15 Secrets Airlines Don’t Want You to Know

A stewardess holds her finger to her lips, saying, "Shh."

There are many airline secrets to make your flying experience more enjoyable. | iStock.com/smoderek

Air travel is becoming as ubiquitous as taking a bus or train — which means it no longer has its traditional mystique. But some mysteries still persist 35,000 feet in the air. There are plenty of things airlines don’t want you to know about flying. Are nonrefundable tickets really nonrefundable? What should you do if your airline cancels your flight? Do free upgrades exist? And how do you actually score the best deals on tickets?

We found all of those answers — and more — to help you become an informed, efficient, and economical passenger.

1. Did you get bumped from your flight? Only take cash, never 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

Chances are good that every flight you take these days is overbooked. Airlines need planes that are at least 85% full to start making a profit on airfare. And they won’t consistently achieve that level if they don’t account for missed connections, people oversleeping, or simply choosing not to show. You’ve likely heard a gate agent announce that the airline is offering vouchers when a flight has too many checked-in passengers. Most times, that takes care of the problem. But don’t take those vouchers yourself.

Only about 10% of people get bumped against their will. If that happens, the airline will have to pay up (unless it can still get you to your destination on time.) If you’re involuntarily delayed for two hours or more, the Department of Transportation requires that you’re compensated up to 400% of your ticket value. Compensation is capped at $1,300. If the gate agent or customer service rep places you on another airline, you aren’t required to pay anything extra for your seat or baggage. (In-flight food, beverages, and entertainment don’t apply.)

2. 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

You’ve probably noticed that many airlines don’t offer free upgrades even when they have empty seats. That might make you think the days of free upgrades are over. 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.” Airlines want people to pay for upgrades, not to expect to get them for free. But don’t lose hope. You can still get a free upgrade if you know what you’re doing.

Independent Traveler notes there’s often not a big difference between first class and the main cabin when you’re flying domestically. But an upgrade is well worth it when you’re flying internationally. While it’s difficult to score a free, unearned upgrade, you can still do it — especially if you ask politely and directly.

You can also increase your chances of getting a free upgrade, according to Skyscanner. Travel at quiet times, for instance. Sign up for your airline’s loyalty program. Arrive early for your flight. Dress nicely. And always speak politely to the gate agents and flight attendants. Remember, though, that if the flight is almost empty, your chances of getting a free upgrade are pretty slim. You’re more likely to be successful when asking for an upgrade on a full or almost-full flight.

3. 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

Travel plans change. But depending on the ticket class you purchase, some airlines make it sound like you won’t get a refund if you change your mind. However, the U.S. Department of Transportation has a rule that requires airlines to “allow a reservation to be cancelled within 24 hours without penalty.”

Airfare Watchdog reports that “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 carefully and make sure that you want to hold on to the reservation. Also of note? You don’t have to pay the change or cancel fee if the airline cancels or significantly delays your flight.

4. Hungry? 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 food served on airplanes is pretty notorious for leaving a lot to be desired when it comes to flavor and selection. But most of us put up with it. What other options are there? Plenty, it turns out. You’re actually allowed to bring your own food onto the plane.

Years ago, the New York Times advised that when flying, “the practical thing to do is to pack your own meal.” USA Today reports there are no formal limits on how much food you can take on board.  You can pack as much food into your carry-on as you want.

Packing your lunch is a pretty attractive alternative to overpaying for a meal on the plane or at the airport. But there are some rules to keep in mind. The most important of those is TSA’s regulation on liquids. Foods such as yogurt and hummus count as liquids. They need to be in a clear bag when you go through security. If you’re flying internationally, you’ll want to check the flight regulations to see which food items you can bring on and off the plane.

Plus, you should think about odors and allergies when you’re choosing what to pack. Although you might love a garlicky pasta lunch, it probably won’t make you popular with your neighbors. Try to be considerate of your fellow travelers.

5. You should never 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

Booking a family vacation or a weekend with friends? You might think you should buy all of the tickets at once — especially if you want a discount. But unfortunately, buying several tickets doesn’t qualify you for a group rate. In fact, customers who book multiple tickets might pay more in some cases.

Reader’s Digest explains why. Say you want to purchase four tickets, but the airline only has three at a discounted fare. Most people would assume that you’d get three at a discount and the fourth at full price. But in reality, the airline will bump up all four tickets to the higher price bracket. The upshot? Searching for one at a time can help you capitalize on lower prices that are still available.

