We didn't actually get to fly a United 757, but we did get to see one, so that was cool.

We didn’t actually get to fly a United 757, but we did get to see one, so that was cool

I hear from family and friends (even strangers) all the time how they no longer like flying. It is much more stressful, the respect is gone, and the golden age has long expired. For sure, air travel has changed. It has become cheaper, much safer, and yes, more annoying. It can be a challenge for even a pro to get through an economy experience with a big smile. However, if you are one who flies with some (or a lot of) anxiety, the current flying experience can be terrifying. I don’t mean the flying at 35,000 feet in the air, but the smaller worries that can add up to one big worrisome mess.

Most people who meet me typically sees someone with an outgoing type A personality with little anxiety with flying. Sure, I have had quite a bit of experience, but when I was younger, it was very difficult for me — and sometimes, it still is. I would sweat, I would dry-heave, and I would fear the process of travel, but still loved flying.

I have improved my process for dealing with my anxiety, and flying has become much easier for me. I have been wanting to write a story about flying with anxiety for a while, but it seemed challenging for me to be effective with it, so it has been sitting in the “David Story Idea Bin” (man, some of the scraps in there…) Recently, my fiancé Brittany (we recently got engaged, yay us!) and I were set to fly from Seattle (SEA) to Maui (OGG) via San Fran (SFO) on United Airlines. We have been together for a while and done quite a few flying adventures. I know she has that sort of travel anxiety that I used to have, but loves to actually fly (I know, great catch right?).

I thought this trip might be a good opportunity to look at how flying with anxiety can be challenging and how one can make it better. Over and over again, I kept going back to how being able to pay your way out of anxiety can be a great option for some people! What better way to do that than to fly first class? Would the extra extra cost be worth the reduction of anxiety? If so, where is that tipping point? Keep reading to see what we both found.

Christmas trees (or non-denominational decorated trees) at SEA

Christmas trees (or non-denominational decorated trees) at SEA — we flew in December, so this makes sense.

A while back, Brittany had one, very quick upgrade experience with domestic first (which in reality I don’t really call a full experience), so I was excited to see how much less stress and anxiety she would experience with this travel process versus the many other flights we have taken previously. She has tasted parts and pieces of the domestic first class experience, but this was her first time with the whole meal deal! Let’s break it down…

No lounge access with a United domestic first class ticket, but we found a nice spot at SFO to hang.

No lounge access with a United domestic first class ticket, but we found a nice spot at SFO to hang

PRE-FLIGHT

What can first class do for you before your flight? This… :). No joke, there is something to be said about feeling a bit more excited about your flight and knowing you will be flying in a premium product. Makes it feel like your trip starts more on the airplane versus when you land.

AT THE AIRPORT

On the day of our flight, we were dropped off by a friend (thanks Ray!) and we were at our gate just over eight minutes later. Oh, and we had to check both of our bags too! That was impressive. We were able to quickly find United’s premium check-in line, get our bags tagged, and we’re good to go. One of the benefits of flying on a premium ticket is having a greater employee-to-passenger ratio throughout your whole travel experience. Where there was one employee for the two premium kiosks, there were two for the ten economy kiosks next to us. For someone flying with anxiety, this is huge to have someone close by willing to show you how things work. Also, based on my experience, you are more likely to find the employees who smile more working the premium areas.

FLYING WITH ANXIETY TIP: Hanging out at the gate can be chaotic. Be sure to check with your airline if your domestic first class ticket will get you lounge access (most will not). If you want to spend the money, many airlines offer day passes for about $50 for the lounge. With food and drinks, that alone can be a good deal, but having better seating and less chaos (hopefully) can be amazing. 

Although we both have PreCheck (and ended up going through that line, since it was closest), we would also have had access to use the premium TSA line for having first class tickets. First off, if you do not have PreCheck, get it — worth every dollar if you travel with anxiety or not. But if you do not have PreCheck, not having to wait in those super long lines and having TSA agents yelling at you for an hour can be worth the extra cost of the ticket alone.

The view of our A320 from Seattle. Look close, you can see the tip of the tail!

The view of our A320 from Seattle. Look close, you can see the tip of the tail!

BOARDING

Although it seems that United changes their boarding process every time I fly them, when you have first class, you know you will be one of the first to board. With United, you can check two bags for free with a first class ticket, so really no need to fear if there might be space. However, if you don’t want to part with your things, since you will be boarding first, there will be plenty of space to put your bags.

