One hour. That’s my window of comfort between arriving at the airport and the scheduled boarding time. It’s the perfect amount of time for me to zip through security (thank you, TSA PreCheck!), fill my water bottle, and maybe grab a glass of wine in the lounge.
Any more than an hour, I end up with sensory overload from the announcements and crowds. And any less, I’ll stress about making the flight —not the way to start a trip.
For jet-setters, few things are as divisive as air travel habits. Getting to the airport an hour before boarding would appall early birds who arrive the recommended 2 or 3 hours ahead of departure. The risk-takers in the travel world, on the other hand, would scoff at arriving more than a minute before the gate closes.
Finding ways to deal with the stress will depend entirely on what causes your blood pressure to rise. Is it barking TSA agents, long lines, delays, indecipherable announcements, and expensive everything?
There’s an air travel stress scale to help with that.
No matter where you fall on the spectrum, you probably want one thing: a smooth, comfortable start to your vacation. And I have some tips for how to make that happen. Find your persona and read through (but I recommend reading it all, because you never know what you could learn from someone else’s needs).
IF YOU’RE THE TYPE TO GO SO EARLY THERE’S NOT EVEN A GATE YET…
Look, you’re already there and you know your way around, so this is about reducing the stress of worrying while you’re waiting.
If you’re traveling with friends, take some of the pressure off by riding to the airport separately from them, especially if they want to leave later. That way, you won’t feel compelled to embark on a journey that’s more rushed than you’re comfortable with.
Make sure to pack plenty of things to do to distract yourself too. Podcasts, sudoku puzzles, smartphone games, and good old-fashioned books can keep you entertained while you wait those 2 to 3 hours. And it’ll be better to have these items on hand than to pay airport prices for games and books.
ANOTHER TIP TO STOP THE STRESS
Set an alarm on your phone every 20 minutes to check for gate changes, and don’t check until the alarm (or an announcement) goes off. No reason to panic prematurely, right? After all, no matter how prepared you are, there are still many variables outside your control.
Have a game plan for things that might go wrong (weather delays, canceled flights, seat changes, etc.) and roll with whatever the wild world of air travel throws your way.
WHY NOT ALSO SQUEEZE IN A QUICK WORKOUT?
After all, exercise is a proven way to bust stress and can offset the hours of sitting you’re about to do. Some airports now have full-fledged fitness centers. You could also find an empty gate to do some simple airport exercises, or power-walk through the terminal.
IF YOU’RE CUTTING IT CLOSE FOR THE THRILL OF IT…
There’s a certain thrill to arriving at the gate just as the door’s about to close. But the experience comes with its fair share of stressors —ones you might be able to minimize with the right strategies in place.
Set yourself up for success by packing everything in a carry-on —no checked bags, which can slow you down big-time if there’s a line at check-in. Packing cubes can work wonders for helping you squeeze everything into a plane-friendly suitcase.
Trust me: If a perpetual overpacker like myself can downsize to just a carry-on, you can do it too.
Before you leave home, make sure your laptop and phone are fully charged. Getting a low battery alert right as you’re about to board can put you in a panic, and no one wants to fly without any entertainment.
One of the biggest hold-ups at the airport is a long line at security. You probably already have TSA PreCheck (and if not, get it!). The next step is to sign up for Clear, a relatively new service that uses biometrics (like eye scanners) to identify who you are and bump you to the front of the security line. You’ll shave minutes off the security check.
Stay focused. While you might think you can quickly grab a coffee or a snack at one of the airport shops, these things rarely happen as fast as you expect. Watching the clock tick toward departure time as you wait for the barista to whip up your iced vanilla latte is enough to make your blood pressure skyrocket.
Just get yourself to the gate.
IF YOU’VE GOT ANXIETY UNDER YOUR WINGS…
The idea of soaring 35,000 feet above the earth in a metal tube freaks you out. You have no control over whether the plane gets off the ground, let alone lands safely. Fear be damned, though, you’re going to take this flight —but you might need some coping mechanisms to get you there.
Reading up on air travel ahead of your trip could help put your fears in perspective. Every day, there are more than 44,000 flights carrying nearly 2.8 million passengers, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Only a very small fraction of those flights experience a serious problem.
