The Unwritten Rules of Travel
As a regular business traveler, I adhere to my sworn duty to do my best to train the leisure traveling masses on proper travel etiquette. Of course, the tools at my disposal are usually nothing more than a condemning glance, an outright scowl, an audible “harrumph,” or an offensive Tweet. (The latter is merely a cathartic measure for the seasoned traveler who is truly overmatched by the hordes of the uninitiated.)
As you can imagine, the effectiveness of these tools is questionable, at best.
Given this, I decided it was time to codify the basic unwritten travel rules and publish a complete, yet brief, guide for travel designed to help the inexperienced.
If you’re not a true Road Warrior business traveler, you’re likely not aware of the rules (both written and unwritten) that apply to you and your fellow travelers. I believe the more you know, the better your (and my) travel experience. Therefore, my only goal with this venture is to ensure both you and I have a great experience the next time you travel.
Before Your Trip
- If you’re not a seasoned traveler who clearly understands all security screening procedures, do not leave your home thinking this is some sort of “learn as we go” program. It is not. Go online and learn the basic rules published by the TSA and by your airline.
- Purchase luggage with wheels. Luggage pieces without wheels will make you and your fellow travelers miserable. If you want your own luggage-handling duties to go smoothly, invest in bags with four good wheels. You’ll thank me.
- If you’re older than five, you should never leave the house in pajamas – especially if you’re headed to the airport.
- If you’re older than five, leave the bed pillows and blankets at home, as well. Airplane seats aren’t comfortable enough to sleep in for most people anyway, and the seats are too small for your favorite bed pillow. Therefore, avoid the embarrassment of having the rest of us notice the drool marks on your pillowcase and gut it up.
- Check-in online and print your boarding passes at home the day before your travel. I made this a rule only because the alternative is you arrive at the airport, bypass the check-in kiosks, and approach the counter as if this is 1975 and you’re buying a first-class ticket on Pan Am. There is virtually no more “full service” at the airport; it’s almost entirely do-it-yourself.
- Yes, print paper boarding passes! Certainly you can use the e-boarding passes on the airline’s app, but I’ve personally witnessed dozens of confused travelers trying to access their electronic passes on their phones while holding up the rest of the security or boarding line. I fly on over 100 flights a year and I always use paper boarding passes.
- Weigh your checked luggage at home. Most airlines have a 50-pound limit for checked luggage – and an exorbitant fee for anything weighing more than that – so weigh your bags at home. While I do enjoy watching the occasional frantic family shuffling 20 pounds of crap from one suitcase to the other, this does tend to slow down the rest of us, so go ahead and weigh this stuff at home.
- If the trip you’re taking is a vacation, leave room in your bags for bringing back all the crap you’re going to regret buying.
- Understand that if you do plan to check a bag, most airlines will charge you. Decide before you leave for the airport if checking a bag is worth it or not.
- If you plan to carry a bag on the plane, and it will contain liquids (yes, solid underarm deodorant is considered a liquid), learn the TSA’s rules regarding liquids before packing that expensive hairspray that only comes in an 18-ounce size.
- Create your “Airport Plan” now. This means, discuss what everyone’s responsibility will be at the airport. For example: who will be responsible for which bags; and which parent will be certain the tykes stay out of the way of seasoned travelers.
- If you want to sit next to your wife, husband, kids, girlfriend, boyfriend, best friend or neighbor on your upcoming flight, you should book early to ensure you will be seated together (and, for most airlines, expect to pay more for this privilege). Do not plan to ask someone to change seats on the plane with you unless it is a clear and unmistakable upgrade for the other traveler (e.g., middle seat to aisle; coach to first class; etc.).
- If you have more kids or luggage than you can carry into the airport, drive to your destination.
- Almost no airline tickets are refundable – and most come with hefty change fee – so don’t book until you’re sure you’re going to take the trip. Crying on Twitter about how United screwed you with a gigantic fee to change your flights by one day will not garner sympathy from the rest of us.
