The Seniors’ Guide To Flying Internationally

Flying – It’s my first time what should I expect ?

Flying for the first time can be extremely nerve wracking. Airports are filled with people of all ages buzzing around, seemingly knowing what they are doing. This guide is aimed to help you understand a little about what to expect at the airport. While your experience may be a little different at each airport, this is meant to be a general guide that will calm those nerves a little and give you a sense of control.

Before you go to the Airport

Airport transfer

It is important that you plan how you are going to get to the airport, whether this be with a friend, in a taxi or driving yourself. You need to know in advance what time you need to be at the airport to check in. This will vary not only airline to airline, but depending on what country you are flying to (especially if you are flying to the United States) and what class you are flying. Even with electronic check in, you still need to arrive a certain amount of time before your flight leaves, especially if you have bags to check in. As a general rule, arrive at the airport 3 hours before your flight is scheduled to take off.

taxi airport transfer

Documentation needed

Make sure that you not only have a passport but that it is valid for at least six months, otherwise you may not be allowed to fly. Your passport must also be in good condition.

Ensure that you have valid visas for the countries that you are travelling and that you have the documentation that goes with these visas. Some countries will also require you to have a visa even if you are just passing through.

Make sure that you have made copies of all your vital documents and you have these stored somewhere safe. See our blog post on travel tips for seniors for more tips like this.

Make sure that you have your insurance documents with you, as well as the emergency number of your insurance agency, and and consulate.

Tell the Government about your travel plans

Make sure that you have registered yourself on the smart traveller website, so that in case of an emergency the government can contact you and offer you assistance, no matter how safe you think the country is that you are travelling to.

Baggage allowance

Ensure all your bags are packed and are the correct size and weight for the restrictions of ALL your airlines. Some domestic airlines will vary their allowances from international restrictions, and different airlines may also have different rules. Make sure you have packed your own luggage and are not carrying belongs for other people. Tie a ribbon or something unique to your bag, so when you go to collect it from baggage claim you will be able to recognise it easily.

seniors luggage

Getting there

Allow enough time to get there

Even if you know where the airport is, it is a good idea to leave plenty of time before you need to be at the airport. If it makes you feel more comfortable, try and get a lift from a friend who is familiar with the airport. They will remain calm and be able to explain everything to you on the way in. Leave plenty of time in case of traffic delays or heavy traffic which can often occur near the airport, especially during holiday seasons..

Where to get dropped off or park

Many airports have a drop off area that allows passengers to unload their suitcases, while the driver waits. Most drop off areas do have a time restriction as well as the restriction that the driver must stay with the car at all times.

Parking at airports can be very expensive. So if you are trying to decide between asking friends and family to drive you and getting a taxi, factor in the costs of parking. There is short term and long term parking if you wish to leave your car for the entirety of your trip, this is fairly expensive, especially the first week.

Know what terminal you need to drive to, international or domestic, and then which building within the terminal you need to go to.

As you drive in to the airport, you will generally see signs for each airline. This is important as different airlines depart from different terminals, and sometimes different flights with the same airline will depart from different terminals. Knowing in advance which terminal you need to go to will reduce stress as you drive in.

The check-in counter

When you walk into the airport terminal, you will usually see rows and rows of counters, with small sign above them indicating what airline they represent. Remember to look carefully as many airlines now work as a network or alliance, so one counter may represent one or two airlines.

airport checkin desk

Which counter?

Once you find the counter or counters that represent the airline you are travelling with, you need to work out which one is right for you. The airlines often have different check-ins for first class, business class, economy classes and frequent flyers. All you need to do is choose the line that is the group that you are flying with and wait in line with your suitcase.

A few airlines and airports may now have an electronic check in area, which includes a separate baggage, or they may have a counter and a separate baggage check in area. Regardless, you should never leave your baggage unattended, so unless otherwise stated take your bags to the check in counter.

At the counter

Once you are at the head of the line you will be asked to come to a counter. Here you will be required to show your passport, possibly your visa and depending on the airline you may be asked for a booking code but the latter is not usually the case.