And, according to a 2001 analysis of 16 years of air travel data, more than 95% of people involved in a plane crash survive. Flying is one of the safest ways to travel.
On the day of your journey, transform the airport into your personal self-care center. Ask the airport staff if there’s a meditation space or prayer room available for passengers —that can be the perfect environment for working through any lingering woes. Even an empty gate or a quiet corner will do.
Pop on a pair of noise-canceling headphones and tune in to something relaxing, like an app-guided meditation, soothing nature sounds, or music. Practice breathing exercises (and maybe dab on a little lavender essential oil) to further reduce your anxiety.
Intentionally slowing down and relaxing your mind and body can put you in the best possible place to face your fear of flying.
IF AIRPORT CROWDS ARE NOT YOUR JAM…
It’s not the delays or the security that puts you on edge in the airport —it’s the lack of personal space. You’re shoved into line after line, surrounded by crowds of nervous travelers, and bombarded with glowing screens and announcements. It stresses out crowd-phobics (like me!) before every flight.
If you have some flexibility with your travel plans, schedule your flight on a Tuesday or Wednesday. With leisure travelers flying on the weekends and business travelers dominating Mondays and Fridays, the middle of the week tends to be less crowded.
Get yourself signed up for TSA PreCheck too. It will significantly speed up the security process and get you through the line in much less time. (Bonus: You won’t need to remove your shoes and go barefoot on the same floor as thousands of other people!)
IF YOU’RE FLYING FOR THE FIRST TIME…
There’s nothing more exciting than your first flight. But it can also induce some serious stress.
How do you check in? Where’s the gate? When do you board? What happens if you miss the flight? Questions fill your mind, and the sheer volume of online information (much of which is conflicting!) has you worried.
Knowing exactly what to expect at the airport can help make it a streamlined, stress-free process, especially if you’re just learning the ropes.
Start by checking your airline’s luggage requirements, and follow them to a tee. No one needs the headache of getting slammed with unexpected baggage fees for overpacking. Invest in a handy luggage scale just to be sure.
Check Google Maps to find out how long it’s going to take you to get to the airport, and plan to get there within your airline’s recommended window of time.
You’ll need to figure out which terminal your flight is departing from. Sometimes this information is shown on your ticket or boarding pass if you check in online, but if not, you can check the airline’s website or give customer service a call. Take a peek at a map of the airport to get familiar with the layout.
Getting through security is often one of the most stressful parts of the experience. This is where the TSA’s travel checklist comes in handy. It explains what to do with your liquids, when to remove your shoes and laptop, and which items belong in your checked bags.
The smoother you can make the security process, the less you’ll stress.
Then, take a look at the departures board to figure out which gate your flight is departing from and follow the signs until you reach it. If you get lost, just ask any of the uniformed airport staff where to go —they’ll help.
I recommend saying a friendly “hello” to the gate agents and letting them know it’s your first time flying. They’ll explain how boarding will work and be available to answer any questions. It also gives them the chance to take you under their wing and make sure your flight is as pleasant as possible.
Sit back, relax, and get ready to fly!
HERE’S THE REAL GAME CHANGER, THOUGH: AIRPORT LOUNGES
They offer a blissful escape from the noisy, crowded gates (not to mention free food and wine). A great lounge can make the airport feel more like a hotel lobby than a transportation hub.
Getting into an airport lounge isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. I use my Priority Pass membership, a program that gives me access to more than 1,300 airline lounges worldwide. It comes as a free benefit with some credit cards and offers for-purchase membership plans.
If you’re flying first class (lucky you!) or have a certain level of frequent flyer status with some airlines, you may also be able to get into your airline’s lounge. When all else fails, though, break out your credit card: You can pay your way into some lounges, and honestly, it’s worth every penny to have a serene space to wait for your flight.
When it’s time to board, don’t get caught in the frenzy of everyone lining up. That will just add stress to your departure. Stay seated and wait until they’re about to call the next boarding group before you go up to the gate.
Keep in mind that everyone you’re surrounded by is just as eager for the trip as you are. Treating them as individuals, with genuine kindness, instead of as members of an annoying horde that’s in your way, can keep the energy positive and ultimately make you feel better.