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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.