The internet is rife with old wives tales about travel. We see video after video professing ways to fly better, cheaper. To demystify some of our burning questions, we turned to those on the front line of the industry: flight attendants.
While they're portrayed in movies and television as chic jet-setters or hard-partying ingénues, being a flight attendant has gotten a lot less cinematic. They've had to deal with the tumultuous years of pandemic lockdowns and border closures, when they were considered essential workers and still had to fly while most of us stayed safe at home. They've faced insults and assaults from angry travelers when enforcing mask mandates. They enroll in self-defense classes to protect themselves on board, miss holidays and family milestones so we can fly to ours, and have been fighting for years for better pay and benefits.
"It's not a job. It is a lifestyle," said Beth Bourneuf, a former teacher who became a flight attendant in 2020. "When you go to work, you're gone for three days ... you're kind of away from it all."
Because the airport is their second home, we went to them to debunk some common travel myths. We interviewed flight attendants -- some with decades of experience and others newer to the field. Some we interviewed spoke on the condition that they be identified by their first name only to protect their employment.
Myth: Dressing up will get you an upgrade
You can't charm your way to first class, but you should still be nice.
"You won't get an upgrade but maybe a free drink," said Miami-based Trey Antwan, who became a flight attendant in 2007.
Airlines have strict systems for upgrades, and flight attendants don't have the authority to dole out seating assignments. "I know that if I were to upgrade someone out of order and not go by that [upgrade] list, I would get in so much trouble," said Vinia DiGeronimo, who's five years into her career. In fact, "there are times where the people who actually pay for economy plus will call the airline and ask for a refund because they saw people moved up for free," said Amber, who has been a flight attendant for eight years. "And we can get terminated for that."
Myth: Greeting passengers has a hidden purpose
Welcoming passengers on board is more than just a hello. It gives flight attendants the opportunity to identify able-bodied passengers, aka ABPs, who may be able to help in case of an emergency. The flight crew is also looking for suspicious or intoxicated travelers, and sizing up carry-ons.
"We look to see how many bags people are carrying, and we also have to be conscious of what kind of bags they're carrying," Bourneuf said. "Anyone with a cooler, we need to ask what's in there."
Myth: Flight attendants are there to serve you
Their primary job is your safety, not collecting your trash or lifting your bag; they're not supposed to do the latter anymore, as doing so puts them at risk for injury. They're trained for a number of crises on board, like the medical emergency Amber tended to a few months ago. At the time, "it didn't look good," she said, but "I learned not long ago that it's because we immediately took action that we actually helped save his life."
Myth: Flight attendants delay takeoff for overtime pay
Their pay doesn't work like that. Delta Air Lines made headlines last year after announcing it would start paying flight attendants during boarding. But for many, the clock doesn't officially start until the plane's door is closed and its brakes are released. Like the rest of us, they still have to show up well before takeoff and sit around through the same weather and mechanical complications -- all without pay.
"Most of my workdays are anywhere between 12 to 16 hours but we only get paid anywhere from five to eight of those hours," DiGeronimo said.
Myth: Flight attendants travel free
They do, but it's not as glamorous as it sounds. While they can fly free, they must do so on standby. That could mean waiting hours or days to get a seat on a plane. Still, the perk is why many get into the exhausting industry.
Myth: They have secret places to sleep
"There's a whole world underneath the airport that people don't know about," Bourneuf said.
Some airlines have airport staff lounges and sleeping rooms for crew to rest between flights. And on long-haul routes, the crew must take breaks in "secret" airplane compartments.
Myth: Don't drink airplane coffee
Reality: It depends
Many flight attendants steer clear of hot water on board. That's true for Amber. Years ago, she heard that the water tanks on planes may contain harmful bacteria and has avoided coffee or tea onboard ever since. However, she does know flight attendants and plenty of passengers that do drink airplane coffee.
Myth: Flight attendants constantly party
While some flight attendants -- particularly ones new to the job -- may go all out on a layover, many are too tired after a long shift do to more than eat, sleep and get ready for their next flight. "Sometimes we do go out to enjoy the city, but people like myself who've been doing it a long time ... it's a regular job," Antwan said. "I'm on my layover right now ... and I've been in my room."
And no, they can't drink on the job either.
Myth: They know when air marshals are on board
Reality: It depends
Some say they always know when they have federal air marshals on their flights. Amber says gate agents usually alert them or they can see they're on board via a special crew app. "We have an app to see all customers so we can see all 'specials,'" she said.
Others say they are only informed sometimes, and may find out after landing that an air marshal was on board.
Myth: Flight attendants make you check bags out of spite
Don't take it personally; it comes down to physics and taking off on time. Maybe your bag is too large to fit in the overhead bin, or maybe there is simply no space left.
Either way, don't make the crew's day worse -- and delay takeoff -- by arguing about it.