The person at the counter will enter your details and ask you how many bags you have to check in. You will then be asked to place your bags that you wish to check in on a conveyor belt next to the counter. Here your bags will be weighed. If your bag is overweight you will be told. If it is, don’t panic. You’ll be given the chance to re-pack your bags to balance the weight, remove items if necessary, or worst-case pay a fee for the excess baggage.

Do not rush in this situation, the person helping you will usually be patient, as this kind of thing happens all the time.

The person at the checkout will also usually give you a form to fill out. You do not need to fill out the form right now, but you will need to do so before you enter the customs hall.

If you are travelling through more than one airport, your bags will be “checked” the whole way through to your final destination, unless you are travelling to or through the United States. If you are, you will be required to pick them up and drop them off when you pass through the airport in the USA. But don’t worry, there’s lots of people to help you and it is really easy.

The check-in attendent will also tell you where you flight will be leaving from, this is called the gate. Gates are really easy to find once you’re through customs and security, but you have to like walking as they can be a long way apart!

airport gate

Your bags will be given a sticky tag and then taken away on a conveyer belt, they are now on their way to the plane. You will receive your boarding pass, and this should have a tag stuck to it that, has the same barcode as your bags, if you don’t receive this ask where it is, as this will help the airline locate your bags if they go missing.

Once your bags are gone and you have your ticket and a form to fill in then you are free to look at the shops or have something to eat, until you need to go through customs and security. Now that you are checked in, you don’t need to be at your gate until the boarding time, so you can relax and enjoy the facilities. The person at the counter will help you decide what time to go through customs if you are unsure, as again this can vary depending on where you are going.

Also ask what facilities are available inside the terminal, some airports have a lot of facilities outside, and comparatively few inside, and others are the exact opposite!

Oversized baggage

If you have oversized baggage such as a musical instrument or sporting equipment, you will be directed to a special counter where you may need to fill out a few forms regarding what is contained in the baggage. All you need to do is keep a copy of your baggage tag, in case your baggage goes missing. At the other end the oversized baggage will usually be delivered on a separate, big carousel, which is clearly labelled.

While you wait

The first thing to do while you wait is to fill out the customs form, this is often a double sided form, that requires you to make some declarations. You write things such as your birth date, name and passport number. You will find your passport number towards the beginning of an Australian passport, and in an Australian passport it is usually a number and some letters, but this can vary between different countries.

Once you have filled out the form you will generally have a range of options depending on the

airport. There are lots of shops and restaurants to visit. Remember, most international terminals have a lot more shops, restaurants and facilities inside the terminal past customs and security. There is also duty free shopping available inside which is a wonderland of alcohol, chocolates, and various other products which are not good for you. They usually allow you to sample the products (mostly alcohol), of which you should take full advantage.


The only downside of heading in straight away is saying goodbye to your loved ones. But it has to happen some time and you might as well get on with it!


Once you leave your family and friends, you will need to pass through both security and customs. Customs or security may be first it will depend on the airport you are leaving from.

At customs you you will need to hand over your passport, boarding pass and the form that you completed after receiving your boarding pass to the customs official. Usually they will look over your documents and stamp your passport. Be sure to be in the correct line, as there may be some specialised lines for flight crew, and often overseas there will be lines for local and non-locals. You may be asked for a fingerprint or to look into a camera, in certain countries, as they collect this information. But this is not the case in Australia yet.


You will then pass through security. The rules for security are constantly being updated, but there are a few constants. You will be asked to place you hand luggage on a conveyor belt to be x-rayed. You will also be required to get a tray and take everything out of your pockets and put it in the tray. Laptops also need to be removed from your bags and put in a separate tray. Grab as many trays as you need, the security people prefer you to separate thing and other travellers are uncharacteristically patient in this situation for some reason.

airport security

You may be asked to remove your shoes, jacket and belts and put them in a tray. This will definitely be the case in the USA.

Nowadays you usually have the choice of which machine you would like to go through. One is similar to a door that you walk through. This is a metal detector. If you walk through without setting it off then you can pick up your belongings, get them back together and proceed.

If you do happen to set it off, a security guard will use a smaller, handheld detector to see what set it off and may pat you down. It is no big deal and happens all the time.

