in all things and likely have researched plenty of this already, but I’ll go ahead and explain everything just in case you arrive into the airport, panic, and go into a flight-induced amnesia with only this post to guide you. Before we even get into the airport though, let us prepare you for what you need to bring.
Before You Leave Passport: Obviously you will need your passport. However, your first instinct will be to place it somewhere safe, either in the depths of your handbag or somewhere on the surface of your suitcase. Do not follow this instinct! You will want to keep it somewhere super easy to get to, but not in a place it can be bent. TSA gets really grumpy about manhandled passports, and UK Customs are even worse. You will be pulling it in and out of your bag until you are finally settled into your seat on the plane, and you won’t want to just keep it in your hand the whole time because that will make you nervous that it could go missing. There are of course passport protectors, but I find the nice zippered side pocket in my handbag does well. I will leave the option to you.
Plane Ticket: You should always print out all the information you have about flight times and whatnot and keep it with you when traveling in case of emergency. You can also print your ticket with most flight companies (if not all). If you can, go ahead. If not, the front desk at the airport will help you with this. I’ll delve into that later.
Snacks: Do not let them fool you – you can take your own snacks past security. They just can’t be liquid-y, so your Gogurt is either about to be kicked back like some amazing dairy shot at the front entrance or the TSA will take it away from you and ruin your day. If you’ve got some Naturebox squares or anything else though, bring as much as you like. Airports are captive audiences and charge accordingly. I once had to pay $7 for a ham and cheese sandwich at Dallas-Fort Worth and I could have wept. Also, while you can’t take liquids through, you CAN take empty bottles through. To make TSA happy, bring a clear one (either reusable or disposable) and if they look at you funny, just tell them you didn’t want to buy a drink and are filling it up at the water fountain on the other side. This is totally allowed. I’d also highly recommend it, as planes can make you really thirsty. You are of course allowed to just buy beverages on the other side too. We’ll get to that. Also, unless your carry-on bag is visibly heavy for you to carry, they aren’t going to weigh it and you can load yourself down like a happy little snack mule.
Cash: Don’t worry about having UK funny money ready when you get on the plane. People always tell you this and they are always crazy. The only time you’d want any cash is waiting to go through customs to use the vending machine, but you’d need small change you wouldn’t have anyway. Just let your bank and/or credit card company know that you’re going to be in England from X date to X date (you can let them know this now, they just put a note on your account) and they’ll know not to freeze your cards when you use them. Just like there, almost everyone here uses cards for everything. However, it’s good to always keep about £20 on you for things likes drinks or taxi fare. It’s up to you if you want to just use your card the whole time, or if you want to do a cash withdrawal. Almost none of the ATMs here charge a withdrawal fee, but US banks will for having to do an international transaction. This is BS, as they don’t tack that on to debit card transactions, but whatever. Check and see what the current charge for an ATM will be online and decide if you want to just do it all in cash or not. You can take all the bills back to a bank in the US and they can exchange them for dollars, but they refuse to do it for any coins. Keep that in mind if you do go for cash. If you’ve got enough coinage, there will definitely be people here willing to trade you for a £5, £10, or £20.
Pillow: There is literally no way to comfortably sleep in economy class. None. If you’re lucky and the doofus in front of you doesn’t recline their seat the 2.3 inches backwards, you can sometimes sleep on your tray like we all used to in high school on the desks. You will wake up with dead arms. If you have a window seat, you can lean against it and try to sleep. It will be cold and likely vibrating. If you can handle sleeping just leaning back, I would highly recommend one of those neck pillows you always see. Someone always has one floating around somewhere, so borrow it and wear it with pride.
