Applying to universities involves so many deadlines that it's easy to lose track of other important dates; one of them being your flight travel date. The often 20-hour flight is long and tiring, so planning ahead of time will save you a lot of unnecessary anxiety later on.
10 tips to make your flight plan easy and comfortable.
1. First of all, book the ticket at least two months before your travel date. You don't have to pay for the ticket when you book it. Some travel agents require you to pay the money only two weeks before travel. Universities usually send the I-20s about two months before they expect you to be here. This gives you ample time to decide on your university of choice.
Once you have made your decision of where you plan to go, select three to four dates that will be convenient to you. Never put your bet on just one date -- you may not get it. Also try to pick week days as weekends tend to be busier.
2. Ask for student concessions. It is a peak time for airlines and so they naturally compete with each other. Generally, all airlines will come up with some sort of discount offer for students, so ask for it before you pay up. The discounts may be in the form of money or extra baggage allowance. If the latter is the case, double check. In some countries, the government has laws about baggage allowance. Just because an airline lets you carry extra luggage doesn't necessarily mean it's also the law.
3. If you have any special dietary requirements, do let the airline know about it, well in advance. This can be done when you book the tickets. Remember that you will travel to countries where being a non-vegetarian is very common. There have been many funny incidents where the food did not turn out to be what was expected (The 'cheeseburger' stories are priceless!). Most airlines have options for vegetarian, low salt, etc.
4. Find out the nearest airports you could travel to -- both international and domestic. When you fly into the US, for instance, you will first fly into a major international hub (called 'port of entry'), like New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, etc. You may still have to travel from there to reach your final destination. Confirm with your travel agent about flight availability. In some universities, student associations arrange for pickups from major hubs, so it will be a good idea to contact your student organisation.
5. Make sure the travel agent who books the ticket for you knows exactly what the flight schedule is. Be ABSOLUTELY clear about:
All airports on your flight plan, with flight numbers, and terminal and gate numbers.
Travel time from airport A to airport B.
Transit time at airport B before you depart for airport C.
Parents are often worried when they do not hear from their children, at a time that they are expected to have reached here. The reason is usually that they are not aware of transit times. Also keep in mind that you are changing time zones. The time mentioned in your flight plan is always with respect to local time of that airport.
6. A direct flight is best. Try to make your port of entry as close to your university as possible. This is also helpful because once you are in the US, and you fly from one city to another, your baggage may be treated as domestic baggage. Considering the luggage you bring, it will now be excess and you'll have to pay for the extra baggage. Remember that this happens only if you stop en route for a day or more (to perhaps visit someone). If you are transiting in the US, then you don't have to worry about excess baggage.
7. If a change of airline can't be avoided, do leave at least a 4 to 6 hour gap between the scheduled arrival of one flight and the scheduled departure of the connecting flight. Delays are to be expected on international flights, and you don't want to be stuck in a country you have no clue about.
8. If you are going to take multiple flights, try to pick airlines that are part of a common alliance (Star Alliance, SkyTeam, Oneworld). Basically these are airlines that operate under a category called code-sharing. For example, you may fly on Gulf Air to Europe and on American Airlines from there to the US although you may just have a Gulf Air ticket. Booking tickets with airlines in an alliance saves you money.
9. Be very informed about the trip. Airport regulations are getting to be more and stricter by the day. A rule in one airport may not be the same in another. For example, from the author's experience London's [Images] Heathrow airport allows only one cabin baggage, while in the US two cabin bags are allowed. The best way to be informed is to go to the Web sites of the airports and read the rules (every international airport has a Web site).
10. If you are transiting in a country, be fully aware of the rules for transiting passengers. For example, in London, if you are transiting and have to be in the airport for until 24 hours they may issue a transit visa. However if you stay beyond 24 hours, then it is your responsibility to get a visa before you arrive. If you don't have one, the airport authorities may even put you on a flight back home. This becomes important when some students take advantage of the transit time to visit a family member or friend, since they may be allowed to go outside the airport. This is fine; just make sure that you stick to the rules.
Stephen James is a graduate student, class of 2008, from Texas A&M University, USA.