FLYING WITH ANXIETY TIP: Use a paper ticket versus your phone. The screen might lock, your battery might die, but paper will always be there for you. Less to worry about and use your phone as the back up.

Once boarded on our flight to Maui, one of the flight attendants addressed us by our last names and asked if we would like a drink before take off. Always nice to be reassured we are in the right place! We didn’t get anything fancy, but they were quickly served. Of course if your choice is some wine or a mixed drink, they will be happy to serve you, and for many this too is a fun way to help with anxiety. Just don’t end up drinking too much — you could end up more anxious!

The United First Class seat gives you more room and with a 2:2 layout, less worry about who sits next to you!

The United first class seat gives you more room and with a 2:2 layout, less worry about who sits next to you!

THE PRODUCT

“Who is going to sit next to me?” That is a question I often ask myself when I am sitting at my window seat waiting to see who comes into my row. Speaking with Brittany, this question is more vital to her when she is flying alone. You still might not know who will be sitting next to you in first class, but with a 2-2 layout in both the A320 and B737 we flew on, you have more space between you and your neighbor. Just having space is calming. I very rarely feel claustrophobic, but if I am crammed into a seat next to someone who is not respectful, I start sweating, and the flight seems 10x longer

FOOD

Shortly after take off, the cabin crew came around to hand out the warm towels. Brittany took the towel and sort of looked at me, and without saying a word I knew she was asking “what do I do with this, I don’t want to do it wrong.” Ah, then it sort of hit me. There are some things in first class that I don’t even think about. What do you use this towel for? Your hands? Your face? Your seat? Yes. I guess after traveling the world in all sort of products, I just got to the point where I do what I want with it and don’t care what people think. She opted to wipe her hands on it, which was probably a good call. Of course, if you ever do hit a situation where you are not sure what to do with something, you can either say “no thanks,” ask the flight attendant, or my favorite is just act cool and watch what others do (I do this all the time at fancy dinners with 18 pieces of silverware).

After our wonderful smelling towels were picked up (nicely done with that scent, United), Brittany started to look in the back of the magazine. I asked if she was looking for the food options and she said “yes.” Another one of those moments for me. I let her know that they should come by and probably give us two choices that will sound super fancy, but boil down to chicken and non-chicken. I was right — we both had the chicken (I think the non-chicken was some veggie curry thing).

FLYING WITH ANXIETY TIP: I used to be pretty anxious about buying food on the plane. What if they run out, what if my card doesn’t work, etc. In those days, I would just make sure that I had food with me in my carry-on as a backup. 

After we were done with our meal, I was telling Brittany that my favorite food when flying is ice cream, since it still seems so magical to have ice cream at 35,000 feet. I was just about ready to say that I very much doubt United will serve it on a domestic flight, but just then it was offered. I think we both had the look of kids in a candy… err ice cream… store at that moment. Ice cream pretty much helps with all issues.

I tried to find channel 9, but no luck. Although listening to it might make people anxious.

I tried to find channel 9, but no luck. Although listening to it might make people anxious.

GETTING OFF THE PLANE

I love flying. I love being on a plane. I HATE that moment when the front door opens at the gate and then you have to wait for another 20 minutes to get off. Even today, this will cause me anxiety every time. Doesn’t matter if we are three hours early and just have to sit an extra five minutes; it gets to me. When you are up front, not only can you see what is going on, but you get to be one of the first off. And with less people in your cabin, there is enough room for everyone to stand at the same time.

FLYING WITH ANXIETY TIP: When I have that feeling “I NEED TO GET OUT NOW” I just stay seated and either read the in-flight magazine or catch up on my phone just pretending we are still flying. Let it be more of a nice surprise when it is your turn.

YAY! We had a great experience flying on United's First Class!

YAY! We had a great experience flying on United’s First Class!

CONCLUSION

It all comes down to value. If it is really difficult for you to fly because of stress and/or anxiety, then it might be worth flying less and spending more for some premium aspects of the trip. Sometimes the cost of upgrading to first class isn’t that much, or maybe the airline offers a premium economy product. That option can give you many of the pluses to reduce your anxiety. Even with United’s lowest fares (a.k.a. get your butt from A-to-B), you can pay extra to check your bag, board sooner, etc. Figure out what gives you the most anxiety and see what might be worth the best value.