Attire: You will quickly see that there are two types of people in airports – fashion runway types, and just rolled out of bed types. Unless you’re reuniting with your love after years, I’d recommend the rolled out of bed look. I mean, you can even be pretty stylish these days. Yoga Queen is probably the best fashion option. The outfit is stretchy and the shoes are sensible. Speaking of shoes, you have a 50/50 shot of having to take them off these days. Honestly, it’s not the end of the world to need to re-lace your sneakers after you go through security. They have benches available for you to do just that. Wear what you find most comfortable. Don’t wear anything majorly metal that can’t come on and off quickly. Don’t worry – glasses and underwire bras do not set off the metal detectors. Oh, and pack a cosy jacket or hoodie. You can carry it separately to not take up room in your bags and they won’t consider it luggage. It’ll be good for sleeping in.
Suitcase: Weigh that bad boy before you leave! Nothing is more embarrassing than having to do the reshuffling of things into separate bags to make the weight limit. Unless you absolutely need any of your toiletries with you for overnight, just put them all in the suitcase. Also be sure that you can comfortable lift and carry your suitcase if need be. England is not known for its wheel-friendliness, and you’re likely to be lugging it up stairs or over cobblestones at some point.
Carry-on Bag: This will be the bag of food, important paperwork, entertainment, and freshening up supplies. Generally you have the luxury of being allowed one personal bag and one hand luggage bag. (You should anyway. Double check. I think only RyanAir cracks down on that.) You could do a small wheelie suitcase as your carry-on, but I typically go for a backpack or gym bag. You can shove them under your seat during the flight and won’t have to bother the person next to you whenever you need something that would otherwise have to go into the overhead bin. Now this and your handbag will have to go through the x-ray machine at the airport, so make sure you’ve emptied out any shady materials like fingernail clippers and eye makeup remover. If you wanted to bring any travel sized liquids on board the plane with you (say mouthwash or dry shampoo), put them in a clear ziplock bag and leave them near the top of the carry-on. You’ll need to be able to take these out when they go through the x-ray machine. Otherwise, fill this as you will. You’re going to have a TV screen in the back of the chair in front of you to watch movies/tv on, so remember to bring headphones. Otherwise, I’d just say a book and a portable charger for your phone if you want your music. Most of your trip ends up being sleeping, attempting to sleep, eating, or staring out the window.
At the Airport Check-in Desk: When you arrive, you’re going to need to find your check-in desk. It will either be the obvious one with your company name and/or logo on it, or possibly the name of the company that they’ve teamed up with. If you end up at the wrong desk or just can’t find yours, any of them can guide you in the right direction. Regardless of whether you’ve already printed your ticket, you’re going to have to go up to the check-in desk for your checked bags. Just hand them your passport and flight information/ticket and they’ll guide you through the rest. They’ll have to ask you, like the post office, that you aren’t carrying anything hazardous or illegal, etc etc. Then they’ll weigh your bag, stick a tag around the handle, and give you your paperwork back. Typically airports are surprisingly easy to navigate, but if you would like directions where your terminal is, you can always ask now. With one less bag to drag around, you can now head to security. Woo.
Security: Security will prepare you for England and its never ending queues. There is absolutely nothing to be nervous about here. TSA, for all the grief we hear about them, are actually pretty chill. They may even offer to let you go through the fast lane if they aren’t too busy. If you get that, it’s AWESOME. You just throw your bag in a bin like usual, but you don’t have to take anything out of it. You even get to walk through the scanner with your coat and shoes on. I think they even smile a little bit.
If you’re stuck in the line with the rest of the plebs, don’t worry. You can fiddle on your phone in the line, but it’s best to put it away when you get within sight of the security team. They get grumpy about phones. At that point though, you get to people watch as literally everyone in front of you forgets basic tasks like taking off their massive belt buckle, or throwing away the Coke bottle in their bag. Don’t be that person. No one likes that person. Instead, awe the crowd by preemptively taking off your jacket and having your bag ready. You’ll likely need two plastic bins. It’s normal. Your bag will go in one, then if your handbag can fit you can put it in with it. If not, you can put it in a separate bin. In the separate bin you’ll also need to put any personal electronics (phone, Kindle, laptop if you brought it, etc), coins, metal watches, rings, belts with metal buckles, your jacket, and an offering to the Airport Gods. They seem to be disinterested in incense. If everyone else is taking off their shoes, go ahead and put yours in that bin too.
