The Travel Secrets That Airlines Don’t Want You to Know

These days, air travel is nearly as common as taking a bus or train, but some mysteries persist 35,000 feet in the air. Airlines don’t want you to know certain things about flying, but these secrets can help you be an informed passenger. For example, they dim the cabin lights for one alarming reason — not to help you sleep (page 10).

1. Your smartphone won’t bring down the plane

Woman using smartphone inside an airplane
But you should still put your phone on airplane mode. | iStock.com/yuran-78

Flight attendants ask everyone to switch their phones to airplane mode before takeoff. But the real reason you should do so involves interference. Kenny Kirchoff of Boeing’s Electromagnetic Interference Lab, tells CNN interference from electronics can affect aircraft systems, not crash planes.

Next: The first thing to do when your flight is canceled

2. Flight canceled? Get on the phone immediately

Travelers boarding an airplane
Standing in a long line with other angry travelers isn’t helpful. | Comstock/iStock/Getty Images
  • Truth: Calling customer service is often faster than speaking with a gate agent face-to-face.

If the airline cancels your flight, get in line at the ticket counter ASAP. But also call customer service while you wait. Those agents can help you without the long line of fellow disgruntled passengers. “Seconds matter here … While you are talking to us, we can literally see that the next plane only has 10 seats left and see the number dropping as other agents snatch those seats up,” explains The Huffington Post.

Next: Secret tools are within an arm’s reach.

3. Surprising objects are hidden throughout every airplane

emergency exit door in airplane
Many planes have a crowbar instead of an axe. | Artfoliophoto/iStock/Getty Images
  • Truth: Flight attendants can access handcuffs, a defilbrillator, supplemental oxygen, a fire extinguisher, and an ax or a crowbar.

These objects protect passengers from others and themselves. Hidden handcuffs can restrain anyone causing a disturbance. All planes still have bathroom ashtrays because a rulebreaker is less likely to throw a cigarette butt in the trash — and cause a fire — when an ashtray exists. Plus, planes have what’s needed in case of a heart attack, fire, or electrical problems.

Next: You’re not as trapped as you feel.

4. The airline can’t keep you on a delayed plane

Woman reading magazine and listening to music on an airplane
If your flight is delayed, the airline can’t trap you. | iStock.com/kasto80
  • Truth: Regulations limit the time an airline can keep passengers on an aircraft.

Being “trapped” on a plane may not be such a bad thing, however. The government has a rule: “Airlines cannot keep passengers stuck on planes without going anywhere for longer than three hours.” Unfortunately, this rule increases flight cancellations, reports the Chicago Tribune. Why? Airlines don’t want fines for holding passengers on planes for too long.

Next: You can sleep on a plane, but your pilot can’t, right?

5. Your pilot is more tired than you think

Pilot in cockpit
The pilot probably hasn’t had as much sleep as you imagine. | iStock.com/Matus Duda
  • Truth: Pilots often log far more work hours than their employers realize.

Pilots can only be in the air for up to eight hours in a 24-hour cycle. But this time doesn’t include delays, preflight checks, and maintenance while the pilot is in the cockpit. So they could really log 14-hour days, HowStuffWorks says. During “rest” hours, pilots must commute, eat, plan for future flights, and try to get some sleep. The result? Your pilot may not be well-rested.

Next: What to do if an airline loses your bag

6. The airline may owe you a lot of money for your lost bag

Two suitcases on the luggage belt in the airport
Did your luggage go missing? The airline owes you. | iStock.com/Nomadsoul1
  • Truth: If you can prove the contents of your lost bag, the airline may have to compensate you a lot more.

Did you fly with expensive ski gear or pack a tux in your checked bag, only for that bag to disappear? Airlines are notoriously stingy with payouts. However, the airline may owe you more money. For U.S. travel, the payout for lost luggage can be up to $3,300. But you must show proof of the value of your bag’s items.

Next: The stale truth behind the snacks.

7. Skip the airplane meal

A flight attendant serves a meal
Meal served on board | Aureliy/Getty Images
  • Truth: The in-flight food is old and over-seasoned to trick your taste buds.

