Gifts for flight attendants: an experiment

Despite all the uproar over United Airlines’ treatment of a man who resisted being bumped from a flight, I think it’s safe to say almost every flight attendant acts in a professional way, and they show remarkable patience.

Note: I originally published this back in May 2017. I’m adding notes in italics in October 2021.

3 flight attendants on Emirates: Two women stand nearest the camera, smiling. A man stands beyond them, also looking at the camera and smiling. The man wears a white long-sleeved collared shirt iwth a tie that is striped in black, white and red. The two women both have short-sleeved white shirts with red piping down each side of the front and around the sleaves. The women both wear red berets that have a length of white filmy material attached to one side and draped loosely around their necks.
friendly flight attendants on an Emirates A380

Another note: If you came to this page for help finding a gift for a loved one who is a flight attendant, you need my gift guide for travelers.

In praise of flight attendants

Passengers misbehave: the internet abounds with examples. (See this article, or this one.) Passengers take off their shoes and clip their toenails. Or they take off their shirts, fall asleep and snore. They bring too much carry-on baggage and argue with the flight attendants about it. Or they smell bad. They drink too much and offend fellow passengers, getting in loud arguments when other passengers lean back their seats. Flight attendants or fellow passengers have to fight off their attempts at seduction, or just plain groping. They smoke in the bathroom or have sex there (Yuck!).

And it’s only gotten worse since the pandemic, with obnoxious passengers refusing to wear masks, setting off actual violence against flight attendants or other passengers.

Flight attendants take the heat for anything that upsets passengers. They get the complaints about too little legroom, poor food, missed connections and so on. They’re not responsible for any of that, but they are the ones who passengers complain to. Unless a passenger is endangering safety, there is little they can do but try to placate and calm irritations during boarding or during the flight. And then passengers complain that flight attendants are “humorless” as they are ordered about like servants.

At the same time, flight attendants are key to our safety. They make sure orders from the captain (“Fasten your seatbelts.”) are obeyed, and they are ready to deal with real emergencies, such as when a passenger falls ill or the plane hits bad weather. (Factoid: The most common cause of injury on an airplane is turbulence. When people don’t have their seatbelts on, they can get thrown around the cabin and break bones.)

view of the interior of the Aeroflot Boeing aircraft, looking toward the back. The people are seated in red chairs and the lights along the baggage compartments are yellow.
On an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Hong Kong.

Outside of those necessary safety-related moments, they spend their time trying to keep everyone happy. They serve food and drinks, watch babies so their parents can go to the toilet, and generally keep things calm. All while smiling whenever it is expected.

Gifts for flight attendants: my experiment

After reading several posts on the internet (like this one and this one) about the crap flight attendants have to put up with, I decided to take the advice I read in one of them. When I have time before I fly, I stop at the duty-free and buy a bag of candy – usually chocolates, of course – as gifts for the flight attendants.

As I board the plane, I hand it to the first flight attendant I see. (Or, in a large plane, like Emirates’ A380, I hand it to the flight attendant in my section.)

a bag of candy ready to hand to a flight attendant: it's Toblerone minis in a wrinkly gold foil bag.
a bag of candy ready to hand to a flight attendant

It’s great fun. The flight attendants are usually doing their standard “Welcome aboard!” and “May I see your boarding pass, please” routine.

Handing them a bag of chocolate always elicits a surprised and confused expression. Sometimes I have to explain “It’s to share with all the cabin crew.”


“Because I know passengers don’t always treat you well.”

The flight attendant smiles and says “Thank you,” and usually that’s the end of it. I go to my seat and the flight goes on as normal.

Two EasyJet planes in white and orange and an Aer LIngus plane in green are lined up at a row of gates. A larger plane in the background - a 747 - is taxiing.

Why I do it, really

To be honest, when I started this experiment, part of me was hoping to get something out of it. What I wanted – and still would love – is an upgrade to economy plus, or even to business class.

I knew it was a long shot, and I was right. Bringing gifts for flight attendants will not get you an upgrade.