At this point, your bags will go on without you, unless some goober has put something questionable in their bag, in which case you’ll likely be waiting on the other side for a while as it slows down EVERYONE’S x-ray bag check. Sometimes at this point you can sneak a peak at the x-ray images, which is cool. Don’t look obvious doing it though, as I don’t think you’re really supposed to be looking. Anyhow, you’re going to be in a line to walk through the metal detector/backscatter machine. (The backscatter machines seem to be on the way out. I’ve only ever seen two.) Wait until they call/wave you over to go through the machine, and just walk through it at a leisurely pace. On the off chance you get stopped for beeping, they’ll wave you over with a metal detecting wand and maybe have to pat you down. If so, you’re pulled to the side and a person of your gender will pat you down with the back of their gloved hand. I’ve had it happen once and it was really no big deal. Regardless, you’ll soon be through it and can collect your things from the bins on the other side. Once you’re suited back up, it’s time to head towards your terminal! Regardless of what languages you speak, airport terminal signs are pretty easy to figure out. Follow the signs and/or shuttles to whichever one you need. If the desk didn’t tell you, it will be on your ticket, along with your gate. Your ticket will also say what flight number you’re on. Just to be safe, always check the screens with flight information for your flight number in case they move you to another gate.
Wasting Time: Once you’ve gotten to your terminal and found the gate you’re supposed to be at, you’ve got options. If you’ve got an hour or so to kill before the flight leaves, you can always wander the shops or grab something to eat/drink. Here in the UK it’s a tradition to have an alcoholic beverage as soon as you’ve cleared security, regardless of time of day, but I can’t say it’s super common in the US. If you’re content with what you’ve brought with you, I’d recommend just grabbing a seat at your gate before they all fill up and waiting until they start boarding. They are never comfortable seats, so don’t plan for a nap unless you can sleep on the floor. Also, if you need to charge something and you see a wall plug available, RUN TO IT. There are never enough and it’s like a Black Friday sale when they open up.
Boarding the Plane: Eventually they’ll start calling zones to board the plane. Your ticket will tell you what zone you are, so just listen up for the staff to call it. Continuing the grand tradition of standing in line, you’ll then stand in line while they check everyone’s ticket and passport against the machine. Have them at hand for this, and don’t put it away after. Next, you’ll walk through the little tunnel bit (whose name I have forgotten) and wait in line for people to get to their seats in the plane. When you get to the plane entrance, a flight attendant will check your ticket and tell you where your seat is. Just head on over to it, stow your bags either in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you, then buckle up and wait. You can have your tray down and play with your phone from now until the takeoff begins. They’ll explain this to you beforehand and will say when you can have them out again later.
On The Plane Drinks: Depending on the company you fly with when you go transatlantic, you may be offered complimentary alcoholic beverages. These are great for calming nerves about flying, or for helping you wind down to try and sleep. I’m a big fan of accepting any offers in hopes it will help me snooze, but I leave this judgment to you. Otherwise, alcohol on flights is going to be somewhat overpriced as you would expect. Food: Now unless you go with Iceland Air, I’m fairly certain every company will feed you on a transatlantic flight as part of your ticket price. Don’t let the comedians over the years concern you – airplane food has improved drastically and you’ll find it to generally be pretty good. It’s doubtful that you’ll be able to sleep so soon, but if you do they can sometimes not disturb you and pass you up on dinner. I’d recommend staying conscious until at least after food. Otherwise, you won’t get another included meal until about an hour before landing. At that point, they’ll usually bring a light breakfast. The few times I’ve flown over, it’s typically a scone with clotted cream and jam. They are delicious and you should totally grab that option! Tea and coffee are typically offered a few times in the morning, and soda/water/alcohol are offered during the evening. If at any point you’re suddenly starving and/or parched, you can always press the attendant button above you and you can ask for something when they come by. I’ve been told if you bring the attendants some snacks or sweets (purchasable in the duty free shop at that!) and gift them to the attendant towards the beginning of the flight that you will have super friendly staff during your flight. I mean, I’d be pretty friendly to someone who offered me snacks and was nice to me too, but I can’t promise anything.