The Daily Meal spoke with flight attendants about airplane food. One staffer who worked for five major airlines disclosed that food is made as many as 12-24 hours before passengers receive it. Some foods, like eggs, aren’t actually the real thing. And the pressurized cabin dulls your senses of taste and smell, so the food is often loaded with salt to taste.

Next: A sleepy (and sexual) place on your plane

8. Your flight attendants may sneak in a nap

Flight attendants relax
The sleeping compartments are right above passengers on some Boeing models. | Flight attendants | Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • Truth: Flight attendants sleep — and allegedly have sex — in hidden bedrooms on Boeing 777 and 787 airplanes.

Attendants need rest on longer flights too. So, look for an obscure door near the front of the plane; this may lead to a hidden area with beds. These sleeping compartments reside above passengers on many Boeing airplanes. Some of these areas even have TVs, storage space, and pajamas.

Next: How to know you’re in imminent danger

9. If the crew uses these code words, you’re in serious trouble

Pilot in cockpit
Your pilot might use a certain code over the intercom. | iStock/Getty Images
  • Truth: Prepare for an emergency if you hear “7500,” “7600,” or “7700.”

“7500” may be the worst to hear; the code means the plane has been hijacked, or that hijacking is imminent. A pilot will say “7600” if they experience radio failure or loss of communication. “7700” indicates a general emergency. During crises, a major issue is the pilot’s failure to properly communicate the issue at hand, reports MzeroA.com, a leading flight training source.

Next: The alarming reason why flight attendants dim the cabin lights

10. The cabin lights are dim to ensure you can see in the dark

Tray on back of airplane seat
Locking your tray table is one small thing you can do to keep everyone safe. | iStock.com/Jannoon028
  • Truth: Your eyes need to adjust to the darkness in case of a life-threatening emergency like a crash.

If something goes wrong, you’ll need to see in the dark, a former flight attendant told The Huffington Post. Shades must stay open so the crew can see outside (and firefighters can see inside if there’s a crash). Other important procedures: Your tray table must be locked and your seat upright, so people behind you can evacuate.

Next: Sometimes you can’t prevent an overbooked flight.

11. Get bumped? Ask for cash, not a voucher

Airplane tickets, sunglasses, keys, and a cellphone and passport are laid out on a flat wooden surface
Is your flight overbooked? Don’t give up your seat without a fight for cash. | iStock.com/mactrunk
  • Truth: Vouchers have expiration dates and black-out dates.

Many flights are overbooked. Planes must be at least 85% full to profit, and this must account for missed connections and no-shows. Even so, only 10% of people get bumped unwillingly. If this occurs and you’re delayed for two or more hours, the airline must pay you up to 400% of the ticket value (capped at $1,300). When a gate agent offers vouchers, ask for cash or a check instead.

Next: Your pilot needs to eat — but not this stuff.

12. Pilots don’t eat the airplane meals

Portrait of Pilots Sitting in the Cockpit, Adjusting the Controls
Unfortunately the cockpit doesn’t come with cupholders. | Digital Vision/Getty Images
  • Truth: For both professional and personal reasons, pilots avoid the airline meals and snacks.

Pilots eat different foods than travelers, although all meals come from the same place. A UK pilot, who asked to be anonymous, told Express.co.uk, “We will eat different food to prevent any issues arising if there is a problem with the food that could incapacitate us.” The pilot and co-pilot also eat different meals to prevent getting sick and being unable to land the plane.

Next: The trick to buying tickets for your whole family

13. Don’t buy group tickets at the same time

A man pulls up an airline ticket site on his laptop
Planning to buy multiple tickets all at once? Don’t. Airline policies will make them more expensive.  | iStock.com/milindri
  • Truth: Multiple tickets may cost more than single tickets.

Booking a group getaway? Buying all the tickets at once would simplify the process. However, Reader’s Digest explains why customers who book multiple tickets may pay more. If you want to buy four tickets, but only three are discounted, most people assume you’d get three at a discount and the fourth at full price. But in reality, the airline bumps up all four tickets to the higher price.

