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Insider Series: Carrie A. Trey Spills Her Secrets About the Flight Attendant Lifestyle

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Being part of the cabin crew is, in my opinion, one of the best jobs out there. I started flying straight out of college, intending to do it for a year, and over a decade later, I’m still here.

The unique lifestyle that comes with the job is one of the many things that makes it so attractive. Here are my answers to some commonly-asked questions about how it all works.

Do flight attendants get to pick their layover hotels — and can they earn points?

The short answer is no, we don’t pick the hotels. At most airlines, there’s a hotel committee — made up of flight attendants, pilots, people from corporate security and marketing — that evaluates hotels and negotiates contracts with them. One of the things they negotiate into the contract is whether or not crew members can earn points on their stay, and unfortunately, more often than not, we don’t get to. I don’t agree with it, but c’est la vie.

Do crew, family members and friends really get to fly for free? How does that work?

Again, the short answer here is no. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the same goes for plane tickets.

At some airlines in the US, employees pay an activation fee every year and then just pay the taxes on their tickets. At others, you’ll pay a small fee until you have a certain number of years of service with the company, at which point you’ll fly for free (but still pay taxes). On most other airlines, you’ll generally pay a fare based on distance called the ZED (zonal employee discount) fare, which is how the fares are calculated when you fly on an airline other than your own — of course, you always have to pay the taxes, too.

Most airlines let your immediate family fly for the same rates as you do, including spouses, children and parents, while others will also include siblings or grandparents, though it’s rare.

How do buddy passes work? Are they just for your immediate family or can friends get in on that, too?

Most airlines do have some sort of buddy pass program, whereby an employee can get a reduced rate for friends or other family outside their immediate family. That said, 90% of the crew I know avoid these passes like the plague for three reasons: A) Buddy passes are at the very bottom of the standby list and often do not make it onto the plane. B) The passes are not cheap and a confirmed ticket is often only a little more expensive, if not sometimes even cheaper! C) You are responsible for your buddies, so if they get frustrated because they didn’t get boarded on three consecutive flights and blow up at a gate agent, it’s you, the employee, who will be punished — and will likely lose travel privileges all together as a result — so most of us just steer clear of the whole thing.

Some airlines have buddy passes that require the pass rider to be accompanied by the employee, which is nice if you want to go on vacation with a friend. That said, you only get a limited number of these per year, so you tend to save them for people particularly near and dear to you.

Do crew only get free flights if they fly standby? Is that a problem with all the overbooking these days?

Yes, typically we only get free flights if we fly standby. Airlines that base their crew overseas will usually offer employees a limited number of free, positive-space (confirmed) tickets a year back to their home country, but other than that, if you want the cheap seats, you have to stand by. And yes, overbooking and full flights are definitely an issue! You need the patience of a saint and have to be ready to fly through somewhere that wasn’t originally on your itinerary.

Do crew members ever get time to explore the places they fly to, or do they have to go right back?

I can’t count the number of times I get asked after we land in Europe or South America, “So, are you flying right back to the US now?” Absolutely not! A) That would be exhausting. B) Working that long would be unsafe. C) That’s why so many of us love this job — we can do our grocery shopping in Europe.

Exploring new places and spending time in the ones you love are the biggest perks of the job. Even domestically, we very often layover and as often as not, we have at least a day or so to explore. On international trips, we always layover and sometimes we’re even lucky enough to be there for three or four days.

There are trips that involve turns, but these are shorter hops that allow you to go out and back in a short time — think flights from the east coast to the Caribbean/Florida, or flights from the west coast to Mexico. Sometimes you can even end up doing four or five flights a day if you’re working short flights like New York City to Washington DC or San Francisco to Los Angeles. That’s exhausting though, so I leave that to the turn queens. I like flying to Europe, fattening up on pasta and enjoying a glass of wine. One up, one down, one hello, one goodbye. That’s it!

How many days per month are you in the air?

This depends entirely on the individual. Another huge perk of the job is the flexibility — if you want to fly your tail off and have minimum amount of days off (usually 7-8), you can. On the other hand, I know plenty of crew who choose to fly two or three trips a month tops, which means they have 21 days off. It just depends on what works for you and how you choose to arrange your schedule.

Do cabin crew tend to live together in their home base?

Absolutely. I mentioned that the scheduling is super flexible, and this means you can live in one city and travel to another. I know many crew who live in Europe, for instance, and commute to a base city in the US, fly all of their trips in a 10-14 day period and go home for two to three weeks — I’ve even done it myself.

In their base cities, flight attendants tend to live in apartments we call “crash pads.” It’s basically an apartment with a few beds in each bedroom where you can leave your work things and sleep between trips when you don’t have time to commute home. It’s such a great set up and is much cheaper than getting a hotel room every time. It’s also a great way to catch up with friends you might not always be able to fly with.

Does being a flight attendant enhance or diminish your love for/desire to travel?

It absolutely enhances mine! I love that I get paid to explore new places and scope out others I might want to return to on vacation when I use those great travel benefits. That being said, if I’ve been working a lot, it also helps me appreciate how nice it is to be home. Overall though, the job only feeds my love for travel — if you meet a flight attendant who feels that their job diminishes their desire to/love for travel, then they are probably in the wrong industry and need to find employment elsewhere stat.

Have your own questions? We’d love to hear them! Let us know in the comments section, below.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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