Travel 101: Flight Attendant Secrets

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
October 31, 2017
Over the years, Budget Travel editors have spoken to plenty of chatty flight attendants—on condition of anonymity—to deliver the 411 on how to enjoy the comfiest, safest, and most delicious flight, not to mention getting extra help when you really need it. (Hint: The “call button” is not your friend.)


What's your biggest job-related peeve? The kind of customer or co-worker behavior that just sends you up the wall no matter how well-meaning? For flight attendants, it's the "call button." You should basically never, ever, ever press it. I mean, like, ever. Some passengers regard the call button as their ticket to snacks and drinks before the rest of the cabin—no. Or a quick way to get rid of their trash while the flight attendants are still serving other passengers—no. Wondering when your plane will land? Or when those boxed lunches will be available for purchase? Your flight attendant passes by your seat about every 10 or 15 minutes (except in cases of serious turbulence), and you can wait your turn like everybody else.


The flight attendant business is dogged by several myths, the most pervasive being that they are rolling in dough and perks—and getting rich off overtime. Nothing could be further from the truth. Flight attendants are paid for the time spent in flight, and delays just mean that they may work, say, 12 hours for seven hours' pay. Median salaries for flight attendants are about $37,000, with starting salaries around $16,000.


Airlines and the Association of Flight Attendants discourage tipping, so when you offer a tip it is very likely your flight attendant will turn you down. But if you offer a second time, or slip a few bills into his or her hand, it will usually be greatly appreciated—and may earn you a free snack or even an extra-stiff Bloody Mary (if you're into that kind of thing). When you receive truly extraordinary service, though, a letter or email to the airline praising the work of a specific flight attendant or crew is most appreciated and can sincerely help a flight attendant's career.


New parents flying with infants are in an admittedly tough spot (my nine-month-old spilled orange juice all over me on our first cross-country flight together—but let's be honest, that was my fault). But just because you've heroically succeeded in changing a poopy diaper on your lap in the middle of an inflight movie amid turbulence at 30,000 feet doesn't make you Wolverine—and doesn't give you the right to hand the folded-up diaper to a flight attendant as if they can wave a wand and send it off to fairyland. Instead, travel with sturdy Ziploc bags that can hold not only Junior's expulsions but also orange rinds, apple cores, and granola bar wrappers until the crew is ready to make one of their frequent trash collection rounds.


We get that you don't want to pay $25 to check a bag both ways. But that means you've got to pack smart and, should you happen to sneak past the gatekeepers with a bag that's too big for the overhead bin, fess up and let them check it for you. Turning to an available flight attendant and asking, "What do you suggest I do with this bag?" is only opening up a conversation about what that overworked, underpaid flight attendant might wish you actually would do with that bag. (Tip: One of the best ways to avoid paying for checked bags is to sign up for a rewards credit card that allows you to check bags for free.)


Flight attendants go through careful screening during the hiring process, then comprehensive training before they start working with the public. For a good flight attendant, a smile and a friendly "sir" or "ma'am" is not just a good idea but also a job responsibility. For the best service possible, take a page from their playbook: Make eye contact, smile, address them the way you would a friend or neighbor, and you'll be amazed and how much more likely you are to get that extra blanket, cup of water, or sympathetic ear. (Sure, this precept should be obvious—but take a quick look around the plane to see how little it is observed among busy, cranky fliers!)


Really, people? Ever invited a friend over for coffee only to have them prop their feet against your living room walls? We didn't think so. If you're in a bulkhead seat, keep your feet off the walls. It's not just a pet peeve of flight attendants and pilots (who may call you out in public over it), but it can also be extremely dangerous to you during turbulent takeoffs and landings.


This one's a bit of a mystery to most flight attendants, since it only increases the odds that you will trip and fall when you try to get up out of your seat—or in the rare occasion where an emergency evacuation is necessary. But everyone has considered it at one point or another—including yours truly. But this is easy: Your carryon belongs under the seat in front of you (not on your lap, not on the empty seat beside you, and not under anyone else's seat), and your feet belong on the floor, and no mingling of bag and feet is ever, ever, ever a good idea.


