Pre-departure Series: Flights

There are tons of things to do before you travel, but some of those things are arguably more important than others. They are essential to get you where you are going and they take planning ahead of time to be done right. In my opinion, as someone who has traveled a lot and spent time working in the CoF International Programs office, one of the biggest priorities and stressors of the predeparture phase of travel is flights. 

Looking for Flights

Usually international travel requires flights of some kind. International flights can be complicated to manage and expensive. The best thing to do is start looking at flights as early as possible to get you the best price and best layover destinations and lengths.

The first thing you need to know is when you need to arrive at your final destination and when you can leave (if you are booking a round-trip flight). It’s important to verify these details with your program’s coordinator before booking your flight – you don’t want to arrive late or leave too early! An important thing to remember is that most of the world writes dates as day/month/year so make sure you are booking your flights for the correct dates.

Another thing to keep in mind is the time difference at your location. Depending on where you are going, your flight might arrive on a different day (like if you are crossing the International Date Line), so make sure you leave yourself enough time.

Finally, check which airport you are arriving to – some big cities have more than one airport and sometimes one of them is a lot farther away from town than the other. Make sure you know which one you are arriving at and make sure your next flight leaves from the same airport so you don’t have to transfer between them!

Finding Cheaper Fares

If price is important to you, finding the cheapest flight can take a lot of work too. It’s a good idea to check all available flights to your destination on every airline, that way you can compare who has the best layovers, departure and arrival times, and prices.

This is easy to do through booking sites like Expedia, Kayak, or Google Flights. These can show you the cheapest flights. Certain sites, like Google Flights, allow you to put a tracker on the flights that sound best so you can be notified when the prices change. 


Another important thing about international flights is layovers. It is usually rare to find a direct flight to your destination, unless you are leaving from a big city and arriving at one. So, if you have to have layovers, plan them very carefully.

First, make sure you don’t need a transit visa – this is a document sometimes required to give a traveler permission to pass through a country, but not stay there. Also make sure that your layovers are long enough. This is crucial because it is likely that every time you enter a new country, you will have to go through some sort of customs and security again. This can take a long time, especially if you have checked a bag and need to recheck it through to your final destination.

When you return to the US, you will have to go through customs at your first port of entry, regardless of whether or not it is your final destination. All in all, it is best to have layovers of at least 3 hours in length at any port of entry in order to account for any delays in your previous flight, getting through customs and security, and finding your gate in time. This is especially important if you have not traveled a lot – airports and flying in general can be confusing and stressful for even experienced travelers, so leave yourself as much time as you can.

If your layover is really long, you may want to leave the airport and get a place to stay for the night or explore your layover destination. Make sure you have enough time! It is recommended that if you want to get a place to sleep for the night, make sure you have at least a 15-hour layover so that you have enough time to exit the airport, find your accommodations, rest, and then check back into the airport and get through security before your plane leaves!

To Carry-On or Check Your Bags

This is always a big question when our students travel. This really depends on where you are going and how long you will be gone. Most international flights allow for one personal item and one carry-on, along with one free checked bag, so you have options.

If you are traveling to a remote location by multiple modes of transport or will be moving around a lot, you will need to travel lighter, so packing into easy-to-handle carry-on bags might be better. If you will only be gone for a shorter period of time, it can be simple to pack into just carry-on bags.

If you take carry-on bags only, you can only bring travel-size liquids (except for medically necessary ones), so make sure to consider that. If you are going somewhere for a longer period of time or will be staying in one place, it might be fine to check a bigger bag. Checking a bag or not can also depend on what you will be doing. If you need to bring specialized gear, then you might have more to bring and need a bigger bag. 

Planning and booking international flights can be an complicated process for even experienced travelers, so it’s totally normal to feel intimidated and a little anxious. Take your time, research all your options, and get started early – and once you have accomplished this step, you’ll be that much closer to a great adventure!

Looking for more pre-departure info? Check out of Pre-departure To-Do List for a comprehensive list of things to consider before you go!

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