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Arriving by plane

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So you've reawoken the crumpled mass of flesh and bone that was once called your legs and stumbled off the aircraft – you think it's all over? Alas no. However, this article should make those final weary steps through the airport that bit less difficult. See At the airport for an in-depth guide to airports.


Be patient when disembarking. Use the time to look through your seat twice for your belongings. If you have check-in baggage, you will probably need to wait at the baggage claim anyway.

If you arrive at a major airport, there is good and bad news. The good news is that you can hope to exit the plane through a jet bridge, without the discomfort of getting outdoors in unknown weather, climbing down a staircase onto the tarmac. The bad news is that you probably have a lot of walking before you.

If you've flown internationally, before clearing customs, you might have a chance to do duty free shopping. Take note in that article of the benefits and risks.

Arrival checks[edit]

See also: Border crossing

Clearing immigration/passport control upon entering a country is in best case a straight walkthrough; especially if you already have a residence permit, or travel within a border union, such as the Schengen Agreement.

In worst case, you will need to wait, reply to questions, and get your papers examined. If multiple international flights arrive close together, lines can be long. Still, processing is highly refined and straightforward. Have your documents ready, and listen carefully to official instructions. No photographs or videos of the area or process are allowed.

Immigration processing on arrival (i.e., legally entering the country) often precedes or coincides with customs processing, where you declare your possessions and may be checked for contraband.

  • Immigration/passport control is the process of a person legally entering a country. It involves presenting passports (and visas if needed), and can include at least a cursory check of your customs declaration form. You'll be processed as one family, couple or person at a time, with others following you instructed to stay behind a control line until you've finished.
  • Customs must take place after you have claimed your checked baggage. If claimed before immigration, you'll probably receive both processes at once. It often involves just a few questions and usually just a cursory look at the amount of your luggage. Officers are trained to see incongruities.
  • In a few countries such as Australia, separate quarantine checks are performed. These are similar to customs checks but are more focused on determining if food or agricultural goods you are bringing pose a health or safety risk.

At some international airports, you may go through processing for and by officials from your non-stop destination country before you board for your flight. This slows departure processing, but greatly improves processing at arrival.

Baggage claim[edit]

Baggage reclaim at London's Stansted Airport
  • At baggage claim (aka reclaim), many bags look similar. Find the marks, name tags, airline baggage routing tags, or straps that distinguish your bag(s) from others. Then match the tags the airline attached to them to the tags given to you at check-in, to ensure that it is your luggage. Ribbons, stickers and colored straps on your luggage can help identify it, and ensure that someone else doesn't accidentally walk off with it.
    • If you checked a very large or long item, you may find it in the special claim area instead of the regular baggage claim.
  • If your luggage doesn't emerge at a baggage claim position (usually assigned by the airline) after some reasonable time, go to the designated lost luggage counters immediately to ask about it. Be sure to have ready the airline luggage tag stub for your missing luggage that you received at check-in. If not quickly located, be ready to describe what your luggage looks like with as much detail as possible (include colors of the tags/markings/luggage, and especially name tags you applied and printed itineraries inside) to the staff at the counter. (A photograph helps considerably, especially if you face any language barrier.) If still missing after adequate search, file a written claim for it.
    • Make this claim before you leave the airport.
    • In most countries, the airline has the responsibility for delivering any misplaced/lost, checked luggage to you once it has been found...not just to the airport where it was first discovered missing, but to you during your travels or at home. By placing a copy of your itinerary (with dates and specific places you'll stay, e.g., hotels) in each piece of checked luggage, you greatly enhance the probability of receiving it while on your trip.
  • If you believe that you left something on board the aircraft, check with the airline's gate-agent. If no results, proceed to the designated counter/booth/office at the airport that deals with lost items. Returning to the aircraft yourself is normally not allowed after you enter the terminal.

