Saturday, August 1, 2009

First time flyer ?

With Air travel being so common these days, most of us or atleast I take numerous things for granted. I realised how some things are just air traffic-specific when I mentioned ''baggage tag'' to a person and he did not have a clue as to what that actually meant.

With numerous aspiring students coming to me for help with regards to studying abroad, I decided to write a bunch of related articles with some tips and here is the first of them.

With umpteen things to remember coupled with a mish-mash of feelings - anxiety of going to a totally new environment, excitement with a touch of trepidation of suddenly being on one's own, worry about leaving near and dear ones, the day when one flies out can be quite overwhelming and you dont want to add the nittygritties of air travel to it.

Here a few tips to make it easier for you. Let me first begin with the well-known (and sometimes ignored) rules of thumb
  1. Be on time: Get to the airport atleast 2 hours in advance. If you live far away from the airport and if you are going to reach the airport in peak hours, please take the traffic conditions into account and start early !
  2. Documents: Have your passport and ticket handy. You might be required to show it multiple times and fishing for them in your suitcase everytime is obviously not the best way.
  3. Check the airline website: It is a good idea to take a look at the airline website to make a note of the facilities that are available and those that are not. Plus any security instructions or flight information will also be regularly updated here.
  4. Dress comfortably: Remember the altitude (and the temperature) and the lack of personal space ! All international flights maintain good cabin temperatures and supply blankets as well as small pillows. However it would make sense to not wear boots (and end up with cramped legs) or hawaii slippers (and end up feeling cold).
  5. Eat right: Given that you need atleast a couple of hours for all the formalities and that you will not be served anything on board during the first hour, eat something when you leave home unless you want to pay exhorbitantly for a godawful sandwich inside the airport ! Also, airtravel might not agree with everyone's digestive system, so stay away from sweets and fried items and have something light.
Let me move on to specifics.

Check-in: Check-in is the process where you show your air ticket and visa for the destination you intend to travel and get your ''boarding pass''. Like the name says, this document is MANDATORY for boarding the aircraft. The document has your seat number, your boarding gate number. If you lose your boarding pass, a duplicate one should be obtained by paying a fee (usually a heavy one!) and is the only document that is accepted (not even showing a copy of your ticket will help!).

Nowadays, most airlines allow you to check-in ''online'' where you enter your passport details online, choose your seat number and get the boarding pass in the form of a .pdf. Online check in can be done anytime starting 24 hours before flight departure. Note: This is highly recommended since you can save yourself the trouble of standing in a long queue in the airport.

Baggage drop-off: The next step is checking-in your baggage. Every airline has rules about the check-in baggage both w.r.t dimensions and maximum weight. Usually this varies between 20-40 kilos. Depending on the airport, you might be required to have this checked through a x-ray screener at the end of which a ''checked'' stamp will be made on your luggage. Note: Weighing the luggage at home and making sure you are within limits will save a lot of time and trouble.

Every baggage that is checked in will get a baggage tag with details of passenger, destination and a unique identification number. While one will pasted on the suitcase, the other copy will be given to you. Note: Please retain this until you get the luggage at the destination since this will be used to track your baggage if it gets lost. Another helpful way would be to have a printed paper with your name and address inside the suitcase for identification if and when, the luggage gets misplaced. Saying you have blue jeans and red t-shirt on top does not help given that millions of those are manufactured and sold every year !

Luggage allowed on board the aircraft is called cabin baggage or carry-on. Normally this is 5-7 kilos and in addition to this, a small backpack or a laptop or a handbag can be carried on board. Note: Please carry all your valuables - travellers cheques, cash, original documents (degree certificates, marksheets) needed to enroll at the univeristy), watch and any other expensive items you might have. Avoid carrying any food items or liquids in it. You can have a small toilet kit but make sure you do not have any perfume or deo or any other liquid bottle that exceeds 100ml in volume. Reference: http://www.airsafe.com/danger.htm

Emigration: You can look up the dictionary for a definition but in essence this is leaving a country. This will be recorded in your passport as a stamp with the date of departure and you will have to to fill in a form with details of your passport, flight number and destination. Note: Please carry a pen to do all these formalities. It is amazing how many people go around asking for pens in airports !!

Security Check: This is where your carry-on baggage and you are screened and checked. You are made to walk through a screener which is more-or-less a metal detector and in most cases, it will beep either because of your belts, buttons or buckles. In that case, a personal examination will follow where men are examined by men and women by other women.

Boarding Gate: The number of the gate will be mentioned in your boarding pass along with the time you have to be there. Usually passengers will start boarding 30 min to an hour before the departure time, depending on the airport and the airline. You will be required to show a photo identification (usually your passport) along with boarding pass while boarding the aircraft. Note: While waiting at the boarding gate, do not leave you luggage unattended if you have to go to the restroom.

On-board: If anything is not clear, ask the cabin attendants (the airhostesses). They are usually very polite and helpful. Find your seat, put the luggage in the overhead cabin and keep only those things you need (like your ipod, a book etc.) in your place. The less items you have, the better since you avoid the risk of leaving them behind when you land and you dont overcrowd your already limited space.

Drinks will be served only after an hour after departure, usually after reaching the flying altitude. Meals will be served atleast half an hour after that followed by coffee/tea. Note: Just because you have alcoholic drinks to choose from, does not mean you have to get drunk ! Exercise caution !

Quality of in-flight entertainment depends on the airline (usually described in detail in the airlines website). So be prepared to fight boredom and have pity on your co-passenger(s) who is(are) asleep !

Transit: You are said to be in transit when you change planes at one or more airports enroute to your destination. Your check-in baggage will be routed automatically (your baggage tags will also have details of transit airports in it). You only have to take care of your carry-on items. Also, you will have a boarding pass for every flight you take. Lets say you go to Germany via Dubai from Chennai. This trip means there are 2 boarding passes - one for chennai-dubai and the other for Dubai-Germany.

Most places do not ask for a transit visa but it is better to check the visa requirements beforehand. Note: During transit you will be asked to go through security check again, so remember the no-liquids (over 100 ml) rules, especially if you visit the duty free stores. Although duty free stores will give you items in a special package to allow it to pass through secuity check, additional restrictions may force you to give up the package.

Immigration: You have now landed and are ready to enter the new country - that will most likely be your home for the next few years or more. Immigration will involve a couple of uniformed people examining your passport, visa and asking you a few questions as to why you are there, where you will be staying, for how long etc. Depending on the country, you might also have to fill in a form. Note: Have your admission letter, address of where you intend to stay and other details handy.

Baggage claim: Figure out from the display where your airline is off-loading its luggage and find yours from the conveyor belt. Most airports will have a baggage cart either for free or for a couple of dollars. Try to get one to load your luggage (you will not find any porters once you areoutisde India and in a developed country), especially if you have more than one large suitcase. Note: If you have a common brand black or blue suitcase, it is quite likely for you to choose the wrong one, so be on the safer side and check the baggage tag.

Customs: If you do not want to ruefully see all the home-made pickles and sweets go into a trash can, then do some digging w.r.t how strict the customs in the country is. From my experience, there is hardly any problem in bringing such eatables into Germany unlike in Australia where apparently every suitcase is checked and only those edibles with expriy date and ingredient description are allowed into the country. Note: Please do not carry fruits or vegetables or plants with you. These are not allowed into any country !

Do not judge the difficulty of air travel by the length of this article. It is really not as complicated as it sounds. The key is to do your homework, be vigilant and street smart ! Good luck !



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