- If your luggage says Travel Pro, you’re probably not.
- If you love to chat with people on planes, book late morning and afternoon flights. Most everyone else wants to sleep during early morning and late evening flights.
- If your seat location is in the first row after a bulkhead (wall), you should plan right now to check your larger bag. Every bag, purse, briefcase, satchel, etc. must be placed in the overhead bins (there is no storage in front of or behind your feet in these seats). By the time you load, the overhead bins near your seat will be full, and no one is going to care that you had to place your bag six rows behind your seat when it comes time to deplane. (Yes, it would be great if the flight attendants made sure no one used those overhead compartments by your seat unless they were seated in front of a bulkhead, but they usually don’t.)
- If you plan to sleep during any flight you’re booking – and you have the option – book the window seat. This gives you a place to lay your head that’s not the shoulder of the guy next to you.
- If you have the opportunity to check bags for free, do it. This way, your carry-on will fit under the seat in front of you. Then, you can load the plane when you’re ready, and not have to crowd the gate out of fear the overhead bins will be full.
- If you really love your pets, leave them at home with someone who also loves them. Carrying around a freaked-out cat crammed into a small, padded “cage” is not love.
- At no point in your trip should you plan to cut your toenails. Do this at home… now. I’ve witnessed this in the terminal and on flights; and I don’t even want to think about the people who do this in their hotel rooms. Gross.
- When in doubt, go pee.
At the Airport – Pre-Security
- If you did not officially check-in at home, don’t you dare approach any airline humans before first attempting to figure out the whole “kiosk thingy.” For most airlines, the kiosks are where you will get your boarding passes and where you will inform the airline that you are wealthy enough to check a bag. Have your credit card ready.
- You are not the only person at the airport. Walk in a straight, deliberate path at a brisk rate at least equal to those around you.
- If you’re traveling with a group, plan now to walk single file through the airport. Your six-wide, Friends-like strut may be really fun to you, but there’s just not enough room in airports today for this kind of camaraderie.
- Although I will question your parenting skills when you put your kid on a leash; most humans will (silently) thank you for keeping that miniature Tasmanian Devil on a short rope. Use your gut here.
- Just as in your house: kids, dogs, cats, etc. are appreciated by most people when they are seen and not heard. Although, as an empty-nester, I find I enjoy hearing other people’s kids clamor on incessantly about nothing at all while using their outside voice in the airport.
- When in doubt, go pee.
- If you don’t know what TSA Pre-Check, Clear, Preferred or Sky Priority mean, then these lines do not concern you. Move along.
- Your fellow travelers do not care to see your shocked face when you must remove your five-pound steel belt buckle or lose your bowie knife before re-entering the screening device. By the way, watching someone beg to keep their 32-ounce designer shampoo they “just bought” is getting old. Learn the rules.
- Your lack of planning is not our concern; so, please don’t ask to jump ahead of others in the security line just because you’ve “got a plane to catch.” Everyone does; and the rest of us properly planned for it.
- In long security lines, start prepping before you reach the bins. Untie your shoes, put your keys and cell phone in your carry-on bag and loosen your belt. This way, when you reach the bins, you’re not caught completely off guard and starting from scratch.
- If another traveler reaches the security bins unprepared – and this creates an opening between them and the person in front of them – prepared travelers are allowed (and even encouraged) to jump ahead.
In the Terminal – Post-Security
- The airport is not your living room or kitchen. Please remember that.
- Because the restaurants and shops in the terminal enjoy a near monopoly, their prices are outrageous. What’s worse is they often decide when to open and close. This often means no coffee before 6 AM and no food after 9 PM – regardless of when you’re scheduled to depart. Plan ahead.
- Buy all the food and drinks you want once you’ve passed through security, but please consume these before boarding. As good as that footlong chili dog smells to you, you’re making the rest of us gag.
- If you’re privileged enough to gain entry into one of the airline clubs, please understand the complimentary hors d’oeuvres are not part of some all-you-can-eat buffet and certainly not the last meal you’ll ever eat. Go easy, partner.
