A (Painfully) Honest Guide to Airplane Etiquette

Shawn Forno, Jerrell Cameron

It doesn’t matter how much you paid for your ticket or where you’re sitting (I’m looking at you “business class”), it pays to treat your fellow passengers like human beings.

No one likes to fly, because… how could you? The days of luxury airliners “cruising” with dapper passengers sipping martinis was decades ago (if those days ever existed at all). Today’s flight experience is a gauntlet of excessive checked baggage fees, delays, booking algorithms that track your every search, “early” boarding upcharges, and the oh so popular Mad Max rush at the gate to fight for that sweet, sweet overhead space.

But what if flying didn’t have to suck? What if *gasp* we started treating our fellow passengers like people in the same boat instead of obstacles on our solo journey? What would that flight look like?

Pay attention, because this is the most important thing you will read today—heck, it may be the most important thing you read about travel in your entire life. Here’s a painfully honest guide to airplane etiquette.

Let’s start with how to board a plane:

How to Board a Plane (written by a flight attendant!)

After you’ve survived the preflight airport process (TSA, finding your gate), there are some sure fire ways to improve the boarding process, take your seat, and actually relax.

As a flight attendant, I see many stressed out travelers. There’s the: “I forgot to take my pill and need water as soon as I’ve boarded the plane,” traveler, and then there’s the guy standing in the aisle getting out his laptop and earphones, while blocking the rest of customers behind him. Usually, these are things that can be solved by simply preparing to board a plane efficiently.

Know What You Need on the Plane

After you’re in the airport and past security, it’s important to have your “ready-to-use” items for on board the plane out and easily accessible. Plan ahead for the space you have available. For example, if you plan to use headphones, take those out and hook them around your neck. Any books, magazines, or tablets you plan on having during the flight, make sure they’re in a front or side pocket of your travel backpack. Or, organize everything for onboard use in a small daypack, so that you can drop that into your seat and tuck your travel backpack in the overhead bin without causing a delay.

The same goes for medication and baby items. If your traveling with a smaller bag, this is the perfect place for these items to go. Don’t be afraid to rearrange your bags while waiting in front of the gate. Use that time!

Get to Know Your Plane

Most major airlines now have apps that allow you to view the plane you will be flying on, your seat location, and sometimes even restrooms and wifi availability. Assuming you’re on time for your flight, use the time waiting to board to look at those apps or video monitors and find your seat. Signage can be confusing at times, but just glancing at the airline app, or monitors before-hand can save you the time of trying to figure it out in the aisle with ten other passengers behind you.

Equally important is to check those apps or monitors for any seat changes that can occur. There’ve been many times I’ve showed up to work a flight thinking I was on a specific aircraft, only to find out the plane had been switched to a  different aircraft with different configurations. It’s always important to check your plane.

Toilet First, Board After

The biggest inconvenience of the boarding process is the customer who has settled into their seat but then interrupts the flow of traffic by having to get out to use the bathroom.  Don’t be that guy. Use the bathroom BEFORE you’re aboard the plane. Always.

Not to mention, plane lavatories are filthy! Just imagine 100 people on a 3 hour flight using the same restroom, then it gets sprinkled with some generic cleaner. And within 60 seconds (sometimes less), viola! The bathrooms are cleaned. Do you trust that? You can’t help it when you’re in the air, but you can on the ground. Use the bathroom before you board. Remember it’s never fun trying to swim upstream boarding a plane.

Stay in Your Row

We all know the frustration of looking at your seat from two rows ahead, but being unable to get to it because the person in front of you is blocking the aisle arranging his things. Don’t be that guy. Even if you have to stop and pull some things from your bag, be aware that there are people waiting behind you. Turn to the side, or, if there’s room, step into the row (even if it’s not your row/seat) and allow those behind you access to pass.

Personally, I applaud these small gestures when I see them used.

Listen to the Flight Attendants

Flight attendants are there mainly for your safety but also for your comfort. Sometimes there is important information being broadcasted along with the ‘welcome aboard’ greetings. Listening to these announcements during boarding, can save you time and energy and in fact help you to your seat faster and easier.

Often, you’ll hear messages about bag space. If your in row 31 and there’s no more space past row 20, it will be announced allowing you to plan ahead. Instead of making it to your seat and realizing there’s no more space above, and having to fight your way back upstream, you’ll know when you hit row 15 that you should probably put your bag in the overhead space where you find it. Other announcements you may hear could be about free-food, or free entertainment (no need to waste time digging for that Stephen King novel).

