“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens once wrote of that time he was dragged off an airplane and it went viral on social media. Or at least that’s probably what he was talking about, that guy could be a little verbose. The point is, over the past few years we’ve come to understand the worst that airlines have to offer. Watching a man being treated terribly on a flight ignites something in us. You immediately get a chorus of, “Oh yeah, that’s how it is to fly these days. Exactly that. Always.”
Sure, air travel can be a nightmare — delays, lost bags, rude personnel, sitting next to a drunk person who just won’t stop talking… we all know how it goes. But there’s another thing Dickens said, right after he went to Palawan for the first time and scored his favorite selfie ever on a beach.
“Please, sir, I want some more.”
Because as annoying as it can be to get on an airplane, we all still want to do it. It allows us to see the world and visit those we love. It gives us the chance to witness the wilds of the Australian Outback or the Great Migration in Kenya or just finally try Kansas City barbeque for the first time. Besides… it’s not always so bad. Sometimes it’s a joy. Sometimes you catch an upgrade out of the clear blue. Flying, like life, contains multitudes.
Anyone who’s ever squeezed their bodies into an airplane seat owns at least a few crazy air travel stories, good and bad. So we asked some of our favorite vagabonds and wanderers to tell us their best and worst airline experiences. These are the catastrophic moments to commiserate with and the joyous trips where everything seemed to line up like corduroy.
— Allison Sanchez, Deputy Editor, Uproxx LIFE
The Best Of Times:
There’s Nothing Like the First Time (Up Front)
The Airline: Qantas
By the time I hit my 28th birthday, I’d traveled to 30 countries across five continents. Being on a perpetually tight budget, 30 countries means tons of layovers and dozens of long flights. It means flying further away from your destination then catching a connection heading back the other direction, just to save a few hundred bucks. In those days, “luxury travel” meant I’d scored a window seat (it became my private tradition to put my hand against the window dramatically as the plane took off, roaring as it picked up speed).
On those long international flights, I always had to shuffle through business class to get to my seat in the back of some massive jet or another. Along the way, I wondered about those 10-percenters, sipping champagne: did they realize how well they had it? The big leather seats that reclined more than two micrometers, the extra legroom, and the smiling, overly-friendly treatment… did they truly savor it? Would I?
Last year, on the way to Australia for the first time, I got my chance to find out — thanks to a perfect storm of accrued miles, a flexible schedule, and low season flights. Little ol’ Nikta Nilchian was going to be flying Business Class on Qantas Airlines. For 15 whole hours. It seemed too good to be true. Seat 6A. I boarded and then boom, it was right there.
I was a little nervous at first, feeling out of place, but I was seated next to a younger woman who didn’t look so different from me. I smiled like a kid on the first day of school as I sat down, “Hi!” She gave me a thin smile, put her headphones in, and turned away. Ouch. I quickly recovered from this rejection when the hostess approached, “Can I get you a glass of champagne ma’am?” I beamed at her. “Yes, please!” And with that, the star treatment began. I was checked on constantly, fed more food than I could have possibly needed (considering I barely moved for 15 hours), watched movies, and got the best sleep of my life.
Of course, there were some first-time bloopers. I thought the sheet for my “bed” was a curtain that would separate me from the snooty girl on my left. As the host walked by I stopped him, “Excuse me, Can you help me put this up?” I was holding the sheet up between the girl and myself. I could tell he was trying to hide a smile as he responded, “darling, that’s your bedsheet, it goes under you. Here, hop up and I’ll set up your bed.” I stood up sheepishly, feeling my cheeks turn red. I’d been discovered.
I arrived in Australia rested, up to date on Oscar nominees, and a little buzzed. I’d woken up to a meal of seared salmon with radish, celery, and lemon salsify and cinnamon ice cream with poached pears. As I exited the plane, I felt 99% filled with gratitude. The other 1%? It was spent wondering: “If business class is that amazing, I wonder what first class is like?”
A Guardian Sleep Angel
The Airline: JetBlue
Few things are more uncomfortable than a red-eye flight in economy. Even when you have all of the accouterments for a good night’s rest on an airplane, trying to catch a wink when you’re 30,000 feet up in the air is frustrating.