Frequent fliers glance at the snack cart and wince at the same-old-same-old. Guess how flight attendants who spend seven or more hours a day onboard feel about those packaged "treats"? If you really want to make your flight attendant's day, board your flight with snacks not only for yourself and your loved ones but also for the crew! We always recommend that you travel with high-quality chocolate, not just because it's a nice surprise for airline staff at check-in and boarding, but also because it can really open up a flight crew to going the extra mile for you should you need it in the event of weather-related travel delays or cancellations.


If you're flying on a honeymoon, anniversary, or other special occasion, flight attendants love to be looped in. They can help you make a little onboard fuss (the good kind!) and might even congratulate you over the PA system. If you're traveling with kids, it's basically always a special occasion, and the crew will do its best to accommodate a cockpit visit when the plane is on the ground. Just ask—but don't hit that call button!

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Travel Tips

Weird Foreign Laws You'd Better Know!

Warning: You’ve got to add one more item to your list of travel essentials. In addition to packing like a pro, making sure your passport is up to date, and knowing your must-sees before you arrive, you should also make sure you understand the ways in which a foreign country’s laws can affect your vacation. Relax, we don’t mean to scare you. In most cases, Americans don’t get dinged for accidentally breaking a minor foreign law, but there have been cases of fines and even jail time for some of the more serious offenses. As the saying goes, ignorance of the law is no excuse. Some unusual foreign laws are rooted in perfectly legitimate safety and health concerns (for example, some countries are eager to micromanage your bathroom routine); others are rather odd and, in some cases, probably just strange historical stragglers that have never been taken off the books (let's just say your ability to hail a cab in London may be compromised if you're accompanied by a rabid dog). Here, a helpful (and often entertaining) look at some of the world’s strangest laws: ITALY'S WEIRDEST LAWS Don’t feed the pigeons in Venice's St. Mark’s square. If you haven’t been to Venice in a few years, this law may be a shock to you, and we’d hate to see you fined for trying to feed that iconic birds that flock to the square. While the law may seem draconian (and you may have fond memories of feathered friends landing on your head last time you visited the square), it is firmly rooted in a concern for Venice’s monuments and historic buildings: Not only is the amazing city under seige by rising ocean tides and decaying infrastructure, but pigeons' claws and droppings have been wearing away at all that beautiful old stone. Don’t sing or dance in Rome. Whoa. What? Actually, this law applies to groups of three or more and we have no evidence of it being enforced. But in the unlikely event that you’re gung-ho to reenact scenes from Mamma Mia! in the streets of the Eternal City with two or more friends, you’ll want to ask your hotel concierge about getting a permit first. Don’t jump in the Trevi Fountain (or any other fountain in Rome). Last summer, some late-night bathers made the news for jumping into the ornate landmark immortalized in the film Three Coins in the Fountain. But wading into any of Rome’s fountains comes with the risk of a fine. (We prefer to think of this law as "Don't be an idiot.") Don’t eat gelato (or any other delicious Italian treat) at one of Rome’s historical sights. Boo! The slobs who dropped food, dribbled melted ice cream, littered, and in general posed a risk to Rome’s ancient marble and stone treasures have ruined it for the rest of us. We can't say we approve of this law, but do your snacking indoors or away from the historic districts. GERMANY'S STRICT HIGHWAY LAW Don’t run out of gas on the Autobahn. The actual law forbids drivers from stopping on the highway that’s legendary for high speeds. To avoid a fine, make sure you gas up before hitting the road. SPAIN SAYS NO TO FLIP-FLOPS AND SPITTING Don’t wear flip-flops when driving. You know, this one makes sense for drivers everywhere, doesn’t it? If you’ve ever tripped out of your flip-flops, imagine what it would be like to lose control of your feet while putting the pedal to the metal. Don’t spit in Barcelona. Another example of Spanish ingenuity: Dude, don’t spit anywhere in the world! GREECE REGULATES YOUR CHOICE OF FOOTWEAR Don’t wear high heels at archeological sites. The amount of pressure that just one pair of pumps exerts on ancient stone and marble is significant; multiply it by endless visitors over the decades and sites like the Acropolis have got themselves a problem. Just one more reason to pack your comfy shoes for seeing the sites. SINGAPORE'S LAWS ASSUME YOU ARE A CHILD Don’t chew gum. Yup, this law is fairly well known because it has been enforced to the chagrin of visiting Americans. Just pretend you’re back in second grade. No gum allowed. You must flush the public toilet. Um... of course we will. UNITED ARAB EMIRATES EXPECTS VISITORS TO OBSERVE THIS RELIGIOUS RULE Don’t eat during Ramadan. It’s a revelation to non-Muslim visitors that they are expected to fast during Ramadan; failing to do so can result in a fine. PORTUGAL: WHAT THEY DON'T KNOW CAN'T HURT THEM Don’t pee in the ocean in Portugal. Psst! We have absolutely no idea how they enforce this law. UNITED KINGDOM'S WACKY LAWS Don’t place a postage stamp with the queen’s likeness upside down. Sure, your inner punk rocker may relish the idea, but if you get caught for playing Johnny Rotten, you may get fined. Don’t hail a cab in London if you have the plague. That's right. And while you’re at it, don’t be asking the cabbie to carry a rabid dog or a corpse either, which are also illegal. We’re pretty sure these oddly specific laws date back to past centuries when the city was notoriously filthy and overcrowded and Londoners (and, presumably, their dogs) were shuffling off this mortal coil at an alarming rate. But, just the same, consider yourself warned. THAILAND LOVES ITS ROYAL FAMILY Don’t insult the king of Thailand or members of the royal family. That includes stepping on Thai baht currency, which bears the king’s image. Even foreigners have done jail time for this offense. DENMARK WANTS TO SEE YOUR FACE Don’t wear a mask. A surprise to many Americans: Leave your Halloween costumes, Yoda heads, and festive-not-festive Guy Fawkes masks at home when visiting Denmark.

