Airplane Etiquette – Do’s and Don’ts

Picture this – you are about to get on an airplane. You’re on holiday, visiting family or friends, or heading off to interview with your dream employer. 

Congratulations! You are about to embark on a memorable, and (most probably) enjoyable life experience.  All that stands between you and a great time, is the TSA, hordes of fellow travelers, and your own inexperience.  Fortunately, there are some things you can do to make this easier on yourself and others. 

Airport Tips

Pack the day before.  In fact, pack several days in advance… like the weekend before.  Check the weather report for your destination.  Don’t forget to check wind conditions, and for large temperature fluctuations.  One decent sized cashmere scarf can solve for a multitude of travel conditions. Pick a color scheme and stick with it. Select one purse (preferably a Travelon anti-pick pocket/theft one if you’re going to be in a large and unfamiliar city) that matches your color scheme.    


 You know I’m talking to you.  Do not under any circumstances pack your navy blue shoes and your black shoes and your gray shoes … because you have three different outfits in different colors.  Save your back.  Save the bell hop’s back.  Pick a color.  One.  Accessorize accordingly. 

                                              *smooch*  I say this with love. Really. 

If you are unfamiliar with the airport, and airport parking, take some time before the day of travel to look at a map, get proper directions to wherever you might park your car, and/or make sure you are clear on the timetables of whatever bus, train, or shuttle service you may need to use to get to the airport. 

Second, give yourself plenty of time.  Yes, I know that airport food is notoriously expensive.  If you are trying to save money, bring some energy bars and a couple of EmergenC packets.  Under no circumstances should you stop for breakfast on the way. With your luck, you’ll get the world’s slowest waitress and a cashier that doesn’t know how to count and/or use the credit card machine.

I know it’s just a short jaunt from the off-site parking to the terminal, but you’re going to stop seventy times on the way there, turning a 3 minute drive into 45 minutes of hell.  Sometimes it would even be faster to walk.  


My rule of thumb is 2 hours in advance of take-off for domestic, 3 hours for international flights. 


If you’re heading out of a busy airport like O’Hare, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Barcelona, Charles de Gaulle, or Heathrow… give yourself another 30 minutes – just in case of crazy unpredictable things happening.  This is travel, after all. You may not need that time, but when you do… you really do.  If you’re coming back from a trip abroad and you’ve done a lot of shopping, give yourself even more time so that you can make it through customs or apply for a VAT refund.    Spending a few hours people-watching at an airport can be seriously entertaining for your average person on holiday.  

Boarding Tips

This is the moment when everyone’s advice about sticking with an airline and gaining status will really sink in. 

There is nothing quite like standing in a large clump of hot, tired, impatient human beings… while people who arrived after you are ushered down the jetbridge so that they can load their suitcases in the overhead compartment and get themselves all settled.  I get it.  It annoys me when it happens to me.  I even feel a small bit of residual guilt…  but each time I get to board early either due to status, the fact I bought a more expensive ticket, or because I used the right credit card to purchase my plane ticket… I get a little frisson of happiness.  

Look.  When you’ve climbed into a large tin can to travel to a destination you would never personally choose in a million years –  as frequently as I have – you have to hold onto the little pleasures. 
Not having to wrestle my suitcase around all those badly packed tourist bags makes me happy.  I know exactly how much space my suitcase should take up, and exactly how to position it to maximize the remaining space for others.  

 You should thank me.  No?  I’m okay with that. 

What can you do to make it easier for yourself and others?  I’m glad you asked.  That’s very thoughtful, and foresighted of you.  There are a number of things you can do to make it easier on  yourself and others when you board a plane.  