Enter my JetBlue angel. I was checking in for the red-eye from San Francisco to Raleigh-Durham, and the agent saw that I would be flying through the night. She shook her head and tutted.
“Overnights are the worst,” she said.
Preach, I thought. She probably saw hundreds of overnight flyers a night, but there was something so deeply satisfying and connective about the way she took the time to acknowledge me, personally. And with that, she not only waived my checked-bag fee, she upgraded me to an “Even More Space” seat — in an otherwise empty row. At this point, I was pretty sure I was either dead and enjoying a wonderful afterlife or on a prank show where Justin Bieber was about to jump out and tell me it was all a joke — when this angel said she’d try her best to make sure my row remained otherwise unoccupied so I could lie down.
“You look tired, hun,” she told me. “Get some rest.”
And you know what? I absolutely did.
An Unexpected Bonding Experience
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#MondayMotivation :: Timing is everything…but you still need to put in the effort to be ready to make the most of opportunities when they arise, and on the contrary, pass on ones when it’s not the right time. . I’m the type of person who always wants everything “now”, I do not like waiting, which is why I live every day to the absolute fullest. But one thing I’ve noticed from putting in endless effort to make all the things I want happen, is that as long as I keep trying, when the timing is perfect for each thing, it’ll always happen. Even if I have to wait a little bit *sometimes. . So whatever your current goals and dreams are, have faith that they’ll happen when the timing is perfect, but don’t sit around and wait for them to happen…keep working hard for them so that when the opportunity puts them in reach, you’re already two steps ahead to grabbing them! . And then…you will be as perfectly prepared as I was for this epic sunset in El Nido 😜 . What’s currently at the top of your goals list or vision board? . . (PS this location and all others from my Philippines trip will be on my blog this week!) . . #philippines #elnido #elnidopalawan #sunsetphotography #mylifesatravelmovie #alyssaramostravels #travelblogger #motivationalquotes
The Airline: Malaysia Airlines
I was going on my first ever major solo trip — so, my nerves were already on edge — but on top of that, I was booked on Malaysia Airlines. This was shortly after the horrific news that one of their planes had gone “missing” and then, two weeks before my trip, I heard that a second plane had been shot down in Russia. By that point, I was pretty worried.
I considered changing my flight, but I also considered that the likelihood of something else happening was slim. When it came time to board my flight from Thailand to Australia I was scared…until I realized I was one out of about five passengers on the flight. Maybe the realization that everyone but me had canceled should have made me more nervous, but it actually gave us all super individual attention and reassurance. The flight attendants were extremely nice and let us all have our own rows in First Class. Then, they pretty much gave everyone a never-ending feast and open bar tab.
It ended up being one of the wildest, most hilarious flying experiences I’ve ever had.
The Simple Magic Of Always Being On Time
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🌺Lost and Found in Cartagena 🌺 ::::::: Double tap for outfit details 👚👡👒 ::::::: 📍 Cartagena @procolombiaco . ✈️ @copaairlines #flycopa2colombia . 📸 @marissa.anwar #isthatsoh . . . . . #canadiangirl #prettylittleiiinspo #liveauthentic #sheisnotlost #dametraveler #ootdfashion #travelgirl #fashiondiaries #lookbook #wiw #flashofdelight #myunicornlife #mytinyatlas #thatsdarling #carribean #fashionista #darlingescapes #torontoigers #beautifuldestinations #travelinspo #thehappynow #torontoblogger #fashionkilla #colombia #americanstyle #cartagena #ootdfash
The Airline: Copa Airlines
Having to deal with long flight delays or even cancellations is one of my biggest travel woes. There is nothing worse than missing your connection and having to pay out of pocket for an unexpected hotel room. Which is why I’ve been so, so impressed every time I’ve flown Copa.