Travel Tips

Travel 101: Best Credit Cards for Travelers

Part of being a savvy traveler is making sure you have the right credit card to maximize your travel rewards. Of course, there are a ton of travel credit cards for you to choose from. So, what’s the best piece of plastic for you? Ultimately, it boils down to your travel behaviors—and marrying how you spend money traveling with a credit card’s rewards program. “I always recommend having a redemption goal in mind before you set off to earn points and miles,” says Zach Honig, editor-at-large at The Points Guy. “Those 100,000 Alaska miles you racked up with credit card sign-up bonuses won’t do you much good if you don’t plan to fly Alaska or any of its partners.” If you’re eyeing an airline rewards card, “make sure the miles you’ll earn can get you where you need to go,” Honig says. Likewise, if you’re focused on earning hotel points, “make sure there’s actually a participating property at your intended destination,” Honig advises. International travelers should look for a credit card with no foreign transaction fees, says Bill Hardekopf, a credit expert at Why? Because some cards charge up to a 3% fee on foreign transactions, which can effectively negate whatever rewards points, dollars, or miles you’d earn using the card. Granted, a travel rewards credit card isn’t right for everyone. For one thing, rewards credit cards typically have higher interest rates than non-rewards cards. Consequently, “you shouldn’t have a rewards card unless you’re going to pay off the balance each month,” Hardekopf says. Also, because some rewards cards have high annual fees (like the Visa Black Card, with its whopping $495 annual fee), having one may not make sense for infrequent travelers. That being said, many consumers can save big bucks with a travel rewards credit card—that is, assuming you remember to redeem your rewards. (A recent report found that three in 10 credit cardholders have never redeemed their credit card rewards.) Still, it begs the question: what are the best credit cards for travelers? Focusing on credit cards with not only generous rewards but also low fees and convenient redemption options, we spoke to Honig and Hardekopf for their top recommendations. One of these five cards could be a great addition to your wallet. Chase Sapphire Preferred card: If you’re looking for a credit card that earns points that you can transfer to hotel and airline partners with ease, this is the card for you, Honig says. If you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months, you’ll earn a 50,000-point sign-up bonus that will get you two free round-trip domestic flights or multiple nights at a high-end hotel. In addition, the card offers rental car insurance and has no foreign transaction fees. The card, however, has a $95 annual fee after the first year. Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard: This rewards card has been around for a while, but it’s still one of the best rewards cards for airline miles, Hardekopf says. The card has a nice sign-up bonus of 40,000 miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days—enough to redeem a $400 credit toward an eligible travel purchase. You earn 2 miles on all purchases (a solid payout compared to other miles rewards cards) and get 5% of your miles back every time you redeem them. The card has no foreign transaction fees, but there is an $89 annual fee after the first year. Citi ThankYou Premier card: You earn 3 points on travel for a range of expenses, including gas, airfare, hotels, cruises, car rental agencies, travel agencies, railways, public transportation, tolls, taxis, and parking. (Translation: there are plenty of opportunities to accrue points with this card.) This is also a great all-around rewards card, says Honig, since you earn 2 points on restaurants and entertainment and 1 point on all other purchases. It has a $95 annual fee after the first year. United MileagePlus Explorer card: If you’re looking for an airline carrier-specific credit card, this one earns top marks, Honig says. Similar to the Barclaycard, you earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 90 days. You earn 2 miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases. You also get nice perks, such as priority boarding and one free checked bag for you and a companion traveling on your reservation. The card has a $95 annual fee after the first year but no foreign transaction fees. Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card: rated this card 5 out of 5 stars for several reasons. First, you can get a one-time bonus of 20,000 miles if you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months. You also earn unlimited 1.25 miles per $1 spent on all purchases. The best part? Redeeming your rewards is a piece of cake. “You can fly any airline, stay at any hotel, anytime,” Hardekopf says. And, unlike the other cards on this list, this card has no annual fee. 

