Airlines' 10 Dirtiest Secrets

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
January 19, 2018
airplane flying at sunset
Ilja Mašík/Dreamstime
We know the questions that pop into your head when you fly: Is the cabin air full of germs? Is the water safe to drink? How are pets treated in the hold? There's a lot of misinformation out there, and we're cutting through the clutter to deliver the good, the bad—and the downright gross.

Lately there's been a lot of idle speculation in the blogosphere about the cleanliness of airplanes, the flightworthiness of the equipment, and the abilities of the crew. Here at Budget Travel, we regularly interview pilots, flight attendants, lost-and-found agents, and other travel professionals—sometimes on condition of anonymity—and we do our best to debunk the junk and deliver the truth. That said, the truth sometimes hurts. Here, we are not only delivering the airlines' dirtiest secrets, but also rating them on a "scary scale" of 1 to 5.


I hate to get all Mr. Scott about this, but this legend absolutely defies the laws of physics: At 30,000 feet, that would mean temperatures below zero and not enough oxygen. The truth is, pets are kept warm and safe in the hold. However, airline travel can be harrowing for pets—the runway is so noisy during loading and unloading that the workers wear headphones. No such luck for Fido and Fluffy. Oh, and flying with a little dog in your lap—or asking repeatedly about the safety of your pet in the hold—really irritates overworked, underpaid flight attendants. If you're a pet lover (or even just a decent human being), that rates a 5 on the "scary scale." But before you consider sedating your pet—the way you might take, say, an Ambien before takeoff—get your vet's best advice for dealing with airplane travel!


Sorry, maybe not! Tests show that airplane water is sometimes full of bacteria that could sicken you, and this has been confirmed in tests by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Wall Street Journal. That goes for onboard coffee and tea as well. Water is better than it used to be thanks to airline-mandated tests, but the big tanks that hold water on a plane are a breeding ground for gunk you don't want in your cup. The EPA even warns people with at-risk immune systems (including children and adults over 50) to avoid airplane water. Buy a bottle! "Scary scale"? 5!


Who started this weird myth, a fourth grade boy? No, airplanes do NOT jettison toilet contents in midair! Ever, ever, ever. Well... at least not intentionally. A California man once had a chunk of frozen airplane waste (which, by the way, was blue because of the chemical with which airplane waste is treated) bust through his sailboat. On a "scary scale" of 1 to 5, I've got to give the sailboat guy a 5!


Why do the plane lights dim before landing? Dim lighting prepares your eyes for seeing outside in the event of an emergency evacuation. (Similarly, you are asked to open your window shades before landing so the crew can see outside in the event of an accident.) On a "scary scale" of 1 to 5, I'm gonna give this a 1 because, once you understand the reason for it, it seems kind of comforting (am I the only one?).


Yep! Toddler, grandparent, or spouse locked in the bathroom? Relax—right behind the no smoking sign on the door there's usually a little switch to unlock the door! On a "scary scale" of 1 to 5: If I have a toddler and I'm standing at the door, that gets a 0. If I'm flying alone and a total stranger decides to pay me a little surprise visit, 4. (And while we're on the subject of airplane lavatories, do not walk in there in your socks or bare feet. You don't even want to know what's on that floor!)


Wrong! Airplane cabin air is filtered and often tests cleaner than hospital air. However, just about everything else onboard should be considered a mile-high petri dish. In fact, your tray table may have been used to change a baby. Yeah, that's right. E coli bacteria are regularly found on airplane tray tables. What can you do about that? Travel with sanitizing wipes to clean off surfaces you or your loved ones may touch during the flight, and to clean your hands. On a "scary scale," the cabin air gets a 0 and the tray table gets, uh, number 2? (Sorry!)


How experienced is your pilot? And how worried should you be about that? You may be flying one of the big carriers in name, but here in the U.S. you may actually be in the hands of a subcontracted regional airline crew. Oh, and your pilot may make less in a year than a cab driver. Yep. Those regional airlines have grown so fast in recent decades that requirements for pilot training went down to accommodate the demand. If you were having, say, brain surgery, would you want the doc with more operations under his belt or the guy getting paid by the hour? That said, I've never had a bad experience due to pilot error, and we travelers often completely misjudge pilot actions—bumpy landings, for instance, are no indication of a pilot's experience or competence, they just happen. But how would you rate the issue of pilots' experience on a "scary scale"? 4 or 5.


