Last week I asked you for your unwritten rules of flying. This was a request not for hot takes, but an attempt to lock down the bylaws of air travel that should be common sense, but for some reason are not a given. Reading through over 150 responses, I was forced to wonder if human beings were ever really meant to fly at all.
There are some areas where I’m sure we’ll never reach true consensus, such whether it is ever OK to recline your seat, or take your shoes off, or bring a baby onboard. And as mask mandates disappear and summer travel ramps up, I doubt we as a society will reach a point of unity any time soon. Still, the promise of a higher understanding of what’s ok on a plane and at the airport sure does sound like major step to making air travel suck a lot less. (Next stop: Making airlines less evil.)
Fasten your seatbelts are fastened: Here are Lifehacker readers’ unwritten rules of air travel.
Wait your turn to stand up
Let’s kick off with one of the most popular opinions from this post: When it’s time to exit, don’t stand up to exit the plane until the people ahead of you are walking towards the exit.
First off, it creates an aura of futility. Standing up and hunching over your seat-mates will not make the exit process any quicker. In addition to being generally annoying, staying in your seat is a practical necessity, as commenter Dan points out: “Sometimes you may need to step back a row or two to grab a bag from the overheads.”
Commenter idiggory puts it more sympathetically: “I think standing up is fine, just don’t be the person who tries to force ahead of the people sitting ahead of you.” Having said this, once you see the exit line moving, please do stand up and be ready to join the flow.
You’ll notice a recurring theme in this and all the following pieces of etiquette, which could be boiled down to “think about how your actions inconvenience other people.” In other words, don’t be selfish.
If you recline your seat, do it slowly
Did you take a hard line during the great reclining seat debate of 2019? Some people believe that as the seat has the ability to recline, it’s your right to use that ability. The rest of us are good people.
Here are some of the top comments from Lifehacker readers on the matter:
“Its my seat, I paid for it, I’ll recline if I want.” — MrMichaelJames
“I don’t mind the guy in front of me reclines. Just do it slowly.” — Hugh Tchasj
“There are enough people who feel this way about reclining seats that the airlines should just block that function, or limit it to a tiny lean-back angle. I’m on the tall side, and too many selfish a**holes out there would be leaning back into my damn lap and/or breaking my kneecaps with their seat back otherwise…” — dphuff
“I hardly, if ever, recline my seat but I acknowledge people’s rights to do so. I also acknowledge people’s rights to ask the person in front of them to please not for some reason or another and it’d be proper etiquette to comply with the reasonable request. If you do recline, all I ask is you to do it gradually. Don’t throw the seat back in full force as you don’t know the setup behind you. They could have a laptop, they could have a drink, they could have their legs somewhere they could be hit, or there could be a child on the person’s lap. If you’re going to recline, do so gradually.” — [redacted]
I’ll add that another element to reclining your seat is timing. If you’re sleeping on a long flight, leaning back is fair game. If everyone is eating and drinking, keep your seat upright.
Don’t cheat the overhead bin system
Overhead bins don’t work like parking; you shouldn’t grab the first open space you see:
“Use overhead bins over your actual head. Don’t try to cheat the system by leaving your bag up at the front of the plane, because those people up front won’t have access to the bins in the rear of the plane without the entire plane emptying. It screws up the otherwise natural progression of things.” — Dixie-Flatline
Commenter bowling has this cheekier approach: “If I see someone toss their bag into a front bin when we are boarding the very back of the plane, I’ll help them out by moving their bag much closer to their seat for them.”
If someone is struggling with their bags, help them
One of the top comments suggested that you shouldn’t be allowed to carry a bag on the plane “if you can’t put it in/get it out of the overhead bin.” My immediate reaction was that this thinking was not only ableist, but just plain rude. Luckily, most Lifehacker readers agreed with me. Take this reply:
“God forbid you help the woman wrangling kids or having trouble moving shit around in the overhead bins because some douche threw things up there haphazardly without organising it so others could use the space as well. I’m not saying you should stand by and help everyone out, but if they’re within a seat and you see someone struggling the decent thing to do is to lend a hand if you’re able to.” — Cfer
Several other self-proclaimed tall people chimed in to say that it doesn’t bother them at all to help a shorter or disabled person with their bags. Maybe some human decency does remain.