Travel Tips

Post-Storm Caribbean Travel Updates

The Caribbean is open for business. Some travelers are surprised to learn that most Caribbean destinations are open, including Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. Other islands, including St. Barth's and Turks & Caicos, are making swift comebacks from serious hurricane damage. But some islands will take weeks or even months to recover. Barbuda, Puerto Rico, St. Martin, and both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands are putting most tourism on hold for now. What to do if you have travel reservations in a damaged destination. If you have plane tickets, check in with your airline to see if your flight has been postponed. Airlines have been offering more and more flexibility in the face of natural disasters, and they may waive fees for cancellation or changes in reservations. Check with cruise lines and hotels to find out how to cancel or revise your reservations. To learn more, read “When a Hurricane or Wildfire Damages Your Destination.” Travel insurance 101. Most people prefer not to think about travel insurance -- they hope for the best instead of planning for the worst -- until disaster strikes. We do recommend a “cancel for any reason” policy when you are planning a trip to the Caribbean. But first check with your credit card company -- you might already have built-in trip insurance. To learn more, read “Travel 101: Read This Before You Buy Trip Insurance.” How you can help. According to FEMA, those hoping to participate in Hurricane Irma and Maria relief and recovery operations should volunteer with local or nationally known organizations—you can find one that suits your abilities, or register as interested and organizations will reach out if you fit their needs. (Sign up here for volunteer efforts in Puerto Rico and here for the U.S. Virgin Islands.) But as much as you might want to drop everything and go asap, please don’t—unexpected arrivals in affected communities can create an additional burden for first responders whose attention is better focused on those who need immediate assistance, so be patient. In the aftermath of a disaster, it’s often easy to forget that these conditions won’t be alleviated overnight—the survivors will need help for months and even years to come. A few options: All Hands Volunteers’ immediate response team is operating in the USVI after Hurricane Maria, and the organization should be accepting applications for volunteers once the most pressing concerns have been addressed. CARAS, based in Puerto Rico, runs regular group-service trips, and AmeriCares offers a database of disaster-relief volunteer opportunities.

