First International Flight Booked? We Have Tips For You

So you have your first international flight booked. The occasion might be for your upcoming European river cruise or a swing through the Mediterranean.  You’re excited to see places read about in books, magazines and seen on television and in films; in person.  A degree of confidence comes from knowing that cruise vacations, regardless of the cruise line or destination, are inclusive by nature. Scouring the cruise line website or devouring pre-cruise information sent you’re familiar with the program, once there.  Airline websites have helpful information too, but international flight is a far cry from driving to the port.  To calm down that apprehension, we have international flight tips gained from frequent flights across the pond that absolutely do work for us.

It is entirely possible to have the same confidence about getting to the international point of embarkation as we do on close-to-home places.  In this post we focus on European sailings because they are the logical next step after the Caribbean, Bahamas, Mexico or Alaska where getting to the port means a domestic flight. Travelers who normally drive to the port; you’re another topic entirely and we’ll get to you later.

Frankly, an international flight is a huge, quantum leap from a drive to your local homeport or short flight around North America. But that does not mean it has to be scary and rewards are totally worth it.  Simply put: Taking that leap to international travel can literally open up the entire world for us, much like the world of cruise vacations has opened up travel in general to so many who might not have experienced it otherwise.    Hang on to that thought; it’s important and odds are you will need to refer to it from time to time during your journey.

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Pre-Flight Planning

Part of the trick to enjoying an international flight comes from some must-do preflight activities.

  • A Good Strategy For Occasional Travelers- Book as far in advance as possible and with as few stops as possible. That just makes the long travel day a bit shorter. For occasional travelers, this is much more important than for those who do it frequently and are used to the routine of international flights.
  • Allow Plenty Of Time Between Connections– On domestic flights we want 2 hours between connections to allow for flight delays on either end, especially in the winter and especially if passing through an interesting airport. On international flights we bump that up to a preferred 3 hour window of time between flights.  That extra hour is because international flights begin boarding an hour before departure and a re-check of your passport is normally required.  The airline is not going to let that flight leave unless they know all passengers on board will be able to enter the country they are flying to.  Another good reason to leave plenty of time between connections is so that your checked luggage can also make it to the next flight, along with you.  We learned this lesson the hard way, barely making a very close connection in Miami, running to the next gate.  It never crossed our minds that our luggage might not have had the same sense of urgency until we got to Barbados and it did not.
  • Lock Down The Documentations Needed–  At the same time the booking is made, find out any special documentation you might need to board the ship.   On rare occasions, travelers might be required to satisfy special entry requirements. U.S. citizens normally don’t need more than a U.S. passport for most European river cruises or Mediterranean ocean cruises. An upcoming sailing I have on Azamara Club Cruises begins and ends in Istanbul.  I needed a visa for that and got it in about 2 minutes online, $20.  Still, all cruise lines and travel agencies are all quick to point out that it is the traveler’s responsibility to be sure and have the correct documentation.  Try to board without it and undocumented travelers will be turned away, given no refund and left on their own to get back home.  A good source to figure that part out: The U.S Department of State’s Safe Traveler Program which offers all the information needed to enter and experience any given country in the world.
  • Protect Your Trip with travel insurance.  Even if you don’t care about the investment made in the travel itself, accidents happen and can add up to $thousands before you know it.   See Travel Insurance: If Not Full Coverage, Medical-Only Is Kind Of A No-Brainer for more.  I rolled the dice, cruise after cruise, electing to skip the recommended travel protection offered by cruise lines and independent third-party companies.  I was one of those people who believed “I saved enough money on travel insurance to pay for a cruise over the years”, and had no use for it.  Traveling frequently though, I bought an annual medical-only coverage plan just to be safe, for about the same price as cruise line insurance on one sailing.
  • Focus on getting plenty of rest and eating right several days before the flight. Sure, maybe we can’t “bank” sleep but starting a long flight with a full tank of rest is always a good idea. International flights to Europe almost always require an overnight flight which you may or may not be able to sleep on.  If the budget allows, increase the odds of a good night’s sleep by booking business class air with seats that lay down completely flat.  A paid upgrade from economy to economy plus with more legroom can be a good value too.
  • Finish packing a week in advance- that offers the opportunity to be sure critical items are packed and allows time to get source those items if they were not packed first time around.  Be sure to identify your luggage with something that will make it easy to see in the airport baggage claim area.  Easy for us when sailing with Viking River Cruises who provides bright red leather Viking River Cruises tags in the pre-cruise documentation package.
  • Consider Traveling With Carry-On Luggage Only- This is one of the most difficult hurdles to get past for occasional travelers and is especially hard for those who drive to the port and have no restrictions on the amount of luggage they take on the ship.  Still, keeping your luggage in your possession for the entire journey absolutely eliminates one of the biggest sources of apprehension for occasional travelers: waiting to see if their luggage made it to the destination.  See Travel With Carry-On Luggage Only: Here’s How for more.  We do this on every single trip, without exception, regardless of where we are going or for how long.
  • Charge! Bringing along electronic devices for entertainment on a long flight is a good idea.  Having back up power to charge all those devices is a good idea too.  Some seats may have plugin power available but determining if yours does or not in advance of flying can be hard to do.  For that we suggest the Hyperjuice Magic Box which can power just about anything, multiple times  See Travel Gear Review: HyperJuice Magic Box for more.  This is a topic much more economically handled in advance rather than at the airport.  In fact, recharging devices at an airport charging station may put you in danger.  See Travel Security: Meet Juice Jacking for more.

