Ultimate Guide to Your First USA Flight – Check-In, Transfers…

Petr Novák

“I am traveling to the USA for the first time. How do things work at the airport, what is allowed and prohibited on the plane, and how do airport transfers work?” Are these questions on your mind? Read on. I’ll explain everything you need to know, plus offer many tips backed by years of travel. Like how to choose the best seat on the plane or how to check in.

Ultimate Guide to Your First USA Flight – Check-In, Transfers… | © Petr Novák

  1. Table of Contents
    1. Before Departure: Check-In and Baggage Drop-Off
    2. Security Check and Boarding
    3. In-Flight: Food, Sleep, and Things to Do on the Plane
    4. Disembarkation: Airport Transfer, Luggage…
    5. FAQ about Check-in and Flights to the USA

    Before Departure: Check-In and Baggage Drop-Off

    Arrive at the airport at least 2 hours before your flight. This will provide you with ample time to check in and prepare for any complications. There are three ways to check in.

    1️⃣ Online Check-In

    You can fill in your travel documents or baggage details on the airline’s website or app. You can also select your seats on the plane and print or save your boarding pass. It’s the fastest way to check in, and I personally wouldn’t travel any other way.

    2️⃣ Self Check-In Kiosk

    Some airports and airlines offer touch screens for check-in. The same information is entered here as for online check-in. This option has the advantage of being faster than checking in at the counter.

    3️⃣ Check-In at the Counter

    If you are new to flying, choose this method. When you arrive at the airport, look for your check-in desk. You will find its number on the monitor next to your flight. The check-in desk can be dedicated to one flight or to all flights of a particular airline.

    Present your ticket to the staff at the counter. They will be interested in the booking reference (PNR) on it. It consists of 6 characters made up of numbers and letters – like ASF7WE. Also show them your passport. If all flights are within the Schengen area, an ID will suffice.

    💺 How to Choose Your Seat on the Plane

    You can choose your seat at check-in. If you can communicate in English, try asking for a seat in the exit row. There’s more legroom there, but in the event of an emergency, you are responsible for opening the door. Most airlines charge extra for these seats, so you may not get one.

    If you want to go early for an entrance interview, ask for seats at the front of the plane. Typically, there are more seats available at the back of the plane unless the flight is completely full. There, you can sleep comfortably. For tips on the best seats on the plane, visit Seatguru.com and simply enter your flight code. Personally, I prefer aisle seats because I can move around at any time without disturbing my fellow passengers.

    🧳 How to Check Your Baggage

    Checked baggage (checked luggage, suitcase) is also checked in at the counter. The weight limit for baggage is set by each airline, with one piece weighing up to 23 kg being most common for flights to the USA. Exceeding the limit can lead to hefty charges. Finally, you will receive a boarding pass at check-in.

    If you checked in online or at a kiosk, you simply hand over your suitcase at the check-in counter or baggage drop.

  2. Security Check and Boarding

    Do not misplace your boarding pass. You will need it along with your passport at the security checkpoint where you pass through the screening frame and your hand luggage is x-rayed.

    Mobile phones, laptops, coins, credit cards, necklaces, and other metal items should be placed separately in a basket to go through the X-ray machine. My advice is to either travel without metal jewellery or take it off ahead of time. You will save a lot of time.

    Liquids over 100ml are prohibited and will be confiscated during the inspection. Liquids under this volume must be stored in a single transparent resealable plastic bag with a maximum capacity of 1 litre. Creams, gels, sprays, or perfumes also fall into the category of liquids.

    At some airports, you may be subjected to a random security interview before flying to the USA. You may be asked about your destination, length of stay, finances, or employment. You might also be asked to turn on your laptop or phone. No one is interested in your data; the purpose is to ensure the device isn’t concealing an explosive.

    After the check, you await the opening of your gate, from where you board the plane. Airports have dozens of gates, marked with a number or a letter and a number. You can find your gate on the departure board.

    The gate opens about 30 minutes before departure. Your passport and boarding pass are checked before boarding. You don’t have to worry about ending up like Kevin McCallister in Home Alone, boarding the wrong plane.

    You can kill time at the airport with a cup of coffee or shopping in the duty-free shops. However, you might lose the illusion that they are cheap.

  3. In-Flight: Food, Sleep, and Things to Do on the Plane

    How long is the flight to the USA? It depends on your point of origin and destination. A direct flight from Western Europe to America typically takes approximately 6-8 hours, while a flight with a stopover takes 10-13 hours.