- These airline clubs, by the way, are not your private quarters. Keep your shoes on and your discussions quiet. In other words, practice just a little etiquette.
- Running in the airport to catch a connection is perfectly okay (primarily because it makes those who are walking feel superior in many ways).
- Every airport restaurant is staffed by those who have no concept of time. They don’t know they’re working in an airport, so they believe every customer wants to sit and relax for twenty minutes or so before being approached for their order.
- If you’re flying Southwest and lining up for the cattle drive, hold your boarding pass so that others can read your group and position number. This helps everyone line up correctly, while limiting the number of words strangers must exchange.
- If you don’t hold your boarding pass so others can read it, and someone asks your boarding position number, don’t answer “It doesn’t matter; we’re all going to get there at the same time.” You are not being a benevolent, caring person; you’re being silly because it does matter what your number is on a Southwest flight. There are only so many aisle seats, only so many window seats, and only so many seats with extra legroom (like the bulkhead and exit row seats). So, it matters. Just answer the question.
- If you’re not flying Southwest, learn your airline’s boarding zone order. Just because your pass reads “MAIN 1” does not mean you’re the first group to load. You’re not. In fact, if you’re flying Delta, ZONE 1 could mean you’re in the SEVENTH GROUP TO LOAD!
- Don’t crowd the gate area during boarding. Many airline employees refer to those crowding the boarding area before their zone as “gate lice.”
- If you’re older than 10, take off your backpack before entering the plane. You’re hitting people each time you turn walking down the aisle.
- Remember: You’re only allowed 2 carry-ons. Save the indignant shock at being told to condense your bags down to two before boarding. The rest of us understood this rule.
- When in doubt, go pee.
On the Plane
- If you’re afraid to fly, tell yourself now that there will be turbulence during your flight. There are always bumps… on every flight.
- No airline employee on your flight can give you an upgrade. Additionally, none of them has the power to change their airline’s rules. Don’t ask them to do either of these things.
- Keep your shoes on, and your feet off the walls and seats. If you do decide to take off your shoes and walk around, realize that’s not water you’re stepping on in the lavatory.
- When a flight is delayed – and it’s the airline’s fault – the flight attendants will often indignantly insist you “please step out of the aisle and take your seats immediately, so that we may get all the passengers seated and depart closer to our scheduled time.” Of course, this makes it sound like the delay is your fault, not theirs. Take your time; you’ve earned it.
- When walking through the aisle, pick up your luggage. Regardless of what you think, it will not fit down the aisle perfectly.
- If you cannot maneuver through the aisle with your bag without hitting other passengers, check it next time.
- If you’re sitting in First Class, don’t eyeball the coach passengers as they load the plane while you sip your gin and tonic – it pisses them off.
- When you reach your row and there is a guy in the aisle seat, actually open your mouth and alert him that you need to pass him to get to your seat. Believe it or not, the stationary zombie routine does not get the attention of those on the aisle because everyone who passed him before you stopped momentarily. If he assumed each one of them was sitting by the window, he would have risen from his seat 30 times already.
- Small bladder or large prostate? Aisle seats only.
- If the row sits three across, the person stuck in the middle gets 100% of both armrests.
- If you’re ever upgraded to First Class, act as if you’ve been there before.
- If you’re in First Class, one of the bottles of water on the tray between the seats is yours. Don’t leave it sitting on the tray so that it falls on takeoff.
- If you’re seated by the window, you get to decide if the shade will be open or closed throughout the flight, regardless of whether the open window interferes with anyone’s ability to watch a movie on their iPad. (If you’re not on the window and wanted to keep the light out, you should have chosen a window seat.)
- On full flights, it’s okay to crush the luggage of anyone who refuses to put their smaller item under the seat in front of them.
- Never ever recline your seat. The reclining feature was installed before laptops were invented and this feature is now obsolete. I know plenty of business travelers who will repeatedly kick (accidentally, of course) the back of your seat if you do; so, recline at your peril. To be clear: When you recline your seat without the seat in front of you being reclined, you’re just being a jerk.