Take Mistakes to the Back

Even after doing your best to prepare for boarding, airlines still make mistakes. So, what happens when you’ve prepared well and boarded correctly, only to find there’s someone in your seat. Ugh.

It’s frustrating but simple:

First, make sure you’re looking at the correct boarding pass if you have multiple flights. If so, it’s much more efficient to try to handle the matter by going to the back of the plane to get a flight attendant to deal with it. Remember, if someone’s in your seat, they don’t know where to go, and in turn they search for their boarding pass while still sitting, leaving you in the aisle, as the passengers begin to pile up behind you. Trust me, it’s easier to just go to the back to get it taken care of.

Taking the time to do these things can make boarding easier for you as well as the rest of passengers. A little consideration goes a long way. Airports can be frustrating but boarding can be easy. Be prepared for your next flight and take your seat with ease.

Airplane Ettiquette: Once on Board

There are still norms for what’s acceptable when you’re crammed into a tin can in the sky with hundreds of strangers for several hours—even on budget flights. Following these rules will make your flight more bearable, for everyone.

Yes, It’s Ok to Take Your Shoes Off on a Plane But…

Let’s start with the big one. Shoes. Of course it’s ok to take off your shoes when you fly. Why wouldn’t it be? If you’re stuck in an upright sitting position for 6+ hours, you better believe a lot of your blood is gonna end up in your tootsies. Feet swell in flight, so take the pressure off and take off your shoes.

However, this doesn’t mean that you’re in your living room. If you opt to take your shoes off, you have to keep your feet below the level of your knees. That means no crossing your legs or putting your feet on the armrest of the person in front of you. If your shoes come off, your feet stay out of sight. That’s the deal.

And if you suffer from particularly smelly feet (sorry, buddy), it’s on you to mitigate that stench. You don’t have an inalienable right to no shoes. You’ve got to earn that. Some of the best ways to keep your feet from smelling on an airplane include:

  1. Wearing comfy slippers or “house shoes” on the flight. They trap a lot of the smell
  2. Wearing “pajama” style socks that are just for travel. Some people call these “bocces”
  3. Wearing freshly laundered socks on travel days
  4. Adding odor eater insoles to your shoes
  5. Putting your shoes in the overhead. It seems weird, but hey, it locks away that smell

But, no matter what you do, you are never, ever allowed to take off both your shoes and socks.

And if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to wear socks in your shoes, a) you probably have pretty smelly shoes b) I don’t care, wear socks when you fly.

How to Politely Recline Your Seat on a Flight

Reclining your seat should be a Constitutional right, but until it gets ratified by 2/3 of the states we’ll leave it as a social norm on flights. However, there is a right and a wrong way to recline your seat on an airplane.

Wrong way to recline: Slamming your seat back during the beverage service, in-flight safety briefing, before take off, or during a meal. #no

Right way to recline: Gradually after you’ve reached a reasonable altitude.

Typically, I recline my seat as early as possible, which means about 10 minutes into the flight. I’m a tall guy 6’1” so I need the extra space. The guiding etiquette with seat reclining is, simply, that it’s your seat, so you should feel comfortable using every feature. However, if the person behind you has a problem with the angle of your chair, you can try to meet them in the middle with a tiiiiiny tip forward. But don’t get it twisted, the person reclining has the right of way.

How to Fall Asleep on a Plane Like a Responsible Adult

Sleeping on a plane is the worst. It just is. But everyone has the right to try to get some shuteye. And the rules are the same for a red eye to NYC or a puddle jumper to Phoenix. Stay in your zone. I don’t care if you can only sleep on your side. I usually don’t sleep with a stranger’s knee in my ribs. Deal with the space you’re given.

A few months ago I finally broke down and bought the Evolution memory foam travel pillow from Cabeau. It’s more important to me than my degree. If I’m on a long flight or an overnight, I just strap this little beauty around my neck, click the little toggle in place, put on my sleep mask, slap on my noise-cancelling headphones, and go the heck to sleep sitting up like a gosh darned adult.

Is it the best sleep of my life? No, of course not. I wake up sometimes. But the plushy firmness and reassuring snug fit of the travel pillow keeps my head from lolling all over the place. Sleeping on a plane shouldn’t be a contact sport. If you want to catch some zzzs, bring the appropriate gear.

What Belongs in the Overhead Compartment:

I don’t know why this is so confusing for most people. The overhead compartment is for your biggest carry on bag. That’s it. It’s not for your jacket. It’s not for your purse. You get one item up top and one item beneath the seat in front of you. Don’t be a jackass and put your personal item up top with your carry on.

