Most of my students who go on tour with me are first-time fliers and it’s my job as a group leader to introduce them to the joys of flying. Flying internationally is one of the most important topics I cover at my pre-departure meetings. At one of my pre-departure meetings in March, I arranged the chairs in our meeting room similar to the layout of our plane. I went online to find out what kind of plane we were going to be in. I even used a measuring stick to get the correct amount of space between the rows. I had to caution the students about the fact that our chairs were actually wider than our airline seats. At the beginning of the meeting, I pretended to be a flight attendant and made some of those standard announcements you hear on the flights. (When I was in grade school, I wanted to be a “stewardess.”) Here are some tips I share with my students to ensure that flying internationally is one of the highlights of their tour.
1. Dress appropriately, but comfortably for the flights. No student of mine will ever be cited for a “dress-code” violation by a flight attendant. I do not allow them to wear those flannel pajama bottoms or anything else that looks sloppy or too revealing. However, they still need to be comfortable and I advise them to dress in layers. First-time fliers do not realize how cold an international flight can be and those thin airline blankets are simply not warm enough. On my first EF tour, we had a direct international flight with British Airways from Charlotte to London. One of my students, now a successful attorney, took the BA blanket with him after we landed. It was a good thing, too, since he left his coat behind at the American Express office in London and ended up using that blanket to keep himself warm for the rest of the tour. On our return flight home, we had the same flight crew. One of the flight attendants yelled, “They’re back,” when we boarded and I made that young man return the blanket to her. That gesture earned my group lots of extra attention (all good!) on that flight.
2. Mind your manners and be polite to everyone, especially the flight attendants. Flying internationally would be a far more pleasant experience if everyone followed “the Golden Rule.” Check with the person behind you before you recline your seat and never recline during the meals because no one wants to have a tray table in the face. I was stuck in the middle seat on a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles and the seat in front of me was fully reclined during the entire flight. Since I am vertically challenged, I just hunkered down in my cramped seat, but my poor friend, who is nearly six feet tall, suffered from the “space hog” in front of her. I find that some flight attendants enjoy interacting with the students, especially the ones who are going abroad for their first time. I direct my students to “mind their p’s and q’s” (I love idioms!) during the flights. Occasionally, we will witness “grownups behaving badly” during the flights. If anyone is going to misbehave, it will certainly not be one of my students.
3. Pack your own entertainment. That will help pass the time when you are waiting in the airports or if you don’t want to use the airline’s entertainment system. Along with their electronic gadgets, I encourage my students to bring paperback books, magazines, and even cards. There are times during the flights when you can’t have anything turned on. I was more than prepared to keep myself entertained during a direct flight from New Delhi to Chicago. Unfortunately, the lights and the entertainment system on my side of the plane did not work during the entire flight. I had a difficult time even during the dinner service because it was so dark. If only I had packed a flashlight in my carry-on bag! I managed to keep my sanity by willing myself into a coma. No matter what you bring on board the plane to entertain yourself, keep up with your stuff. How many of us have left behind personal items in the planes? Be neat, too, about the tiny personal space you have on a plane. Pack everything you will need during the flight in your bag or backpack that is stored under the seat in front of you. I get pretty annoyed at passengers who open the overhead bins frequently during the flights.
4. Try to get some sleep during the flight. Sometimes my parents ask me if their children can take something to help them to sleep during the flight. Absolutely not! As a group leader, I do not want to be responsible for leading around a pack of “zombie” students on our arrival day. If your students don’t sleep during the international flight, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s far more important for the group leaders to get their rest and sleep. I love long flights because that is the only time I can truly relax on a tour. I encourage my students to get some sleep with these suggestions. Change your watch to the time of your destination. Don’t do a movie marathon. Take off your shoes. Bring a travel pillow. Limit your caffeine intake. Depending on your assigned seat, get creative about your sleeping positions. I have learned to sleep in any seat.
5. Bring your own snacks and drinks. My students and I often sit in the back of the planes so we end up being the last ones to be served. I find that I never can get enough to drink on some international flights. I advise my students to pack an empty water bottle to fill at the water fountain before we board or purchase a big bottle of water at the airport. Granola bars and small bags of almonds are good snacks. Avoid anything too sweet or salty. Eat what is being served or order a special meal with the airlines before you depart. When my twin sister travels with me, our Japanese mother will make seaweed (nori) wrapped rice balls for us. I made the mistake of offering a rice ball to one of my students and he ended up asking for more. So if you pack something really good to eat, you might not want to offer it to any of your hungry students.
6. Be sure to get up at least a couple of times or more on the international flights. However, I warn my students not to congregate near the toilets or to stand up in a small group around their seats. The flight attendants will ask passengers not to do this. Before we depart, I share with my students an article about airline toilet etiquette. I am the type of passenger who will tidy up the toilet before I exit. Try to read the crowd when timing your trips to the toilet. You don’t want to join a long line and risk irritating your fellow passengers and you certainly don’t want to get stranded by the cart service. Encourage your students to watch the airline videos about exercising in their seats. It helps if you stretch your arms and legs, and rotate your neck and ankles.
7. Don’t be in the dark about the paperwork—customs declarations forms and landing cards. I make copies of these forms and distribute them at our final pre-departure meeting. You can find sample forms online. I go over what information needs to be filled in and on the sample forms, I add the information we would all need like flight numbers and hotel addresses. Students feel less anxious when they know what information to complete on these forms. Keep a blue or black ink pen in your carry-on bag that is stowed in front of you and store your passport in that bag as well. At the end of your tour, remind family members in your tour group to complete only one US customs declaration form and stay together when they clear customs at your first US airport.
I always look forward to my international flights. Traveling on these flights with groups of students is always an experience. You easily earn the respect (and sometimes sympathy) of the independent travelers. Build up some excitement about the international flights with your students. They make up two days of your tour itinerary so you might as well make the most of them.
Readers, what are your own tips for flying internationally?