6. Fly Tuesday through Saturday, but shop for tickets Tuesday through Thursday

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

Some of the most closely guarded airline secrets involve airfares. Fortunately, they’re easier to figure out than you think. The cheapest days to fly are Tuesdays and Saturdays. (Fewer business clients travel on those days of the week.) But which are the best days to actually book your ticket? The cheapest days to buy often fall between Tuesday through Thursday afternoon, HowStuffWorks suggests.

Price-comparison sites can help you get the best deals. But airlines pay a fee every time you book a ticket on one. Consequently, companies, such as Delta and Southwest, have stopped sharing their prices with some sites. Skiplagged offers the ninja version of those comparison sites. It can find deals using tactics, such as hidden city ticketing. That means scheduling a flight with three stops, for instance — only to get off at your destination at Point B, not Point C. Just keep in mind the site is making a lot of enemies with airlines. It fought and defeated United in a lawsuit. And while the company is in the clear, you might violate the terms of flying with a carrier if you use hidden city ticketing.

7. Flight canceled? You need to get on the phone immediately

Canceled flights on airport screen

Don’t panic when the airline cancels your flight. Some of the best-guarded airline secrets tell you how to get what you want in this annoying situation. | iStock.com/Mimadeo

Let’s imagine that the worst has happened. The airline canceled your flight, or delayed it long enough that you won’t make your connection. What should you do? Stand in line at the gate or the ticket counter. But while you’re waiting, place a call to customer service, too. Those agents can reschedule you, as well, without the line.

Just don’t tell them your sob story, The Huffington Post advises. Instead, politely give your record locator as soon as you get a human on the line. “Seriously, 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 for whoever is on the phone with them,” The Huffington Post says.

Another factor that Airfare Watchdog advises you should keep in mind? If the airline substantially delayed or canceled your flight, you should get a refund — even if you bought a nonrefundable ticket. Airlines publish required customer service plans (such as this one from American) that outline their procedures for these events. If you think you might run into a problem, read up ahead of time.

Just know that the frequency of cancellations and schedule changes will likely increase. If a schedule change isn’t covered in the customer service plan, nonrefundable tickets can only be changed with a hefty penalty fee. As The Wall Street Journal explains, those fees add up to billions of dollars over the course of a year. So airlines likely won’t give up those penalty fees anytime soon.

8. Your smartphone won’t really bring down the plane

Woman using smartphone inside an airplane

Even though it’s probably OK if you don’t, you should still put your smartphone in airplane mode. | iStock.com/yuran-78

It’s standard practice for flight attendants to ask you to switch your smartphone to airplane mode before takeoff. But plenty of us have been tempted to disobey. Would your smartphone really bring the plane down if you continue to send text messages or download emails once the plane is on the runway? Travel + Leisure reports that “there has never been a case of a cellphone causing a plane to crash.” But that’s not necessarily an excuse to keep your phone on throughout your flight.

Kenny Kirchoff, an engineer at Boeing’s Electromagnetic Interference Lab in Seattle, tells CNN the issue isn’t that your phone (or tablet, laptop, or e-reader) could bring the plane down. The issue is interference. It seems that interference from electronic devices can affect aircraft systems. But problems are rare. And the International Air Transport Association found it difficult (even impossible) to replicate them.

The FAA has handed over responsibility to the airlines. So it’s your airline that decides which electronic devices you can use and when. However, using a smartphone that’s transmitting cell signals is banned (both by the FAA because of potential airplane interference and by the FCC because of potential interference with networks on the ground). So while switching your phone to airplane mode is fine, your airline prefers it if you don’t stay connected to voice, text, or data services — even if it’s unlikely to cause any real issues during the flight.

9. Packing hand sanitizer is just as important as remembering your carry-on

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

Nobody likes dealing with a baggie of liquids at the TSA checkpoint. But it’s worth the hassle of packing a quart-size plastic bag, so you can carry hand sanitizer on board. The surfaces of many areas in a plane have more germs than a toilet seat. According to one flight attendant, tray tables get cleaned an average of once per day. The crew only replaces blankets and pillows for the first flight of the day — if at all. You can see why hand sanitizer counts as an in-flight necessity.

And yes, you can blame that airplane air for making you sick. The cabin air is filtered. But it’s also pressurized. That strips the air of moisture, HowStuffWorks explains. The low humidity level in the cabin dries out the mucous membranes that fight germs in your body. As a result, you’re more susceptible to the cold germs from the person coughing in seat 12A. You obviously can’t choose your seatmates. But you can opt to carry — and use — a small bottle of hand sanitizer. While you’re at it, consider throwing in a package of sanitizing wipes for that germy tray table.