Cue Aerosmith and dream on. Flight crews are busy, budgets are tight, and you've probably witnessed the onboard scramble that occurs between flights. If your blanket is neatly folded and your headphones are in a plastic bag, congrats! That's about the best you can hope for these days. On our "scary scale," I give that a 3 or 4.


This is a really good idea, of course, and I wish I could tell you that it's strictly enforced. But the reality is that the crew eats whatever they want whenever they can get it. (Some bring their own food, others eat what's served out of the galley.) On some flights, the pilot and copilot will indeed be served separate meals. On others, not so much. On a "scary scale," considering that I've seen few, if any, accounts of poisoned pilots wreaking havoc in the skies, I give it a 2.


Yes. But it's not as bad as it sounds. Airplanes are pressurized mostly because the air at 30,000 feet does not hold enough oxygen. In the very rare event of depressurization, the oxygen masks descend and, though it may be frightening, passengers use them for a few minutes while the pilot quickly gets the plane down to around 10,000 feet, where oxygen levels are comparable to a mountain summit. On our "scary scale," this makes me feel a little safer and I give it a 1. Though if you've ever been on a plane that descended from 30,000 to 10,000 feet in a matter of minutes, there's not a theme park ride in the world that will ever scare you again!

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5 Bargain Destinations for February

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But binge-drinking is considered a weakness, especially in wine-producing regions, where the vino is regarded as much a food as a beverage. 5. WE ARE WORKAHOLICS Except in a few major economic centers, London in particular, the locals aren't going to be terribly interested in hearing your workplace war stories, how much money you're spending on your vacation, or how much your house back in the States cost. The country you are visiting may even have strict rules or customs about the length of a work week. But more importantly, Europeans just know how to pursue a work/life balance more healthfully than Americans: Take time to sit down for coffee and a croissant in the morning, consider an afternoon nap (if you're staying with your Italian cousins, they may insist on it!), and if you head out to dinner in, say, Barcelona, expect the tapas to go around the table well into the wee hours. Relax! 6. WE ARE SCARED OF NUDITY Whoa. Really? But isn't American culture awash in cutting-edge body parts and potty mouth? Yes, and that's actually a sign of our priggish problem. In many European cultures, the human body is considered simply, well, the human body. Our fascination with certain anatomical features is not shared by Europeans. That's why in some regions of Europe you'll see nude bathing and hear jokes that would make your mother blush. Next time you see a photo of the inscrutable Catalan Christmas pooper, just say to yourself, "Don't judge. Remember, you are a prude." 7. WE ONLY SPEAK ENGLISH Duolingo, people. Duolingo. 8. WE ARE UNCULTURED Be honest. Did you even know that "Sochi" was a thing before the Russian city hosted the Winter Games? Is Trieste in Switzerland, Croatia, or France? We're not suggesting that you prepare for a geography bee before boarding your Paris-bound plane. 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Ultimate Guide to Visiting Harry Potter