    After boarding, stow your hand luggage in the overhead compartment. You can also place it under the seat in front of you, but you’ll lose valuable legroom. Experienced travelers refrain from blocking the aisle while stowing their bags and removing their shoes once they’re seated.

    During the flight, you can watch videos, play games, read, or listen to music. Before each trip, I download a few movies to my phone and watch them using wireless headphones. While there is a screen in each seat, the video and, especially, audio quality leave much to be desired. I prefer using it to view flight information such as the map, speed, or footage from the cameras on the plane’s fuselage. These days, it’s standard to have a USB connector at each seat. Some airlines even offer an electrical outlet and Wi-Fi, though internet connectivity usually incurs a charge.

    Food on the plane is included in the ticket price, unless you’re flying with a low-cost airline. On flights to the USA, the first meal is usually served shortly after departure and the second before arrival. Two main course options, accompanied by a salad, pastries, dessert, and water, is the usual fare.

    Drinks are served separately and can be requested at any time during the flight. Soft drinks, wine, and beer are usually complimentary, while hard liquors typically incur a charge.

    For sleeping on the plane, you can use the unoccupied seats in the middle section. If you stake them out early, you can stretch out across a few of them. Each passenger is provided a pillow and blanket. Some people find that sleeping pills, a face mask, or a glass of wine aid their sleep. I’ve found it useful not to sleep at all before flying to the USA. Once, I fell asleep while eating, slept through the entire flight, and arrived in Los Angeles feeling refreshed.

    On the flight to the USA, the flight attendants will give you a customs declaration form. Fill it out on the plane and submit it when you land. When the plane touches the runway, refrain from clapping. Just as customers at Tesco’s do not applaud the cashier when she correctly scans the chicken. ☺️

  4. Disembarkation: Airport Transfer, Luggage…

    For flights with stopovers, whether all your flights are on one booking significantly matters. Different companies may operate flights.

    One booking: You check your bags at check-in and collect them at the first USA airport. There you will undergo an interview and, if you are flying onwards, you will check in your suitcase again. You handle your transfers in Europe and on your next stopover in the USA. When flying home from the USA, you check in your suitcase at the first airport and pick it up at your final destination. No interview is required.

    Multiple bookings: You pick up your suitcase at the final destination of each booking. This applies to flights in both directions. In addition, you must pick up your suitcase at the first USA airport where you are interviewed. You must check in separately for each reservation.

    Follow the “Flight Connections” or “Transfer” signs when you disembark the plane. Some places will check your documents even if you don’t leave the transit area. If you have to change terminals, use the metro, train, or bus. This will almost certainly be followed by a security check of you and your hand luggage.

    ⌛ Minimum Transfer Times at Different Airports

    The required transfer time is primarily determined by the size of the airport. If you will be transferring to another terminal, have checked baggage and will undergo an entry interview, it is further increased.

    The times shown in the table indicate individual airports as the lowest possible under ideal conditions. D indicates a domestic flight, I an international flight. The first letter is the flight you arrived on, the second letter is the flight you are connecting to. So, for example, ID indicates a combination of arriving on an international flight and continuing on a domestic flight.

