How To Fly International EasilybyOnlyByMoonlight©
Okay, the title is a bit of an oxymoron. Flying international is never that easy, as I know. In fact, right now I'm sitting in the terminal of my regional airport waiting to board my delayed flight to Newark Liberty International to then board my flight to France. So I thought, "what the hell – I'll write something." In this little article, I plan to give you the skinny on what will happen in hopes of minimizing the headache.
To start off, let me say this is aimed at US citizens flying out of the US to another country, though it might be helpful for anyone flying international, in my opinion. And let me add that I am only drawing from my experiences. I have not flown every airline to every international destination, so there may be things I leave out because I just don't know. If you read something incorrect or have something to add, please contact me. As a traveler, I always like to know everything I can. Plus I can update the article too.
As for my qualifications, I attend college outside the US so in the past 4 years I have made over a dozen trips back and forth, so I consider myself an experienced flyer. I have divided this article into sections so you can scroll down and find something quickly if you just need information on one particular thing.
1. Getting Documentation:
Now before you fly the most important thing is to make sure you have the proper documentation. For US citizens vacationing in a foreign country this is just a passport provided you are staying less than 90 days. Any more and, depending on the country, you may need a tourist visa. Likewise, if you are studying you will need a student visa.
BEWARE – getting it sounds easy, but depending on the country, it can be a major hassle. To start you will have to get it from a consulate or embassy. Immediately you need to go to the embassy website to find out where. Then go to the visa section to see what documentation you will need, processing time, and when you can apply for it.
I cannot stress how important it is to have everything they say to have and do exactly what they say to do, no matter how trivial it may seem. They control the process and they can deny you one. Make sure you allow for processing time. In fact, I would recommend allotting twice as much time as they say.
If the time comes and goes and you don't hear from them, contact them immediately. If you application couldn't be processed or they already contacted you, they won't always follow up. I cannot stress how important this is. You have to have this to study or travel.
If you don't need it, don't bring it.
Each airline has limits on the number of bags and their weight. For example, Continental allows 2 checked bags per person up to 50 pounds (23 kilos). After 50 pounds, you have to pay $25.00 per bag extra. The cut off is 75 pounds (34 kilos). If your bag is over this, they will make you open it up and take stuff out. You can move it to another bag, but if you have no other bag and no room anywhere for it, they will make you throw stuff away. I've seen it happen.
Make sure you weigh your bags before you leave especially if you are a student traveling with books. They weigh more than you think. I found out through this process that my 48-pocket DVD case weighed over 2 pounds (which totally shocked me). And don't think that if you can lift it, it must be okay. I did that one and found out at the airport that apparently I can lift 80 pounds.
The easiest way to weigh them is to weigh yourself, then pick up the bag, weigh yourself, and subtract. If you can't do this, most airports have a large scale you can use once you get there.
Also, make sure you allow for the stuff you will get over there. Pack an empty bag or leave room. Also, due to security issues, you are not allowed to have locks on your bags. If you have them, they will ask you to take them off or when your bag gets checked, they'll be cut off. This is so TSA people can check your bags for, you know, bombs and such.
Again, if you don't need it, don't bring it. Remember you're going to have to lug this around for up to 24 hours. The lighter it is the better. I usually only carry my laptop, passport, ticket, wallet, and cell phone. That's really all I ever need. (I would recommend always carrying your laptop in your carry on since often checked bags are thrown around a lot.)
Do not leave your bags unattended. If you do, you run the risk of them being blown up by the security people. I've seen it happen. They push people back and bang! Right there where they stand. Always keep your bags with you.
3. The Day Before:
In my experience, the most stressful part of flying is the day before. Make sure you plan to leave that day to packing and other trip related things (unless you're already packed). The first thing you need to do is go photocopy your passport and get an extra set of passport photos. If your passport is lost or stolen, this will make it much easier to get a replacement and/or travel back to the US.
Go get traveler's checks, if you plan to have these. I would recommend them because if they are lost or stolen they can be replaced, unlike cash. If you plan to use your US credit cards, call or e-mail the company to let them know you're going out of the country. Most credit card companies will put a hold on the card if they see that all of a sudden there are international purchases. You can get money changed at the airport either before you leave or once you get to your destination. I would advise doing it sooner rather than later. The lines to change money at the major international airports are long. We're talking like 30-45 minutes sometimes.
Make a list of things you need to pack. There are so many little things that if you don't, you're liable to forget something. But if you do, don't worry. The two things you must have are your documentation and money (credit card, travelers checks, cash etc). If you have those two things, you're good. Anything else can be replaced or you can go without it.
