Editor’s Note: Sign up for Unlocking the World, CNN Travel’s weekly newsletter. Get news about destinations opening, inspiration for future adventures, plus the latest in aviation, food and drink, where to stay and other travel developments.
It feels like the summer of travel chaos only just subsided, but the holiday travel season is now upon us, with millions taking to the skies in one of the busiest stretches of the year for travel.
Navigating the world of airports and airplanes at this time can be stressful, but if anyone’s an expert in holiday travel, it’s flight attendants.
Intrigued to find out their tips and tricks, CNN Travel spoke to two veteran cabin crew, British flight attendant Kris Major and American Allie Malis, to get their takes on some of the key travel questions.
What’s the best time for flying?
Some destinations offer multiple flights throughout the day, so is it best to go early or leave it late?
Malis votes for first thing in the morning when she’s making personal trips.
“That’s my trick,” she says. “I don’t know if I should actually be telling everyone. Otherwise, they’re going to take all my morning flights.”
Malis’ logic is weather is less likely to disrupt flying first thing, even if there were delays the day before, the system has usually reset overnight.
When it comes to holiday travel, Malis – who is also the government affairs representative at the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, a union representing American Airlines air crew – suggests leaving some buffer time if you’re able to.
For instance, flying on the day before Christmas Eve, rather than on the 24th, gives you a bit of leeway.
What can I do if my flight is delayed?
Delays happen and Malis reminds passengers that flight attendants and passengers are “on the same team.”
Fellow flight attendant, Major, who’s worked long haul and short haul over his career, and also serves as chair of the European Transport Workers Federation’s Joint Aircrew Committee, representing European flight attendants and pilots, echoes this.
“If we can’t go, we can’t go,” he says. “We will be doing everything we can in our power to go – because it’s in our interest to.”
And contrary to what some passengers might think, flight attendants don’t hide information from passengers. “There’s no point,” says Major.
So if you’re sitting on a delayed flight, stressing about missed connections, don’t hesitate to ask your flight attendant for all the information you can. Major says he’ll direct passengers to the right desk to rebook a flight, and let them know “the questions you need to ask.”
How do you beat jet lag?
If you’re crossing time zones, Major is a big believer in a power nap upon arrival – with one caveat: keep it short, and then stay up until night falls.
“Don’t just go to sleep and just sleep your way through, because you’re staying on your own time, you’re not helping your own body clock to readjust your circadian rhythm,” he says.
That said, sometimes flight attendants are only in a destination for 24 hours. If that’s the case, Major says they’ll usually stay in their home time zone. And Malis reckons some travelers might find that helpful during the holiday season.
“You might only be traveling for a few days, it’s going to be jet lag when you adjust to the new time zone and jet lag when you get back a few days later, so possibly staying on your home timezone might be helpful,” she says.
Malis also stresses the importance of “hydration, eating nutritious food, and exercise.” And “staying in sync with your body as best you can.”
“Really the only way I’ve made it this far in my career as a flight attendant, is by prioritizing rest,” she says.
“Being tired can affect everything, the holidays can be stressful, so give yourself the best chance of proper rest to enjoy the holiday season in the most positive and celebratory ways.”
Do you ever upgrade passengers on board?
It’s the scenario most fliers dream of, being shifted from your crowded economy seat to something more luxurious.
Malis explains upgrades are supposed to happen on the ground, not on board, but there are exceptions, and sometimes a ground agent will let flight attendants know certain travelers can be upgraded.
“But there’s a list,” she says. “And there’s a method to the madness, the way that the list is ordered and prioritized.”
Sometimes flight attendants will also move passengers so that families can sit together, or to resolve a seat duplicate situation.
But once the flight is in the air, passengers will only be moved in exceptional situations – such as if one passenger is making another uncomfortable.
Can passengers swap seats?
“If a passenger wants to ask another passenger, we can’t stop them,” says Major, who says that in his experience, travelers are often happy to swap to allow parents to sit with kids.
Flight attendants support this kind of switching about, but will try not to interfere unless there are issues.
“It’s in our interest to get people together, because you don’t want the grief of people being separated,” he says.
Malis says she also strives to make sure parents and kids are together, but suggests these situations should be resolved before boarding if possible.
“It puts a lot of pressure on us to ask favors of passengers to switch around and it’s a very time-sensitive part of flight when we’re boarding,” she says.
People moving seats can also be controversial if they’re moving to an area of the airplane where other passengers have paid more to sit there.
“From a practical standpoint, I understand…If you have three people crammed in one seat and an empty row up there, shouldn’t everyone just be able to spread out? What a treat that is when the flight allows you to,” says Malis. “But then also respecting that there’s people who have paid extra to be there and that someone hasn’t and that’s unfair.”
Malis also thinks it’s a little ironic that the emergency exit rows are sometimes marketed as premium seating, with a free drink included.
“People that are asked to be willing and able to assist in the event of an emergency are maybe more likely to have a couple of drinks if they’re sitting there. But that’s how it is, that’s how those seats are marketed,” says Malis. “Thankfully, we don’t have a lot of emergency evacuations.”
Who has the right to the middle armrest?