Except … I think the general mood of the crew becomes a bit happier. They smile more. Maybe it’s the effect of chocolate on their system. Or maybe it’s just that they’ve received a positive message, for a change.

Isn’t that an upgrade of a sort?

This isn’t a scientific study, of course. It may involve observer bias, so that I’m seeing more cheerful flight attendants because I expect to see flight attendants who are more cheerful.

To be sure of my results, I’d have to design an experiment where I’d bring chocolates half the time, figure out a measure of cheerfulness, and compare the cheerfulness level of attendants who got chocolate to those who didn’t.

The truth is, though, that I do it for myself. Even without a hope of an upgrade, I love that look of surprise when I first hand over the bag of candy. And I feel good doing it.

It’s like when you’ve chosen a special gift for someone you love. You know for sure that this person will love his gift. So you’re doing it for him. But really, deep down inside, you’re doing it for yourself: for the kick you’ll get seeing his joy.

a view of an airplane wing as seen out the plane's window looks over fluffy clouds, with a sunset sky in the background

Incident #1

Most of the times I’ve brought these gifts for cabin crew – probably about ten times in the last two years – the conversation went pretty much as I’ve described. A big smile and thank you, and then the flight went on as usual for me.

However, I got a very different reaction on two recent flights.

On my way to Israel, I flew on Transavia and, as usual, handed a bag of candy to a flight attendant.

This time, she asked, “What seat are you in?”

I told her my seat number, but didn’t think anything of it, since they often ask for a seat number as you board.

Evidently, she didn’t just pass the chocolate around, she passed my name and seat number around.

Before we even pulled out of the gate, a flight attendant came and offered me a bottle of water.

During the flight, cabin crew members stopped by to thank me for the chocolates.

One flight attendant, an older gentleman, was visibly moved by my gesture. Hand on his chest, he proclaimed, “I’ve never in 30 years in this job …” He repeated this several times over the course of the flight, each time speaking to a different flight attendant. He seemed to be bringing them with him to point me out.

It was all just a bit embarrassing, especially because my poor seatmates, sitting between me and the aisle, were essentially ignored during these conversations. Several times attendants offered me drinks, including ice, but not them.

It was the first time I thought this might be a bad idea.

Incident #2

A couple of weeks after my trip to Israel, I was on my way to Dubai on Emirates. I love flying on Emirates, because they use the massive A380 that offers, even in economy class, ample legroom, a large choice of films, and a very smooth flight.

A big blue pond is in the center of the photo, surrounded but both low and high-rise buildings, all in grey.
a view down from the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Again, I handed over the chocolates – this time quite a large bag, since it’s such a big plane – but this time the flight attendant asked me whether I was a flight attendant too.

Now I was surprised and confused, and I guess she saw it in my face, because she explained “Sometimes when flight attendants fly as a passenger for free, they bring chocolate for the crew.”

I explained why I had brought it, and again the flight attendant asked where I was sitting.

The same thing happened as on the Transavia flight: flight attendants from other sections came by to thank me, and offered me extra drinks and so on.

And again it was a bit embarrassing, especially with two passengers between the aisle and me.

On the flight back I didn’t get any special attention, which felt a lot more comfortable.

view from a plane looks over a red-painted engine and a cloud-covered land, except for one mountain in the distance that peeks out through the cloud.

Back to Dubai

A few weeks later, I went back to Dubai – I lead workshops, and these were only about two weeks apart – but this time I decided to reserve an aisle seat. It was Emirates again, and again the attendants fussed over me. This time, though, it didn’t bother other passengers.

And the truth is, I loved it. It made me feel special, and noticed, especially among such a crowd of people. Is that wrong?

On the one hand, it really does seem to make the crew happy, which is good for everyone on board. On the other hand, the fuss they make is sometimes (if I’m not in an aisle seat) awkward.

And the uncomfortable truth is: I do it more for me than for them.

