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Travel Tips

24 Expert Tips to Prepare for an International Flight

Scott Keyes
By 
Scott Keyes
Founder & Chief Flight Expert (CFE)
5 min read
Last updated 
October 24, 2019

Whether it’s your first international trip or your 500th, here’s a handy checklist of things to do before and during the flight to ensure a smooth trip. 

Things to do in the weeks before your flight

passport

1. Check the passport validity and visa requirements of your destination.

If you’re traveling internationally, you’ll need a valid passport that matches the name on your ticket. But sometimes that’s not enough. Some countries require your passport be valid for a certain amount of time (usually six months) beyond your trip, while others require a certain number of blank pages (and some require both). 

Depending on the country you’re from and where you’re visiting you may also need a visa and/or proof of onward travel. And, if you’re traveling with a child (but only one parent) you may be required to being additional documentation. For example, South Africa requires that a minor child accompanied by only one parent have a letter of consent from the other parent. 

2. Make electronic copies of your documents. 

Scan or photograph all your documents such as your passport, driver’s license, and any visas and put the files in cloud storage, Google Drive, or your email so that you can access them on the go if needed. 

3. Take steps to boost your immune health. 

Air travel (and travel in general) can be stressful and it can expose you to lots of germs. Reduce the risk of getting sick on your trip by ensuring you’re setting out with a healthy immune system. Get lots of rest and stay hydrated in the days before your trip. 

Things to do the day before and day of your flight

packing a suitcase

4.  Check-in online to snag the best seat. 

Check in as soon as possible so that you can choose a good seat (if you weren’t able to select one at booking) and have first crack at any available paid upgrades. 

Checking in online promptly when check-in opens is especially important if you’re flying Southwest. Southwest seating is not assigned; boarding order is determined by check-in order and passengers choose their own seats. If you don’t check in soon after online check-in opens, you’ll likely board in the last group and have limited seating options. 

5. Choose the seat that fit your needs. 

The best seat on the plane depends on your preferences. If you like to get up a lot, go for an aisle seat so you can move about with ease. If you just want to lean against the wall and sleep, book a window seat. If you’re tall and need the extra legroom, aim for the bulkhead or an exit row (but be aware these seats often don’t recline). Seatguru.com is a great resource for finding the best seats for your particular aircraft. 

6. Request a special meal to get served first. 

Airlines have come a long way in catering to special diets. On many flights you can choose (at booking) from a special meal that’s kosher, gluten free, low-sodium, low-fat, etc. 

Not only does this give you more control over what you’ll be putting in your body during the flight, special meal orders are served first, so if you’re anxious to eat and get to sleep, order a special meal to reduce waiting time before service. 

7. Pack some basic toiletries in your carry-on. 

If you’re checking luggage, be sure to keep some basic toiletries and one outfit change in your carry-on, just on the off chance your luggage gets delayed and you’re without your checked bag for a day or two. 

Whether you’re checking luggage or going carry-on only, it also helps to keep items like face wipes, deodorant, and toothpaste in an easy-to-reach spot so you can freshen up upon landing or during a layover. 

>> Get more packing tips here.

8. Customize your checked bag to make it stand out. 

The vast majority of luggage in the world looks nearly identical; if you’ve got the typical black roller bag, add some custom flair (a brightly colored luggage tag or ribbon, for example) to help distinguish it from everyone else’s. And make sure you have a secure luggage tag on it with your name, phone number, and email address. 

9. Load up on entertainment to enjoy in-flight.

On some budget airlines, entertainment is BYO, so download plenty of podcasts, music, movies, or TV shows to your device or bring lots of books and magazines to get you through the flight. Even on flights where seatback entertainment is the norm, it can be nice to switch between watching a movie, listening to a podcast, or reading. And don’t forget your headphones. 

10. Remember the 3-1-1 rule for liquids. 

The TSA (and the transportation governing bodies of many foreign countries) limits the amount of liquids you can bring on board a plane in your carry-on. All liquids, aerosols, and gels must be in a container of 3.4 ounces (100ml) or less. Additionally, all of your liquids, aerosols, and gels together must fit into one quart-size resealable bag. Baby food and certain medications are exempt. See the TSA website for details. 

11. Pack a water bottle and travel-friendly snacks. 

Not only is bringing your own water bottle better for the environment, it’ll save you money at the airport (remember you can’t bring liquids more than 3.4 ounces through security so you’d have to buy water afterwards). Another bonus: you don’t have to wait for a flight attendant to bring you water so you can hydrate more easily throughout the flight. 

Pack a few simple snacks, too, such as nuts, cut fruit, cheese and crackers, granola bars, or beef jerky. Many budget airlines no longer include food service and even on airlines that do, you may prefer your own food to what’s served on board. 

12. Bring a sleep kit. 

While some airlines still provide a small blanket and scratchy pillow in economy, many don’t (or they charge for it). If you’re heading to a colder climate, your coat or a large scarf/pashmina can double as a blanket, otherwise consider investing in a small, lightweight travel blanket. 

A pillow doesn’t have to take up much space, either; inflatable pillows fold down to a small package. If you’re sensitive to light or noise, add a sleep mask or ear plugs and you’re well on your way to sleeping comfortably on the plane

13. Keep your devices powered up. 

Many planes now have power ports at every seat, but don’t risk running out of juice for your cell (especially if it’s doubling as your entertainment for the flight). Bring a fully-charged external battery pack and don’t forget the USB cord and a plug adapter that works in the country you’re visiting. 

