ADVERTISEMENT

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.

1. ARE PETS STORED IN AN UNHEATED, UNPRESSURIZED HOLD?

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!

2. AIRPLANE DRINKING WATER MUST BE SAFE, RIGHT? 

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!

3. DO AIRPLANES JETTISON THEIR TOILET WASTE INTO THE AIR?

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!

4. WHAT'S WITH THE MOOD LIGHTING?

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?).

5. CAN STRANGERS UNLOCK THE AIRPLANE LAVATORY FROM THE OUTSIDE?

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!)

6. THE CABIN AIR CAN MAKE ME SICK, RIGHT?

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!)

7. HOW CAN I BE SURE MY PILOT KNOWS WHAT HE OR SHE IS DOING?

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.

8. ARE PILLOWS, BLANKETS, AND HEADPHONES CLEANED OR CHANGED AFTER EVERY FLIGHT?

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.

9. ARE PILOTS AND COPILOTS REALLY SERVED SEPARATE MEALS IN CASE OF POISONING?

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.

10. IS IT TRUE THAT OXYGEN MASKS HAVE ONLY A FEW MINUTES OF AIR IN THEM?

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!

Keep reading
Travel Tips

5 Bargain Destinations for February

Whether the phrase “February travel” conjures images of a romantic getaway, American history, or a warm beach vacation (or all three), we’ve got good news: Airfares to some popular mid-winter destinations are down. Our friends at Skyscanner crunched the numbers and came up with some trip-inspiring data. Here, five U.S. destinations where airfares are surprisingly affordable. 1. CHICAGO Domestic airfares to the Windy City are down around 32 percent compared with last year at this time. That means the taste of Lou Mitchell’s incredible breakfasts, Seven Lions’ muffalettas, and, of course, a classic deep-dish Pizzeria Uno, are all within reach. Not to mention the views from Skydeck Chicago in Willis Tower, the astounding art collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, and selfies at Anish Kapoor’s iconic Cloud Gate sculpture (better known as “The Bean”). And while you’re at it, tell Sue, the massive T-rex fossil at the Field Museum, that Budget Travel says, “hi.” 2. HOUSTON With airfares down around 28 percent, the U.S.’s fourth-largest city is ready for winter visitors. While you can expect a heaping portion of Southern hospitality down here (BBQ, comfort food, and steaks, anyone?), you’ll also love the decidedly chic shopping, cutting-edge cuisine, and crowd-pleasing hotspots such as the Johnson Space Center’s Space Center Houston (where kids of all ages will love the array of spacecraft, moon rocks, and learning activities) and the city’s vibrant Museum District (comprising 19 institutions, including the Children’s Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts). 3. WASHINGTON, D.C. Airfares to our nation’s capital are down around 16 percent, and the city’s major cultural and historical institutions are all free to the public, making it the ultimate destination for commemorating President’s Day and Black History Month. Don’t miss the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Gallery’s peerless art collection, the inspiring monuments along the National Mall, and the cool neighborhoods such as Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle where locals enjoy some of America’s finest eateries and unique shops. 4. DALLAS Flying to Dallas, with its awesome shopping and dining in West Village, history at Highland Park Village National Historic Site and the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, and superb art collections at the Dallas Museum of Art and Crow Collection of Asian Art, is about 15 percent less than last year. 5. MIAMI Warm beaches, from tony South Beach with its array of stately hotels and iconic Art Deco style to the quieter, family-friendly vibe of the North Beach area, are within reach, with fares down around 15 percent. When you bite into your first cubano sandwich, you'll thank us for the airfare tips.

