A Flight Attendant’s Tips for Surviving Travel Now

Twenty years ago, when my life was at a crossroads, I applied to all the airlines and, a few months later, I was officially a flight attendant. I loved my new job, and with it came a completely new and exciting life.

But I haven’t signed up to find out what the trips look like this summer.

The pandemic has changed flying more than any other event I’ve experienced in my career. If 9/11 changed the way we board planes and enter airports, Covid-19 has completely changed the experience on the plane. This created tension and made everyone nervous. It brought politics into a realm that shouldn’t be politics.

In the early days of the pandemic, airlines tried to save as much money as possible. They allowed early retirements and laid off many employees; on top of that, many other employees quit to be with their families. We now have a shortage of employees. Once the mask mandate was dropped, passenger numbers began to increase faster than airlines could handle. Now we are understaffed and overworked. Not just the pilots and flight attendants, but also the ground crews. You might not think of ground crews, but without them there is no one to park planes, operate jet bridges to board and disembark, load and retrieve baggage, or scan travel cards. ‘boarding.

What is not common knowledge is that flight crews have time limits on how long they work, usually 12 to 16 hours at a time. Besides being dangerous, it is illegal for us to fly longer than that. If your flight crew is delayed and arrives at this time, it doesn’t matter if you have somewhere to go, we’re done when we’re done. As things stand, there aren’t many backup crews, so your flight may be cancelled.

Historically, summer is always a tough time to fly, but this summer is much worse. There have been thousands of cancellations and delays every week, and there doesn’t seem to be any relief in sight. I have seen many people miss important things like weddings, cruises, international connections and even funerals. The tears are very real, for very real reasons, and as a flight attendant there is nothing I can do to help.

Travel is good for the soul. It revitalizes us, and allows us to refocus. Sometimes you need to feel sand under your toes, smell cool pine trees, or immerse yourself in the sounds of a new city just to remind yourself that you’re still alive. But the key this summer is to travel smart. Take the stress out of travel as much as possible by planning ahead and being prepared. Here’s my best advice based on two decades of working at 30,000 feet.

If you are going on a cruise, leave the day before. Count it as part of your vacation. Stay in a hotel in a new city and explore. Have a nice dinner and a glass of wine and have fun. Wake up slowly, grab some coffee and pancakes, and head leisurely to your ship. The extra money is worth the peace of mind. I recently worked on a flight that was delayed. A family of eight missed their connecting flight to Rome, which was the only flight for the day. They were going on a cruise they were now going to miss. (Buying travel insurance isn’t a bad idea, either.)

That way, if you’re running late, you don’t have to worry about your next flight. If you can’t avoid the connection, don’t book the shortest layover, as you will increase stress and the possibility of missing your flight. A one-hour stopover is no longer enough. Thirty minutes, not a chance. In most cases, three hours is safe.

The first flights of the day rarely cancel. Thunderstorms form as the day warms, flight crews reach their duty limits later in the day, and traffic increases at busy airports. Yes, that may mean an alarm at 3am, but if your early flight is canceled there will be more options to book another flight.

These applications contain valuable information. They’ll save you from having to wait in incredibly long lines or trying to get someone on the phone if things go wrong. You can track your bag, your incoming plane, and in some cases, you’ll know a flight is canceled before the crew even knows. The app can also guide you through rebooking a new flight if needed.

The flights are full. If you buy the cheapest seats, you may not be able to sit with your family. This is indicated when purchasing your ticket. Flight attendants aren’t there to rearrange the whole plane just so you can sit together because you tried to save money on a third-party website. Also be aware that if a flight is oversold and no one volunteers to give up their seat, the first to be kicked out will be the family who saved a few dollars by using a bargain website.

Don’t be “that guy”. Don’t delay boarding because you have your extension cords open until they burst and you don’t know how to fit your bag in the overhead.

Here’s a flight attendant secret: We sometimes intentionally keep the plane cold. For people who struggle with airsickness, heat makes it worse. We don’t want anyone using these sick bags.

We are and we know. You can make us cry ugly right there in the kitchen.

Be nice. Our goal for all airlines is to get you to your destination. Stay positive, at least you’re not at work.

Kristie Koerbel is a longtime flight attendant who once shared her tips on Facebook.