Last fall, I went on a trip to Cartagena, Colombia, and I was blown away by the smoothness of the trip. They were punctual and efficient down to the second. And they provide free meals and beverages (read: wine and other spirits) which is such a rarity these days. One of my favorite experiences on that trip was actually a perk of Copa — they offer a complimentary extended stopover (24-48 hours) in Panama for the same price as a direct ticket. I totally took advantage of that and spent a day exploring Old Panama City (in Casco Viejo also known as the San Felipe neighborhood). I loved the city and it’s a place I may never have checked out otherwise.
Copa is like old school traveling, everything catered to the customer, and I love it.
An Obituary To A Very Cheap Love
The Airline: WOW Air
First off, I am infinitely grateful that I’ve been able to travel the globe for my job. Often I get to travel for free, sometimes in seats and fare classes I couldn’t normally afford. Sometimes though, I book my own trip and then, it’s all about budget. With that mindset, a stopover in Finland on the way to Iceland is no big deal, nor is the airline that will get you there. It’s all good!
Enter WOW Air. I’m a fan of palindromes as much as anyone, but the now defunct air carrier’s snappy name seemed to be less an exclamation of delight and more a reference to the sound you make when you realize how much the company had sacrificed comfort for the sake of price.
For this particular adventure, I had an evening departure, so I was planning on dinner and a beverage before knocking out on the twelve hour flight. When I arrived at my terminal however, I realized I was in some sort of strange LAX no man’s land. The terminal had no restaurants. Basically, it was just an old man from a horror movie on a porch, lifting up a bony, shaking finger and telling me to turn around. Okay. Plan B: stock up on trail mix out of the vending machine and enjoy an Icelandic delicacy on the plane.
Checking off a cool hour delay at the gate, us passengers were directed to a long outdoor hallway, where the 300+ of us stood around for another 30-40 minutes while before they opened the door. Next stop Reykjavik! Following a smooth takeoff, and before the crew started the in-flight service, it was a good time to check out in seat entertainment options. For a low price of $25, we got a list of eight summer blockbusters from 2-3 summers earlier. “Looks like it’s solitaire from here on out,” I thought. After my seventeenth hand, the food-for-purchase cart arrived. The three options were Icelandic pizza (flatbread + red sauce + slice of cheese), a slice of ham on bread, and a Fyre Fest menu inspired cheese sandwich. Any of those three I would have opted for, but in row 22, they were sold out by the time the cart got there. That trail mix would have to tide me over. With nothing but blue skies from here to Iceland, WOW’s 2-for-1 beers would be their saving grace. Hey, glass half full (both of them), right?
Not a great flight, obviously, so why isn’t this on the worst list?
Getting to fly to Iceland for next to nothing was a gift none of us deserved (a clearly unsustainable one). The next 11 hours were decently relaxing, with the limited recline of my seat offering up precious inches of comfort, and the flight itself was incredibly smooth. Once we touched down in the natural beauty of Iceland, all was forgotten. The truth is, you get what you pay for, and what I paid for got me to one of the most beautiful places on Earth for pennies. If the exchange for that is a night spent eating nuts and pretzels for dinner? I’ll take it.
We’ll miss you WOW Air.
An Unexpected Upgrade
The Airline: United Airlines
You know that feeling you get when your flight is delayed on your way home. It’s dread with a nice slice of despair on the side. Then the feeling amps up as the delay lingers on to the point where you might miss a crucial international connection. All your plans of having a stroll around Duty-Free, grabbing a local beer and burger from an airport outpost of a local eatery, and maybe even getting a work call in, fade. This happened to me coming back from San Salvador recently. I had a connection in Houston for a flight to Frankfurt, where I had another connection to Berlin. Missing one meant missing them all.
I didn’t panic. I could see the people at the desk were already smashed by tourists panicking enough for everyone, those poor United workers didn’t need me strolling up and asking, literally, the exact same question as the 30 people before me. If there was a problem, they’d call my name. I’d go up and they’d give a new set of boarding passes with shit already worked out. This wasn’t my first rodeo.
