Travel tips

Airline Travel Tips

United Airlines Airplane flying

Nicole Hanusek/Via Flickr


I am eagerly awaiting my flight itineraries for my April tour to Japan. In my early years with EF, I was spoiled by our direct flights to London for some of our Britain & Ireland tours. Thanks to all of the international training tours I have been to, I’ve become well-schooled about the airline hub system so I understand why my groups have to sometimes travel west in order to go east to Europe.  As a group leader, I have carefully studied EF’s booking conditions, especially the section on “Flight Information.” My groups and I have experienced all of the possible situations about flights: split domestic flight itineraries when you have to divide your group into two smaller groups on two different flights to the airport where you will catch your international flight, a domestic overnight when you spend the night  after your arrival back in the USA before boarding your final flight home, an international overnight when you leave a day early and spend the night in your destination country to wait for the other group(s) consolidated with your tour.  I take all of this in stride and so do my groups. We’re rather easy to please and we’re just excited about the prospect of going overseas.

After more than thirty years as a high school history teacher, I rarely run across discipline problems (knock on wood, just in case). I have a few rules, but the most important one is a variation of the Golden Rule: “If you’re nice to Mrs. Ingram, Mrs. Ingram will be nice to you.” I also know, as a transplanted Southerner, that you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. When I travel, I always follow the Golden Rule.  The airline employees I come in contact with have a job to do and so do I. I’m not going to do anything to rock the boat (or the plane). I just want to have as smooth a journey as possible with my groups. As a group leader, I have to lead by example. If there is a lesson to be shared with my students, it’s that a little civility can go a long way, especially when you are traveling.

I have been flying in every decade since the 1960s. I remember when transatlantic travel involved refueling stops in Scotland  and Newfoundland. I also remember the beautiful  stewardesses, elegant meals with real cutlery, and travel packs containing a sleep mask, socks, and basic toiletries (all this in Economy, too). On my early EF tours, I would request wings to pin on the shirts of the first-time fliers in my group, and I could even get airline playing cards. However, we were always seated in the back of the plane where the “smoking section” was located. You know, the changes in airline travel over the years have not been all that bad.

Airline travel used to be glamorous to say the least and you definitely dressed up to travel. I cringe when I see student tour groups boarding planes in pajama bottoms. I’m all for being comfortable for an overnight flight, but this is a bit ridiculous. The decline in travel attire has also mirrored a decline in good manners. I have seen my share of instances of grown-ups behaving very badly. “Stuff” just happens when you travel and group leaders need to be prepared to deal with possible flight delays and cancellations. I have a few anecdotes that illustrate some of the “stuff” that can happen with airline travel. I had to put on my “big girl panties” and deal with the different situations without forgetting the Golden Rule.

When my student group was returning home from Italy, we cleared customs only to find out that our final flight home from Atlanta to Charlotte had been cancelled due to mechanical problems. There were no more flights going our way. Talk about being so close, but yet so far. It was late on a Sunday night and we had school the next day. I did not relish the thought of spending the night at the airport. I did that at Gatwick Airport in December 1977 when I waited in line for a $99 ticket from London to New York on Freddie Laker’s “no-frills” Skytrain. The group leader from another high school in my district and I worked with the airline to get hotel rooms that night.  We knew it was the airline’s responsibility to cover these expenses. The airline arranged for our lodging and gave us meal vouchers to use at the airport the next morning. Yes, it took time to call the parents, our principals, and the bus driver. Yes, it took time to make multiple trips to the airport hotel in a van shuttle, but everything worked out fine. The students were excited about getting another day added on to the tour and I appreciated the care and attention we received from the airline employee who wanted to make the best out of an inconvenient situation.

On another tour, when we checked in at the airport in Japan, the airline informed us that our international flight was delayed and that we would miss our connecting domestic flight home. We were told that our final flight would be rebooked by the time we arrived back in the USA. After we cleared customs, an airline employee worked miracles to get us home. Due to the time changes, we were doing Friday the 13th in April twice. Talk about your rotten luck! But good luck was on our side, thanks to the airline.  I  had to divide everyone into two separate groups for two sets of flights home. One group went on an earlier flight with one of my teacher/parent chaperones. I stayed behind with the second group. The airline did the unthinkable to get the rest of us home that night. The airline made arrangements to have a nonstop flight going to Florida make an unscheduled stop in Charlotte. Our checked luggage had already been sent on so all we had were our carry-on bags. Apparently, the airline does not make it a habit of changing nonstop flights. Passengers pay more for this convenience. The news that the flight would be making an unscheduled stop was met with much anger and frustration from both the airline employees at the gate and the passengers.  I told my students to try to ignore the unkind comments we were hearing, but I was getting on the verge of tears and big girls don’t cry.