Major jokingly describes the scramble for the middle armrest as a “brutal fight,” but comes down firmly on the position that the person in the middle should take it.
Malis agrees: “It’s not written down anywhere as far as I’m aware, but I think the unspoken courtesy is that the person in the center seat, in the middle seat, gets the armrest.”
Should window blinds be kept closed or open?
Some people want them up, some people want them down. Major says window blinds can be a contentious issue, particularly on long-haul flights, but the answer is often pretty clear.
“If it’s a night flight, close them,” says Major. “Just one person opening the blinds, the light comes in and keeps people awake and it can really have an impact on people. You understand it though – people want to have a look down. If you’re flying over the Himalayas, you want to have a look at Mount Everest. Why would you not?”
Blinds also need to be open upon arrival due to safety regulations, much to the annoyance of some sleepy passengers. Major says if travelers push back, he’ll try to explain that the crew needs to be able to see out to adjust to the light in case there are any problems.
“I think people deal with an explanation an awful lot better than an order,” he says. “An explanation – it gives some mutual respect.”
How do you cope with being on your feet all day?
Working as a flight attendant is a physically demanding job. Flying long or short haul, you can be on your feet for hours.
“I’ve got insoles in my shoes,” says Major, adding it’s harder for female flight attendants, who are sometimes expected to wear heels.
Those who can will pick the comfiest smart shoes possible, says Major, who says Doc Martens are a popular choice.
Malis says high heels, “definitely add another strain to our feet,” but some flight attendants have inflight shoes they change into, which are more comfortable.
“It’s definitely a job where you get some good steps in. I think standing is almost just as exhausting as walking though, it can be hard on the lower back,” she says.
What do you do in your downtime on flights?
Ultra long-haul flights include structured rest periods for cabin crew. Flight attendants will retire to a separate area of the airplane during this downtime. Facilities vary depending on the airline, route and aircraft.
“Some have beds, some are just comfortable seats in remote places on the aircraft,” says Major. “What facilities they offer will depend on how much rest you’re supposed to have – and then how much work you can do is based on that.”
Still, it’s not always easy to sleep on a plane – even if you’re a flight attendant and you need to recharge before getting back to work.
“I know crew that don’t, and they’ll read a book or watch a movie on their iPad or something,” says Major.
Major says flight attendants working on low-cost carriers sometimes have more downtime on board, as they don’t serve much in the way of food and drink. Cabin crew might try to make the most of those pauses.
“A lot of people do higher educational courses, they use the downtime in hotels and places like that, and even on the flights, to do the work,” he says.
Malis says she rarely has time to herself on her domestic US flights. If she does, she’ll eat a quick snack to refuel.
Do flight attendants eat and drink the same food as passengers?
Malis and Major say flight attendants are able to eat and drink airline culinary offerings, but may choose not.
“Airplane options aren’t always the foods that are going to keep me the most alert,” says Malis, who says she usually packs light snacks like hummus, apples and popcorn.
“I drink plenty of airplane coffee I will say, but I usually bring my own – at least have one on my way to work or at the airport that’s a little stronger – and sip on that all morning long.”
Major says he avoids foods that might make him feel bloated. His main focus is drinking lots of water on board.
“You’ll always find the crew have got a bottle of water and a hot drink somewhere, they’ll have a tea or coffee.”
Major says some crew will also bring their own meals on board, often due to dietary requirements, but his airline doesn’t allow crew to heat up food from home in the inflight ovens.
Malis says her airline does – in theory – allow flight attendants to heat up food brought from home, but you have to bring the right container and ovens can be unpredictable when you’re trying to get the temperature right.
On holiday flights, Malis says some crew members might get creative, bringing in food to add to the festive vibe and “to cheer the crew up if they’re missing out on spending the day with their family.”
“There’s some pretty clever little things that flight attendants can do in the galley,” she adds. “But for the most part, there’s not a lot of time to be doing that. Mostly flight attendants are just trying to find any spare moments to grab a bite of food to keep going on some of these marathon days.”
How do you deal with nervous fliers?
For some passengers, it’s the fact they’re not in control. Other travelers hate the unidentified noises that soundtrack the flight.
“When I find someone who’s scared of flying, I try to find out what’s the driver behind it,” says Major. “If you can talk to people and find out why they’re frightened, then you can alleviate their fears, because the chances of anything mechanical creating a situation where the plane would crash – it’s beyond remote.”
Some people find learning more about the mechanics and logistics helpful. Other passengers just need distraction, and speaking to flight attendants might help.
“The crew, that’s down to their skills to find out what it is that person needs to get them through the flight,” says Major.
If Major is speaking to an anxious passenger before the aircraft takes off, there’s also another layer at play – flight attendants want to avoid someone deciding to deplane at the last minute, which could delay the flight and mean the aircraft misses its takeoff slot.
Major and his team have to decide as quickly as possible whether the passenger is able to fly that day.
“That again, comes down to the skills of the crew,” says Major, who will always strive to remain calm in those moments. “I don’t want the passengers to think my primary concern is, ‘Are you going to delay me closing the doors and getting this thing up in the air?’”