Best gifts for flight attendants

I always bring chocolate because I love chocolate, so to me it’s the best possible gift. If I plan ahead, I pick up a box of chocolates at the grocery store at home. Otherwise I look at what’s on sale in the airport, generally settling on something that has a variety of flavors and is good quality, like Lindt or similar. I buy a bag or box with individually-wrapped chocolates, for hygiene’s sake.

I’ve heard that vouchers for Starbucks are very much appreciated, but buying enough of them for a whole flight crew is outside my budget. I’m sure the cabin crew would appreciate any gift, so choose what feels right to you.

However, if you’re going to bring them candy or other food, make sure it’s store-bought and sealed. I understand that baking something shows that you really took time and trouble to create something special for the crew, but don’t do it. Chances are they can’t eat anything that’s not factory-sealed. They don’t know you, and they can’t be sure you haven’t put something in those brownies.

Added in December 2019 and still true in October 2021: Since I wrote this article, I’ve continued bringing chocolates. They are still warmly received and the repercussions vary from being treated exactly the same as the rest of the passengers, to getting handed amenity kits from business class, to being offered free drinks on budget flights where you normally have to pay.

I’ve still never been upgraded, but that’s okay. I keep doing it because I like to. Judging by the reactions I get every time, it’s still a very unusual thing.

What do you think? Should I be doing this? Have you ever brought a gift for the flight attendants? If you are a flight attendant, how do you feel about it? Add a comment below.

Text: Gifts for Flight Attendants: An experiment. Image: view out an airplane window over the wing, flying over clouds with a sunset or sunrise tinge to the horizon.

My travel recommendations

Planning travel

  • Skyscanner is where I always start my flight searches.
  • Booking.com is the company I use most for finding accommodations. If you prefer, Expedia offers more or less the same.
  • Discover Cars offers an easy way to compare prices from all of the major car-rental companies in one place.
  • Use Viator or GetYourGuide to find walking tours, day tours, airport pickups, city cards, tickets and whatever else you need at your destination.
  • Bookmundi is great when you’re looking for a longer tour of a few days to a few weeks, private or with a group, pretty much anywhere in the world. Lots of different tour companies list their tours here, so you can comparison shop.
  • GetTransfer is the place to book your airport-to-hotel transfers (and vice-versa). It’s so reassuring to have this all set up and paid for ahead of time, rather than having to make decisions after a long, tiring flight!
  • Buy a GoCity Pass when you’re planning to do a lot of sightseeing on a city trip. It can save you a lot on admissions to museums and other attractions in big cities like New York and Amsterdam.
  • I’m a fan of SCOTTeVEST’s jackets and vests because when I wear one, I don’t have to carry a handbag. I feel like all my stuff is safer when I travel because it’s in inside pockets close to my body.
  • Airalo is an e-sim card. You buy it through an app and activate it when you need it. I tried it on my trip to Thailand and it worked just like any other sim card, but without my having to fuss with physical cards.
  • I use ExpressVPN on my phone and laptop when I travel. It keeps me safe from hackers when I use public or hotel wifi.


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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments!  Read more…
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Please continue passing out the chocolates. I have a close relative who is a flight attendant on a major airline, and I have heard many horror stories from him. The chocolates are an acknowledgement of their courtesy despite the hard work putting up with disgruntled and demanding passengers who use flight attendants as their whipping boys.

What a great idea Rachel! Flying is just no fun anymore and I’ve often felt so sorry for the flight attendants when I’ve watched passengers vent their frustrations in addition to random acts of obnoxious behavior. I’m sure your kindness has made someone’s day a little brighter (and it sounds like you got a little rock star treatment too!) Anita

I am actually really touched reading this …. I’ve worked for an airline the last few years and everytime a passenger brings us treats it is a real party amongs us!
First of all, flight attendants love freebies! (Honestly, who doesn’t!?)
Secondly, it shows that you appreciate what we do. We don’t expect our passengers to give us anything, however it is always appreciated and it is true, we will go back and see you and thank you as many time as we can. I don’t see it as a special treatment, but as anywhere in life, if someone treats you well, you will treat them the same.
If you want to make a flight attendant happy, it alway starts with little things that cost nothing : smiling, saying hello, making eye contact, removing your earphones as we get close to your row during service, etc.