I’ve actually called people out for this. If I’m boarding a plane and there’s a jacket in a crowded overhead I’ll take it out, ask who’s it is, give it back to them and put my bag up top. You’ve been warned.

6 Things You Should Never Eat on an Airplane

Now we’re getting to the real stuff. First let me say, you’re obviously allowed to bring your own snacks on an airplane. Of course you are. Lots of people have dietary or blood sugar issues, and everyone deserves to chow down on a long flight. However, people have started playing it fast and loose with what constitutes an acceptable in-flight meal. So let me dispel some myths for you about what’s ok to eat on an airplane and what’s definitely not.

Do NOT pack any of the following to eat on the plane:

Hard-boiled eggs

Yes, my girlfriend once unwrapped a bag with three hard boiled eggs and ate them, like a monster. The smell is terrible, the mess is ridiculous, and eggs can make you frighteningly gassy. I will never let her forget this war crime.

Ribs

Anything that leaves behind a mess is a no-go, but ribs are especially bad. Eating them makes you look like a serial killer, and the added sticky fingered mess is just a hassle for your seat mates and the flight attendants.

Leftovers

A flight to Seattle is not an opportunity for you to clean out your fridge. If you have leftover lentils, or meatloaf that won’t keep until you get back from your trip, eat it at home or throw it away.

Fish (including sushi)

Do not be the person that brings fish on an airplane. The smell will fill the cabin and we’ll all hate you, 7B.

Yogurt

Some people swear by their daily probiotic, but a funny thing happens at altitude—things expand. If you open up a plastic wrapped sealed container at a different atmospheric pressure, it’s gonna blow. Probably all over you and the person next to you. Eat your activia at the gate, please.

Bananas

This one might surprise some people, but not everyone likes the smell of bananas. I, for one, am actually allergic (it’s a bummer), but much like fish, the strong smell will dominate the cabin. Also, bananas don’t travel well, and eating a blackened, bruised nanner will make you seem a little off

If you really want to bring a snack on the plane, check out Jessie’s extensive in-flight snack guide for some great (responsible) ideas for mid-air munchies.

The Aisle Seat: You Know What You Signed Up For

Ok, we all get that some people “need” the aisle seat. That’s why you paid the extra $17 for it. That’s fine, but it doesn’t make you the king or queen of your row.

If someone wants to get up to go to the bathroom or even just stretch their legs, you better unplug your headphones from Speed 2, unbuckle your seatbelt, and stand up. And guess what? You better be still standing when they get back from the bathroom. With a good attitude.

Sitting on the aisle gives you a lot of freedom. You can get up and stretch, grab a snack from your bag in the overhead compartment, or go to the bathroom whenever you want. But great power comes with great responsibility.

Don’t make getting up to let someone out a whole big thing. You know what you signed up for.

How Not to Go to the Bathroom on an Airplane

That being said, if you have IBS maybe don’t get the window seat. Everyone gets one get out of jail free card to get up and use the bathroom, or stretch, or whatever. Two trips happen, but it’s not awesome. However, if you’re the kind of person that needs to get up every 20 minutes, don’t make it everyone else’s problem.

Get an exit row seat, a bulkhead seat, or just snag the aisle. You’re better than that.

A Quick Guide to Farting on an Airplane

Ok, let’s talk about it. No, really. This one is actually more complicated than you might think. The basic rule of farting on an airplane is simple—try not to do it. Really focus. But hey, when the cabin is pressurized, so are you. It’s a thing.

Farting on an airplane is completely normal. In fact, you’re much more likely to fart mid-flight thanks to the constantly changing air pressure and the effect on your body.

Danish surgeon Jacob Rosenberg even conducted enough research on in-flight farting to write a paper for the New Zealand Medical Journal. Essentially, he found that expanding and contracting intestines on take off and landing leads to higher than normal flatulence. Rosenberg’s medical advice for farting on a plane is surprising, “Just let it go.”

He also argues that holding it in can cause pain, bloating, and indigestion. Farting on airplanes is just part of the deal. But do your best not to eat expired chili before the flight. The good news is that most airplanes are equipped with charcoal air filters to eliminate some of the smell. So that’s cool.

Watching Someone Else’s Entertainment Screen is Wrong and You’re a Monster

I don’t know why, but this breach of etiquette might be my biggest travel pet peeve. Creeping on someone else’s in-flight entertainment, be it a phone, laptop, kindle, or the little “screen” in the back of the seat in front of them is just plain wrong.