- Regardless of how important you think it is to do lunges down the aisle at 30,000 feet, the rest of us could not care less about your exercise schedule. Save your fitness display for your gym, home, or hotel room. This also includes the yoga enthusiasts who like to use the airplane galley for displaying their bendiness.
- We all have a “tight connection.” Relax.
- There is never enough alcohol on the plane to overcome turbulence. (Of course, it’s perfectly okay to test this repeatedly for yourself.)
- You cannot drink your own alcohol on the plane. Ordering a cup of ice and a can of tonic is a dead giveaway you have a bottle of gin hidden in your bag.
- Unless others describe your feet (and especially your toes) as pretty, no sandals or flip flops on airplanes.
- If you cannot lift your carry-on above your head and into a bin by yourself, you should check it next time.
- If you’re in the aisle seat and you’re the first to arrive at your row, expect to get up when a row-mate arrives. I’ve been asked to “squeeze by” more than once by those with a creepy lack of personal space.
- The fasten seat belts sign is more of a guideline than a rule. Because pilots have been known to leave these illuminated for the duration of a smooth flight, many people just ignore them.
- Use a headset. “But, it’s just a quick FaceTime chat with my grandson.” Use a headset. “But, it’s classical music and it’s on low.” Use a headset. “But, it’s just Candy Crush and it’s not that loud.” Use a damn headset!
- While you may not need to put your bag in the earliest open bin you find, you’ll want to be sure you’re not forced to put your bag in the overhead more than two rows behind your seat. If you do, don’t expect those behind you to be very happy about your upstream swim to retrieve it.
- If you chose to sit in an exit row, turn off your music, remove your earphones and be prepared to listen to the flight attendant as he or she explains the procedures. It’s part of their job; and it’s part of your job now that you’re in the exit row.
- The more you think your fellow passengers want to hear your in-flight conversation with your seatmate, the less likely it is that they want to hear it.
- If you’re seated anywhere the drinks are free (First Class; Delta Comfort; etc.) and the guy next to you orders an alcoholic drink and you smugly order soda, water, or juice, the guy who ordered the alcohol pities you and your boring life.
- If you’re flying on a major carrier, be prepared to be bombarded with live commercial messages about their frequent flyer program and especially their branded credit card.
- Believe it or not, most people don’t want to talk on the plane with strangers. If your neighbor is just nodding or only adding the occasional “oh yeah” or “that’s nice” or “interesting,” then it’s time to shut up.
- When using the lavatory, fully lock the door! I’ve walked in on too many mortified fliers than I’d care to remember. Plus, when you fully lock the door, a light in the ceiling or bulkhead tells the rest of us the lavatory is occupied, and we stay seated while you do your business.
- When in doubt, go pee.
After the Flight
- Never cheer a landing unless you soiled yourself during the turbulence. Nearly every flight has more than a few bumps, and those of you clapping when we touch down are showing your novice flyer status. Embarrassing.
- Have a plan for deplaning before the row in front of you is empty.
- If there is more than five feet between you and the person in front of you as you exit the plane, you’re holding up the rest of the passengers.
- Don’t crowd the baggage claim. If you’re one of the first people to reach the carousel, stand about three feet away. This buffer will show the next passengers where to stand. This allows more people to get their bags more quickly than if everyone crowds closely to the baggage carousel.
- Having a reservation for a car rental doesn’t mean they have a car reserved for you.
- If you did rent a car, be the last person on the rental shuttle. This way, you’ll be the first person off and the first person in line at the rental counter.
- Ditto if you’re taking a shuttle to your hotel.
- If your travels take you anywhere you need to use an elevator, remember that you’re not the last living human on earth. Stand away from the doors and allow others to get off before you try to get on.
- When in doubt, go pee.
(I know I missed some rules, so please add yours to the comments below. And, if you are a business traveler, you’re probably also interested in reading The 25 Most Annoying Business Phrases.)