From an in-flight nanny to inter-city ground transportation, these travel perks will change the way you fly.
In an era of ultra-economy airline travel, it may surprise you to learn that airlines are often quite generous to transcontinental passengers, both in the sky and on the ground. But sometimes this superior service lies hidden in plain sight, only accessed by frequent flyers who are “in the know.” Activating your spider-senses, following your nose, and reading this list of sky perks will open your eyes to the hidden airline Atlantis awaiting passengers just below the basic level of service. You might find yourself eating a Mediterranean feast in the dead of night in Dubai, enjoying a clotted cream tea above Great Britain, or having a surprise anniversary cake on a 14-hour flight to Singapore. These airline freebies, available in economy class, will change the way you fly.
Emirates Airlines’ Dubai Connect
WHERE: Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Whether you’re flying to Miami or Mumbai, all Emirates flights connect via the airline’s Dubai hub, a massive duty-free destination in the middle of the desert. But if you arrive zombie-eyed in the middle of the night, awaiting a connection more than eight hours away, you could find yourself curled up in an expenses-paid hotel room, courtesy of Emirates’ Dubai Connect program. The offer is only available if there is no connecting flight available within eight hours of landing (it’s six hours for First and Business class passengers). You must book a Dubai Connect stay at Emirates’ website at least 24 hours before your flight. If there is a shorter connection time available, the website will direct you to it and the hotel offer won’t be available. Ask for the hotel vouchers at the airport check-in desk. Bus transfer to and from the hotel is included.
INSIDER TIPEmirates also offers complimentary shuttle bus transportation in UAE (Abu Dhabi-Dubai and Al Ain-Dubai), North America (Seattle-Vancouver), and Japan (Nagoya-Kansai).
Etihad Airways Flying Nanny
WHERE: Worldwide, in the Skies
If you’re traveling with children, as we all must at times, consider Etihad Airways to save your sanity. Special in-flight service offers flash-babysitting when you need the extra help of another adult. Just call the “Flying Nanny” to your seat. They’ll bring a bag of goodies like hand puppets, face paints, and paper crowns so you can escape to the bathroom or grab a few minutes of sleep. The Nanny can’t take the child from their seat, but by bringing a bag full of entertainment and a Mary Poppins sense of flair, they offer a pretty good distraction from the monotonous hours in-flight and a chance for you to relax.
Virgin Atlantic Mile High Tea
WHERE: Flights from the UK
Virgin Atlantic launched an afternoon tea service this year for passengers on long-haul flights departing from the UK, and it is everything you would expect from the British carrier known for defying expectations about British food. The tea service comes as an addition to generous meals and a “welcome aboard drink” served in all cabins before takeoff. Scones, rolls and tea are served in all cabins, with clotted cream fit for the Ritz. For additional fancy patisserie treats, you’ll have to splurge for business class.
INSIDER TIPLast year, Virgin Atlantic introduced mock-tails featuring Seedlip, a distilled non-alcoholic spirit, for in-flight adult beverages without the 30,000-foot headache.
Ethiopian Airlines City Tour
WHERE: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Fancy a quick stop to the birthplace of coffee? Introduced in 2019, Ethiopian Airlines now offers a city tour for transit passengers with six to eight hours between flights. It includes a trip to the national museum and a coffee ceremony, as well as (naturally) plenty of stops for shopping. If your layover is longer than eight hours, you may instead qualify for the airline’s free transit hotel, which includes meal vouchers for dinner and breakfast. No matter the length of your layover, Ethiopian Airlines gives you a chance to get out of the airport and go exploring but you’ll need an entry or transit visa to do it. Check your visa requirements to see if you’ll qualify for an on-arrival visa.
INSIDER TIPIf you need to apply for a visa, Ethiopia’s e-visa online portal makes it pretty easy.
Qatar Airways’ Oryx One
WHERE: Worldwide, in the Skies
On-demand entertainment is a must-have on long-haul flights and while we all expect it, there is usually still something to complain about. A small selection of new-release films, a poorly-angled screen, or unresponsive controls are some of the common offenders. But Qatar Airways takes in-flight entertainment and connectivity to a new level by with the Oryx One app. Download it on your tablet or phone prior to the flight, and use the lightning-fast onboard Wi-Fi to stream movies and TV shows from the in-flight entertainment selection directly to your personal device. Qatar’s shockingly-fast Wi-Fi is good for any other online browsing you want to do, too. Say goodbye to faulty screens and bad sound forever.
