Air travel while being Muslim can get….complicated. While there’s no telling when you might find yourself being interrogated and questioned by the FBI for speaking Arabic, there’s still things you can do to make the journey as painless as possible.
Get to the airport early. If you haven’t budgeted time properly, the smallest delay can derail your entire trip. Just last month, I ended up getting a flat tire on the way to the airport. Alhamdulillah, I had planned my trip to arrive 2 hours early. Even after getting everything in order, I arrived at my gate with more than 20 minutes to spare. In general, aim for arriving around 1-1.5 hrs before your domestic flight at smaller airports and 1.5-2 hrs before your domestic flight at a larger airport. For international flights, arrive 3 hrs early.
Figure out your transportation to and from the airport. If you’re driving, calculate how much it’s going to cost you to park at the airport and if it’s cheaper to Uber there instead. If you’re parking, make sure to note where exactly you parked. Send a text to yourself with the information so it’ll be in your phone when you get back.
If you’ve parked in long term parking, there’ll be a shuttle that’ll take you to departures. Let the driver know which airlines you’re flying. Keep a dollar to tip him if he helps with your bags.
When you arrive at Departures, you’ll see kiosks for each airline. Find yours. If you’re checking in bags, there’ll be a line of ticket agents with a conveyor belt behind them. You can go there to check your bag in. I prefer to avoid checking in bags as much as possible and instead just take a carry-on. It’s cheaper and more convenient. If all you have is a carry-on, you can go to one of the electronic kiosks and print your boarding pass when you check in. Alternatively, you can check in online and have the boarding pass saved as an image on your phone.
If you’re having issues, stay calm. Yelling at the ticket agent or airline employee is not going to make anything better. All it will do is reflect poorly on you as an individual and Muslims as a whole. Be polite and friendly, or at least calm and collected. If you need to be firm, be firm, but never be rude. If an employee goes above and beyond in helping you, thank them by name and tell them you appreciate it.
Now, head to security. If you travel frequently, get TSA precheck. It makes security so much faster. If you don’t, go through the normal security checkpoint. Make sure that you look at which terminal you need to get to and go through that security checkpoint! Get your ID out and have it ready to show when you get to the front of the line. Don’t fumble around for your boarding pass and ID while others are impatiently waiting behind you. If you have your boarding pass on your phone, have it pulled up. If your phone malfunctions and you need to restart it, step to the side and let others go in front of you while you pull it up again.
The TSA officer will scan your boarding pass and look at your ID. Then it’s off to the scanners. Put any carry-on on the conveyor belt. If you’re carrying a suit in a garment bag, hook the hanger onto the handle of your carry-on so they stay together. Empty your pockets into one of the small bins and take off any heavy jackets. If you have TSA precheck, walk on through the scanner. If you don’t, take off your shoes and put them in a bin. Remove your belt and put it into a bin as well. Take any liquids out and put them in a bin. Finally, put your laptop in a separate bin. Then walk through the scanner.
Different airpots have different types of scanner. Just look at what the person in front of you is doing and follow their lead. Usually, a TSA person will waive you forward when you should go. If you hear a beeping sound when passing through, wait a bit. A TSA person will likely come pat you down, handheld scan you, or swap you. Go with the flow. This isn’t the time to complain about racism.
Once you get through the scanner, collect your things from the bin. After you’ve got everything together, head to your gate. If you don’t know where your gate is, look at your boarding pass. If it’s not there, look around for a TV screen that has a list of departing and arriving flights. It’ll have your flight with gate information there. Make your way to the gate. You’ll sit here until it’s time to board. Usually there’re places to buy food while you wait if you’re hungry. They’re usually overpriced and not worth it but hey, sometimes you don’t have a choice. I’d recommend bringing a book or at least loading EPUBs on your phone so that you have something to read while you wait.
Remember, never leave your luggage unattended. Even if it’s for five minutes. My uncle left his luggage by the gate while he went to the bathroom right across from it. He came back to find three security people surrounding it and whispering into their walkie talkies.
Depending on when you’re flight is, you might have a prayer come in and then out while you’re waiting at the gate. Since I’ve been traveling through the winter this last year, it’s happened to me multiple times. Very few American airports have a chapel or prayer room inside the terminal. It makes little sense to go through the hassle of leaving the terminal and then coming back through security a second time, so pray inside the terminal. What I do is walk around until I find a relatively empty gate and then pray there, using my carry-on as a sutrah. Yes, you’re out in the open, but most people are too wrapped up in their own lives to care about what you’re doing. No one’s ever bothered me and once, another Muslim even came and joined me in salah.
If you need to make wudu, I’ve found the best place to make wudu is a family bathroom. Most airports have a men’s bathroom, a women’s bathroom, and a family bathroom in between for changing diapers or breastfeeding or for handicapped people. They’re large, are single-occupancy, and lock behind you. Perfect for when you can’t do masah over your socks and need to put your foot in the sink. When you do this, however, make sure you clean up the bathroom after you’re done. It’s just poor adab to leave the bathroom a mess. After making wudu, run some water in the sink to clear any lint that came off your foot. Take a stack of paper towels and throw them on the ground. Spread them around with your shoe to dry the floor. Use another paper towel to pick them up and throw them away.
Once it’s time to board, wait for your group to be called. There’s no need to be in a rush to get on the plane so don’t knock people over in your haste to get in line. After boarding the plane, head to your seat (unless you’re flying Southwest, in which case, pick any). If you see someone struggling to get their carry-on in the overhead compartment, help them! My sister says that about 90% of the time, the men behind her let her struggle and jump to get her carry-on inside the compartment instead of being gentlemen and helping her put it in. Be the 10%. When you get to your seat, stow your carry-on in an overhead compartment and then settle down for the flight. Don’t stand there in the aisle taking your time. There’s a line behind you and you don’t want to hold them up.
If you’re flying alone and someone asks to switch seats with you, be a gentleman and say yes. Sometimes couples book flights at the last minute and are separated. A seat change makes little difference to you but can make the flight much more enjoyable for them if they’re together.
The pilot will tell you that descent has begun way before it’s relevant to you. Ignore everything until you actually touch down. Actually, I usually keep reading my book until the plane has come to a complete stop. Some people make a big show of getting up as soon as the plane has stopped. There’s no point in hurrying this. You’re not going to leave before the people ahead of you get out. If you’re in the middle or back of the plane, this will take a good few minutes. Make sure you have everything that you came on with and then wait.
Once the people three or four rows ahead of you are opening their overhead bins and getting out, stand up and wait your turn. As the row before you empties out, step into the center and grab your carry-on from the overhead bin. Start walking out. When you exit the plane, smile and say thank you to the stewards/stewardesses. Head to baggage claim or ground transportation. If you don’t know where that is, don’t worry. Just follow where everyone else is going.
If you checked in a bag, get it from baggage claim. You might be waiting a while for it. If you just had carry on, head to ground transportation and find your ride. For Uber or other pick up, make sure you’re standing outside of arrivals and not departures! Find baggage claim and then exit from there instead of going out the first door you see.
That’s all there is to it. The first time you travel alone, it might be a little scary. Insha’Allah, this guide will make it just a little bit easier.