How to Turn up at the Airport and Take the Next Flight Out

Some posts contain affiliate links. I make a small commission if you buy from my links, at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting my site.

Double departure board at airport

It’s a fantasy for many people, myself included, to pack a bag, turn up at the airport and take the next flight out, and after three months in the UK I’ve been itching more than ever to pack a bag and go. However, after giving some thought to such a whimsical way of jetting off I have come to realise it’s a bit more difficult in practice than you might think. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible – if there’s even the remotest possibility that your flighty feet might one day put you in the exciting position of turning up at the airport and taking the next flight out, here are my tips for making it happen in the smoothest (and cheapest) way possible.

1. Get your vaccinations in advance

If the last vaccination you had was a tetanus jab when you hit your hand with a rusty hammer aged 13 (I still have the scar), you’ve instantly wiped out a large number of countries you can safely visit. So, make sure your travel vaccinations are up to date. Typhoid, diphtheria, rabies, malaria, the alphabet of Hepatitis (A, B and C), tetanus, the list goes on. I’m no doctor but as a frequent flyer, I’m in favour of getting them all (still yet to tick off Japanese Encephalitis).

Keep in mind that many vaccinations need a couple of weeks to take effect and some require more than one injection over a period of time e.g. rabies.

Not sure which ones you might need? I really like this site for its ease of navigation and clear advice: Fit for Travel.

2.  Think about visas

Passport visa stamp

There are plenty of places around the world that don’t require a visa to enter – the entirety of Europe and much of Southeast Asia for  European passport holders. Equally helpful, many countries will let you enter for a small fee at the border. However, there are still a number of places where you need to apply for a Visa in advance – China, Vietnam, Russia and India come immediately to mind. And that presents a real practical problem. If you really want the no-holds-barred feel when you hit the airport, the only way to do it is to get all of the visas in advance, but do you really want to do that? Not only can it be expensive, your passport will be detained in one embassy after another for potentially weeks or longer and, in some cases, this won’t prove effective as some visas require specific travel dates while other visas expire within a set period after they are granted.

The reality: there are simply some countries that don’t lend themselves to impulsive travel and to avoid disappointment you should dismiss them as a possibility before you get to the airport.

3. Pack for all occasions

Packing for the Caribbean and finding yourself in Ushuaia is going to cause some comfort issues. If you really are going to take the next flight out, you should make sure you’re prepared for all weather conditions and terrains. If money is no object, by all means, turn up at the airport with an empty bag, your toothbrush and leave clothing purchases until you get to your destination or do some airport shopping, but money is limited for most people so the best advice is to pack a little of everything – bikinis, thermals, flip-flops, hiking boots, sunscreen and a waterproof jacket. You get the point. (I like to think of it as the same kind of packing I would do for a weekend away in England.)

4. Think about budget

palm trees in front of beach

‘That will be $6,400’ please. If it turns out the next flight is to Mustique and the last seat on the plane is in First Class, you’re going to find your travel budget depleted quite quickly. And availability isn’t the only problem with the turn-up-and-go method of flying. Having once found myself unexpectedly at Toulouse airport in need of a flight to London, I handed over around ten times what I would have paid if I’d booked in advance ($500 versus $50). The reality is that last-minute travel bought at the airport is rarely cheap because you tend to pay full price for your ticket and often a bit more. Therefore, it’s worth giving some thought to the cost of your impulsive desires.

A much cheaper alternative is to book online first. Ok, it doesn’t have the same zing as turning up at the airport and picking a place off the departure board but sites like Kayak or Skyscanner can help you find cheap, last-minute deals that could save you hundreds if not thousands. As a compromise, consider taking your laptop and finding Wi-Fi at the airport for the booking process.

5. Consider accommodation

Clearly, if you’re turning up at the airport without a flight booked, you are unlikely to have accommodation sorted either. That will rarely present an issue as most destinations have a choice of places for you to stay that you can book on arrival. However, things can get complicated if you have a budget to stick to (one island I tried to visit only had three Four Seasons resorts at $400 a night each). Equally, if you happen to land in the middle of a major festival, availability is going to be a problem. As soon as you book your ticket (or, even better, just before you book), get online and find out a little about the accommodation options at your intended destination. If nothing else, it will stop unscrupulous taxi drivers from taking you to their aunt’s overpriced B&B when you arrive.

6. Be prepared to say ‘except’

You’ve made the big decision to be impulsive but what if you live in London and the next flight out is to New York. I would find that deflating as I’ve been to New York many times and as much as I love the city, the whole point of taking an unanticipated trip is the prospect of exploring somewhere new and inspiring. Don’t be too strict on yourself. Set a few parameters that let you say no to places that you’ve been to before or are reasonably close to home.

7. Think about safety

Police station on Bocas Island Panama
Actually, this island in Panama is lovely. Just bad marketing by the police!

Next flight – Democratic Republic of Congo. That might sound exciting if you don’t know much about the country. With a bit of research, you will realize it is a pretty dangerous destination. Fine, if you are prepared for that kind of adventure, but if you’re hoping to relax on a beach, you might want to consider somewhere else. Take a bit of time to check out travel warnings before you book – airlines will and do take people to unsafe destinations, including war zones. It is your responsibility to make sure you are safe and comfortable visiting a particular location.

8. Plot your exit strategy

It’s all very well grabbing that last seat to wherever, but what about coming back? Will you travel to another country or do you intend (and have enough money) to come back? Round-trip tickets are the best idea unless you have the luxury of time and money to be able to figure things out when you get there. Whatever you do, just make sure you don’t get stuck. Having to walk back to Europe from Asia after booking an impulsive flight can take the stream out of your journey.

Turn up at the airport and go: How I (almost) did it

I’ve just booked a trip to Africa and confess that my budget-conscious mind has once again stopped me from turning up at the airport and booking the next flight out.

However, I don’t regret my decision. With Easter approaching, flight prices have inflated dramatically and accommodation availability has plummeted. So, instead, I turned up online first and was able to do a bit of research before I booked: I’ve got all of my vaccinations sorted, I have enough days to start my course of anti-malarial pills, I’ve avoided the visa issue (none needed), I’m confident my destination is safe (mum breathes a sigh of relief), I’m getting the bikini based weather I want (vital after 3 long months of English winter) but most important – by comparing prices online I’ve saved a fair chunk compared to what I would have paid at the airport. I may not be flying tonight but in as little as 4 days I’ll be ready for my next adventure.

Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.

Leave a Comment