Twenty years ago, with my life at a serious crossroads, I applied to every airline and a few months later I was officially a flight attendant. I loved my new job, and it came with a completely new and exciting life.
But I didn’t sign up for what traveling is like this summer.
The pandemic has changed flying more than any event I’ve experienced in my career. If 9/11 changed the way we board planes and enter airports, Covid-19 changed the airplane experience all together. It created tension and made everyone nervous. It brought politics into an empire that shouldn’t be political.
In the early days of the pandemic, airlines tried to save as much money as possible. They allowed early retirement and fired many employees; on top of that, many other employees stopped to be with their families. Now we have a staff shortage. Once the mask mandate was revoked, passenger numbers began to grow faster than airlines could handle. Now we are understaffed and overworked. Not only pilots and flight attendants, but also ground staff. You may not think of ground crews, but without them there is no one to park the planes, operate the jet bridges so you can get on and off, load and collect your bags, or scan boarding passes.
Something that isn’t widely known is that flight crews have time limits on how long they can work, generally 12 to 16 hours straight. Besides being unsafe, it is also illegal for us to fly longer. If your flight crew is delayed and makes it to that time, it doesn’t matter if you need to be somewhere, we’ll be ready when we’re ready. As things are going, there aren’t many backup crews, so your flight could be cancelled.
Historically, summer has always been a challenging time to fly, but this summer is much worse. There have been thousands of cancellations and delays every week and there seems to be no improvement 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 there’s nothing I can do as a flight attendant to help.
Traveling is good for the soul. It revitalizes us and allows us to re-center. Sometimes you need to feel sand under your toes, smell fresh pine trees or immerse yourself in the sounds of a new city to remind yourself that you are still alive. But the key this summer is to travel smart. Take as much stress out of travel 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, depart 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 enjoy. Wake up slowly, have some coffee and pancakes and make your way to your boat at your leisure. 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, the only flight of the day. They went on a cruise they would now miss. (Getting travel insurance isn’t a bad idea, either.)
Always fly direct
That way you don’t have to worry about your next flight if you are delayed. If you can’t avoid a layover, don’t book the shortest layover as you will build in stress and the chance of missing your flight. An hour’s stopover is no longer enough. Thirty minutes, no chance. In most cases, three hours is safe.
Fly as early in the day as possible
The first flights of the day are rarely canceled. Thunderstorms build as the day warms, flight crews reach their duty limits later in the day and traffic increases at busy airports. Yes, that could mean a 3am alarm, but if your early flight is canceled anyway, there are more options to rebook another flight.
Download the app of the airline you are flying with
These apps contain valuable information. They make sure you don’t have to wait in impossibly long lines or get someone on the phone if something goes wrong. You can track your bag and your incoming plane and in some cases you will know that a flight is canceled before the flight crew knows. If necessary, the app can also guide you in rebooking a new flight.
Think twice about the cheapest rates
Flights are full. If you buy the cheapest seats, you may not be able to sit with your family. This is stated when you buy your ticket. Flight attendants aren’t there to rearrange the whole plane just so you can sit together because you were trying to save money on a third party website. Also keep in mind that if a flight is oversold and no one voluntarily gives up their seat, the family that saved a few bucks by using a low-cost website will be the first to be stopped.
Don’t be ‘that guy’. Don’t wait to get in because you’ll have your extenders open until they burst and can’t figure out how to fit your bag into the overhead.
Bring a sweater
Here’s a flight attendant’s secret: We sometimes keep the plane cold on purpose. For people who suffer from airsickness, heat makes it worse. We don’t want anyone to use those sick bags.
Don’t tell a flight attendant they look tired
We are and we know. You can make us cry ugly in the galley.
Be nice. Our goal with all airlines is to get you to your destination. Stay positive, at least you’re not working.
Kristie Koerbel is a longtime flight attendant who previously shared her advice on Facebook.