The other, newer method is a cubicle which you need to walk into, put your arms out and up and in front of you, and two arms will rotate around you inside the machine. This machine works by bouncing non-ionising radio rays off your skin. Despite its scary appearance, it is safer than the other machine and is fine to go through.

If you are uncomfortable with either of these, let customs officials know and they can use a hand held device, and may also pat you down.

You may be asked to open up a particular bag by the official operating the X-ray machine. Do not worry, often this is just because you have packed in such a way that you have created an odd shape that is hard to recognise on a screen, your bag may just be opened up and looked at, or you may be asked to put it through the machine again.

You may also get stopped for a random bomb swab, this happens randomly. If you make eye contact with the employees who are standing right after you pick up your bags, you will almost certainly be selected. These people have a horrible job and have aggressive travellers constantly giving them a hard time. I like to volunteer for the check and have a chat to them, they really appreciate it and it is the reason why I know what a hard time they normally get, because they tell me!

A side note here is that making sure you have plenty of time up your sleeve and have a relaxed and positive attitude to travel, you will have a much better time when you travel.

If you are selected or volunteer. It will be explained to you that you have been stopped for a random bomb test. This involved the officer rubbing a small fabric swab on both your clothing and your luggage. They then place it in a machine which will beep to indicate that everything is ok. Then you will be thanked and sent on your way (unless you are carrying a bomb).

You will then enter the aforementioned Duty Free lounge where you can have some free samples, look around, or just proceed through to the normal shops, restaurants and airport gates.

Airport lounges

If you are a frequent flyer of gold status or are flying first or business class, then you may have access to the lounge. If you are unsure ask at the counter. Once you find the lounge, you will usually look for be asked for your boarding pass or membership card.

qantas business lounge

The facilities provided by an airline lounge will vary greatly depending on the airline.

It will also vary depending on the airport and country you are in. Some lounges will have shower facilities, internet connection, reading materials, computers, a games area for children, work stations and a bar and food available.

The lounges will usually call your flight so that you have enough time to get to your flight, but check that they do this when you enter. A lounge can be a great place if you have a long time between connecting flights and would like to relax and freshen up.

Gates and boarding

Looking for your gate can be a little confusing, in a larger airport, but usually there are large signs that say gate 1-10 and then perhaps gates 10-14 , if you are lost, just ask someone for help.

Once you find your gate, you will see seats around the gate, make sure your flight has not or is not boarding and if it is not, take a seat and wait. You will hear over the loud speaker when it is time to board.

Generally flights will allow children and people who need help board first, followed by members and then usually, flights will be boarded by flight rows. Your seat number is what row you are in. e.g. Seat 58F, is row 58.

Once you hear your row being called stand up and wither join the line or go to the counters. Do not sit and wait, if you think that you should have already boarded, go and ask at the counter for help. Sometimes they will be rude if it is not your turn yet, but some people are like that.

As you reach the counter to board, you may be asked for your passport you may not, and you will definitely be asked for your boarding pass, which may be scanned and you will walk through a tunnel onto the plane. At the plane you will be greeted by your staff who will then direct you to your chair.

You will need place you bag in the lockers above your chair or under the seat in front of you. If you board late, the locker above your chair may be full, so you may need to use one close by, if there is no space left, ask the airline staff for help.

On the plane

once you are seated make yourself comfortable, fasten your seatbelt and stow your bags securely. There will be a video that explain how to do all of these things, and staff will come through the cabin before take off to check and help if required.

on the plane

Depending on your airline, you may be offered refreshments before takeoff, do not other to put your seat down as you will need to be upright for takeoff.

Once all drinks are cleared, and all safety checks have been down your plane will taxi out onto the runway. While this is happening a video or in-person safety instruction will be delivered.

Once the plane gets cleared to take off, it will accelerate rapidly. You may feel a little pressure as the nose of the plane is directed skywards. It will take 10 minutes or so before the seatbelt sign is switched off and the plane levels out.

It is best to keep your seatbelt fastened during the flight unless you are getting up for a walk or to go to the bathroom. That way if there is unexpected turbulence you will be kept safely in your seat. This is extremely rare, but it is so easy to keep your seatbelt on that you might as well.