You don’t have to sit with your friend
Flights are for movies, books, and music. Flights are not for catching up with old friends:
“Don’t stand in the aisle to talk to your friend sitting a row apart. You two might be friends, but you’re a stranger invading my personal space for the entire conversation.” — Dixie-Flatline
Additionally, it’s ok to be apart from your travel partner for the duration of the flight. Lifehacker readers have some strong opinions about seat arrangements for airlines that do a “cattle call” style of seat selection, including Southwest.
“If you’re on Southwest, an empty seat is an available seat. Period. If you somehow boarded long before the rest of your group, then you run the risk of not sitting with them. If you want to sit with them, either board with them or sit beyond a ton of empty rows to cover those getting on between you and your group, but remember that you still don’t have exclusive rights to the row you’re in even if you sat at the back of the plane. Getting on early doesn’t give you permission to reserve rows for your group. Many people will be nice if you politely ask if they could sit elsewhere since you have someone coming but it is not your right to say ‘this seat is taken,’ let alone require someone to sit elsewhere. If they’re persistent, it’s on you to find another seat with the availability you’re looking for.” — [redacted]
“My Southwest gripe: If I’m alone and seated in an aisle or window seat, don’t ask me to give it up so you can sit with your significant other. I’ll gladly move for parents with children, but you can go for 90 minutes with not being seated next to your boyfriend/girlfriend. Learn to be apart.” — prayformojo98
The comment above touches on the obvious exception to this rule, which is keeping a parent with their child (or someone with whatever type of caretaker they need).
Be efficient in the security line
It boggles the mind that so many people haven’t mastered the most efficient, logical system to move through security.
“While you’re waiting in line, start taking shit out of your pockets and remove your belt and put them in your carry-on bag or jacket. You’ll have to put both on the conveyor anyway, so this saves some time on both ends. Wear as few top layers as possible/necessary. Jackets, hoodies, etc typically have to be removed. If you’re in the states, wear shoes that are easy to put on and remove. Don’t wear boots or things that need a lot of time.” — Jake
“If everyone would collect their small, individual items (passport, wallet, keys, headphones, belt -if you need to remove it-, phone, etc.) and put into their bag/satchel/purse/carry-on before they get to their turn at the security scan, everything would move SO much quicker.” — Wittyname
“Also put whatever you are going to need for the flight in your pockets or in the bag you will keep under the seat in front of you. Makes me crazy when someone is frantically searching their bag holding up the boarding line because they forgot which pocket they put their headphones in” — VodkaRocks&aPieceofToast
This thread is where a lot of people recommend ‘Clear’ or TSA Pre-check for the shortest, smoothest security experience.
Leave your smells at home
If you wouldn’t eat it in an elevator, don’t eat it on an aeroplane.
“Don’t bring your messy and overly odorous meal on board. Short flights under 3 hours — you mean to tell me you can’t figure out how to eat before or after that flight or can’t just wait it out? Flights longer than 3 hours typically get food. Yes, it probably sucks, but still, don’t bring your own.” — Dixie-Flatline
In addition to foods, this thinking applies to bodily odours, too. You may not believe showering is necessary every day, but do everyone a favour and take one before the flight.
(Extra credit: Review these foods that are generally unacceptable on a plane.)
Keep your socks on (at the very least)
Speaking of smells…I’m of the mind that shoes should stay on throughout a flight. All feet are gross. Stranger’s feet are really gross.
However, I am sympathetic to just how uncomfortable shoes can be for different people, especially on longer flights. For anyone taking shoes off, there are still some caveats. Keep socks on at the very least — bare feet are a no-go. And no matter what, keep your feet firmly on the ground and never propped up so that they invade the space of the people around you.
If you really need to let your feet free, here’s our take on how to courteously remove your shoes on a plane.
Handle your liquor
Sure, Kristen Wiig’s drunken stroll through first class in Bridesmaids is timeless. Don’t make me live through it in real life.
Don’t force sunlight on people
I’m a sucker for the window seat. I could spend hours staring out at the clouds mid-flight. And once the ground nearing our destination is in view? I turn my movie off and turn my attention to the real entertainment out my window.