Travel Tips

10 Things Europeans Say About You Behind Your Back

1. WE HAVE TERRIBLE FAKE ACCENTS Ouch. Turns out that posh James Bond imitation you think you've mastered sounds like the squeak of chalk on a blackboard to a Brit. And chances are, even as you read this, you believe you are the exception to this rule—that your Daniel Craig could fool a native? No. Stop. Please. 2. WE LIKE SMILING Boy, those French are unfriendly, huh? Guess again. They're just more physically reserved than you are, and that goes for facial expressions, too. A Parisian, especially when addressing a stranger, will rarely smile, and this is often misinterpreted by American as that legendary (and largely mythical) French rudeness. We, on the other hand, have been taught to approach new people, even total strangers, with our pearly whites bared. Down, Sparky. It just weirds them out. 3. WE HAVE BARBARIC EATING HABITS From way up in Scandinavia all the way down to Sicily, Europeans seem to be united in the opinion that Americans don't know how to enjoy a meal. Yep. Shocking as it may seem, the country that invented "fast food" and the "power lunch" puzzles its neighbors across the pond when it comes to table manners. Apparently, we start eating before it's considered polite, we don't stop to talk enough, and we perhaps miss the entire point of chowing down in the presence of other human beings. Wherever you may be visiting (but especially southern Europe), if you sit down to eat with locals, we suggest that you just quietly tell yourself, "Slow down." 4. WE ARE BAD DRINKERS Ok, in fairness to my American brethren, it's true that in some corners of Europe it is common to outdrink Americans at a truly magnificent pace. But overall, the European approach to beer, wine, and spirits is similar to their approach to a nice meal: What's the rush? It's perfectly acceptable to savor a two-hour lunch that includes a few goblets of wine. 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. But, gosh, get some arrondissements into your short-term memory, remember that Marseille is France's second-largest city, and understand that "Omaha Beach" is not what the French call that stretch of Normandy coast. (Btw, Trieste is in Italy.) 9. WE NEED THE FASHION POLICE This applies to American men more than women, and it's difficult to argue. On any given street of any given European town on any given day, I will not be able to compete with the stylish dress of the gents who pass my way. While a few decades ago this may not have been the case (I can imagine Don Draper holding his own against an onslaught of silk-suited Florentines), my generation has admittedly opted to dress like overgrown boys, and our T-shirts, baggy jeans, and five o'clock shadows scream "Yank." 10. WE DON'T KNOW OUR OWN HISTORY I say kudos to Europe's schools for instilling in their citizenry the ability to understand the difference between Bill Clinton and George Clinton. Unfortunately, Americans' grasp of European and even American history is often as sketchy as their grasp of geography. So just know that when you drop a name like Churchill or Garibaldi overseas, you are inviting a conversation in which you may eventually be called upon to remember who sold President Thomas Jefferson the 800,000+ square miles that now comprises all or parts of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, and, of course, Louisiana. (Psst! It was France.)

Travel Tips

Confessions of a Luggage Tester

Of course you expect every zipper, strap, axle, and handle on your suitcase to hold up under the pres­sures of flying. But you know who’s really got your back? Mike Mulvey, a quality engineer at luggage brand Travelpro International’s testing facility. Here, he unpacks some of the secrets of the trade. Q: What does a luggage tester do?A: Most of Travel­pro’s products carry a lifetime warranty, so it’s my responsibility to run all of our luggage lines and fabrics through a series of exacting tests de­signed to replicate the punishment a bag will face in the real world. Q: What are your favorite kinds of tests?A: Lifting a bag loaded with 70 pounds of stuff and dropping it at 24 different orientations at subzero temperatures in less than a minute for our “cold crack” test. We also put every bag (and sometimes those of competitors) on our handle-jerking machine, which we call The Enforcer. I’ve seen the handles and shells of competitors’ $1,000 bags break apart under that pressure. Q: How should Budget Travelers keep their stuff safe when traveling?A: After seeing the damage we inflict on luggage during testing, I pack liquids, valuables, and delicate items in the center of the bag to avoid high impact. And I actually prefer to carry on my bags to save time, money, and effort. Q: Gotta ask: Any packing tips you’ve picked up on the job?A: Lay out everything before you start packing so you can see what you want to put where. Use the bag space in the smartest way possible. Avoid empty spaces. I even pack stuff inside my shoes, though you should limit the pairs of shoes you bring be­cause of how heavy they are. Roll your casual clothing to maximize space and avoid wrinkling. Put heavy items on the bottom and folded dress shirts in the lid pocket to keep them sharp. Q: Do you have personal contact with customers?A: We have visitors to our test lab and repair center in Boca Raton, Florida, and they’re always surprised at how rigorous the test­ing is. Travelpro was the inventor of the original Rollaboard suitcase, so when I’m at the airport, I often approach pilots and flight attendants to tell them what I do and to ask for their “wish lists” for upcoming luggage collections.

Travel Tips

Ultimate Guide to Visiting Harry Potter

Two kids who’ve read each Harry Potter book at least twice. And seen every movie. Two parents who want to squeeze every bit of magic out of one day at Universal Studios Hollywood’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We arrive early one July morning, park the car, and embark on what will turn out to be one of the most perfect days of our California summer vacation. Our secrets? Read on. EASY TIPS TO STREAMLINE YOUR HARRY POTTER VISIT A little bit of planning goes a long way when tackling a park like Universal Studios Hollywood. Sure, we were there for Harry Potter’s immersive land, but some common-sense tips for visiting Universal (some of which apply to other theme parks as well, of course) worked like one of Hermione’s spells. Buy your tickets online in advance. What could be more fun than approaching the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, its stately towers looming and the unforgettable John Williams film score blaring? How about entering the Wizarding World an hour before normal park hours? You can do that when you buy your tickets online at UniversalStudiosHollywood.com. 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).

ADVERTISEMENT