Money: If you've flown to a country that uses different currency, you'll need some usable there. Unless you already have it, get some (very-preferably using an ATM rather than currency-exchange) while at the airport. It may not offer the very best conversion rate available anywhere, but will be quite decent. You may immediately only need enough for trolley rental, taxi fare, incidental tipping, and if necessary, customs tariffs. But the fixed fees charged for a small withdrawal can amount to a substantial percentage of its total cost...enough to easily eclipse the benefit of an excellent rate you may get later for a large withdrawal. Alternatively, check to see if you may be able to use a credit card for all purchases you need to make at the airport. (See Money for details.)

Making a connection[edit]

Your trip may involve an onward flight. You'll need to make the connection, perhaps after immigration/customs processing, or after waiting for your checked bags. In any event, you'll have to reach the gate for your next flight. At worst case, you may have to go outside the secure area (e.g., for immigration/customs), or your connection may involve going to a different terminal...very occasionally a different airport. And if you have mobility needs, let the gate agent know promptly as you get off your flight. These are some of reasons your flight arrangements must provide enough time to make connections.

Details of making a connection include:

  • Knowing the local time. All data about your next flight will be based on it. When your journey involves multiple time zones, the flight purser will usually announce the local time at your port-of-arrival. The local time at your destination is also available from the flight path/airshow channel of your in-flight entertainment system if your flight is equipped with it. You might want to adjust your watch to the time announced to avoid confusion with the timetables at the airport.
  • Check if you have a boarding pass for your next flight. If you don't, you are not considered checked-in for that flight yet, so proceed to a transfer desk immediately to obtain a boarding pass for your next flight. You can avoid this by checking-in online and printing the boarding passes or downloading an electronic version of it to your phone, if your carrier offers these.
  • As above, if you came from an international flight and are continuing on to a domestic flight, you will need to clear immigration/customs. If so, you may have to claim your checked luggage (even if it is checked-through to your final destination), clear immigration/customs, and then re-check it to ensure its loading into your next flight. (Facilities in modern international airports are designed to make this as easy as possible, e.g., if you checked-through your luggage to your final destination, you may see a special lane where you can claim and re-check your luggage without going to the main departure hall.)
  • If your connecting flight was separately booked or on a different airline, your baggage will have to be collected at the intermediate stopover and re-checked by you, possibly in a different terminal, for loading onto the next flight. This may force you to exit the secure area, re-check bags, then go through the personal security check en route to your gate. You may need to get a regular visit visa (as opposed to a transit visa which restricts movement to the airside part of the airport) for the country you are 'transiting' at. All that can demand considerable time...even much of a day or so if you must transfer to another airport. Book (or accept) such connections very carefully. Check to see if the airlines involved in your journey have interline ticketing agreements with each other before booking, it may be cheaper to book them together and bags will be transferred automatically.
  • If you have a boarding pass for your next flight, your baggage is checked-through to the next flight, and you have plenty of time between flights, you may be able to explore the airport or the local area...even dine at a nearby restaurant.
  • If you face a tight connection, airline staff (especially in Asia) may be waiting outside the arrival gate with details of your next flight. They may call your next gate agent to help ensure your connection.
  • As with your first flight leg, be at your boarding gate at least 30 minutes before your next flight commences. Even if you have a few hours before your connecting flight, it's a very good idea to go straight to the gate, especially if you're at an airport you're not familiar with. This way, you familiarize yourself with the terminal and ensure you stay within a good distance of the gate in case you lose track of time.

Direct flights continuing to another destination[edit]

Baggage claim at Paris' Charles-de-Gaulle Airport

Depending on the airport or airline, you will have to either stay in the aircraft, wait in a transit or holding area, or choose between the aforementioned options.

  • If you are asked or choose to stay in the aircraft, remain seated to enable the ground staff to clean the aircraft more quickly.
  • If you are asked to stay at the transit area and allowed to explore the airport, don't stray too far from the gate, especially if the terminal is big, as you may miss important announcements about your flight. Some of these announcements may be broadcast only at the gate area and not to the entire airport. The ground time of an aircraft is usually less than 2 hours, which may not be enough time to familiarize yourself with a big terminal.