But there was no call. Instead, as we boarded, a ping as my boarding pass was scanned and a new seat number spat out of the machine. They’d already put me at the front of the plane (I was originally in row 33) so I could deboard first. I asked if that gave me enough time and they assured me it would as long as I didn’t stop along the way in the airport. And, yup, they were right. I cleared immigration and another security check and ended up the last person to board the flight to Frankfurt. Sometimes shit just works and the surprise is, they have a system in place. You just have to trust it.
The Easiest Point Hustle
The Airline: United
I tend to love United because their mileage scheme is the best, and I always get upgraded to premium economy when I use mileage with them, which has been often when living in Berlin and flying back to my hometown of Los Angeles.
They also have awesome international partners (like Lufthansa, Swiss, and Turkish Airlines) and they make it easy for someone like me who travels often. I find it’s simple to book the flights I need with them whereas Delta and American are huge pains when it comes to using miles, especially with partners. I travel hack so that’s important to me. I think people either love or hate United, and a more obvious choice would be an international superstar like Emirates or Singapore airlines, but I stay loyal.
They get me places without hassle. That might sound boring, but when you take as many flights as I do, you just want a little pleasant efficiency.
The Worst Of Times:
Nobody Is Special But Especially Not You
The Airline: United Airlines
I was flying from LA to my wedding in Montana when I got delayed in the Denver airport. This was one of those, “it’ll just be two hours!” that turned into six, then twelve, then overnight. To be clear, I was not going to “a wedding.” I was going to MY wedding. I was holding my giant wedding dress in my arms, in an airport, and planning on meeting all my friends and family (and my fiance, who had been working out of the state for the previous four months) at our wedding venue that afternoon.
The reason I was stranded overnight in Colorado was due to a fire in Chicago that was keeping, basically, every United flight from taking off that day. Because this was not a weather delay (and I was not going to sleep in an airport atop my own wedding dress, though, for the price, it ought to double as a mattress), I stood in line for two hours for the hotel voucher I knew I was owed — half weeping, half thinking about a really good grilled cheese sandwich I had when I thought the wait was only six hours — until I eventually made it to a very tired employee who was also having a very bad day. I get that. However, she then proceeded to tell me that a mechanical fire counted as weather and I would not get any complimentary hotel room or food vouchers. This was insane, but when no amount of rational arguing seemed to be working, I proceeded, while sobbing, to say that I was going to my own wedding, and couldn’t they just give me a hotel room?
Which is when my favorite exchange of all time happened:
Me: I’m going to my own wedding!
Attendant: Ma’am. You’re. Not. Special. Everybody in this line is going somewhere important.
Me: As important as their own wedding?
Really can’t argue with that logic. I will say, I called a friend I hadn’t seen in five years, said, “I am stuck in your state on the way to my own wedding and I am sad about it,” and he drove two hours from Boulder, took me to a hotel to check in, and then out to dinner, and it was super fun. Sometimes, you have to cling to the little victories.
The Mile Goodbye Club
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I don’t always retruss a chicken, but when I do, I try to look like I’m teaching rodeo masterclass on how to rope and ride a bronco. Which I’m not sure even happens but it does sound super badass. Honestly though, this is harder than it looks because the chicken is very hot and was hurting my fingies so I actually had to take a couple breaks. I really sacrificed I could’ve lost a cuticle out there! But that slightly mild discomfort was totally worth it in the end because that chicken fell off the bone like butterrrrrrr. . 📷:@jesskearney_
The Airline: Jet Blue
I’m usually forgiving when comes to travel inconveniences. I often think of the sheer logistical megalith that airlines must have to deal with: hundreds of flights, thousands of passengers and millions of tiny little personal problems that are outside of airline operators’ control. After all, think of the service they are providing. It’s miraculous.
But Jet Blue has been on my shit list for years because they are partly responsible for a breakup, or at the very least exposing the fissures in my relationship before they needed to be identified. I was returning to the country on Emirates and connecting in New York (to New Orleans) for my last leg on JetBlue. They delayed and then canceled my flight due to weather, leaving us to scramble for a hotel room in NYC at 9 pm, which ended up costing as much as the entire flight (this was also before the bloom of Airbnb).