Malis advises that anxious fliers make themselves known to air crew. If she knows a passenger is nervous, she’ll try to keep tabs on them for the duration of the flight. She recommends breathing techniques, and also advises bringing along an engrossing book, or losing yourself in a TV show or movie.
Major also advises bringing an iPad, coloring books or toys to entertain children and keep them as calm as possible during the flight.
Do you worry about bad turbulence?
When she’s working a flight, Malis views turbulence as “more of a nuisance and inconvenience.”
“But it’s kind of funny, when I’m a passenger and I hit turbulence, I feel like I’m just like every other passenger, which doesn’t make any sense. I’m always like, ‘What was that bump? Is everything okay?’”
It’s a reminder that a bumpy flight isn’t pleasant for anyone – even if it’s usually nothing to worry about.
What do you do in an inflight medical situation?
Major says that how crew approach an inflight medical situation depends on several factors, including the nature of the situation and the preferences of the crew.
He doesn’t generally opt for the classic “is there a doctor on board?” callout.
“In the UK, you’ll find that most crews won’t ask for a doctor, they’ll do it themselves. We wouldn’t want someone involved that doesn’t know our environment.”
Flight attendants have medical supplies on board in case of emergencies, although they can only administer certain drugs under the direction of a radio call to the ground.
“They can talk us through what we need to know if we need to,” says Major, who says he’s never delivered a baby on board, but has come close.
“If someone’s having a cardiac arrest, we’ve got the defib, we can do it. If a doctor wants to help us they can, but it depends what they’re a doctor in.”
Malis says on her US-based flights, cabin crew will also put in calls to physicians on the ground in the case of a medical emergency. But unlike Major, she says “having a doctor or a nurse on the flight is definitely preferable or helpful.
“Personally, I would prefer to page a doctor on a plane. I think they’re obviously the best trained for those types of circumstances. But we do have resources on the ground and our own basic training that covers a lot of things.”
What’s it like when there’s a celebrity on the flight?
Everyone has to find a way to get from point A to point B, even celebrities. In fact, Major says that on pretty much every transatlantic flight, there’s likely to be someone at least moderately famous among the hundreds of passengers.
Generally speaking, the cabin crew aren’t given any warning that a celebrity is going to be on board – they’ll usually only realize when they see their name on the passenger list.
There are a few exceptions though.
“Sometimes you will be notified that there is a VIP on board – that tends to be royal families,” says Major.
And yes, some celebrities have a reputation for being rude, and that reputation will spread among flight attendants.
Equally, some celebrities are known among cabin crew for being friendly and charming.
Malis says other passengers often have no idea they’re rubbing shoulders with A-listers.
“If you’re sitting in the back of a plane, there’s a very good chance there’s a celebrity in first class that you never even knew about,” she says.
Do you have codes you use to refer to passengers?
Major says when he first started flying two decades ago, flight attendants would sometimes use the code “BOB” AKA “best on board,” to refer to the passenger they deemed most good-looking.
“It’s just a bit of fun,” he says, adding it’s not as commonplace now. “We’re talking years ago.”
What do you think when passengers applaud when the plane lands?
Major suggests this is a regional thing and it’s more common on European flights.
“Italians do it every single flight, every single time. Sometimes after bad turbulence you’ll get it. You understand that one – people are just relieved to get there because they don’t really understand turbulence,” he says.
Malis says in the US, passengers usually only clap after a very bumpy flight.
“I guess people are surprised the plane landed, I’m not sure? Most planes do land,” she says. “Personally, I think it’s kind of cheesy. I think a lot of flight attendants would agree with me on that.”
What strange things do people leave behind in the cabin?
It’s best not to go there.
“Everything your imagination can drum up, we’ll have found it,” says Major.
Have you ever befriended a passenger?
Major once gave a stranded passenger a lift in his car and they’re still connected on social media today.
As for Malis, she says whether or not flight attendants connect with passengers depends on their personal comfort level, and boundaries should always be respected.
“There’s been instances of passengers stalking flight attendants and stuff like that. So it’s important that we do keep somewhat of a professional line drawn,” she says.
But one time she ended up flying with her fifth grade basketball coach, by pure coincidence, which was fun.
And both Malis and Major know stories of flight attendants who’ve married passengers.
Can you accept gifts from passengers?
Major says flight attendants can only accept sealed packages, due to the security implications.
Malis says the crew genuinely appreciate tokens of appreciation.
“It really does brighten our days when people have the forefront to recognize us like that,” she says.
“We are the recipients of chocolate, a lot. Starbucks gift cards are great.”
Malis isn’t sure of the current policy, but recalls at one time flight attendants were told to decline cash three times, but that they could accept it on the fourth try.
While it’s lovely when crew are acknowledged with gifts on the holidays, Malis says even just a smile makes a big difference and can change the atmosphere on board.
“You’d actually be surprised how many people just ignore you, as you say hello, and they don’t even look at you or say anything to you,” she says.
“I don’t know if anyone’s first choice is to be flying on the holidays. But we’re all kind of all in it together.”
This story was originally published for Thanksgiving in November 2022 and was updated and republished in December 2022
Top image courtesy atosan/iStockphoto/Getty Images