Buttons/Lights: You’ll have seen these all in the movies. No smoking, don’t get up when the seatbelt sign is on, etc. They’ll explain it all on the plane before takeoff, including the general safety rules. What is of more importance is that you manoeuvre your A/C to hit your face where you want it, and then twist the dial bit on it to control how much air comes out. It can be surprisingly chilly. Also, you’ll have an overhead light to read by. You shouldn’t be a bother to fellow passengers if you read later in the flight, but it all depends how light a sleeper they are.
In-Flight Entertainment: I’ve yet to hear of a transatlantic flight that didn’t have a screen in the back of each chair for you to watch movies and tv from in this day and age. At this point, most will even let you pick what you want to watch so you don’t have to watch a communal movie. If you’re lucky, some will also have basic games to play. Also, they generally all have a constantly updating map of where you’re flying. I like to leave that on when I fall asleep, but that’s up to you. You’ll be surprised how much of your trip involves flying over Canada instead of the ocean when you’re flying from the West. Otherwise, I can only recommend putting in headphones as soon as possible regardless of whether you’re listening to anything unless you want a chance of being chatted to the entire flight.
Sleeping: As mentioned previously, you’re unlikely to get a good night’s sleep. If someone leans their chair back in front of you, you can kiss sleeping on the tray goodbye. You’ll likely be given a thin blanket and small pillow by your airline, which are a nice gesture. However, this is when that jacket or hoodie you brought will come in most handy. A lot of people also recommend taking a Benadryl, but I’d only recommend it if you know it won’t leave you semi-comatose when you do wake up in a few hours time. Sleepy in a new country going through customs is not impossible, but not particularly fun. With that in mind, we jump to getting off the plane!
Going through Customs Luggage: Depending on what airport you come into, some will have you pick up your luggage and THEN go through customs, while some will have the carousels on the other side. The majority will have them on the other side, so waiting will be easier. Regardless, when you get to the luggage carousels you’ll just need to look for the one with your company and flight number and just wait. Don’t join the mob clumped around the spout where the luggage all comes out. They are all convinced that suitcase thieves lurk amongst them. If you literally walk about 12 feet down the line, your suitcase will still come to you and you won’t have to fight people out of the way to reach it before it does another lap.
Queueing: Anyway, you’re going to have to queue. Be prepared to queue. As a non-UK, non-EU citizen, you’ll find a queue that usually just says something like “All Other Passports.” Depending on the airport, it’s awesome being an Other Passport as the wait will be non-existent. Sometimes though, you’ll get stuck behind someone from a country that the UK isn’t overly fond of and find yourself waiting ages while the poor soul is interrogated to the ninth degree. In this time, you should be digging up your passport and ticket again. Also, you should have been given/offered a customs card of some sort when you were flying in. If you haven’t already filled this in, do so now. You can’t pass through without it. If you don’t have one, there should be more floating around the customs area. On it they’ll want basic information like your flight details (both ways), your passport number, your full name, and the address of where you’ll be staying. Put this card with your ticket at the front of your passport where your photo is when you hand them your details at the desk.
What You’ll Be Asked: These people are similar to the TSA, in that you shouldn’t be funny with them. I’ve never had anyone be anything but courteous, but don’t worry if they seem a little intimidating. You’re likely going to panic and forget your name or something silly. It happens. Once when we were coming back in from a holiday they asked me where I was studying and how I was liking it to make sure I was legitimately going. I was exhausted and just dramatically sighed and said something about essays and they laughed and let me through. If that’s not a real student answer, I don’t know what is. :p For you though, they’ll just ask standard things like why you’re here, for how long, and sometimes what you’re planning on doing. Super easy, no stress. After that, they’ll dramatically stamp your passport and you’re in!
Be Free: At this point, you’ve survived the process and are now ready to see what wonders England has to offer you! Public transport is generally plentiful, and if you’re feeling particularly ambitious/mad you could always hire a car. The opportunities are many!