However, I understand that when people around me are trying to snooze, my love of the window view doesn’t outrank everyone else’s comfort levels:
“Look around before opening your window shade. Are all the others closed? Then maybe that’s for a reason. Maybe you’re above cloud cover and opening the window is like shining god’s spotlight directly into people’s retinas.” — Dixie-Flatline
Get organised at your gate
A little bit of organisation and forethought goes a long way, for both you and your fellow flight passengers. While you wait at your gate, take five minutes to pull out everything you need at your seat (assuming you can hold it in your hands). This will mean the difference between instantly settling into your seat versus jostling the people around you while you reach for your water bottle at the bottom of your carry-on.
Likewise: “Don’t wait until you get to your seat, put your carry-on into the overhead bin, and then get up again to futz with your carry-on to pull out some cable that’s in the deepest part of the luggage while the entire line of people waiting to get to their seat watches on.” — Dixie-Flatline
Many comments also pointed out their pet peeves when it comes to crowding and cutting line to board the plane. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a proper “line” at the gate. It’s always a nonsensical mob, with people cutting into the wrong boarding groups from every angle. When you have assigned seats, why are you in such a rush to get in that metal sky box?
Be proactive as possible when dealing with your bladder
So much of your digestive system is out of your control. I get it. I also know that no one loves using a plane restroom. At the same time, there are certain considerations you can take if you know you have a weak bladder on a long flight. For some, this is as simple as making sure to use the bathroom in the airport right before you board.
This might mean also mean forgoing the beloved window seat for the aisle, considering you’re going to be bothering your seat mates as you get up to head to the restroom again and again.
(Here’s our guide to peeing on a plane without being utterly disgusted.)
Understand the pros and cons of each seat
I don’t care if you’re a cat or dog person, an introvert or extrovert. Let’s get real: Are you a window seat or die-hard aisle fan? Whatever your seat preference, your flying position comes with specific perks and responsibilities. For instance:
“If you’re in the aisle seat (or a centre seat), your responsibility is to get up if one of the interior seats needs to or wants to get up. Don’t get lippy and don’t expect them to climb over you. If you’re sitting in a middle or window seat, your responsibility is to try and work around the aisle seat passenger. This means if they’re sleeping, try not to wake them up just because you want to get up and stretch. Pace yourself on the drinks and wait for an opening to go. If the aisle seat passenger gets up, take advantage of that timing to do whatever it is you have to do.” — Jake
(Assuming you understand the perks and burdens of each seat placement, here’s how to avoid the bullshit seat selection fee. And if you have the middle seat? Well, strap in for the worst of both worlds. My heart goes out to you.)
Kids will be kids…but parents should be parents
I’ll never argue that bringing a child into this world suddenly means you’re forbidden from taking to the sky. While I have a lot of sympathy for parents travelling-while-wrangling their kids, I agree with all the Lifehacker readers who feel kids shouldn’t get free rein to scream and play like they would at home.
We’ve covered this topic in the past, from why you should board last, to the best way to arrange your family’s seating, to our overall guide to air travel when you have little kids.
Don’t crowd the baggage claim
Baseline spatial awareness, people. Get it. You’re not the only one waiting on your bag at the carousel. While you might be in a prime spot to spot your own luggage, you’ll be disrupting what could be a much smoother flow to step up and retrieve bags:
“Don’t crowd right next to the baggage carousel. If everyone stood back and then just stepped up to the carousel when their bag got to them, everything would work much smoother and I wouldn’t have to fight through a crowd to grab my bag.” — CrzyWorld
Always use headphones
Please do not watch your downloaded episodes of Friends out loud for all to hear. I cannot believe I have to say this.
Remember that you’re not the main character
I’ve tapped into a lot of cynicism and snark throughout this piece, but I’m not a curmudgeon. In fact, I love flying, and to romanticize a flight. I believe in timing the perfect song for take off. Everyone should get the chance to gaze out at the clouds, reflecting on what you’ve left behind and dreaming about what’s waiting for you at your destination.
However. Most air travel looks less like “meeting my soulmate in the seat next to me” and a little more like “getting dragged off the plane because the airline overbooked the flight.”
As commenter Dave In Dallas puts it: “You’re not the only one miserable one flying in coach. Everyone’s enjoying the suck. Be considerate and patient with others and everyone will have a less-miserable flight.”
If there’s one takeaway from flight etiquette, it’s that it all comes down to basic human decency. Remember that you’re not the only one on this flight. When it comes to noises, smells, and physical space — a little bit of consideration for your fellow passengers goes a long way.