Should you haul yourself out of bed in the middle of the night to be on the first flight of the day? Should you pack snacks or rely on airplane food? Who should you turn to if your flight is canceled?
Summer travel always brings highs – long-awaited vacations and sunshine – and lows – busy airports and packed planes. Navigating air travel at this time of year can be fraught, but it doesn’t have to be – and if anyone’s got intel on smoothly and successfully surviving summer travel, it’s the flight attendants who’ve seen it all.
CNN Travel spoke with married flight attendants Rich Henderson and Andrew Henderson, who’ve worked on major US airlines for roughly 10 and 20 years respectively, to get their take.
Rich and Andrew offer humor and insight into flying on their social media page, Two Guys on a Plane. We also chatted with Essence Griffin, who’s been flying for just over a year on a regional US airline, but has already amassed a whole lot of air travel know-how.
Read on for cabin crew top tips for summer travel.
Delays can be hard to avoid in the busy summer months, but traveling first thing in the morning is your best bet for avoiding the ripple effect of a day of cancellations and delays.
Of course, you could still be unlucky and face the aftershocks of the day before. But generally speaking, the airport and airline system resets itself overnight.
“You face less delays and less weather if you can get on the first flight of the day versus waiting until late afternoon,” says Andrew.
Griffin echoes this: “The earlier on in the day, the less delays you’ll encounter,” she says.
Of course, the downside to this plan is waking up at the crack of dawn. But the flight attendants say the lost sleep is worth it in the long run.
“I mean, nobody likes a 5 a.m. flight,” says Rich. “But I tell you what, they’re way easier than the ones later in the day. There’s just fewer issues, there hasn’t been a chance for things to go wrong.”
The flight attendants suggest this advice applies to any time of year, but is particularly true in the summer months when volume of people and summer storms make delays more likely.
“There’s just going to be delays,” says Griffin of summer travel. “People should expect delays, it’s really hard to avoid.”
The majority of passengers want to travel on peak days – Friday evening, for example, or Monday morning.
As a result, “these are both going to be really busy travel days,” as Andrew puts it.
“So if you can go on Tuesday, you’re less likely to encounter as many people or problems that you would if you chose Friday at 5 p.m. when work is letting out,” he says.
Avoid missing your best friend’s wedding and leave buffer time
Sure, it’s not always possible if you’re working with limited vacation days and a busy schedule.
But if you can, leaving a day buffer between your flight’s arrival and the big event – whether that’s a wedding, for example, or a cruise departure – will ensure delayed flights don’t wreak havoc on your plans.
“I see often people are trying to make the most of their time by cutting it really close. And that really just adds so much stress to your travel,” says Rich.
“Leave yourself a buffer if you’ve got to be somewhere – if you can make it work, go a day early. Because that way you know you just take all the unpredictability out of it, you give yourself time to be delayed and that sort of stuff won’t stress you out as much.”
“We always see people running from plane to plane through terminals,” says Rich. “They’ll give themselves a minimum window of connecting time.”
Avoiding being one of these people is wise. It may be the cheapest travel option equals minimal transit time, but Rich says it’s always worth shelling out more – or exploring other airline options – to give yourself more leeway.
Andrew adds that this advice is especially crucial if you’re flying internationally, suggesting that whatever you consider a “normal” connection time, you should probably double if you’re flying long haul.
“Particularly if you’re traveling to Europe from the US, because all of those flights leave in the evening, and the weather has had time to build up,” he says. “We see a lot more of those going delayed.”
Every airline has different policies, so it’s worth familiarizing yourself with what your chosen airline can and can’t offer you in the event things don’t go to plan.
Rich says this is especially important if you’ve booked with a third party booking agent. You might be traveling with multiple different airlines and not even realize it.
Different airlines also offer different amenities, so doing research will avoid disappointment if you assume you’ll be given food and then discover you have to pay for onboard catering.
“Be prepared, always read the fine print, always know what you’re getting into, who you’re flying on,” says Rich.
Download all the apps: airline, airport and flight tracker
If you don’t usually fly with your chosen airline, you might not see the point in clogging up cell phone memory with yet another app.
But for the duration of your journey, this airline app is going to be your new best friend (And of course, as soon as you’re done traveling, you can delete it).
“If you don’t have the app, you are definitely flying blind. I would never travel without downloading the app for the airline I’m flying on,” says Griffin.
“It’ll tell you when you’re boarding, if you’re running late you’ll know if the flight’s still there, if it got delayed. You’ll see seat changes, gate changes, information about your boarding passes, upgrades…”
Rich also suggests downloading the apps for your departure and destination airport, as well as apps that track flight arrivals, like FlightAware.
Sometimes the apps will update before the airport or airplane overhead announcements. And if you’ve already got intel on your cell phone, it avoids you sitting at the gate or on a grounded airplane wondering what’s going on.