We only realized after a two-hour wait in the service line that they wouldn’t get us a hotel room or even a rate due to the cancellation reason being the weather. Meaning, they only provide good/empathetic customer service when they are legally obligated to. The resulting hanger-inspired fight with my girlfriend at the time led to us breaking up which was a pretty devastating and bleak end to an already terrible day.
It wasn’t all bad though, there was a Domino’s nearby our hotel open late. I might have been on a path to dying alone because of JetBlue, but at least I wasn’t going to do so hungry.
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Believe it or not, this was my first choice for the cover of my book. I wanted the cover to reflect the inside, which is a dark and challenging. I wanted to show the maturity and work that went into the Expedition, the depths and seriousness of it all. This DSLR, tripod, pack, and outfit that I’m wearing in the photo made it through 196 countries, and were my staples. The current cover portrays a happy-go-lucky traveler, which, for those of you who have read the book, know now that that’s not what the trip was. Alas, that photo was the winning vote. What do you guys think? Does the current cover reflect what’s on the inside? 🔑
The Airline: American Airlines
Traveling to 196 countries to break a Guinness Record required taking only scheduled public transportation, which involved an obvious, great deal of flights. Of the many terrible experiences I’ve had, one of them had to be last weekend, flying from Bermuda to New York. Quick flight — but many problems. I had just finished an Olympic triathlon and had my 50lb bike bag which housed my time trial bicycle, and I also had my ESA (Emotional Support Animal) cat with me, who travels everywhere in his bubble backpack, along with a carry-on. I purchased a $550 one way ticket back to NY from Bermuda to visit my parents, and when I walked up to the check-in counter at L.F. Wade International Airport for my 8:30 am flight, the attendant told me that I didn’t have a seat on the plane because they overbooked themselves. Not being allowed to stay in the country longer than that day because of my ESA, and having already paid for my ticket, I called American Airlines to verify my seat. After waiting on hold for 30 minutes, they told me I indeed, had a seat on the flight — 30A. I went up to the check-in counter and told the woman on the phone, to tell these attendants that I indeed had a seat on the flight. The attendants then gave me my seat.
I proceeded to TSA security. US border control let me through without a hitch, but Bermuda airport security told me to remove my shoes, my windbreaker (I was only wearing a sports bra underneath), and my hat, despite the man in front of me not needing to take off his hat. I had taken my cat out of his backpack to walk through the body scanner, and had him on a leash, but now I was also fumbling around quickly to grab my items and cover myself up again, all with a cat in hand since his backpack hadn’t come out yet. My cat got tangled with his leash under the conveyer belt out of fear — the first time he’s been scared in the 15+ times we’ve flown. This all made me late to board, and after boarding the very last corner seat of the plane, I went to place my carry-on in the overhead compartment. It didn’t fit. I couldn’t check my bag because it had my camera equipment, laptop, and hard drives in it, so I scrambled — pulling out clothes under pressure, and finally jammed the bag in, losing my headphones in the process.
The pilot then came over the loudspeaker and announced a 20-30 minute delay. Nevertheless, decided to put all of that behind me and cool down with a shot of whiskey that I’d packed — when, icing on the cake, the girl sitting next to me asked if I believed in Jesus. I told her that she chose the wrong person to ask on the wrong day. She told me I was probably an alcoholic — exactly the fantastic kind of seat partner I would get after the day I had. But at least I had my cat to calm me down. And the whiskey. But mostly the cat.
A Tall Man’s Lament
The Airline: Copa Airlines
I’ve been super fortunate in my life to not have had many bad experiences with airlines and flying. It’s kind of extraordinary, actually, considering that I fly frequently and have for a number of years. (Excuse me for a sec while I find some wood to knock on.) I’ve somehow never missed a flight, have rarely had one canceled, and have met some really wonderful and fascinating people while flying.
That all said, an ongoing issue I have with airlines, in general, is that flying coach can often be an uncomfortable experience as a tall person (6’5”). I don’t think it’s fair that I have to pay extra to sit in a seat on an exit row or in business class (or whatever) to simply not be miserable and experience the same level of comfort that a person of average height is able to experience flying in coach.