Next: Your best chance of getting upgraded to first class

14. You can still get a free upgrade if you know what to do

Business woman at international airport sitting and drinking coffee
Upgrades have become rare. But in specific circumstances, you can still get a free upgrade to a better seat. | iStock.com/romrodinka
  • Truth: It’s hard to get a free upgrade, but it can happen if you ask directly and politely.

An upgrade is worth it. As Boarding Area reports, “The only circumstance under which you’ll consistently see free upgrades is when it’s for operational reasons, like a cabin being oversold, and them needing to upgrade people.” Don’t lose hope; just improve your chances. Travel at quiet times, Skyscanner says. Sign up for airline loyalty programs. Arrive early. Dress nicely. And speak politely to the gate agents.

Next: You don’t have to pay for expensive food.

15. You’re allowed to take your own meal onto the plane

Airplane seats
If you aren’t a fan of overpriced airplane food, you can pack your own instead. | iStock.com

The practical thing to do is pack your own meal,” advises the New York Times. You can bring as much food in your carry-on as you want. But know the TSA’s regulation on liquids includes yogurt and hummus. They must be in clear bags to pass security. Consider odors and allergies, too. A tuna sandwich won’t make you popular with fellow passengers.

Next: Timing is everything when you buy and fly.

16. Buy on certain days and fly on certain days

Airfare tickets on a laptop
Want a great deal on airfare? You can easily achieve that by shopping at the right place, at the right time. | iStock.com/scanrail
  • Truth: The cheapest days to fly are Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Fewer business clients travel on those days. But you should buy your tickets on the cheapest days of the week, Tuesday through Thursday, HowStuffWorks suggests.

Next: The dirtiest place on a plane

17. Packing hand sanitizer is crucial

Scientist analyzing dish with virus and bacteria cells
Have you ever gotten sick after a flight? You can blame all the germs on board. | iStock.com/solarseven
  • Truth: Many surfaces in a plane have more germs than a toilet seat.

Packing hand sanitizer is worth it. According to one flight attendant, tray tables get cleaned once per day. The crew only replaces blankets and pillows for the first flight of the day, if at all. And yes, you can blame the air for making you sick. Pressurized cabin air lacks moisture, HowStuffWorks says. The low humidity level dries out your nose’s mucous membranes, making you more susceptible to germs.

Next: A flight attendant’s real responsibilities

18. Flight attendants are doing a lot more than pouring cocktails

Flight attendants walk around the airplane with a gift cart
You don’t have to be in on many airline secrets to realize that flight attendants do a lot more than pour you a drink. | Martijn Beekman/AFP/Getty Images
  • Truth: Flight attendants are actually highly trained with major responsibilities.

Pouring you a drink isn’t the most important part of a flight attendant’s job. Their main responsibility is safety. One flight attendant shared the true training with The Huffington Post:

We are trained to do CPR, use EpiPens, AED, and defibrillators, we take self-defense courses and practice what to do in case someone gets unruly or tries to take over the plane, we are there to guard the cockpit so people don’t get in during the flight, along with what to do in an evacuation. The correct way to position all of the passengers for a emergency landing, taking the emergency exit doors off of the planes, ushering everyone out while being the last ones out ourselves.

Next: The scoop on nonrefundable tickets

19. You can get a refund, even on a nonrefundable ticket

man on phone looking at flight board
Even if you bought a nonrefundable ticket, you can still get your money back. | iStock.com
  • Truth: The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to “allow a reservation to be canceled within 24 hours without penalty.”

Airfare Watchdog reports “in order to take advantage of the 24-hour cancel or change rule, it’s best to book directly with airlines, either online or by phone, rather than through third-party websites.” So even after you’ve booked a flight, you have a day to think about it.

Next: Did you know you sign a contract when you fly?

20. Every airline has a contract with you

Businessman signing papers
One of the airline secrets few passengers seem to know? You can check the contract of carriage to know what to expect. | iStock.com/BernardaSv
  • Truth: The Department of Transportation requires airlines to have a contract with every passenger.

Each airline actually has a “contract of carriage” with every passenger. The documents spell out policies involving flight cancellations, refunds, fare changes, and baggage policies. Although you didn’t sign on a dotted line, these stipulations are technically what you agree to when you purchase a ticket. Curious? Check out the contracts for United, American, and Delta.