“You can see delays coming, you can see where your plane is coming from,” says Rich. “That helps alleviate a lot of the stress for people. Staying informed and staying connected and educating yourself about what’s happening will definitely help your journey.”
If your flight is departing at 11 a.m. that doesn’t mean turning up to the gate at 11 a.m.
Maybe it sounds obvious, but Griffin says she’s often seen travelers arriving at the gate, takeout coffee in hand, in disbelief that they’ve missed the flight despite having been at the airport for hours.
“Usually boarding starts 30 minutes prior. And most of the time, they want to have that door closed within 10 to 15 minutes before departure,” she says. “And once the doors are closed, that’s it.”
Griffin suggests keeping an eye on the flight time and boarding announcements from the minute you arrive at the airport.
If you’ve got the airline and airport apps, check for updates there. If you can wait near your gate, that avoids you running across the airport. But also keep an eye out for any gate changes in the lead up to boarding.
When things go wrong, rather than waiting in a line of frustrated passengers, it’s worth using your cell phone to search options online or to call the airline helplines.
Griffin says she’d also recommend speaking with the gate agents over the customer service team. They’ve often got intel they can pass on, and can help you resolve numerous situations.
“If you’re at your gate and you’re waiting and there’s delays, you can always talk to the gate agent right there,” she says. “They have the power and knowledge to get you on different flights.”
Relying on eating breakfast, lunch or dinner on your flight can lead to disappointment and “hanger.” While you hope everything goes smoothly, there’s always the chance the flight might take off late or culinary offerings might be minimal.
“Don’t rely on the airline as your primary source of food,” advises Rich. “If you can bring granola bars and different packable foods like that, or get food in the airport? I say definitely do it. And then if there is food available on the plane, that’s kind of just a bonus.”
And while airlines should take into account your dietary requirements if they’re detailed on your booking, there’s always a chance information will get lost along the way and your meal won’t end up on the flight.
“Bring something for you so that you’re not relying on the airline to meet those needs. Because they don’t always, unfortunately,” says Rich.
“You may have a perfect experience where you get all your food and all your amenities and needs are met – but you’re going to be a lot happier on your journey if you are prepared for all the things that could go awry during your journey.”
Griffin also advises packing a reusable water bottle in your carry-on. Most airports are now kitted out with water fountains so you can refill it once you’re through security.
This is one of Andrew’s go-to pieces of advice.
It might be tempting to embrace the vibes of your summer vacation destination and board the airline wearing shorts, flip-flops and a sunhat.
But the airplane cabin is its own ecosystem and whether it’s hot or cold outside will have little impact on the inflight temperature.
As well as being comfortable, you also want to allow for any eventualities. If your flight ends up getting canceled or delayed overnight, you might have to disembark and reboard.
So save those vacation-ready items for your arrival, and also bring layers you can easily pull on or take off during the flight.
As frequent flyers, most flight attendants are committed to the carry-on only lifestyle. Andrew and Rich are no different.
“I can say for sure we have not checked a bag since we’ve been together – and we are coming up on nine years being together,” says Rich.
“If you can’t pack it all in a small bag, then you’re probably packing wrong — just because I feel like people overpack so much for these trips sometimes.”
Griffin is also a carry-on only convert.
“If you can, just do carry on. Don’t check your bag,” she says. “There are a lot of bags lost — it’s just easy for them to misplace your bag.”
But it’s not just the risk of your checked in luggage getting waylaid – when packing, Rich says you should think about the whole journey.
Sure, your large bag might arrive at your destination with you, drama-free, but you might find yourself regretting your choices when you’re navigating a new place, weighed down by oversized luggage.
“You get to these older cities in Europe and there’s stairs everywhere and there’s hills, and now you’ve got three suitcases and you’re fumbling on public transportation and trying to find your way,” he says.
“Less is definitely more – pack things that are multipurpose, pack things you can dress up, things you can dress down, pack shoes that you could pair with multiple different outfits.”
On the flip side, Andrew points out that some travelers find hauling two overstuffed cabin bags around an airport exhausting. If that’s going to be tough for you “definitely check your bag in advance. Just walk in with a backpack, save yourself the time and hassle of trying to figure out what to do with all that stuff,” he says.
As they never check bags, Griffin, Andrew and Rich haven’t experimented with air tags or other luggage trackers.
“I haven’t used them before,” says Griffin. “But I would start if I had to check bags, because I’ve had family members, their bags have just got lost.”
Whether you’ve checked in luggage or not, Griffin advises thinking carefully about what you put in your carry on.
An easily accessible change of clothes and some toiletries means you won’t get caught out if your check-in bag gets lost, or if your flight is delayed overnight and you suddenly have to deplane and spend a night at an airport hotel.
Rich agrees with this advice. Hopefully, he says, you won’t need the spare t-shirt and pants.