INSIDER TIPWith the Oryx Club’s special children’s programming and an iPad, you can keep your little one quietly entertained for endless hours.
Sri Lankan Airlines Transit Stay
WHERE: Colombo, Sri Lanka
Once again, long connection times are not to be feared if you’re traveling with an airline focused on a great traveler experience. Passengers with at least eight hours between flights in Colombo are eligible for a free transit hotel stay if a shorter connection time is not available. Be aware that a confirmed hotel reservation does not guarantee entry to the country, though. In August 2019, Sri Lanka launched a visa-on-arrival program for members of 48 countries. Check to see if you require a visa for Sri Lanka prior to travel, or if you are eligible for visa-on-arrival. Simply call your local Sri Lankan Airlines office or travel agent to book your transit hotel freebie at least 48 hours before your flight.
INSIDER TIPTest your taste buds with the Sri Lankan ghost pepper, purportedly the hottest in the world!
Emirates Airlines Airport Buffet
WHERE: Dubai, United Arab Emirates
You might not be able to leave the airport, but Emirates still offers between-flight service to passengers who are on the ground for more than four hours. Even if you don’t want to buy your way into the Marhaba Lounge, Emirates still offers a meal and relaxation area for airline passengers in their home base, Terminal 3. Simply ask at the airline desk for directions to the passenger meal lounge and make your way through the massive building to this hidden secret. Show your ticket when you arrive to gain access to a well-stocked, free passenger buffet. Try some traditional Middle Eastern dishes and specialty Emirati treats while you wait. But you can only access this special place once, so be sure to fill your belly before saying goodbye.
INSIDER TIPCheck out Terminal 3’s Timeless Spa for extra pampering.
Etihad Airways, Etihad Express
WHERE: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Al Ain, United Arab Emirates
Not to be outdone by other flagship Emirati airlines, Etihad offers passengers free travel on a stylish bus between the Abu Dhabi airport and the UAE’s other two major destinations. Whether you are just in transit or have planned travel, use your Etihad ticket reference to book the 75-minute ride to Dubai or the 90-minute transfer to Al Ain, completely free of charge. You can confirm your place on the bus by booking more than 24 hours in advance on Etihad’s website, but if there are seats available, you can still book one when you arrive in Abu Dhabi. Bus travel must be made on the same day as your arriving or departing flight from Abu Dhabi, so you can explore in Emirates for as long as possible.
INSIDER TIPArrive in Abu Dhabi Airport at least 2.5 hours prior to your flight, as customs and immigration lines can be long.
Turkish Airlines Stopover Hotel
WHERE: Istanbul, Turkey
Forget simple sleeping in transit. Turkish Airlines one-ups other airline accommodation offers with a full “Stopover” plan. The airline provides economy passengers with a free night in a four-star hotel, simply for spending more than 20 hours in Istanbul, regardless of the possibility of taking an earlier flight; for business-class passengers, it’s two free nights in a five-star hotel. Take in the history, food, and culture of this ancient city at an intercontinental crossroads while letting your body catch up with the time change between destinations. Simply email the airline’s free hotel reservation contact listed for your departure and arrival region at least 72 hours in advance, and prepare to discover Istanbul.
INSIDER TIPDon’t be surprised to see friendly stray cats wandering in and out of shops in the old city. If you have a cat allergy, be sure to wash anything you buy thoroughly before use.
Singapore Airlines Special Occasion Surprise
WHERE: Worldwide, in the Skies
When it’s your anniversary, honeymoon, a big birthday, or any other remarkable milestone, be sure to let your travel agent know. Singapore Airlines staff will celebrate with you in the sky with cake and champagne, no matter your cabin class. But the airline keeps this low-key, so you won’t find mention of it on the website or a way to book online. Instead, call the local Singapore Airlines desk or your travel agent directly and mention your special occasion, and they’ll do the rest—that’s keeping it classy.
INSIDER TIPAll passengers can request one of more than a dozen special menus, based on dietary, religious, or other restrictions on the website and requesting a meal ahead of time.