14. Wear comfortable clothes. 

The watchword for economy travel is comfort. Forgo the suit or stilettos and dress for comfort, both when you’re hoofing it through massive airports and when you’re curled up in an airplane seat for 8+ hours. 

It is possible to be comfortable but still presentable in loose-fitting slacks or jeans, or stretchy leggings and sneakers, flats, or low-heeled boots. Layers are key, especially if you’re traveling from one climate extreme to another. And remember, not only do your feet swell on long flights, but you may want to remove your shoes to sleep (and you definitely want to put them back on to use the restroom!) so opt for comfy shoes you can easily wiggle on and off. 

Things to do at the airport

departures sign

15. Arrive on time. 

Every airport has its own guidelines for how early you should be at the airport before an international flight, but typically the recommendation is three hours. When you consider that most international flights start boarding about 40-60 minutes before take-off, that’s really only about two hours to check in (if you couldn’t do it online), check your bag (if needed), get through security, and walk to your gate. If you’re traveling during peak times, it’s wise to get there even earlier. 

If you’d rather cut it close, download the MiFlight app to get real-time data on the wait time at your airport. And check your airline’s cut-off times; every airline has a time after which they’ll no longer allow you to check in or check a bag. They’ll also note the cut-off time for boarding (usually 15-20 minutes before takeoff). If you arrive after these times, you may not be able to check a bag—or even board the plane. 

16. Ask about upgrades or better seats. 

Sometimes when an airline has unsold premium seats (such as premium economy or business class), they’ll sell these upgrades at a discounted price. 

Even if you don’t want to shell out a few hundred dollars for the extra legroom, it can be worth asking the gate agent or check-in staff if there are any better seats available. They might be able to move you to a window or aisle seat if you don’t already have one, or they can put you in a bulkhead or exit row for more legroom. If the plane isn’t full, they could even move you to a seat with an empty seat next to it so you have more space to spread out. 

17. Look for lounge access. 

Lounge access is no longer just for frequent flyers. While many lounges do require that you have status with the airline, a premium ticket, or Priority Pass membership, there are some lounges, such as the Aspire Lounges found in Europe, that allow access for a fee. 

Paying for access this way isn’t cheap (it can cost around $50 per person) but if you have a long layover it can be worth it for a quiet place to rest and the free food and drinks. Some lounges even have nap pods and showers. 

18. Keep important documents, medication, and valuables in your carry-on.

Never put valuables, medication or documents like your visa in your checked bag. If your luggage gets lost or delayed, this could be a huge headache. Additionally, even locked suitcases aren’t immune from theft. 

Make sure you keep all these items in your carry-on, and if you have to gate-check your carry-on for any reason, be sure to move these items to the smaller bag you’re bringing on board. 

19. Bring a pen.

When entering a country, you may need to fill out a paper customs declaration or immigration form, and many airlines don’t provide pens for passenger use. It’s a small thing, but tucking a pen into your carry-on bag saves the hassle of trying to borrow a pen from your seatmate, or the stress of rushing to fill out the form upon landing. 

Things to do on the flight

woman sleeping on plane

20. Use antibacterial wipes to clean your seat and tray.

Airplanes are grimy places, and studies have shown one of the most germ-infested spots is your tray table. Before you put your phone or magazine on it—and especially before you eat off it!—give it a thorough cleaning with antibacterial wipes. While you’re at it, wipe down the seatback entertainment, armrests, and overhead light buttons and air nozzles. 

21. Get on the local time zone. 

Jetlag is a nearly unavailable part of traveling far distances by plane, but you can take steps to minimize its effects. A few days before the flight, start to get your body aligned with the new timezone by waking up and going to bed closer to the times you’ll do that in the place you’re visiting. Upon boarding, set your watch and phone clock to the local timezone. And, be sure to get some sleep if you’re on a red-eye flight that arrives overseas in the morning. 

22. Hydrate.

Airplanes are not only dirty places, they can be extremely dry places, too. Drink lots of water the day of travel and during the flight, apply (unscented) moisturizer and lip balm to help dry skin, and bring saline for dry eyes. It helps to avoid alcohol and caffeine as well, as both can cause dehydration and make it harder to sleep. 

23. Get up and stretch to avoid a blood clot.

A blood clot or Deep Vein Thrombosis can ruin a trip (and put you in the hospital) so avoid the potential of this dangerous condition by getting up from your seat frequently. There are lots of simple in-flight stretches you can do (like these recommended by Qantas) or simply get up from your seat every once in a while and take a walk up and down the cabin. 

24. Wear compression socks.

Compression socks help keep your feet from swelling and reduce the risk of blood clots and DVT by increasing circulation in your legs and feet. You can pick up a pair for under $10 online (or for slightly more at an airport shop).

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Last Updated 
August 29, 2019
24 Expert Tips to Prepare for an International Flight
Scott Keyes
Founder & Chief Flight Expert (CFE)

Scott has traveled to 46 countries (and 46 states!), living in California, to Oaxaca, to Oregon. He’s left-handed, drinks five cups of tea daily, and holds a vendetta against the “Happy Birthday” song. On a dare, he once ate 13 hot dogs (and a bowl of Dippin’ Dots) at the ballpark. He grew up in Ohio and founded Scott’s Cheap Flights in a Denver coffee shop. Favorite airport: PDX.

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