“But you’re going to be happier erring on the side of caution.”
Even if your airline allows you to bring two pieces of carry-on, it’s worth remembering the smallest one that fits under the seat in front of you is the only one you’re really guaranteed – so make sure that bag’s kitted out accordingly.
“If you have an important medicine or documents or things like that, just put it in your purse or your bookbag,” says Griffin.
Charge your devices and download your entertainment in advance
Download movies to your cell phone or tablet in advance, bring portable chargers and prepare to entertain yourself.
“Yes, airplanes have Wi-Fi, we have screens, we have chargers now. But you have to plan for all that to be broken and you have to plan to be sitting in an airport for hours,” says Andrew.
“Sometimes the screen in front of you may not work and it just kind of sucks as a passenger, if you have nothing to watch or read or listen to,” she says.
“So go ahead, download that audio book or go ahead and download the Netflix movie you want to see, because there’s a chance your screen may not work, or the Wi-Fi is weird on the plane.”
If you’re flying with kids, make sure you’ve also got entertainment on hand for them – whether it’s their favorite TV show downloaded and ready to play, or their favorite toys to comfort them.
And don’t feel bad if you’re traveling with young children and they’re crying, or can’t settle.
“I get so many moms on planes apologizing constantly,” says Griffin. “I’m just like, ‘It’s okay, you have a child. They’re going to cry.’”
Most flight attendants, she adds, are happy to help out too – they’ll do what they can to help you get your child settled.
If you choose the lowest air fare, there’s usually no guarantee you’ll end up seated with the family or friends you’re traveling with.
To avoid any onboard stress, Andrew says you should “pay for what you want.”
But on some airlines, checking in early allows you to pick your seat, free of charge. Griffin says this is another reason why downloading the airline app is a good shout – you’ll likely get a push notification when check-in opens. Then, you can be among the first to secure your seat and make sure you’re next to loved ones.
Looking into seating options in advance is key because if you’re hoping cabin crew can do some maneuvering once you’re on board, you might end up disappointed.
“Flight attendants are going to do the best they can. But a lot of times we’re on full flights and time crunches and we don’t have the ability to assist,” says Andrew. “And if people aren’t willing to give up to move their seats, there’s not a lot we can do to force people to move.”
Rather than asking flight attendants to intervene, Rich says passengers should ask other passengers if they would mind moving. Then, make the flight attendants aware of what’s gone down.
“We’re usually willing to comp that person’s drinks to say thank you for what they did,” he says.
If you are delayed and have a connecting flight, let the cabin crew know
If a flight is delayed, the cabin crew will usually make an announcement asking those with connecting flights to make themselves known. Then, flight attendants will aim to get those passengers off first.
If you’re not in a rush, be prepared to sit back for a moment or two and let those on a deadline deplane before you.
As Griffin says, “everyone just wants to get off.” But for those trying to make a connection, every minute counts.
“When there’s a lot of people that are trying to get somewhere, it really is a nice thing to just stay seated and let those people who are in a rush to get up first,” she says.
Cabin crew want flights to leave on time and want the travel process to be as smooth as possible.
Flight attendant shifts often technically don’t start – and therefore they’re not paid – until the airplane doors close and boarding’s complete. It’s not in their interest to spend hours sitting on Tarmac.
While it might sometimes feel that way to passengers, Andrew, Rich and Griffin insist flight attendants aren’t usually hiding information on delays or disruptions from travelers.
Often flight attendants are just as clueless as passengers. In fact, travelers tracking flight updates via airline or airport apps might sometimes have more information than flight crew.
“Oftentimes, we’re in the same boat, we’re just as frustrated, and we want to make this as comfortable for you as we can,” says Rich.
In just over a year of flying, Griffin has her fair share of angry passengers. But she always tries to remember that not all travelers are vacationers – sometimes people are sometimes flying under very trying circumstances.
“I just try not to take things personal when people are upset,” she says. “But it does help when people are kind. Because it’s exhausting. Being a flight attendant is a great experience, you get to travel to a lot of places. But it’s very glamorized. And it’s a lot more exhausting than people think.”
Griffin’s currently on a break from flying, “just because of the craziness.”
But while she’s currently feeling “burnt out,” Griffin says flying “is something that I would definitely come back to in the future.”
Andew and Rich, who’ve both been working on airplanes for years, say that they’ve noticed travelers with shorter fuses in recent years, especially since air travel returned in the wake of the pandemic.
But interestingly, they’ve also noticed more kind gestures and moments of understanding and connection between passengers and cabin crew in recent times. It makes a huge difference, and they’re big proponents of traveling with kindness.
“It’s the nicer people are getting nicer, and then the rude people are getting more rude,” says Rich. “There’s people who have so much compassion now and who are going out of their way to say, ‘Thank you for getting us here. Thank you for keeping us safe.’”