In my experience, the night before is the worst part of traveling, and contrary to what most would think I would recommend getting only 5 or 6 hours of sleep. Now, let's be honest, if you're a nervous traveler you probably aren't going to get much sleep anyway, so why fight it? Also, if you don't get a lot of sleep the night before it will make it easier to fall asleep on the plane. Don't pull an all-nighter though. You need to be at least partially alert and awake when you're in the airport.
Some (not all) airports have limits on how early you can check in (usually 3-4 hours before the flight). So, if you're one of those people who get there extremely early keep this in mind. However, even with a limit sometimes if they're slow they'll still check you in (which is what happened to me this morning).
Always go to the desk and ask when check in will start for your flight. If you're at a smaller airport, you can just sit and wait and usually there won't be much of a line. If you're at a larger airport, though, get in line ASAP. Whenever I fly out of Charles de Gaulle in Paris, the line for check in starts forming 30 minutes before check-in starts. And by the time it starts, the line is extremely long.
If you're one of those habitually late people, try to fight your impulses. The earlier you get there the better. Airports have a cut off for check-in. Most of the time for an international flight, (even if you're connecting through another US city) it is about an hour before boarding. Of course, if you show up 55 minutes before boarding they'll try to get you there in time. The smaller the airport is, the more lenient this rule is, in my opinion. At Charles de Gaulle airport, this is strictly enforced. At my regional airport, it's flexible. If you're late, the people at the desk will try their best, but remember they can't alter the laws of physics. If you're late, you're late and you might miss your flight.
If you do miss your flight and it's a regional flight (one from a regional airport to an international hub) there will usually be another one. There are around 3-5 of these flights a day depending on the airport and airline. If you miss your international flight, you might be in more trouble. Some airports have 3-5 flights a day to international locations, so you can get the next one. Some only have one, so be careful. It's always better to wait around for 3 hours than to miss your flight.
Oh boy, where do I start? Okay, first check the TSA website to see what you can and can't bring. The list usually doesn't change, unless something happens. Certain airports have stricter security than others, but generally it shouldn't take you more than an hour to clear the checkpoint (and that's a high estimate). In my experience at both major and medium sized airports it takes around 15-40 minutes.
When going through security you will need to put into a bin (not all in separate bins, except for your laptop; that gets its own):
a.) All liquids in a Ziploc bag
f.) Coat and/or scarf
g.) Cell phone
i.) All other electronics
j.) All other metal items
I advise wearing slip on shoes and not wearing a belt or jewelry to make this quicker. Try to get what you can ready as soon as you can. They tend to want to move it quickly.
DO EXACTLY WHAT THEY SAY
If you don't, even if its just not standing where they say, they will pat you down and go through your stuff (this happened to my mother once).
Don't go to get your things or even try to touch your things until they clear you (which will be after the metal detector).
If you are patted down, don't worry. They're not that bad. Due to medical reasons, I have to get one every time I fly. In the US, they're very politically correct and will offer you a private pat down as well as ask you if you have any sensitive places. This isn't always so with foreign airports. At Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, they just do it. Its quick and effective, but not very PC. And, of course, the person doing the pat down will be of your gender.
Look out for which checkpoint to go to! In most airports, it doesn't matter. Some, however, like Newark, NJ, have many small checkpoints for a cluster of gates. This is good because the lines are short and it doesn't take very long usually. However, if you go through security then realize your gate is at the other end of the airport, you may have to go through security again, so watch out. (I did this once – not fun.)
6. At The Gate:
Once you're through security, you're pretty much on the downhill slope. The rest of the trip is just waiting and waiting.
If you're at a large airport, find your gate before you go wander off. Always keep an eye on gate information, etc. Gates do change, more so at larger airports.
7.) The Flight:
Now, if you have one of those small, wheeled suitcases as your carry-on on the regional flight you may have to gate check it. The commuter flights are usually on smaller planes that don't have large overhead bins. So, any large carry-ons have to be gate checked. They give you a tag for your bag, then when you're on the jetway, right before you enter the plane there's a person there who takes it. It is put in with the check bags and when you arrive, you wait on the jetway, they get it, and you can go. It's no big deal. I've had it done many times, but it can be a hassle if you have a close connection.
On the flight itself -- sleep. That's the best thing you can do. If you're flying ahead in time (the US to Europe, Middle East etc) when you land it will be morning/noon, so you need to be rested. You'll always have some jet lag; it's just a question of how much.
