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Secrets From a Flight Attendant

Keep your cool this fall with these smart tips from a veteran of the skies

spinner image illustration of three people in a row of seats on airplane; middle person has hands behind head and elbows in other passengers' space
Illustration: Madison Ketcham

Last year’s holiday travel season made news for all the wrong reasons, as delayed flights caused frustrations for many travelers. Heather Poole, 52, a longtime flight attendant and author of the insider book Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet, offers some advice on how to make your trip more pleasant, even if all doesn’t go according to plan.

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Allow for screw-up time

The only thing consistent about air travel today is inconsistency. Fly two days early if you’re heading to a special event. Schedule connecting flights with layovers of at least 90 minutes. Book early morning flights so you have all day to deal with whatever might go wrong. And then, when nothing goes wrong, consider yourself lucky.

Download before you go

The airline’s app is where you’ll find flight info, your boarding pass and in-flight entertainment, so make sure you have that. I also like the FAAwait app (for iPhones); one tap shows which airports are experiencing delays, how long they are averaging and why. I get more accurate information using this app than I do relying on the gate agent. MyRadar is great for uneasy fliers. You can see the weather and turbulence in real time, and the information is color coded to show you how severe conditions might be. Also use social media. I’ve found that contacting an airline via Twitter to rebook a flight is much quicker than using the airline’s app or standing in a line to speak to an agent.

Pack like a pro

Checking a bag makes travel more stressful than it needs to be. We travel with just a rolling carry-on and a tote bag, even when we’re packing for days at a time. Just pack black clothes and be done with it. Bring only two pairs of shoes. If you leave something at home, use this as an excuse to buy something new. Or get to know the locals at a laundromat.

Scan the security lines

A short line may not be the quickest path. A long line of frequent fliers (look for solo passengers holding laptops) will move much faster than a line with a family that includes a baby. One more quick security-line tip, for women: Travel to the airport with your jewelry in your carry-on bag. Then put it on after you go through security.

Eat something!

Even if you’re not hungry. With air travel, you can never be certain when you’ll get your next meal. Just tell yourself that calories don’t count at the airport. And, yes, you can bring food through security. Don’t forget to share packaged snacks with the crew! We’re hungry too, and there could be more attention in it for you.

Bring a sweater — always

Airplanes are like movie theaters: They’re often freezing! And wear sneakers in case you need to move quickly through the airport. Flip-flops or heels will only slow you down. Remember, closed shoes have another benefit: That isn’t always water on the bathroom floor.

Make eye contact

Say “Hello,” “Please” and “Thank you” to your flight attendants. It’s shocking how many people don’t return my greeting, let alone my gaze, when I say “Good morning” or ask them what they’d like to eat or drink. Then they wonder why I’m not smiling when they ask for help. Passengers who are kind and courteous really stand out. Those are the ones who get the extra snacks, when we have them. Those are also the passengers I go above and beyond for. Want to make a flight attendant’s day? Say “I don’t know how you do it.” It’s nice being seen. Coffee-chain gift cards are nice too.

Let it go!

Traveling is like being on an episode of Survivor. You can’t control delays, mechanicals, cancellations, bad weather, your seatmate’s arm hair rubbing against you, the smell of tuna two rows behind you or a crying baby across the aisle. Getting stressed out about it will only ruin your trip. A phone app with soothing sounds might be good for uptight travelers. Or do what I do and create a playlist of calming music that will keep you grounded and happy.

Reminder: Most flight-crew members aren’t getting paid until the airplane door closes and the plane backs away from the gate. We’re paid for flying time only, which is why we dislike delays just as much as passengers do. At my airline, when a flight gets canceled, we don’t get paid for the trip, so don’t take your frustration out on the crew. We’re upset too. Try to remember: We’re all in the cramped flying metal tube together. And if you can reach your destination by car in less than five hours, drive!


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