Beginner’s Guide to Airports

Infographic of the beginner's guide to airports.

In a hurry? Here’s a quick infographic version of the beginner’s guide to airports.

Travel is fun, but it can also be complicated. If you’re heading to an airport for the first time, the tasks involved with flying can seem a little daunting. There’s so much to find and do, and you may very well have no clue about where to start. Fortunately, this guide will walk you through the typical experience of arriving at an airport. Each one is different, so a little outside research will also need to be done (and is detailed here). But by reviewing the beginner’s guide to airports, you will at least know where to go and what to expect when flying for the first time.

Preparing in Advance for your First Trip to the Airport

As soon as you select a flight, get on the website for both airports and find a map. Trust me, you’ll need it. Locate which airlines are located at what terminals, and find the roads that lead to parking lots for that terminal. You’ll also need to see which doors to enter and which gate to enter after checking in. Additionally, be sure to see what floor level your flight’s airline is on. While you’re on the airport’s website, check the latest size specifications for carry on and checked luggage.  If you can fit everything for your trip in a carry on suitcase, it’ll save you the check baggage fees.

Get to the Airport Early

First and foremost, arrive at the airport very early. How early, exactly? Most airports offer current security and wait times on their websites. These should be checked several hours before your flight. If not, the general rule is to arrive at the airport absolutely no later than 1.5 hours before your flight leaves. Why? Read on.

Airport Parking Guide

The “adventure” kicks off right from the start as you attempt to park at the airport, unless you instead take a shuttle. Around most busy airports, you will find shuttle vendors with their own parking spots within a reasonable distance of the airport (though not usually on the same grounds). This is how it works: check the vendor’s website (you can Google “parking shuttles” for the specific airport), as they will almost always offer a discounted rate online. From their website, review the layout of the parking lot and its numbering system. Also, check the shuttle schedule, though most of them run almost constantly. Once you’re actually there, pay at the gate, or check-in if you already paid online. Find a spot, remember its number, and then walk to the shuttle area to get picked up. Remember its drop-off location at the airport. It’s that simple.

But wait, wouldn’t it be more convenient to just park directly at the airport? Well, not necessarily. Most airports have a parking system that can seem pretty chaotic for first-time flyers. After driving on roads that are designed to resemble mazes, you’ll enter a parking garage designed to resemble a labyrinth, where you’ll drive in all directions (including up and down) in a desperate attempt to locate an open spot. Sometimes, you may end up at an outside parking lot or even on the other side of the airport. Vehicle and foot traffic tend to be pretty heavy, which will only delay you further. But, wouldn’t park and ride services also have this problem to deal with? Not as severely, since they typically have access to exclusive roads within the airport. And then, of course, there’s the ridiculous daily parking rates. Even so, if you do decide to park at the airport, be sure to note not only your specific spot, aisle, and level, but also how you got from your car to the terminal. This may sound obvious, but trust me, you’ll want to make a note of it.

Don’t be Shy! Airport Employees are Here to Help

Once you arrive at the airport, the good news is that you can ask just about anyone where you specifically need to go. If the map wasn’t as clear as you would like (or if you don’t have it with you), ask a security officer, police officer, maintenance worker, or just about any other employee where your airline’s ticket counter is. I have always found employees to be very knowledgeable when telling me exactly where to go, and I tend to run into several while walking to the terminal. These days, they are basically expected to double as airport guides. You can, of course, ask more than one along the way. Also follow the airport’s own guides and signs, though you will find that some aren’t as helpful as others.

The Boarding Pass

Once you find your airline’s check-in booth (again, don’t be afraid to ask employees if you need help), you will see that it has either an automated touch-screen kiosk, an employee behind the counter, or both. The kiosk is actually very easy to use, even for those who aren’t computer savvy (and you may even be able to watch other passengers check in to see how it’s done). But if it still seems a bit intimidating, just check with the clerk behind the desk or any nearby airport employees. You’ll need to do this anyways if you plan to check in your luggage.

Once you have your boarding pass (whether it was printed by the kiosk or the clerk) guard it with your life and find out which gate your plane is taking off from (it will be listed as the gate number on the boarding pass). This will help determine which security checkpoint is closest to your flight. If you are not sure, once again, don’t be afraid to ask anyone working at the airport. There will also be signs, usually hanging from the ceiling, telling you where to go.

Getting through the Airport’s Security Lines

The TSA lines always seem a little intimidating, even to many seasoned passengers. New policies set by the agency have led to an overall improvement in the general behavior of TSA agents, but you will still occasionally find some that are a bit testy. Just be sure to listen to what they say. At the typical airport, travelers will need to empty their pockets, take off their shoes, and remove any accessories, including belts. These items will all be placed in a tray with your carry-on and sent through an X-Ray machine. Electronics will usually need to be turned on.

Most airports offer travelers one of two options for body screenings. The most common is a machine shaped kind of like an upright tube that will take an X-Ray to see if you have anything else on you. When these first came out, there was an uproar over the fact that they displayed a 3-D grid of each person’s anatomy. As a result, most interfaces now implement a generic human figure that points out possible objects in a person’s pockets or…otherwise. If it detects something (and they’re pretty sensitive, as I’ve had cargo pockets set them off) a TSA agent will ask to quickly pat the area.

For travelers who would rather not use the machine, the TSA takes a more…personal approach. They have a specific area where you will meet with an agent who will pat and, essentially, grope you to ensure that you are not attempting to carry any unauthorized objects. It takes longer and will probably leave you feeling violated. Needless to say, most passengers go for the first option.

Once travelers are through the security checkpoint, all of their items will continue down the conveyor for retrieval. There will be plenty of benches for you to sit at and get everything situated. The gates are numbered and there are signs along the walls listing groups. For example, if your flight is leaving from Gate 23A, there may be a sign showing 21A – 29A. As before, it’s okay to ask for directions if you feel unsure.

Navigating the Terminals and Preparing to Board

Once you arrive at your flight’s gate, check its screen to ensure that the flight hasn’t switched to another. It will sometimes change after your ticket has been printed, and if this is the case, you’ll need to get to the other gate in time. If you’re unsure, ask the employee standing at the gate. If there isn’t one, ask another employee of the airline, a security officer, or even other passengers.

Once it’s time to board the flight, the clerk will begin calling out the zone number located on the boarding pass. Be sure to wait until your specific zone is called, even if a line begins forming. Once you reach the clerk, show him/her your boarding pass. They will check it off and tell you to board the plane. From there, it’s a pretty straightforward process.

Summary of the Beginner’s Guide to Airports

Ultimately, the key is that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. Employees expect it, and other passengers have been where you are. Between the maps, signs, early arrival, and helpful personnel, you will absolutely be able to find your way around the airport, even if it’s your very first visit. Yes, it may seem a bit much that so much is involved with flying, but the experience of traveling is always worth it.