The Grouchy Traveler’s Guide to Airplane Etiquette

Traveler's Guide

Traveling: You’re stuffed into a tiny metal cylinder for hours at a time. You’re cramped. You’re hungry. You’re slammed up against a stranger. So why make it any worse than it has to be?

But some people seem to think that the world exists for them and them alone.

Take, for instance, the gentleman who sat down beside me on my flight home after Bootcamp, pulling on the seat in front of him as he eased into his. He proceeded to pick his nose, sneezed, and then kept creeping into my personal space. (Every time his arm touched mine, I’d squinch a little closer to the window. Only to feel his arm touching mine – again.)

The two hours I spent on that plane rank right up there with getting my wisdom teeth removed as one of my top-10 most uncomfortable experiences. (At least I was knocked out for the wisdom teeth!)

Travel – extra costs, constant delays, overworked airport personnel – is already high-stress. And with the holidays coming up, you’re probably going to see bigger crowds and feel even more frazzled.

Here are seven rules to make sure you never drive your seatmate as crazy as mine drove me. They’ll make you a lot more pleasant to travel with. And here’s hoping your good manners will rub off on those around you.

Travel Manners Rule #1. Keep it down.

iPods are super. Portable DVD players – great. But I don’t want to listen to the latest Jonas Brothers CD or listen to you guffaw at Steve Carell’s antics in Get Smart. Bring headphones with you – noise-canceling headphones. Because they keep outside noise to a minimum, you’ll be able to do your listening at a more reasonable volume. That’ll keep your seatmates happy and protect your hearing. Hold the headphones about a foot away from your body. If you can still hear something, it’s too loud.

Travel Manners Rule #2. Watch what you eat.

Yes, it’s annoying that most airlines have eliminated any sort of food service. But there’s nothing worse than getting my nose up-close-and-personal with my seatmate’s egg salad sandwich and side of Funyuns. Before you wrap up that garlic sausage hoagie to enjoy on the plane, remember – smells that make your mouth water just might curdle someone else’s stomach.

Helena Echlin of offers a few suggestions: Bring cold food, which is less aromatic than hot food. (She recommends sushi, wraps, and sandwiches.) Avoid tuna. Skip “crumbly or slithery” foods like crackers and noodles. And give your trash to the flight attendant as soon as possible.

Travel Manners Rule #3. Watch your mouth.

For my last trip to Delray Beach, I’d printed out a stack of articles to edit. When my seatmate sat down, I smiled and agreed that the weather was delightful. But then I got back to reading and making notes. He, however, kept asking me questions and making comments about the weather. Hey – I’m fine with exchanging pleasantries and sharing a little small talk. You never know who you’ll meet on a plane, after all – a potential partner, customer, or future boss. But if I’m reading or sleeping or otherwise engaged, don’t try to strike up a conversation.

A Harris Interactive and Yahoo! FareChase poll found that 50 percent of people surveyed dread sitting next to an overly garrulous seatmate. And a survey found that Chatty Cathys are the most offensive violators of airplane etiquette.

Travel Manners Rule #4. Pay attention to boundaries.

• Armrests. I’m sorry if the armrest between us is uncomfortable. But we are already closer than I want to be, and that slim metal rectangle is the only thing separating my space from yours. So keep it down.

• Leg room. Yes, your carry-on is too big to really fit under your seat. But that doesn’t mean you can stretch out your legs under MY seat.

• Under the seat. Your carry-on luggage – that includes your purse, ladies – goes under the seat in front of you. NOT under the seat you’re sitting on. I don’t know why this is the rule, but it is. And if you shove your laptop under your seat, you’re robbing the person sitting behind you of leg room and a space for her own bag.

• Tray tables. I’m happy to keep your drink on my tray table when you head to the bathroom. (Not so much when you’re just sick of having your tray table down.) But ask first.

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Travel Manners Rule #5. Keep your toys quiet.

I’m not a parent, so I’m sure there’s more to picking out toys than finding those that might be least annoying to other people on an airplane. But even if that beeping fire truck is Jimmy’s favorite, leave it at home.

Travel Manners Rule #6. Figure out which seat you’re in.

On one of my trips home from Florida, I overheard a conversation I’ve heard a dozen times:

“Oh, I think you’re in my seat.”

“What? I’m in 10C. That’s this one.”

“Um, no it isn’t. You’re sitting in 10D, not 10C. 10C is the aisle seat, not the window.”

“Oh, sorry, I thought it was the window.”

Even if it’s your first time flying – ever – it’s not hard to figure out where you’re sitting. First, look at your ticket. Prominently, under “seat,” you’ll see a number next to a letter. That’s your seat.

Now, take a look around the airplane. Turn (mentally, if you like) toward the front of the airplane. Starting on the left and moving right, the seats will be lettered A to D (or higher). So A is always the window seat. The highest letter (C on most Embraer planes, F on most Boeing 737s, L on Boeing 777s) will also be the window seat.

Once you know which seat you’re meant to be in, sit in it. (If there are empty seats on the plane, you may be able to switch – but only once the doors are closed.) On a flight from Atlanta, I went to sit down and found my seatmate in my window seat. When I smiled and told her she was in my seat, she wasn’t at all surprised. Hoping that I didn’t care enough to call her out? Too bad.

By the way, if you really want a window seat (or aisle), you can choose your seats on most airline websites when you buy your ticket. You can also try to switch your seat when you check in – either online or at the kiosk in the airport.

Travel Manners Rule #7. Be nice.

Traveling puts me on edge. And I’m betting it’s not your favorite thing either. But one way to make it more tolerable – for yourself and everyone around you – is to be friendly, polite, and just plain nice. If you have to ask someone to turn down her iPod or move her drink off your tray table, do so in a gentle, thoughtful manner. It doesn’t take a lot of effort. And it will make the trip a lot easier for everyone involved.