Coincidentally, I was recently on a Copa Airlines flight from Panama City to Bogota and decided to roll the dice and sit in coach to save myself a few bucks, since the total flight time was just a little over an hour. With my knees pressed right up against the seat back, the dickhead sitting in front of me violently jerked his seat into the recline position with no warning just as we were taking off — I audibly yelped “AHHHHHHH!” from the sudden, unexpected pain. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to punch someone in the face so badly.
It wasn’t Copa’s fault per se (though they are absolutely a part of the tall person conspiracy to give us less legroom than seems medically and morally acceptable) but the moral of the story is: for the love of God, please be courteous and just turn around and let the person seated in the seat behind you that’d you plan to recline the seat. At the very least, it gives whoever is sitting there a chance to prepare for potential misery.
A Near-Death Experience (Kind Of)
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My worst flying experience happened back in 2013 when I was on my way to the Bahamas. I absolutely hate flying and am a very anxious flier (ironic, I know) so I tried to sleep for the duration of the flight. Not long into the flight, I woke up to my eardrums popping. The flight was pretty smooth and it was clear skies. I didn’t think anything of it until the oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling. Since it was a smooth flight, I thought it must have been a mistake. The guy next to me didn’t seem worried and neither did the flight attendants so I shouldn’t panic, right?
Then, all of a sudden, we dropped. The plane plummeted for what seemed like an eternity. I thought “Ohh crap! Maybe this is it!” Fortunately, after we got below 10,000 feet and the captain explained that we had lost cabin pressure due to a mechanical issue and would be making an emergency landing. Everything ended up just fine, but for a few minutes, I thought the end was nigh!
Is There A Doctor In The House?
One of my worst flight experiences was on a flight back to Los Angeles. What was supposed to be a half day trip back home turned into a series of unfortunate events. I had a short connection in Atlanta, but due to weather, we circled above the airport for over an hour before rerouting to Florida for fuel. Once we got to Florida, we sat on the plane for another hour waiting for a storm to die down before flying back to Atlanta.
At least they didn’t reroute us to London for more fuel at this point, but by the time we got back to Atlanta, I had missed my connecting flight and there were no more flights out of Atlanta that night. The airline wouldn’t comp any hotels for the night because it was “weather-related” so I had to get a hotel at 1 am before my flight back to LA at 8 am.
During my flight back to LA, someone fainted and face-planted in the aisle. They made an announcement looking for medical professionals. At this point, I thought I was never getting back to LA, but thankfully the man was not injured so the flight stayed on route. Once we landed in LA, we waited another hour on the plane for the medical team to check on the man who’d fainted. When I finally exited the plane, I was beyond relief, but then the security stopped everyone due to “overcrowding” at the airport. We stood there for about another 30 minutes before we were finally let into the airport.
The whole experience was insane. For the amount of time I spent on the plane, I could’ve been in Europe!
No One Can Keep Up With Grandma
It happened en route to Bali, 2013. I’d bought the most budget flights I could find — a bunch of one-ways, so I’d already flown through two countries by the time I landed in Bangkok at night for the final flight to Bali, scheduled to leave the next morning.
My grandma had given me a Xanax to help me sleep should I need it in all my travels. This moment seemed to qualify, so I set up a little makeshift bed using my backpack right at the gate, took the Xanax, and passed out… for twelve hours. Turns out it was an extra strength Xanax (grandma liked to party?). There was one flight a day to Bali, and I had missed it. I didn’t have enough money for the cab rides to leave and experience Bangkok, so I now had 24 more hours in the airport. I shuffled from restaurant to shop, meeting Thais and travelers alike, sharing stories, snacks, WiFi codes. I cleared my inbox for the first time since college. I filmed two vlogs. I talked to a masseuse in the airport spa for a long time about her love life and ended up getting a free Thai massage. I stayed awake all night so I wouldn’t miss the flight again, made it to Bali, and have enjoyed telling that story ever since.
At the end of the day, I suppose it wasn’t a “worst” airport story after all, but a “best.”