Travel Tips

Emotional Support Animals Take to the Skies

Can flying with your pet ease anxiety? As any nervous flyer knows, there are a few tried-and-true methods for dealing with pre-trip panic—and no, self-medicating at the airport bar probably isn’t the best strategy. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends a list of concrete steps to overcome a fear of flying, skills learned in cognitive behavioral therapy can help manage anxiety, and prescription meds can be a lifesaver, but there’s an additional option to consider, and it’s a warm, fuzzy one. Thanks to a 2003 update to the Department of Transportation’s policy regarding service animals, pets that offer emotional support to people with disabilities are cleared for takeoff, and more travelers than ever are looking to furry friends for in-flight comfort and support. Though airline policies differ, all emotional support animals (ESAs) must be well-behaved (pigs that defecate in the aisles are decidedly unwelcome) and accompanied by recent documentation from a medical professional (companies such as ESA Doctors will provide this service for a fee). As conditions vary, check airline websites before you book, and be sure to consider the requirements for your destination—places like Hawaii, the U.K, Japan, and New Zealand have restrictions on entry and exit. Here’s what to expect from the big six: American Airlines allows emotional support animals at no charge, as long as they fit on your lap, at your feet, or under the seat, and don’t block the aisle. Forget about that extra legroom, though: For security reasons, you won’t be able to sit in an exit row with a service animal in tow. You’ll need to submit an authorization form or provide a doctor’s letter to reservations at least 48 hours before your flight—if the airline can’t validate your documentation, your companion may have to fly in a kennel. Delta welcomes ESAs in the cabin, but that doesn’t mean your trip will turn into a Noah’s ark reenactment: The airline bans hedgehogs, ferrets, insects, rodents, spiders, sugar gliders, reptiles, non-household birds such as chickens, dirty or smelly animals, and anything with a tusk or a hoof. And even if you’re alone in your row, flight attendants will expect your animal to travel in the space below you—pets aren’t allowed in seats designed for human cargo. Passengers with disabilities are entitled to seating accommodations, so make sure you get your assignment when you book; you’ll have to present documentation on letterhead from a licensed medical or mental-health professional upon check-in (a digital version is ok, as long as the pertinent details can be verified), and you’ll be entitled to preboarding if you meet the requirements and give the gate agent the heads-up first. Because of public health and safety concerns, JetBlue will also deny boarding to passengers with unusual animals such as snakes, rodents, and birds with unclipped wings, but as long as your ESA doesn’t fall in those categories, and you call and advise customer service of your animal before flying, you should be in the clear. JetBlue airport personnel can request your documentation at any time, though, so keep it on hand—a hard copy on your doctor’s letterhead and an electronic version in a non-editable format (like a PDF) are both fine, but email or Word documents won’t be accepted. If you’re booking a Southwest flight online, you can alert the airline of your intention to travel with an ESA via the site’s traveler-info page; you can also notify customer service after the fact with a quick call or click. Along with the usual suspects mentioned above, Southwest won’t accept therapy dogs for transportation, and all animals must be positioned so they don’t block evacuation paths in the event of an emergency—so, either on the floor or on your lap, but definitely not in the exit row. (Note: If you plan to travel with your ESA on your lap, it must meet the somewhat ambiguous requirement of being smaller than a two-year-old kid.) Bring current documentation on your doctor’s letterhead, and brace for a few fact-finding questions at the airport—though employees can’t ask about the specifics of your disability, they can and probably will enquire as to what assistance your animal provides. As long as they sit at your feet without sticking out in the aisle, ESAs with the proper documentation are accepted on United flights. At a minimum, you’ll want to give the airline 48 hours advance notice, but it’d be wise to allow more time—the airline’s accessibility desk has to receive and validate your documentation prior to travel, including contacting your mental health professional for verification, and if they can’t validate, you’ll have to transport your animal as a pet and pay the relevant fees. Virgin also requires recent documentation, such as a letter from a psychiatrist, psychologist, or licensed clinical social worker, to substantiate disability-related claims for an onboard ESA. Service animals don’t have to be in a pet carrier, but they do have to be confined to your own space and can’t be in a seat or obstruct aisles. And as always, leave the pet snake at home—no reptiles, rodents, or other animals that present health risks are allowed onboard.