  1. Limit yourself to 2 bags.  If you forgot to plan ahead, consolidate before you try to board. You might get by with 3 bags, but that’s a risk.  You could easily be the person who gets stopped by the Gate Agent and told you can only have 2 bags SIR/MA’AM.  That is embarrassing and it slows everyone else down a little because you have to stop the line, step back, rearrange, and get back into line to be dealt with a second time by the Gate Agent.  Even if you get away with it, every frequent flier (and most rule-following, law abiding fellow travelers) will secretly judge you for it.  You’re the *cough* unmentionable *cough* person taking up so much space some poor person who boards at the very last has to check their suitcase.  Even if it’s not actually true, they’ll think it. Don’t be that person. 
  2. Check your seat assignment before boarding.  Then double check the seat number before sitting down.  I’ve plopped myself down a row early or behind my assigned row a time or two.  It happens. It also buggers the boarding process as the person whose seat you are sitting in arrives.  Confusion ensues.  Everyone pulls out their tickets/phones… the Flight Attendant sorts you out, etc…  
  3. Take off your backpack before you go into the airplane.  Don’t be the person banging the aisle seat passengers in the face because you don’t realize you have this great big lump on your back.  Carry it in front of you please for the love of all that is good!  If it’s too heavy for you to carry, you should have checked it and put your essentials (including your valuables) in a lighter bag.  I’ve also seen more than one passenger get wedged between seats as they struggle to pull off their backpack once they reach their assigned row.  It’s comical… if you’re not rushing to make a connection at the next airport, but it delays boarding.  You can also pull a muscle that way. 
  4. Don’t chat with your fellow boarders.  Boarding is not the time to make friends, meet new people, or catch up on the latest gossip.  Focus on the task at hand.  If you find yourself behind someone who is having difficulty getting their bag into the overhead bin, HELP them.  This makes you look like a good person, and it gets them the heck out of the way.  
  5. Get out of the aisle swiftly.  This is the corollary to  #4. To keep things moving you have to get out of other peoples’ way so that they can get to their seats… and get out of other peoples’ way.  It’s not complicated.  Take a moment to shove that suitcase into the overhead.  If you need help, ASK folks around you.  If you need to pull stuff out for the trip, step into your seat row and do the rummaging and rearranging there.  
  6. Don’t scowl.  Just because you’re not making friends during the boarding process doesn’t mean you have to look scary.  This is a stressful experience for some folks.  Don’t make people think you might be a crazed terrorist just itching to kill everyone on board.  

The look frequent fliers give you when you try to carry on 2 suitcases and a carryall. Don’t Do It 

Getting Off the Plane

I know you think this is the easy part.  You’ve arrived safely.  No bomb, fiery death, etc… You’re basking in your just-about-to-be-on-vacation glow. You’re picturing the large adult beverage you’re going to enjoy shortly, the face of friends you haven’t seen in too long, and the perfect meal you’re about to have.  Maybe you’re just looking forward to doing a face plant in a very very comfortable bed and napping for 14  hours.  

Stop that.  Deplaning is serious business. 

  1. Organize yourself.  Start picking up your odds and ends.  If you didn’t hand the Flight Attendant your trash when they walked by … oh, six or seven times – wad it up and take it with you.  Don’t make the folks who “sweep” the plane fish deep into the seat pocket to find your leftover pack of crisps.  If you’ve got a noise cancelling headset on, TAKE IT OFF.  Put it away and pay attention to what is going on around you.  In fact, this is good advice no matter what kind of headphones you may be using.  Close your eReader or book.  Put things into your purse, backpack, or other small  item of luggage you stuffed under the seat in front of you.  Check around you twice.  Don’t forget the scarf, sweater, blanket, etc… you used when you were cold, but took off when you got hot.  I’ve lost two long Eileen Fisher sweaters this way.  Those things never end up in ‘Lost & Found’.  I still miss them.  Not that I’m bitter. Okay. Maybe a little.   
  2. As soon as the seat belt sign goes off, everyone in the aisle seats needs to STAND UPYeah, you too back there in row 27.  Give your row-mates some space.  Pull your luggage out of the overhead compartments.  Stack things up.  Put on your coat.  Position yourself to walk down the aisle and out of the plane. 
  3. Move down the aisle briskly.  I know you’re on ‘Island Time’, or just waking up from a nap, or shaking off the three Bloody Marys you indulged in… but you are the cork in the bottle.  You  have to get off in order for everyone behind you to get off the plane.  Move. 
  4. Help one another.  Seriously.  This is the most important rule of all.  The more helpful you are, the faster everyone gets off the plane.  Are you tired of sitting?  Does your back ache?  Do you need to pee?  So do 25% of your fellow passengers.  The sooner you all help one another get off the plane in an orderly manner, the faster you can all take care of those various needs. 

What about you?  What have you learned to do to make things go more smoothly when you’re flying?  Teach me something!  Drop a comment! 

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Reformed road warrior with side interests in human rights, fuzzy creatures, great food, and a healthier planet.

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