Here’s why:

Long flights are pure guilty pleasure “me time” when it comes to movies. It’s when people can use, “Oh but I was on a plane,” to get their fill of Vin Diesel and Meg Ryan movies without having to justify it to anyone. The minute some mouth breather leans over to see if Riddick is gonna save the universe from a soul stealing techno zombie wizard or if Meg and T. Hanks are going to check their inboxes and get together (spoiler alert: he totally saves the universe and they totally do, OMG!), the spell is broken.

Your seat has the same crap movies on it as mine. Don’t ruin my garbage binge watch, weirdo. Keep your eyes straight ahead and let me enjoy my private shame.

Movies You Definitely Shouldn’t Watch on a Plane

That being said, it’s pretty uncomfortable to sit next to someone watching American History X or friggin’ Boogie Nights. Some movies just aren’t great for collaborative travel. Here are some of the ones to avoid on your next flight to Dallas:

  • Snakes on a Plane — Nobody needs that stress, man
  • Con Air — Basically, as stressful as Snakes on a Plane, but with Nic Cage
  • Alive — Especially if there’s no in-flight meal
  • Get Out — It’s a racially charged horror movie full of jump scares; if you haven’t seen it by now, the red eye to D.C. probably isn’t the time to catch up on the zeitgeist
  • Star Wars — These movies deserve better than Rian Johnson and a bigger screen
  • Boss Baby — How this got made, I’ll never know

When You Should (and Shouldn’t) Put Down the Window Shade

Sitting in the window seat is a schroedinger’s cat of possibilities. Sure, you could have the most comfortable seat on the whole flight; only one person next to you, lots of bulkhead to lean your pillow against. But you could also have the worst seat, crammed in with two passed out “people” blocking your way to sweet, sweet freedom when you need to stretch or use the bathroom, or grab the headphones that you forgot you left in the overhead compartment.

The window seat is a turbulent stew of quantum potential. However, there is one certainty that everyone in the window seat must own—you control the window shade. And the rules of etiquette for the window blinds can be tricky because they vary depending on the time of day and length of your flight. Luckily there are some absolutes:

Always do whatever the cabin crew says

If they want those blinds up for takeoff and landing, put ’em up. If they want ’em down, keep em down

Keep window blinds firmly closed (not cracked!) on all red-eye flights

I don’t care if you’ve never seen the Grand Canyon from 35,000 feet. Go there on your own time. If you lance me in the eyes with sunlight out of nowhere and wake me up before we land, you’re a bad person.

Keep the window blinds up when you’re landing

Lots of people get air sick, and if it’s an especially bumpy flight or landing, it helps to know where you are in the process of landing.

Don’t open the blinds just to read

Sunlight can be super harsh at high altitudes, and can cause a brutal glare on someone’s laptop, phone, or in-flight entertainment. If you want to read, use the “reading light” above you.

Let other people see

If you’re landing in NYC or Rome, expect to have people craning their necks to see the city skyline. It’s not cool to keep the window shades closed if the person in the middle seat is clearly excited to watch the Seine go twinkling by. Be cool.

Always let kids look out the window

Don’t be a weirdo. If you’re sitting next to a kid (sorry), but also, let them see out the window. It could very well be their first flight ever!

Advanced Airplane Etiquette for Frequent Flyers

The rules and guides up above should get you through most flight scenarios. But for our road warriors out there, here are a few more advanced level etiquette guidelines to help streamline any travel experience no matter where you’re going.

How to Scan the Boarding Pass On Your Phone Like a Pro

You have one job when it’s your turn to board—be ready to board. That doesn’t mean sending one last text or downloading one more email on the free airport wifi. It means get your boarding pass ready on your phone, and everything else out of your hands. If you can’t do that, guess what? You’re not ready to board, and I’m gonna get your overhead compartment space while you figure your stuff out.

Not being ready to scan your electronic boarding pass is like being one of those people who check their phones when they’re the first person at a red light. You’re the tip of the spear, buddy. It’s time to focus because we’re all depending on you and your reaction times.

Here are four things you can do to always be ready to scan your electronic boarding pass:

  1. Save your boarding pass to your “wallet” dashboard, etc — Don’t look up your boarding pass in your email. It’s too late for that. Plus, for Apple users, you can just flick up your quick launch screen to open your wallet with one motion
  2. Turn off low power mode — Power saving modes causes your screen brightness to dim (to save power) which can make your boarding pass hard to scan
  3. Crank up your brightness to max
  4. Take a screenshot of your boarding pass — If you’re worried you won’t be able to find your boarding pass or you won’t have data or whatever, just snap a screenshot

How Not to Make Eye Contact on a Plane

We all know we’re in this together, but that doesn’t mean we have to actually be together “together,” if you get what I mean. The best way to fly is like two brothers on a hotel bed—you stick to your side, I’ll stick to mine, and I’ll see you in the morning. Let’s just get through this.

