Flight attendant of 10 years reveals whether it's okay to cut the boarding line and the correct way to ask for an upgrade

  • Rich Henderson has worked as a flight attendant for a major US airline for 10 years.

  • He shared some of his top travel tips, like how to change seats and which drinks you should avoid.

  • Bribing flight attendants with candy or gift cards won't get you upgraded to first class, he said.

Is it safe to drink the airplane coffee? Can I switch to that open seat a couple of rows up? Will I get in trouble if I board before my group is called?

If your internal monologue sounds anything like this while flying, you're in the right place.

Rich Henderson, a flight attendant of 10 years and co-creator of the blog "Two Guys on a Plane," answered our burning travel questions about boarding, deplaning, and everything in between. He chose to omit the name of his employer due to the airline's media policy, but his position has been verified by Insider.

Before the flight

You know those people who crowd the gate even if there's still an hour left until boarding? Flight attendants have a word for that, according to Henderson, and it's not something you want to be called: "gate lice."

"Just stay as out of the way as possible of the boarding area until your group is at least close to being called," he told Insider. "If our frequent fliers and top-tier people aren't even close to getting on the plane and your crew isn't even close to getting on the plane, you really have no business standing right at the gate."

But at least "gate lice" are waiting for their turn to board — unlike passengers who cut the line before their group is even called.

If you haven't tried pre-emptively boarding, you've at least thought about it. Whether or not you get in trouble for boarding before your zone depends on the airline and gate attendant, Henderson said, adding that he doesn't recommend trying and finding out.

"There's some gate agents that if you're nice and just smile and act like everything's normal, they won't care or they won't notice that you're not in that assigned zone," he told Insider. "But there are others that if you're caught they will out you and they will shame you."

While it may be tempting, boarding with the wrong group can throw a wrench into the boarding process designed to get everyone on the aircraft as quickly as possible while rewarding frequent flyers and higher-paying customers.

Typically, your boarding group is assigned based on the type of ticket you buy and if you have special status or credit cards with the airline, Henderson said. For example, on Delta flights, Medallion members receive priority boarding while Basic Economy passengers with lower-cost tickets board last.

During the flight

Flight attendant coffee
There can be dangerous bacteria in the tap water used on planes.YakobchukOlena/Getty Images

You've made it on the plane! Congrats. But you're unhappy with your seat assignment — so you ask the flight attendants if you can move to an open one.

If there's availability within the same cabin, the crew may let you move, Henderson said. But switching people between cabins can get flight attendants in serious trouble or even fired, he told Insider, as airlines can view it as stealing product.

"We can probably move you to an exit row or even a better row if there's space available," he said. "Best tip for that is just be as nice and accommodating as you can both to crew and passengers and that can really go a long way."

You're settled in your seat, at last, and likely sitting extremely close to at least one other person. While it's polite to say hello and perhaps exchange some small talk, it's probably not the best idea to chat the entire flight, Henderson advised.

An hour or so into the flight, the snack cart starts rolling down the aisle. If there's one thing to avoid ordering, it's warm beverages like coffee and tea that are made with the airplane tap water, Henderson said.

"The airplane water is notoriously gross," he told Insider, adding that there are always rumors circulating about how clean the water tanks are. "In terms of safety, I mean, I think you're fine, but it's probably something you don't want to know where it came from."

In terms of food, Henderson says the snack boxes are usually fresh and delivered by the catering company the same day. However, some planes don't have refrigerators on board, so it's always better to order food at the beginning of the flight as opposed to near the end, he said.

"If you buy it at the beginning of a flight, it just came off a cold catering cart," he told Insider. "But if you buy it five hours into the flight, it's been sitting out for five hours basically."

After the flight

Flight attendant Rich Henderson said it's not the end of the world if your luggage can't fit in the overhead bin directly above your seat.
Flight attendant Rich Henderson said it's not the end of the world if your luggage can't fit in the overhead bin directly above your seat.Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

You were one of the unlucky few who got stuck stashing their bag in an overhead bin behind your seat, leaving you with two options: wait until everyone behind you gets off the plane and then make your way back, or swim upstream through the masses.

"My best recommendation is to just try to swim upstream as politely as you can," Henderson said, "Usually as the crowd starts to fade out, you can kind of weave through the rows and work your way back."

Since COVID, Henderson said he's seen a "huge uptick" in passengers tipping their flight attendants with gift cards or candy as a token of appreciation. This is usually welcomed, unless it's clear that you want something in return, he told Insider, noting that you can't bribe your way into first class.

"That's one thing I can say about all flight attendants across the board. If we sense that you're expecting something from us for free, then we're probably not going to give it to you," he said. "But if you're kind and don't ask for anything, we'll give you everything."

Moreso than treats, Henderson said flight attendants really appreciate passengers who take the time to thank them at the end of the flight.

"Even just so much saying thanks for keeping us safe, or thanks for all you do," he told Insider. "Those little comments go a long way with us because we've got people during boarding and deplaning that won't even acknowledge our existence."

Read the original article on Business Insider