10. The airline can’t trap you on a delayed plane forever

Woman reading magazine and listening to music on an airplane

If your flight is delayed, the airline can only keep you trapped on the tarmac for a limited amount of time. | iStock.com/kasto80

Although it might feel like you’ve been stuck on a delayed airplane forever when you’re staring out the window at the tarmac, regulations limit the amount of time an airline can keep passengers on a plane. ABC News reported several years ago that the government had just instituted a new rule that “airlines cannot keep passengers stuck on planes without going anywhere for longer than three hours.”

That sounds good for passengers — but it might not be. As the Chicago Tribune recently reported, a study conducted by researchers at the “Dartmouth College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found the tarmac delay rule increased flight cancellations and ultimately the time it takes for passengers to reach their destinations.” Confused? As airlines try to avoid the fines the government assesses if they break the rule, they become quicker to cancel flights. So perhaps waiting in the plane isn’t a bad deal. At least if it means that you don’t have to sleep in the airport instead.

11. Tell the airline what was in your lost bag, and you’ll likely receive more compensation

Two suitcases on the luggage belt in the airport

Did your luggage go missing or get delayed? The airline owes you. | iStock.com/Nomadsoul1

Did you fly to Colorado for a ski weekend with lots of gear, or pack your wedding tux in your checked bag, only to have that bag disappear? Airlines have gotten notoriously stingy with their payouts. And according to the Department of Transportation, the airline might owe you more money. For travel in the United States, the payout for lost or delayed luggage can reach up to $3,300. The only catch? You have to show documentation of the value or necessity of the items in the bag.

The airline may owe you even if your luggage is delayed, but not actually lost. “Carriers should remain willing to cover all reasonable, actual and verifiable expenses related to baggage loss, damage or delay,” the department stated in its baggage policy. So if you have to rent skis or buy a new tux in time for the big day, you should definitely complain.

12. All the annoying things the crew requires? There’s a good reason for each

Tray on back of airplane seat

Locking your tray table is one small thing you can do to keep everyone safe. | iStock.com/Jannoon028

Have you ever noticed how the cabin lights dim before takeoff? That’s not to kick off your shut-eye. The lights actually dim to ensure that your eyes adjust to the darkness. You’ll want to be able to see in the dark if something goes wrong, a former flight attendant wrote for The Huffington Post. Plus, window shades are supposed to remain open, so the crew can see everything is fine outside of the plane (and so firefighters can see inside in the event of a crash).

But there’s more behind the airline’s procedures. You need to lock your tray table and return your seat to its upright position, so people sitting past you can evacuate in the event of an emergency. It’s a matter of safety, not a reason to wake you while there are still 30 minutes left in your flight.

13. Your pilot is probably more tired than you think

Pilot in cockpit

The pilot probably hasn’t had as much sleep as you imagine. | iStock.com/Matus Duda

The Federal Aviation Administration stipulates that pilots can only be in the air for up to eight hours in every 24-hour cycle. However, that flight time doesn’t include ground delays, preflight checks, loading the plane, or any maintenance that occurs while the pilot is in the cockpit. If a pilot has two flights in a day, it can mean they’re actually logging a 14-hour day in some cases, HowStuffWorks explains.

The FAA does also require eight hours of “rest” for pilots. But the pilot doesn’t spend all of that time sleeping. Instead, it can also mean driving to and from the airport, eating, and preparing for the next flight. The upshot? Your pilot might not be as well-rested as you imagine. This probably isn’t an airline secret you should tell your anxious seatmate.

14. 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

Your main interaction with the flight attendants might occur when they give you a drink. But pouring you a Coke or cocktail isn’t the most important part of a flight attendant’s job. Flight attendants’ primary responsibility on board is safety. One former 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.

It’s definitely OK to ask a flight attendant if you need help. But you should always treat flight attendants courteously. That usually means not bothering them with any of the questions you should never ask a flight attendant.

15. 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

Think an airline can do anything it wants? Think again. Each airline actually has a contract with you as a passenger. They’re called contracts of carriage. And the Department of Transportation requires each airline to have one. These documents spell out the policies for flight cancellations. They detail any refunds that the airline will offer. Plus, they explain how the airline handles fare changes. And they also spell out the dreaded carry-on baggage policies.

While most of these contracts will be similar, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with them. Although you didn’t sign on any dotted line, these stipulations are technically what you’re agreeing to when you purchase an airline ticket. On the flip side, the contract of carriage also spells out the agreements the airline says it will abide by while you travel. Curious? Check out the contracts for United, American, and Delta.

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