If you need to get up to go to the bathroom, that is one of the few times to make eye contact with someone on a plane. Actually, that’s literally it. That’s the only time you should be trying to catch someone’s eye on a plane. Other than that, just keep your eyes to yourself and we’ll be just fine.

Noise Cancelling Headphones and You: A Life-saving Guide to Basic Economy

Noise cancelling headphones are the ultimate flight companion. And it’s not just because they block out the roar of the engines or the sound of babies realizing that the world is a big scary painful place that hurts you from the inside out. No, NC headphones work on two levels—they let you ignore the world, and let people ignore you.

When someone sitting next to me zonks out with a pair of beefy headphones on, I feel more freedom to open a bag of chips, or shift around in my seat because they won’t notice. It’s like having a roommate that sleeps through anything—it’s better for everyone.

Buy noise cancelling headphones. Do it right now. Here’s a full guide for some of my favorite bluetooth noise cancelling headphones. Click it. Go. Save yourself.

budget airlines

How to Deal with Screaming Children on an Airplane

This one is a sticky wicket, but I’ve found there’s really only one way to deal with kids either kicking your chair, or crying, or jumping, or whatever. It’s worked every time, even when I’m traveling and don’t speak the language:

Have Some Empathy

Traveling with a two-year old is a nightmare. I know you’re hungover and just want to pass out, but so does the shell of a human that’s trying to wrangle a toddler into an airplane seat. And they haven’t slept in two years. Count to 20 and see if the problem fixes itself.

Deal with the Problem Head On

If the kid just won’t calm down, or just keeps wailing on your seat, don’t be passive aggressive about it. Sighing to yourself or rolling your eyes to fellow passengers accomplishes nothing. Turn around, address the parent about the problem and explain that you know they’re having a hard time, but it’s a long flight and they have to buckle their kid in.

Try to Distract the Kid

Obviously, this step has to go through the parents, but maybe the kid just needs a stick of gum because their ears are popping, or they need a game to play. Get creative. Give the kid something to draw with or teach them a magic trick. The parents will love the distraction and you’ll get to enjoy the flight without a screaming kid.

Move

If all else fails, get up, find an empty chair and get the hell out of there. If there aren’t any empty seats, do a few laps up and down the aisle. Or, just get noise cancelling headphones next time, friend.

How to Treat Airline Staff and Crew Like Human Beings

Airplane etiquette isn’t just about your fellow passengers. It’s also about respecting the absolute saints that have to work to get you to your final destination. Putting in just 5% effort to treat the crew like the heroes they are will go a long way towards not only getting whatever it is you’re after, but also making the flight pleasant for everyone on board.

  • Clean up after yourself
  • Gather up your trash from snacks or in-flight meals into a handy bundle so they can throw it away in one grab
  • Say “please” and “thank you” — It’s amazing how many smiles, free snacks, and extra drinks I’ve gotten from flight crew members over the years just for looking them in the eye, smiling, and saying thank you when they’re doing their jobs
  • Listen to in-flight announcements and put your danged tray table and seat up!

That fart-clouded shaking, tube-shaped tin can that you can’t wait to get out of as soon as you land is someone else’s workplace. Think about that next time you decide to leave your chocolate stained wrapper crammed into the seat in front of you.

TL;DR: Airplane Etiquette

It doesn’t matter how much you paid for your ticket or where you’re sitting (I’m looking at you “business class”), it pays to treat your fellow passengers like human beings. Flying is already tough enough. Don’t make it any worse for you or your seatmates. Play by these rules and we’ll all get to where we’re going with a little more sanity, rest, and hopefully just a tad more dignity.

Boarding a Plane:

  • Know what you need
  • Get familiar with the plane
  • Use the bathroom before boarding
  • Step into your row
  • Listen to announcements
  • Ask a flight attendant for help

Once On Board

  • You can take your shoes off, but be cool about it
  • Eggs, ribs, and banans are not good airplane snacks
  • If you want to sleep on a plane, buy a travel pillow
  • Farting is a bummer, but it’s just a natural part of flying
  • If you sit on the aisle, be ready to stand up
  • If you seat on the window, don’t get up all the time
  • The overhead compartment isn’t for your Canada Goose jacket, Brad
  • Treat your fellow passengers and the flight attendants like human beings
 

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