Passengers tend to forget that we are human beings, we have long days too, we deal with delays like everyone. Passengers come onboard and unfortunately thing that we are servant or have control over everything … we are often seen as only serving drinks, where truth is, our main job is keeping you safe, we are fully trained to fight fire, deal with threats, deal with medical situation and act in case of emergencies. In most airlines, we are trained on over 10 types of aircraft. Pouring a drink, is just an added service to keep up with competition.

All to say, small gestures go a long way. Again, thank you for posting this.

Rachel, what a terrific post! I’d never thought of bringing a bag of chocolate onboard for the flight attendants, although considering my line of work … I should! I am going to forward your link to my cousin (who is a flight attendant) to get her reaction. Perhaps she will post a comment here for all to read.

What a wonderful idea. It’s such a nice gesture that I’m sure every flight attendant would appreciate. I hadn’t thought to do so myself, but I’ll certainly keep it in mind!

Nice one Rachel!

I love the thought of the gesture – and I know chocolates are universally connected with the act of giving – but… I think I’d be more likely to offer something without such a big sugar kick (which makes people flop a short while after)…
I wonder if this will catch on – appreciation of a job well done is too often neglected, its true 🙂

I think it is a brilliant idea!!!! I am a teacher…and when my students being in a box of chocolate for me ..I often think…oh gosh…. I going to have to eat it…but I absolutely LOVE the way the thought made me feel!!!!

I agree that flight attendants are much underrated (although they do seem to be better on some airlines than others). I was once on a plane where a man walked towards an attendant who was pushing a trolley and refused to get out of her way. She waited a moment, then backed the trolley all the way down the aisle – without losing her smile.

What a great idea! I always try to be super nice to the flight attendants because they get blamed for everything and it’s really hard work, but I can only vaguely recall one time when I shared some sort of treat with them after I’d seen them deal with someone who was a pain. What a great practice! I think I’ll try to start doing that too!

Interesting. But I prefer it when the flight attendant gives me the chocolate, especially like one did on a Swiss Air flight a while back–I got LOTs of extras when I raved about how delicious the Swiss milk chocolate is! Here, have more they said.

I think it is a wonderful idea!! I think I will try it myself. I have had more than one flight attendant apologize to me for rude passengers around me…they put up with a lot and get little credit when everything runs smoothly!

Being considerate, thoughtful and kind is never the wrong thing to do. That’s what the Golden Rule is all about.

Most of the flight attendants I’ve met have been first rate. Yes, there’ve been a handful of less-than-professional ones, but with the amount of flying I do, they’re pretty insignificant. You’re really on to something, and I plan to follow in your footsteps. Thanks for the great idea.

Nice gesture, but as former groundstaff at an airport, we had rules about not accepting gifts from passengers due to the fact it could be construed as ‘bribery’ for the. Dry thing you mention: upgrade.
Also, it would be so much nicer to see people’s being nice to others purely for altruistic reasons, not because they want something out of it…but I guess at least you were honest.
Finally: I am a little confused because initially you mention you’d like some kind of acknowledgement and yet when you do get it, you’re embarrassed by it. Is it because it didn’t come in the form you deemed appropriate?

Good article and good for thought.

I spoke with a flight attendant today and I asked her what her treat of preference would be and she said “A box of nice tea!” (or a starbucks card). Seems like such a great idea!