I used to hate paying the airline’s fees, because I felt they were winning by “stealing” my money. I would take red eyes, never check a bag, and starve because I wouldn’t buy food on board (even when I forgot to bring my own). All it did was create more anxiety and made my overall trip less enjoyable. Paying a little more to take care of yourself is okay!

So, is it worth spending the extra money? It depends. When spending my own money, I want to make sure I am still getting a deal and it makes sense. For me, I have flown United domestically in economy plenty, but never in first. No question it provided a much better and smoother experience for both of us. Brittany, especially, arrived to Maui ready to rock and roll instead of needing to calm down from the anxious flying experience. Keeping the one I love happy through the flying experience can be well worth the money! On the way home (we flew Hawaiian), we had an extra day to recover before going back to work, so it really wasn’t worth the upgrades.

It is all about priorities. Your mental health is important and possibly pushing yourself to save a few bucks might not be the best move. I totally get that most people can’t just upgrade to first all the time (us included), but find out what gives you the most anxiety and maybe there is a fee to pay to make that part of your travel experience a bit better.

Nothing to do with the story, but we flew an A320 from SEA-SFO and although the interior looked brand new, the front lav still had this wallpaper. Classic!

Nothing to do with the story, but we flew an A320 from SEA-SFO and although the interior looked brand new, the front lav still had this wallpaper. Classic!

What are your thoughts on someone flying with anxiety? Have any other ideas on things you can pay to feel less anxiety? Please feel free to share those in the comments.

Note: We were flying in economy already and United upgraded us to do this story. Opinions are all mine. Well, some are Brittany’s. But only our opinions!

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: david@airlinereporter.com

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7 Comments
Daniel T Nelson

Great story, and it really spoke to me. I am tall, and I spent miserable years flying in coach, until six years ago when I said “Enough!” My wife and I only have to travel for leisure, and it got to the point where I considered just not flying on trips anymore, but then I decided to give first class a try, and I was sold. Yes, it costs more, and we are lucky that we can afford it, but many people who can afford it still sit in coach because they don’t want to spend the extra money. Now we won’t fly anywhere in the back, it’s either first class domestically and business class overseas, or else we won’t go. The squeeze, the hassles, the lack of dignity in the back just aren’t worth it anymore. We pay for some dignified travel, or else we stay home. Your story nicely described the many high points of travel in the front of the plane.

Sholto Douglas

Great story line and, more importantly, congratulations to you both on your engagement.

Great article! My husband and I almost exclusively travel domestic first/international business really for these exact reasons. He has more anxiety issues, but they are almost all gone if he knows we’re in first or business. Flight delayed from LAX to NRT? No problem, we can chill out in the lounge! Or we’ll have a nice meal in a restaurant with a cocktail until the flight leaves. We search fares months in advance and can usually get a fare we’re both ok with paying for. We’re in our 50’s now with no kids, so it’s easier for us. But this really is a recent thing, we used to fly economy all the time since we were teens. I think we’ve earned the upgrades 🙂

Peter Franco Jr

I hope u 2 live happly ever after when u 2 get married. I always tell my Brother and his Family, he has 4 girls(God bless him, LOL) Chech ur airfares. Sometimes it’ll cost cheaper flying regular or premium economy than flying basic economy with all those add ons. But, I always tell them if I can’t fly domestic 1st class or international business class. I will not fly. They think I’m a snob. LMAO. The domestic 1st class was Virgin America. I’m still haven’t recovered that they r no more.
The best international business class I flew are Virgin Atlantic and SAS. They take VERY GOOD care of me pre flight, during flight and after flight. I can’t wait to start flying again. I do enjoy ur articles. Have a great day!!!!!

Landon

Mr. 757 looks quite well for his age

Tom Tylee

Just had an experience that made me think of this story. After travelling for over 20 hours, I was stressed and jet-lagged, and just needed to get to my hotel. So rather than wait for the free hotel shuttle, and worry about if I am in the right place to be picked up, or if there’d be enough room, or how long until it showed up, I hopped in a taxi and was to my room in minutes. So my advice for avoiding anxiety includes on the ground too. Paying a bit extra for a taxi or car-share service can alleviate a lot of anxiety.

Hey Tom,

That is such a good idea! I still hate waiting for shuttles, wondering if I am in the right spot, will everyone fit, how long will it take. Recently when Brittany and I were in LA, we were returning our rental and were going to take the shuttle back to the airport, then another shuttle to our hotel. Then we realized, why don’t we just take Lyft — it was 5min (with wait) and $5 (with tip). WAY worth it!

David

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