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Making It Through The Airport

It makes sense to give a degree of attention to every aspect of international travel, including arriving at and going through the airport, either at home or abroad.   Advance consideration of what travelers are about to experience goes a long way.

  • Print Boarding Passes In Advance- as simple as this may sound, it is one of the most commonly missed parts of travel that has occasional travelers lined up at service desks and self-service kiosks at airports in a totally avoidable line.  Once flights are booked and seats selected, look again occasionally to see if other seats opened up that might be more comfortable, when at home.  At the airport, have your passport and boarding pass in hand, even if planning to use the airline app on a smartphone to board.  The paper version is always there and easy to hand to security personnel and airline employees.  Keep boarding passes for connecting flights handy too.
  • Consider your one personal carry-on item your “flight bag” and have everything that might be needed during the flight in it.  Unless flying in business class, space to move around will be limited.  Having everything needed right at hand, under the seat in front of you, is huge and a must-do for all international flights.  Better yet, try traveling with carry-on luggage, see Travel With Only Carry On Luggage: Here’s How for exactly how to do that.
  • Consider a travel vest and make that a ScotteVest.  I have been wearing a travel vest for years; an article of clothing that holds my cell phone, wallet, passport, loose change and just about anything else that might set off a metal detector at airport security checkpoints. Simply take off the vest and run it through the scanner for an easy security check. Better yet, that vest will carry just about everything needed in flight. With a multitude of pockets, my passport is always in one secure pocket, my smartphone always in another, etc.  That’s important when making your way through airports and around places you are not familiar with.   See Travel Gear Review: ScotteVest Travel Vest Has Blown My Mind.
  • On the plane, those well-thought out plans will pay off in a more enjoyable flight.  Still, there are parts of flying that can’t be anticipated so flexibility is important  Bring along good ear plugs if kids crying bothers you.  Kids cry, be prepared.  I once had crying kids on both sides of me and in back on a long international flight. Ear plugs saved someone’s life that day.  Need darkness to sleep on a long flight?  The flight crew will do their best to get all the window shades shut, will dim the cabin lights and set the stage for your best chance to get some sleep.  Then there is the idiot who is oblivious to it all and has got to have the brilliant outside light inside.  Eye shades.
  • Protect Yourself from germs with Nozin nasal sanitizer on the plane. I buy and use this product and it really works.  Also use plenty of hand sanitizer use throughout the trip, every step of the way and bring along a nice little bottle of hand lotion as alcohol based hand sanitizers will dry out hands.   Equally important: protect your health by making a conscious effort to stay hydrated.  No, you can not bring bottled water from home but an empty sports bottle that holds water will be allowed to go through security checkpoints.  Once through, look for water bottle filling stations, water fountains or just keep it handy so filling can be done in flight.  Be double safe, ignore the high price of bottled water in airports and buy some anyway.  Normally not a problem for flight attendants to fill up.
  • Never Pack Anything In A Checked Bag That You Can’t Live Without– After two different airlines on two different trips lost our luggage, we now use carry-on luggage exclusively.

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In Flight On Your International Flight

Once the aircraft has taken off and reached cruising altitude on an international flight, service begins.  Expect the flight crew to first come through with a warm towel to wash hands, followed by beverages and a snack of some sort.  Next will be dinner, followed by another swing through the cabin with drinks before lights go out for the overnight flight. The process is similar regardless of which part of the aircraft one has booked.  Still, there are a few actions occasional travelers can take to make the process smoother, the flight more enjoyable and help adjusting to the time difference in Europe easier.