I am a flight attendant……and yes it is nice to receive sweets from passengers. Better than sweets is when you are just genuinely nice. Some people get on board looking for problems. You guys really get us down.#justsaying

Something I have done since I can remember, is bringing little gifts. Over the years the gift has changed and now I keep it to Starbucks gift cards. I always have them on hand when I am heading for a flight. I always have 1 for the greeter at the door and 1 for the Crew who is in my section and always 1 each for the pilots. It’s my way of saying THANK YOU for what they do and all the stuff they have to deal with. I gift one upon my entering the plane and offer the pilots cards at this time but my husband likes to tease the Pilots by saying they don’t get theirs until we land safely. He jokes of course because he is also a pilot (small planes just for fun) and he knows I will be giving it out first anyway. This makes the crew feel special, even if it is just a “cup of coffee or tea” it is the thought that counts. I have never expected anything in return. It started out as part of our “random act of kindness” thing we do at different times of the year and I just adapted it to the many flights we have up and down the California line on business. We’ve never received upgrades or extras, but again, we do it because it makes us feel good about putting a smile on their faces. So I suppose we did receive what we wanted… a smile of appreciation.

I happen to know that the official policy for AA (American Airlines) is that air crew and gate agents are not allowed to accept cash or gift cards and no gifts should be valued more than $25.00.

Rachel, the thing you do is so great! Continue to passing out candies and chocolate to flight attendants (especially if you like to make people happy). I’m a flight attendant and I really adore such surprises from passengers, but unfortunately it happens rarely. I would even say very rarely. In most cases passengers, who treat us with chocolate are our colleagues from other airlines. Every time I get something, I’m so elated and grateful. And a flight goes even better. I do it also when I travel as a passenger. I believe it’s a good tradition!

Recently, my husband and I flew first class from Portland Maine to NYC. It was a short flight, but a fun one. We were in the front row of the tiny first class section. It consisted of one aisle of two seats and one aisle of single seats. The gentleman sitting across from us sat down and immediately put his feet up on the wall. My husband and found this to be awful. I mean, really, what grown adult would put their feet up on the wall of the first row of an airplane with (or even without) shoes on? His attitude was a bit flippant as well as he was very dismissive to our (awesome) flight attendant. She walked out and saw his feet on the wall and gave him a look of dismay, which he dismissed. I said out loud, “We’re with you. What grown adult puts their feet on the wall?” He didn’t acknowledge me. She smiled at us and served our drinks. She continued to refill our drinks quite generously while ignoring the man with his feet on the wall. She even slipped in one last drink just before the plane landed. We tried to tip her and she refused.

Which brings me to an interesting point, I’ve read in many blogs that flight attendants appreciate tips, but 99% of the time I try to tip they refuse the tip. Some have told me they’re not allowed to accept tips and others have simply said it’s not necessary. The few who have accepted tips have been very nice about it.

I have a friend who always brings chocolates when he flies first class and I’m going to do that this Friday when I fly across the country. I’m not doing it to get anything extra, as we get everything already in first class, but I know first class attendants work the entire flights as coach attendants tend to disappear after drinks/snacks are served.

I, too, believe that flight attendants work very hard and it often goes unrewarded. I’ve seen them go above and beyond for passengers who barely give them the time of day. So, I’ve decided that from this point on, I will bring chocolates every time I fly. Not necessarily to get anything extra, but to brighten their day. I feel like if they know that even ONE passenger appreciates their hard work it can brighten their day and make them like their job just a little bit more.

I’m also a generous tipper in bars and restaurants as I’ve worked in that industry and I know how thankless it can be.

Hey Rachel,

Thanks so much for your kindness! We love when people bring us little thoughtful trinkets. I’ve had everything from chocolates to ear plugs and I love them all the same. Really it’s just the thought that counts. We often go unrecognized.
More than anything, we just love when people are nice to us. We deal with so many people with so many different energies and personalities that at times the job can be tough. So your niceness is truly appreciated. Thanks so much for thinking of us!

My 12 year old son wanted to bring candy for the flight attendants on a recent trip to NY. This was his first time flying and he was very excited and nervous. They were very surprised and thankful for the candies. We brought enough for all 4 attendants. Later during the flight one of them slipped him a pair of earbuds in a zippered case, and another have him an EatUp box with assorted snacks. He was really surprised and appreciated their gesture. We weren’t expecting anything in return, just wanted to brighten their day.