It’s no secret that flying post-9/11 has become both complicated and stressful. Factor in declining service levels as airlines struggle for profitability, and the once glamorous world of air travel can start to feel more like a Guantanamo water-boarding session than the luxury experience of yore.
Fortunately, there are steps travellers can take to ameliorate the pain and minimize the frustration associated with endless security checks, cramped seats and dismal meals. Here are a few of the best tips from people who fly for a living.
Select a decent carrier
It makes a difference. Really. “Most people go on-line and find the cheapest possible flight,” says Vancouver Island resident John Beaven, who, before his retirement, used to rack up between 250,000 and 300,000 air miles each year circling the globe as an account executive with Allied Signal. “But if you’ve flown as much as I have, you quickly realize that not all airlines are created equal. Not only do some have more comfortable seats and better air and ground service, but different airlines actually have their own, distinct, personalities. Some are super-friendly and relaxed, others are uptight and employ flight attendants who clearly hate their jobs.”
For the record, Skytrax, which bills itself as “the world’s largest airline and airport review website,” ranks Asiana Airlines as the best carrier in the world based on product and service offerings, followed by Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways. Best economy-class seating goes to Qatar; best business class seating to Kingfisher Airlines; and Virgin Atlantic is ranked No. 1 in airport lounges. Perhaps unsurprisingly, North American carriers are conspicuously absent from virtually all of Skytrax’s Top 10 lists.
To check, or not to check
In a word, don’t. The array of mishaps, glitches and hidden costs associated with checked baggage is both long and scary. For starters, checked bags can get damaged—as evidenced by Halifax musician Dave Carroll’s smash YouTube hit United breaks guitars. Checked bags also get lost frequently. “Incidents of luggage getting lost or stolen have skyrocketed of late, because carriers are outsourcing luggage handling to companies that pay minimum wage,” says Lynn Jones, recently retired from a 30-year career as an Air Canada flight attendant. “If you feel you absolutely have to check bags, make sure your carry-on luggage contains at least a pair of pyjamas and full change of clothes, so you won’t be stuck if your checked bags don’t arrive.”
Jane Hutchings, another flight attendant with more than three decades service, says she avoids checking luggage at all costs. On a recent 16-day trip through Australia and New Zealand, Hutchings and her husband each made do with a single carry-on bag, then bought anything else they needed—extra clothing, shoes or outerwear—en route. Sure, they had to purchase extra bags to check in for the flight back to Canada, but checking luggage on return flights is less critical: “If it goes missing on the way back, who cares?” says Hutchings. “You’re home, so you’re not stuck without necessities.”
Travellers who need to check luggage should be aware of size and weight limits for bags, and the attendant costs for exceeding these limits. Air Canada, for example, permits economy class passengers to check two 50-lb bags. Bags exceeding 50 lbs are charged $100, and extra bags run as much as $250—each way! Moreover, the allowances and charges can change mid-journey, as travellers switch airlines on connecting flights, leading to some truly nasty surprises. “I know someone who was stuck paying $3,000 to get their luggage home after a lengthy cruise,” says Hutchings. “I know other people who’ve taken to shipping their luggage with FedEx or UPS rather than checking it. It can actually be cheaper in some cases, and they deliver it right to your door.”
In the recent Hollywood film Up in the Air, uber-flyer Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) finesses security line-ups with a practiced—not to say jaded—eye. Old people are the worst, he opines, because they’re “full of metal bits and never seem to appreciate how little time they have left.” Asian travellers, on the other hand, are efficient and organized, and “have a thing for loafers, God bless them.”
It’s a throwaway line, but not without its kernel of truth: there are things travellers can do to get through security quickly, efficiently and with minimal stress. “Wear shoes without laces that you can kick off and put back on without bending down,” says Jones. “And wear socks. You don’t want to be standing on those filthy floors in bare feet.” Hutchings, meanwhile, advises travellers to leave loose change at home. “It’s heavy, and you can’t use it if you’re flying out of the country.” And pack liquids, gels, cosmetics and medication in see-through ziplock bags, “so security doesn’t have to rummage through your carry-on bag looking for this stuff.”
When booking flights, you might want to consider paying a bit extra—usually $30 to $60—to pre-select a seat. “The seats by the emergency exits are great because you get more leg room,” says Beaven. Conversely, the row immediately in front of the emergency exits is bad because the seats don’t recline fully; nor do the seats in last row at the back of the plane.
“Some people want to sit up at the front of the plane, because they think they can get on and off faster,” says Jones, “but what they don’t realize is that’s where the bassinets go, so they’ll often find themselves sitting next to screaming infants.”
If you’re lucky enough to be able to fly business class, check in advance to ensure your carrier’s seats recline completely flat. Flat-bed seats are “vastly superior” to so-called angled-flat seats when it comes to sleeping, says Jones. “That’s where you hear the snoring.”
Oh, and the pillows and blankets provided on overnight flights? “They’re used again and again,” says Jones. “They don’t change them unless they’re visibly dirty, so I advise women in particular to bring their own shawl or pashmina they can curl up under, together with a pair of comfy socks or slippers.”
“Eat lightly, and refrain from drinking alcohol,” adds Hutchings. “One drink in the sky equals two or more on the ground because of the difference in oxygen levels, and if you have a couple drinks before dinner and half-bottle of wine with your meal, you’ll feel like the cat’s breakfast by the time you arrive at your destination.”
Beaven says that on flights where he hopes to sleep he brings his own neck pillow and makes sure he gets window seating. “If you’re in the middle seat you wake up on another passenger’s shoulder, and with aisle seats you’re always getting bumped by the trolleys.” He also invested in a pair of noise-cancellation headphones. “They’re fantastic. Turn them on, and 90% of the engine and cabin noise disappears. They also make it a lot easier to hear the in-flight movies.”
How much you enjoy your flight often comes down to your level of preparedness, your attitude and your expectations, says Jones. “Flying isn’t what it was in the ‘70s, and there’s no point pretending it is. So, be positive. It’s so much easier to be nice than nasty.”