    Airport DD DI ID II
    🇳🇱 Transfer in Amsterdam 25 min. 50 min. 50 min. 50 min.
    🇺🇸 Transfer in Atlanta 55 min. 60 min. 90 min. 90 min.
    🇪🇸 Transfer in Barcelona 30 min. 60 min. 90 min. 90 min.
    🇩🇪 Transfer in Berlin 30 min. 60 min. 90 min. 90 min.
    🇺🇸 Transfer in Boston 40 min. 60 min. 90 min. 75 min.
    🇧🇪 Transfer in Brussels 20 min. 50 min. 50 min. 50 min.
    🇺🇸 Transfer in Chicago (O’Hare) 50 min. 75 min. 90 min. 90 min.
    🇩🇰 Transfer in Copenhagen 30 min. 45 min. 45 min. 45 min.
    🇩🇪 Transfer in Düsseldorf 35 min. 35 min. 35 min. 35 min.
    🇩🇪 Transfer in Frankfurt 45 min. 45 min. 45 min. 45 min.
    🇫🇮 Transfer in Helsinki 20 min. 30 min. 40 min. 35 min.
    🇹🇷 Transfer in Istanbul 30 min. 75 min. 90 min. 75 min.
    🇵🇹 Transfer in Lisbon 45 min. 60 min. 60 min. 60 min.
    🇬🇧 Transfer in London (Heathrow) 30 min. 60 min. 90 min. 90 min.
    🇺🇸 Transfer in Los Angeles 70 min. 90 min. 120 min. 120 min.
    🇪🇸 Transfer in Madrid 30 min. 60 min. 90 min. 90 min.
    🇺🇸 Transfer in Miami 55 min. 60 min. 90 min. 90 min.
    🇩🇪 Transfer in Munich 45 min. 45 min. 45 min. 45 min.
    🇺🇸 Transfer in New York (JFK) 60 min. 75 min. 105 min. 120 min.
    🇫🇷 Transfer in Paris (CDG) 30 min. 60 min. 90 min. 90 min.
    🇮🇸 Transfer in Reykjavik 30 min. 45 min. 45 min. 45 min.
    🇮🇹 Transfer in Rome (Fiumicino) 45 min. 60 min. 60 min. 45 min.
    🇸🇪 Transfer in Stockholm (Arlanda) 30 min. 60 min. 90 min. 90 min.
    🇦🇹 Transfer in Vienna 30 min. 30 min. 30 min. 30 min.
    🇵🇱 Transfer in Warsaw 35 min. 50 min. 60 min. 40 min.
    🇨🇭 Transfer in Zurich 40 min. 40 min. 40 min. 40 min.

    These times should be considered as best-case scenarios, and you should factor in additional time in case of unforeseen delays. An immigration interview at a busy US airport can add an extra 30-60 minutes to the time required.

    For longer layovers, it’s feasible to leave the airport and explore the city, though you will have to go through security checks again upon your return. If your layover is less than 4-5 hours, it may not be worthwhile to leave the airport. In such cases, I would recommend opting for an airport lounge if possible, where you can eat, relax, and even take a shower in some locations.

    At some airports, you will undergo a pre-interview before flying to the US. This is the case at airports like Amsterdam, where the airline pays for a private company to conduct the interview. The aim is to identify passengers who may be denied entry to the US and would have to return home at the airline’s expense. This pre-clearance process is designed to reduce these costs.

  5. FAQ about Check-in and Flights to the USA

    How do I pack my suitcase for the USA?

    When travelling to the USA, I recommend setting aside space for an additional suitcase so you can bring souvenirs back from your trip. Utilize a TSA-certified lock to secure your suitcase; otherwise, it may be damaged during a random check. Personally, I prefer using cable ties rather than locks.

    What can I take on the plane 2024?

    Carry all cash, credit cards, cameras, and other electronic devices in your carry-on bag. Keep your personal medications in reasonable quantities with you as well.

    What can’t I take on the plane 2024?

    Knives, alcohol, and other liquids should be stored in your checked suitcase. Put all items that you won’t need during the flight and stopovers in your checked baggage. Your back will thank you. From experience, I recommend packing a large water bottle in your suitcase. You’ll be thirsty when you land, and airport snacks can be costly.

    Do they check electronics at airports?

    During an airport security check, as part of anti-terrorism measures, laptops, tablets, or mobile phones might be examined for functionality. Ensure your devices are charged so they can be turned on if requested. Note that illegal movies and downloaded music are not typically checked.

    How is baggage collection at the airport handled?

    Follow the “Baggage Claim” signs; unloaded luggage is circulated on long conveyor belts. Suitcases from one flight are typically placed on the same belt, which may occasionally be shared by multiple flights. The relevant carousel number is displayed on the screens.

    How does immigration control work in the USA?

    The entry interview aims to identify and prevent entry of individuals who may be undesirable to the USA. These include individuals who have previously been deported, intend to work illegally, or commit crimes. All foreigners are screened at their first port of entry in the USA.

    I have a typo in my name on my ticket, is this a problem?

    The International Air Transport Association forgives up to three errors in a name. More than that might present an issue and could necessitate paying a change fee or booking a new ticket.

    Can they open my suitcase at the airport?

    At some airports, checked baggage is randomly tested for explosives. Luggage may be opened for this process and afterwards will be resealed and accompanied by an informational leaflet. Airports generally recommend using TSA locks. However, I advise using cable ties and storing an extra one inside the suitcase.

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