Direct international flights with a domestic leg[edit]

In this case, there are 4 main scenarios on when you clear customs and immigration.

  • In some countries like the United States and China, you will have to get off at your first stop in-country and pass through their customs and immigration there before continuing to your final destination, e.g., if your flight is from Los Angeles to Shanghai via Beijing, you will have to get off at Beijing to pass through customs and immigration.
  • In other countries such as Australia and Japan, you may pass through customs and immigration only at your final destination, e.g., if your flight is from Hong Kong to Adelaide via Melbourne on the same plane, you may disembark only into the sterile/holding area at Melbourne and go through customs and immigration at Adelaide).
  • In some cases such as the United Kingdom and EU member states in the Schengen Area, you get off at the first stop in-country or in the Schengen Area for immigration inspection, but you won't need to collect your checked luggage at this point. You will only collect your bags at your final destination and customs inspection will take place there. For example, on a flight from New York City to Edinburgh via London, you will disembark at London and go through the immigration counters set aside for international-to-domestic transfer passengers. You will then end up in the domestic section of the airport and take your flight to Edinburgh, where you collect your bags and go through customs formalities.
  • For flights with a mere re-fueling stopover (e.g. Philippine Airlines flights from the US west coast to Manila via Honolulu/Guam), you will be asked to stay in the aircraft and not allowed to disembark.

Make sure you follow instructions carefully and ask the airline staff if in doubt about anything. If you leave the secure/sterile/holding area when you're not supposed to, it can be very difficult to get back in.

Arrival hall and exit[edit]

See also: Arriving in a new city

Most airports have shops and exchange offices in the arrival hall, for getting food, supplies, or money, without the trouble to get it through the flight or the customs border.

If you are fortunate to be welcomed by friends, a cab driver or someone else, you will meet them in the arrival hall. Be patient; visitors cannot go airside.

Transport opportunities at the airport can differ a lot, and might be confusing. Preferably plan the transport to the final destination, before you leave the airport. Common options are urban rail, bus, taxi, or rental car. Some of these options might be aggressively touted. Increasingly, airports also have high speed rail stations and they may be separate from normal or urban rail stations, so you should look up a plan of the airport before heading to the wrong station and missing your train.

If the airport is large enough to have sealed jet bridges, you have walked through air-conditioned indoor space until now. At the exit door, you will breathe your first outdoor air since you departed (or even since you entered the first airport building). Be prepared to step into warm or cold weather, dry or wet, depending on your destination and the time of year/day.

As the arrival hall is typically open to the public, crime risk might be higher than airside.

Recovering from air travel[edit]

Long walks at the departure airport, followed by a sedentary flight, and long walks under stress at arrival, can give discomfort to anyone, especially feet and legs. You'd best pace yourself, and if you find a seat you might rest 1-2 minutes. Perhaps more important, if you have a flight of several hours, consult friends or do research about how to rest/sleep and avoid jet lag.

Jet lag[edit]

See also: Jet lag

Jet lag is a form of disorientation and fatigue caused by abruptly switching to a different sleeping/waking schedule and different daylight hours. It doesn't follow that the greater the time difference between your origin and destination, the greater the jet lag. Often a short 4-5 hour difference can also be problematic, e.g., if your flight schedule requires you to:

  • Wake very-early to make an early departure.
  • Reach your destination or (more importantly) restful lodging very late.

All can be fatiguing, and take longer to overcome than even a complete reversal of day and night.

Try to get a good night's sleep before your plane trip, and sleep as much as possible during your plane trip. Ignore timezones, movies and entertainment, and just sleep whenever you can. When you arrive at your destination, forget your origin timezone and exist solely by the destination time.

Attempt to have a normal day in terms of the time zone you've flown into. New scientific research suggests that fasting (not eating) can help to overcome Jet Lag by resetting the body's circadian rhythm (biological clock). Not eating 24 or more hours prior to arriving at your destination contributes to feeling less tired once arrived. The light/dark cycles of the earth affect our circadian rhythms, but so do our eating patterns. Rebooting our feeding cycles can mitigate the time warp.

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