Travel tips: Navigating American airports

Navigating American airports for non-English speakers

Flying can be stressful even if you have experience. It can be harder if you are flying in or out of a foreign country. If you are a non-English speaker (or learning), there are a few things that will help you navigate an American airport.
The busiest airports in the U.S. are Atlanta International Airport, Los Angeles International, O’Hare International, Dallas/Ft Worth International, and John F. Kennedy International. The bigger and busier ones are not always the best. One of the best airports is in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but many international fliers don’t land or take off from there! Some airports, like others around the world, are so big that they have moving sidewalks and trams. So how do you know how to navigate your way around?

As soon as you book

Check the entry requirements. For example, if you’re flying to the U.S., you will need to apply for a visa waiver. Click here to see if you need one. Is your passport about to expire? Some countries need a certain amount of time left on your passport to enter the country.
For example, according to the U.S. Embassy in Spain, “Entry into any of the 26 European countries in the Schengen area for short-term tourism, a business trip, or in transit to a non-Schengen destination, requires that your passport be valid for at least three months beyond your intended date of departure.”
They suggest that you have six months remaining on your passport to be safe. You don’t want to get turned away at the check-in counter! It’s always a good idea to make a few copies of your passport. Keep one at home and one with you.

The night before you fly

Go online and confirm your flight the night before your departure. If there is a change, make sure it doesn’t affect any connecting flights. You may also be able to check in online and print your boarding pass. Some airlines offer 24 or 48-hour check-in.
Also, check the weight and size of your bags. Different airlines have different restrictions. You may be within the size limits for an international carry-on but not for an inter-Europe flight. If that is the case, they could charge you extra if your bag is over the limit. You can find the size and weight restrictions on the airline’s website.
Know what items you can bring It’s also important to check what you can and cannot bring with you. For a complete list, visit the TSA website. Here are some of items allowed in carry-on or checked bags:
Electronic cigarettes (E-cigs) and vaping devices: carry-on only
Lighters: carry-on only (OK checked bags if empty)
Baseball bats: checked only
Golf clubs: checked only
Hockey sticks and lacrosse sticks: checked only
Ice skates/roller blades: checked & carry-on OK
Ski poles: checked only
Knives: checked only
Scissors: checked only
Mace, pepper spray or other self-defense sprays: checked only
Stun gun or taser: checked only
Be sure you check carefully if you want to bring any food products. They will be destroyed if they are not allowed. However, you can bring a sandwich and snacks.
Have your liquids (3.4 oz or less) in a clear plastic zip-locked bag ready to remove for security. If you forgot your bag, they sometimes have them available.

Checking in

It takes time to check in, check baggage, and clear security, so arrive at least two or three hours before your flight. Also, give yourself enough time to return a rental car or take a shuttle to the airport.
Start with finding the departures area. If you forget the words, look for the symbol which shows an airplane taking off or landing. Check the flight status on the television screens to see if your flight has changed. This is especially important during the winter and summer storm seasons.
Next, find your airline check-in counter. Have your boarding pass (if you printed it) and reservation number as well as your passport ready. If you are checking a bag, go to the counter. If you do not have bags to check, you can use a check-in kiosk. Sometimes you have to take a train to get to your gate. Follow the signs; they are clearly marked.
Navigating an American airport for non-English speakers
This is an Amsterdam airport but the language and signs are similar!


Be prepared to stand in a long line! You will need to remove your coat and belt. Some airports require you to remove shoes and jewelry. You can do this while you wait so that you don’t take too long when it’s your turn. Take your laptop (if you have one) and place it in a separate bin.
Buying water can be expensive at an airport. You can bring an empty bottle with you as well as snacks. When you make it through, step aside to collect your items. The only thing left is to follow the signs to your gate!
If you’re late, stay calm. There is usually an airline employee standing at the check-in line. You can say, “Excuse me, I’m late for my flight. It’s scheduled for xx time.” They will usually help you get to the front of the line. Do the same thing when you get to security. They may find you a shorter line. Make sure to thank the people who help you and then run as quickly as you can to your gate. If you miss the flight, ask the first person you find for help. You can say something like, “Excuse me, I missed my flight. Can you tell me where to go?”

When you arrive

When arriving in the U.S. from an international location, follow the signs to baggage claim. Look for the screens that show the flight and belt numbers (the machine that moves luggage). Collect your bags and go to Immigration/Customs. If you’re international flight changes airlines, find out if your baggage needs to be re-checked with the next airline.
When you get to your final destination, don’t hesitate to ask for help. They can tell you how to get to your hotel. Most people at the information desk speak more than one language.
 Navigating American airports for non-English speakers
Look for an information desk if you have any problems!

Lost luggage

Finding your way around an airport and flying doesn’t have to be stressful. Give yourself enough time, plan ahead, and enjoy the adventure. To find out what to do if you lose your luggage, read our blog: Lost luggage.

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