Catching Flights, Not Feelings: An Anxious Traveler's Guide

Three rules to keep calm when traveling

I flew roughly 6,000 miles this summer between my trip to Paris and my internship in New York City, notto mention the weekly train rides from the city to Connecticut. Needless to say,      it was a lot of travel. Travel may be the worst anxiety trigger for me -- loud, busy airports, delays, fighting for space and total unpredictability, all while lugging 20 pounds of luggage behind me. I also have a long-distance boyfriend, for whom I have to fly at least four times a year to see. You could say all this travel has made me something of a traveling-while-anxious guru. And even though the thought of an airport on Thanksgiving weekend still makes me shiver, I would have to agree.

On my flight home from New York a few weeks ago, I had an issue with my boarding pass and had to go to the help desk for assistance. While I waited for an agent to help me, I overheard them discussing another passenger who needed to be moved to the front of the line. The girl in question looked to be about my age and had only an hour until her international flight to Ecuador. Just hearing this made me anxious -- I leave four hours early for domestic flights. She got to the front of the line and was immediately told that she’d have to pay $300 for her third checked bag, which she did with the most defeated look. She made some of the most cardinal mistakes of travel, all of which you can avoid by reading my rules for anxious travel below.

Understand the basic terms

I’ve been flying my whole life, but it took taking solo trips for me to really understand the basics of airports. They’re extremely complicated and not easily navigable for new or anxious travelers. I’ve broken down some of the travel terminology so even the most inexperienced traveler can have a calm experience.

Check-in: Most airlines in the U.S. have an online check-in process beginning 24 hours before your boarding time. Checking in early will allow you to confirm your reservation,and some airlines will assign seats after check-in. You can also pre-check bags and pay online to streamline the process for when you arrive and download your e-boarding pass to your phone.

Terminal: The terminal is the entrance from the outside into the airport where you will start the process of checking in your bags and heading through security. Each terminal has multiple gates. Smaller airports may only have one terminal, while major airports split up terminals based on airline and domestic or international travel and may have trams running through the airport to get you from terminal to terminal.

Security/TSA: In U.S. airports, security lines require you to show your boarding pass and ID to the agent at the front. Make sure all your liquids are under three ounces and in a plastic bag. You’ll take off your shoes and jacket, put all your electronics in a separate container from your other belongings and walk through the metal detector. Understanding what the security line requires before you get in line helps the process go smoothly and quickly.

Customs: When you arrive from an international flight, you will have to go through customs, which is where the country’s border enforcement stamps your passport and asks you why you’re visiting. Understanding each country’s particular questions and practices is helpful -- you don’t want to accidentally say something that invites suspicion or confusion. Things like how much cash you’re carrying, what foods you brought with you or your immigration status are all things you should fully understand before walking up to the customs agents.

Gate: Your gate is the location where you’ll wait for and board your flight. Screens will usually tell you you’re at the right location and gate agents will make any announcements you need to know about. From there, just relax and board your flight when the time comes!

Pack the right way

We’ve all seen frantic travelers trying to shove clothes from one overstuffed bag into another at the airport. Packing for trips is an art form, one that can be perfected with the right tools. Using a packing checklist app (I use PackPoint) will make sure you don’t forget the essentials.

Select your suitcase size based on the season; choose bigger for cool months, as coats and sweaters take up more space than swimsuits, and determine whether you’ll have access to a washing machine on this trip. Finally, based on the length of your trip, choose either a carry-on-sized suitcase or a checked bag. Make sure you’re aware of the weight limits on checked bags; most airlines will charge a flat fee of around $30 for a bag under 50 pounds, so pack accordingly. Avoiding money-related surprises at the airport is essential to staying relaxed.

Most importantly, you need a backpack or purse with interior pockets to carry your essential items: a driver’s license/passport for identification, your wallet with both cash and credit or debit cards and your boarding pass. Make sure all of them are easily accessible,and when one of these gets handed back to you, put it directly in its correct spot. This will ensure you don’t lose track of important documents and make the whole process a little faster.

Chargers, headphones and snacks are also a good idea for your personal bag. I learned my lesson this summer when the airport tried to charge me $13 for a bag of Cheez-Its.

Leave early, but not too early

The general guidelines for travel are to arrive at the airport two hours before a domestic flight and at least three before an international flight, but airports can be unpredictable. You might be selected for a random search, wait in a long line or have an issue with your boarding pass. This unpredictability is why I like to arrive at least two and a half hours before a domestic flight and four before an international flight. Missing a flight because of a random occurrence is maddening and a huge waste of time and money. Making sure to leave home at the appropriate time -- calculated based on your distance from the airport and traffic predictions -- will ensure that a minor road blockage won’t prevent you from the trip of a lifetime. More often than not, I end up a little bored waiting for my flight, but I can guarantee that a half hour of boredom beats desperately running through a crowded airport with 30 pounds of luggage in hand.

Traveling will never exactly be a zen experience for me, but getting the basics down will ensure that no extra stress will follow you on your trip.