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How about entering the Wizarding World an hour before normal park hours? You can do that when you buy your tickets online at Early entrance gives you a chance to beat the long lines for the land’s two super-popular rides, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and Flight of the Hippogriff. Download the Universal Studios Hollywood app. You’ll get up-to-date intel on wait times for attractions, set an alert to let you know when wait times are low, suggested itineraries, and even a reminder of where you parked your car. Get a locker. There are locker rentals just inside the park entrance and in additional locations. We used our locker to store snacks, water, sunscreen, and change of clothes. Enjoy Universal City Walk. Between the parking lot and the park entrance, Universal City Walk offers restaurants, shops, and even some fun photo ops. It’s a low-key place to relax before, during, or after your park visit. Give your kids a souvenir budget. The Wizarding World is packed with incredible shops. Grownups will be struck by the high quality of the merchandise, the eye-popping designs, and the sheer volume of products available. But the inevitable “can we pleeeeeease get just one more souvenir?” will almost certainly become a recurring theme unless you give your kids a firm budget. Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether you tell them they can spend $10 or $100 - they just have to know what the limit is, and you have to be prepared to enforce it. Not only will you end up spending only what you feel you can afford, but you’ll also teach your kids a valuable lesson in shopping.Don't forget about the rest of Universal Studios Hollywood. Although we, like some other Harry Potter-obsessed families, no doubt, spent most of our day at the Wizarding World, it goes without saying that Universal is packed with other incredible attractions. A Jurassic Park ride, a Simpsons immersive land, and the classic Universal studio tour are just some of the must-sees. If you opt for a studio tour, do it early in the day while wait times are relatively short. TAKE THESE RIDES FIRST The wait times for the Wizarding World’s two rides can be longer than an hour on a busy day. Regardless of whether you arrive early (thanks to an online ticket purchase) or later in the day, you should head to the rides first, in this order: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Even if wait times are long, this ride is so worth it. As you enter through the castle gates and walk down corridors that will be familiar to fans of the Harry Potter books and films, through Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, you’ll stop in Dumbledore’s office, the iconic classroom for Defence Against the Dark Arts, the Gryffindor common room, and more. As cool as those stops are (you don’t really feel like you’re “waiting” but rather already immersed in the Hogwarts experience), nothing really prepares you for the ride itself, in which you soar above the castle grounds, flying with Harry and friends, facing an array of magical creatures (full disclosure: I was a little scared when the dragon appeared to be exhaling real flames in my general direction). Flight of the Hippogriff. This family-friendly roller coaster is only slightly less packed than the Forbidden Journey, and the ride itself is brief but thrilling. As you wait in line, you pass through the Care of Magical Creatures grounds, Hagrid’s hut, and you even receive instructions about how to approach the Hippogriff (a hybrid eagle-horse). SPEND SOME TIME ENJOYING LIVE ENTERTAINMENT You’ll appreciate the talent and sheer energy that goes into the Wizarding World’s live shows, including: Frog Choir. An exceptionally well trained choir of Hogwarts students sing in the open space near the entrances to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Flight of the Hippogriff, accompanied by their giant frogs, of course. Triwizard Spirit Rally. Kids will love cheering for the procession of wizarding schools on their way to a tournament. YOU’VE GOT TO TRY A BUTTERBEER I was skeptical. Sure, I’d heard from friends and family that the Butterbeer on sale at the Wizarding World was worth every dollar (and it’s a few dollars, believe me). But I wasn’t sure I wanted to load up on cold soda pop first thing in the morning. But the short line at the Butterbeer cart, the beautiful John Williams film score playing from the loudspeakers, and, yes, the eager smiles on my kids’ faces, convinced me to give it a try. And it’s totally worth it, an icy, creamy blend that was especially perfect on a warm July day. EAT AT THREE BROOMSTICKS (OR TRY AN EASY NEARBY ALTERNATIVE) Three Broomsticks restaurant is renowned for its great breakfasts and pub grub such as The Great Feast, Fish & Chips, Shepherd’s Pie, and more. It’s also a charming environment, a nice replica of Merry Olde England in the heart of Southern California. The friendly staff deals with wait times politely and efficiently even on busy days. That said, right outside the entrance to the Wizarding World, there are a variety of restaurants serving Universal guests, and the wait times are often much shorter than at the themed restaurants. On our visit, we opted for Mel’s, a classic California “drive-in” style restaurant whose San Francisco location's interior appeared in George Lucas’s classic coming-of-age film American Graffiti. Mel’s serves up traditional burgers, fries, and shakes for a reasonable price. Basically, we stepped into the America of the 1950s for lunch, then stepped back into Hogwarts for the afternoon. VISIT THESE SHOPS As mentioned above, it’s essential to give kids a souvenir budget, as generous or as chintzy as you please, to avoid constant nagging and potential meltdowns. That said, the shops at the Wizarding World are exceptional and, in their own way, as engaging as the other park attractions. Ollivanders, Makers of Fine Wands Since 382 B.C. This shop literally puts on a show, as you watch a wand choose a wizard in an interactive experience. (On our visit, our older daughter was selected out of the crowd to demonstrate this choosing process.) The shop is packed with character wands, wand sets, and Interactive Wands that allow you to cast spells throughout Hogsmeade, the town-square setting in which the shops and restaurants are arranged. (Park staff are on hand to show kids where and how to use their Interactive Wands throughout Hogsmeade.) Honeydukes. Oh boy. You know that aroma of fresh chocolate when you step into a really good candy shop? Multiply that by 100 and you get the aroma of Honeydukes. Our kids may have spent more time mulling over their souvenir budgets at Honeydukes than anywhere else in the immersive land, with Acid Pops, Exploding Bonbons, Peppermint Toads, Fudge Flies, Fizzing Whizzbees, and Chocolate Frogs, among other sweet treats, lining the shelves. Owl Post. Kids can send letters and postcards through the U.S. mail with a Hogsmeade postmark from Owl Post, which also sells an array of branded stationery, pens, and Wizarding World stamps. And don’t forget to look up at the robotic owls in the rafters of the shop, which is built in the style of a medieval market hall. Then look down at the (replica) owl poop on the stone floors (you can see some in my photograph, above, taken just outside Owl Post).