20 years ago, when my life was at a serious crossroads, I applied to every single airline, and a few months later I was officially a flight attendant. I loved my new job and it brought with it a whole 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 have experienced in my career. If 9/11 changed how we board planes and enter airports, Covid-19 has changed the overall experience on the plane. It caused tension and made everyone nervous. It brought politics into an area 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 furloughed many employees; In addition, many other employees resigned to be with their families. Now we have a staff shortage. After the mask mandate was lifted, passenger numbers began growing faster than airlines could handle. Now we are understaffed and overworked. Not only pilots and flight attendants, but also ground staff. You might not think of ground crew, but without them there’s no one to park the planes, pilot the jet bridges for you to board and disembark, load and collect your bags, or scan boarding passes.
What is not widely known is that flight crews are limited in how long they can work, generally 12 to 16 hours at a time. Aside from being unsafe, it’s illegal for us to fly any longer. If your flight crew is delayed and hits that time, it doesn’t matter if you have to go somewhere, we’re done when we’re done. As things are at the moment there are not many backup crews so your flight may be cancelled.
Historically, summer has always been a challenging time to fly, but this summer is far worse. There have been thousands of cancellations and delays every week, and there doesn’t seem to be any improvement in sight. I’ve seen many people miss out on 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 about it.
Traveling is good for the soul. It revitalizes us and allows us to re-focus. Sometimes you have to feel sand under your toes, smell fresh pine trees, or immerse yourself in the sounds of a new city just to remind yourself you’re still alive. But the key this summer is to travel smart. Avoid as much travel stress as possible by planning ahead and being prepared. Here’s my best advice, based on two decades of working at 30,000 feet.
To go early
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. Treat yourself to a nice dinner and a glass of wine and have a good time. Wake up slowly, sip coffee and pancakes, and leisurely walk to your boat. The extra money is worth the rest. I was recently working on a delayed flight. A family of eight missed their connecting flight to Rome, which was the only flight of the day. They went on a cruise that they would now miss. (Getting travel insurance isn’t a bad idea, either.)
Always fly direct
That way, if there’s a delay, you don’t have to worry about your next flight. If you can’t avoid changing planes, don’t book the shortest stopover as you’ll build up stress and potentially miss your flight. A one-hour stay 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. As the day warms, thunderstorms build, flight crews reach their duty limits later in the day, and traffic at busy airports increases. Yes, that could mean a 3am alert, but if your early flight is cancelled, there are more opportunities to rebook on another flight.
Download the app of the airline you fly with
These apps contain valuable information. They will keep you from waiting in incredibly long lines or trying to get someone on the phone when something goes wrong. You can track your luggage and your incoming plane, and in some cases you’ll know a flight has been canceled before the flight crew even knows. The app can also help you rebook a new flight if needed.
Think twice about the cheapest fares
Flights are full. If you buy the cheapest seats, you might not be able to sit with your family. That’s how it is when buying a 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 site. Also note that when a flight is overbooked and no one voluntarily gives up their seat, the family who saved a few bucks by using a bargain website is the first to be bumped.
Don’t be “that guy”. Don’t hold up boarding because you’ve opened your extenders until they pop and you can’t figure out how to fit your bag in the overhead.
Bring a sweater
Here’s a flight attendant secret: we sometimes intentionally keep the plane cold. For people struggling with airsickness, heat makes things worse. We don’t want anyone using these sick bags.
Don’t tell a flight attendant that they look tired
We are and we know. You can make us cry ugly right in the galley.
Be nice. Our goal with 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 has shared her advice on Facebook.