Thank goodness my exhausted group was seated (and separated) in the Economy Plus section of the plane. After the announcement was made on board about the unscheduled stop, we could hear a chorus of very audible complaints. My students were so tired that most fell asleep as soon as they were seated. After I heard even the flight attendants weighing in on this unusual situation, I wrote a note explaining that our group had been traveling from Japan for over 24 hours, that our flight out of Japan was delayed, and that we missed our connecting flight home.  However, I also wrote that I understood where everyone was coming from and that I would be mad, too. But I implored them to be patient with us and I asked them to accept my apology as the teacher of the student group. After writing the note, I gave it to one of the flight attendants and asked her to read it over the public address system. Lo and behold, the atmosphere on the plane changed dramatically. The flight attendants started to chat with my students about their time in Japan and the “adults who were behaving badly” in the seats behind us calmed down.  After the plane touched down in Charlotte, we said our thanks and goodbyes, and ran off the plane.  I was prepared to jump out of the plane in a parachute.

Last summer, bad weather delayed our flight to Newark and caused my adult group to miss our flight to Edinburgh. Before our flight departed from Charlotte, I spoke to the airline in person and I ended up calling t  he airline after we boarded our flight. The flight attendant told me not to worry as I waited for an eternity while I was put on hold.   The plane was in a long line for take-off, but he gave me permission to keep my cell phone in use. I was finally connected to a ticket agent who was based in Hawaii. He made cer
tain we had new flights booked for Edinburgh that same night. He cautioned me that our bags might not arrive at the same time. I told my group it was better for us to get to Edinburgh rather than our bags. Well, we did not see our bags for three days and they arrived the day before we were scheduled to leave Edinburgh. No matter. Before we even left on our tour, I informed my group to prepare for the possibility of delayed bags and everyone was just cheerful and happy to be in Scotland.

In all of these situations, I sent e-mails to the airlines commending the employees. I wanted their supervisors to know how much I appreciated their help and service. As a teacher, I write letters of recommendation all the time. As a group leader, I write letters of commendation when airline employees have treated me as a valuable customer and when they have treated me with kindness and patience.

No doubt about it. Airline travel can be stressful. Put yourself behind the counter of any airline at the airport. Just think how it feels when you are confronted by an angry or upset parent.  When the going gets tough with your flights, you need to take a deep breath and be a role model for your students.  Try not to get agitated with the airline employees who are there to help you on your way.

EF provides group leaders with plenty of tips about what to do before you go to the airport:

  • Call the airlines to confirm your flights.
  • Have your tour participants (or their parents) to call ahead to order any special meals (e.g. vegetarian) on the international flight.
  • Be sure to arrive at the airport at least three hours before your departure.

I would like to add these tips:

  • Put the phone numbers of the airlines in your cell phone in case you run into any delays or cancellations
  • Be prepared for the possibility of dealing with the airlines directly if you experience the unexpected. “Stuff” happens and it’s best to be ready to deal with it.

My favorite “airline travel song” is Peter, Paul, and Mary’s recording of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” even though the lyrics have more to do with a young man who is saying a painful goodbye to his girlfriend.  Still, I love the song’s opening, “All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go…” My bags may not be packed for Japan just yet, but I’m ready to go and I can’t wait to see my flight itineraries. Be sure to pack your “big girl panties” (or “big boy boxers/briefs”) because you’re the grown-up in your group.

(Editor’s note: Add Gail on Google+ If you have a question about for EF Group Leader Gail Ingram, or an idea for a blog post topic, you can email Gail here, and she will answer readers’ questions in future blog posts.)
Topics: Travel tips

Gail I.

Gail is a former longtime EF Group Leader, who was also a frequent mentor to new group leaders and a regular presenter on EF’s Free International Training Tours.

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