On the short, commuter flights you can only expect a snack and drink, so plan to eat before or after the flight.
If you're flying into a larger airport, connecting can be a bitch. Helpful hint: on Continental airlines inside the Continental magazine in the back is a map of their major hubs and I suspect other airlines have this as well. It shows you where security checkpoints are, where trains to their terminals are, and which trains between terminals require you go through security again. Most hubs have a train or bus between terminals that does not require you go through security. The only problem is finding it. The map will show you where it stops, and where all the gates are, so you can make a plan of attack on the plane. (My advice is, when the flight attendant has his/her back turned, tear the map out of the magazine and take it with you. Maps in the terminals aren't always abundant).
If your connection is tight (like under 25 minutes), tell the flight attendant. They can call for one of those carts that zips through their terminal and have it waiting when you land to get you to your gate in time. Or at the very least, they can contact the gate of your connection and tell them you're on the way.
7. International Flight:
Make sure you are near the gate at all times. International flights usually start boarding 1 hour before departure. First is first class, then parents with small children, and those who need help. Then general boarding starts usually beginning with the back rows and moving forward. Depending on the airline, flight size, and airport, they may or may not really regulate general boarding. On the large, full flights they will and they will not let you board until your row is called. If it's a small, half full flight they may just let you board all at once.
Sometimes on large international flights, the airline will ask that all passengers go to the desk to verify their passports before boarding in order to streamline boarding for everyone. Just go ask if they want you to do that or listen for an announcement.
On this flight, there will usually be a movie or movies and dinner. However, the meal is, in my experience, usually small. So, if you're a big eater, bring some extra food. At the end of the flight sometimes they serve a breakfast meal as well, but again its usually small.
During the last 30 minutes of the flight, the attendants will come around to give out any needed forms for customs. This varies from country to country, but usually you'll have to fill something out.
Customs varies from country to country again. Just be calm and go with the flow. As long as you don't have a Ziploc bag full of cocaine shoved up your ass, you have nothing to worry about. And again, do exactly what they say. Not obeying the rules is a sure-fire way to be searched. (And most customs officers at major airports will speak at least some English, so don't worry about the language.)
9. Getting from the airport
Now I've thought many times, "When I get there, I'll just take the subway, since it's cheaper." Nope. When you arrive you will be very, very tired. Plan to take a cab. There will be signs directing you to where you can catch a cab and many major airports even have people there to catch it for you. You just get in line, wait 5 or 10 minutes for your turn, give the guy the address and he does the rest.
A note on jet lag:
The best thing to do for jet lag is to hit the ground running as soon as you arrive. Force yourself to stay up, and then you'll sleep like a baby that night and have your internal clock mostly adjusted by the next day (though not entirely for around 3 days).
And Hooray! You survived. Now you just have to survive the trip back.
10. The Return Flight:
Plan to take a cab again. It really is the easiest thing. Most cities have shuttles, busses, subways, etc, but a cab is best especially if you have a lot of suitcases.
Overall, the process is pretty much the same as before. Pretty much any flight to or from the US will have English-speaking personnel on the flight and at the gate and check-in, so don't worry about communication.
11. US Customs:
Once you enter the US, even if you have a connection you have to go through customs. The process goes as follows:
1. De-board plane
2. Follow herd of tired passengers to passport control
3. Go through passport control and follow signs to baggage claim
4. Get bags
5. Follow signs and tired passengers to customs check.
6. Go through customs
7. Emerge in the US at baggage checkpoint
8. Check bags if connecting OR if not connecting get the hell out of there.
9. Go back through security
10. Go to gate and fly home
Generally those are all the steps involved and you'll have to do them all, sometimes not in that exact order though. Just follow the signs and you'll be fine. It can take as long as an hour and a half, depending on the line at security. I once managed to do all this in 35 minutes, just enough time to make my connection (granted that was at a smaller hub).
The important thing to remember here is that you are in the US. If you miss your flight, you can get another one. If you make your flight, but your bags don't, they'll come soon.
There will be customs forms to fill out too. US citizens will only have one to fill out. BEWARE: On the back, they ask you to list all purchases and their value. Do NOT overestimate the value. If you say you have bought more than $800 of stuff, they will make you pay taxes on it! (Again, this almost happened to me once, but I batted my eyelashes at the guy and he let me slide.)
Well, they're calling my flight, and that's all the pearls of wisdom I have for you on the subject. Again, if you have anything to add to this, contact me. If I get a lot of e-mails with helpful hints, I'll update the article to share the information.