  • Order A Special Meal- Airlines offer even occasional travelers the ability to order a special meal other than the customary chicken, beef or perhaps pasta selections generally offered to everyone else.  Occasional travelers with special dietary needs need to take them up on that offer for sure.  But other travelers, those who want to avoid a type of food that may keep them from sleeping well, can take advantage of this offering as well.  Low-Fat, Vegan, Kosher, Fruit-only and other selections are possible when made in advance.  Try to do that a couple weeks before flight then check that reservation again at one week prior to flight to be sure your request stuck in the airline system.  A bonus: Those with special meal requests are usually served first.
  • Skip The Alcohol- As much as the complimentary alcoholic beverages may seem like a great idea when flying internationally, alcohol is also a whole lot of sugar that can come back to hinder efforts to sleep on the plane.  This was a very difficult move for me to make but one that absolutely paid off.  After an international flight, I hit the ground running and have little if no jet lag issues if I was able to sleep on the flight.  For me, that seems to be the key.  Rolling into sleep in a way as close to how we do it on land, when in the air, has a huge effect on the first day or two overseas.
  • Get Comfy- Bring comfortable socks, take off your shoes and perhaps wear a comfortable outfit or change into one as soon as possible after becoming airborne.  Adjust overhead air vents to a comfortable position.  If by chance there is a person coughing extraordinarily on the other side of the aircraft, point that air in their direction to help keep germs away.
  • Have A Flight Bag (or the above mentioned flight vest) that has everything you will need during the flight contained in it.  Include medications needed before landing, hand sanitizer, whatever you will be entertaining yourself with, smartphone, headphones, etc.  The point is to avoid going into your carryon luggage at all, for any reason.


Coming Home On Your International Flight

Cruise CompeteAdmittedly, this is the worst part of any trip but the nature of international travel does offer some distinct advantages.  For one, occasional travelers who follow the abovementioned tips will have smooth sailing on and off the aircraft.  In flight, they maximize the experience too and that allows time for reflection on the adventure they have taken.  That’s important.  Reflecting on the experience while it is fresh in our minds can illuminate parts of the travel process we might do differently next time.   Considering where we were and what we did, we can make plans for the future to return to that part of the world (or not), branch out to different places, repeat the mode of travel or try something different.  That long flight back home provides a nice buffer of time between travel and returning to the real world too.  Still, there are some ways to make being assimilated back into our normal lives a bit easier as well.

  • Consider Global Entry-  One of the best travel investments we ever made, screened and cleared travelers breeze back into the return to the United States, check in via an easy to use kiosk as opposed to standing in a long line.  Global Entry-approved travelers always go through the normally-shorter TSA Precheck line when boarding a flight from a U.S. airport.  The $100 per person fee grants these benefits for five years.  Click here for more information about the Trusted Traveler Network.  I bring this up when addressing the concerns of occasional travelers because if they do it right, they will want to do it again.
  • Space For Gifts and Souvenirs- On the way to a winter river cruise from Florida, we packed our cold weather gear in checked luggage to be retrieved and worn upon arrival in Germany.  On the way back, we will wore some of those clothes, making space for gifts and souvenirs picked up along the way.   Another option offered increasingly abroad is to ship gifts back home, especially liquid gifts which are difficult to transport.
  • Enjoy the experience that international flights can offer in and of themselves.  Flight attendants or other passengers have wonderful stories to tell when they have some time that can add a richness to our travels.  I have no data to back it up but swear that flight attendants on international flights are more pleasant and approachable than on domestic flights.
  • Maybe You Don’t Return At All-  The nature of international travel, very much like a good cruise vacation anywhere, can have life-changing effects on us as individuals.  Just back from a trip abroad, we may be eager to catch up on our shows, see the neighbors again, reconnect with pets and family members (not necessarily in that order) and get back into our normal routine. A friend of ours, Matt Long from LandLopers seems to be traveling continually, loves it but is quick to say “I love to travel, but I love coming home.” And so will you…perhaps with a different outlook on life there and surely a different view of our world.

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Chris Owen
Chris Owen
Chris Owen is a travel writer from Orlando Florida who shares frank, inside information about cruise vacations with fellow Cruise Addicts.

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