If you feel ill there are usually airsick bag available. You may hear a grinding or whirring mechanical noise while you are still lifting. Do not worry, this is just the wheels retracting into the plane. You will here this noise again before you land as they come back out.

Your plane may also bank steeply to the left or right right after takeoff. This is normal and happens all the time.

Once you have reached cursing altitude your captain will introduce himself and give you information regarding the flight path, the expected weather conditions of your flight and the approximate times.

Once announcements have been made you will be served, a meal, depending on the time of day that you have left. You may only be served a snack, or you may be served several meals on a long flight.

qantas flying

Some airlines now require you to pay, but most international flights include all of your meals and drinks in your ticket price. Throughout the flight you can call for assistance by pressing a call button which is a little button on your screen or keypad that looks like a person. Do not be shy about doing this, even when everyone else is asleep on the flight.

Towards the end of your flight, you may have an arrival video played, that will give you info ration regarding the airport you are landing in, or you may have an announcements regarding connecting flights, and any special information that you may need to know. You need to listen to these as sometimes there may be changes and you need to be aware of these. If your flight is delayed and you have a tight connecting flight let your flight crew know and they will try and guide you.

You will be given more forms to complete, specifically a landing card, that you will need to complete in order to enter the country when you arrive.

Your flight crew will announce the descent into your city of arrival, but you may notice it earlier. Again if you have issues with your ears, chew gum or try yawning to unblock your ears. It is easier if you try and “pop” your ears multiple times and gradually as you descend. It will feel like going down a steep hill in a car.

Once you land, stay in your seat until the flight crew tell you that it is OK to get up again. When opening your overhead locker, be careful as items may have moved during the flight. Once you have your bags, and be careful when getting them down that you  don get hit or hit someone else’s it is narrow, walk off the plane. As you walking the hall you may notice people with signs, these are usually people form the airport, looking to find passengers who have a tight connection, or where something has changed, don’t stop but double-check to make sure they are not holding up your name.

Connecting flight

If you have a tight connecting flight you may need to hurry. If you don’t, still do not dawdle. There will be signs marked to indicate where to head to connecting flights. In most airports you will be able to head straight over and will not be required to pick up your bags.

In the USA, you will need to pass through immigration and pick up your bags, before dropping them off at a special “bag drop off” section, before proceeding to your connecting flight.

No connecting flight (what to do when you arrive)

If you have no connecting flight then you will need to pass through immigration.

To clear immigration you will need to choose the correct line as often there are lines for locals, non locals, electronic lines, expedited lines and staff lines. Usually you will just go to the non-local line. You will need to have the forms you completed on the plane earlier and your passport. You will be asked some questions about your stay and your passport will be stamped.

Once you have cleared immigration, you will need to collect your bag. Usually bags can be collected in large halls that have multiple conveyor like belts with bags on them, you will notice that each has some letters followed by a umber the letters and numbers refer to the airline and then the flight number.

Look for your airline and flight number, often airports will have the city your came from displayed. Watch the carosoul for your bag, double check that it is your bag. This is where markers, ties or ribbons come in handy. Once you have all your bags proceed to customs.

Usually you will have nothing to declare, but if you have anything on the form such as food. Declare it even if you are unsure. Customs people are always friendly, and if you declare something you’re not sure of, usually it will just be fine and they’ll let you through quicker. Sometimes this can be a quick way to skip lines.

If one of your bags does not show up, find the baggage help desk, usually this is located in a corner tucked at the far end of the is carousel hallway. Here, the people at the counter will help locate your bag. They will need you bag tags, that are usually stuck on your ticket and a description of your bag.

Usually when this happens, the bags will be delivered to where you are staying in a few days. Here you should ask how much the company will pay, as you may be entitled to money to buy clothes. If not call your insurance company from the hotel and ask them. Usually bags are delivered to you once they arrive at the airport.

Once you clear this you will be let out into the arrivals hall, where you may have family, friends or hotel service waiting for you.

If you plan on getting a cab or a company or train to your next destination, either follow the signs or ask at a registered help desk.