Ten Commandments for Courteous Travel
Whatever sins you may indulge in elsewhere, you owe it to everyone else to be nothing short of angelic when you're at an airport or in flight
A time-travelling visitor arriving from the days before routine air travel – say the 1960s – would probably suppose that it would be an exceedingly rare phenomenon for a passenger to make enough of an ass of himself to cause international incidents and make news around the world.
Ha, no. As I’m sure everyone in our time is aware, it happens pretty much every week.
In between spectacular flare-ups of infantile behaviour, the traveller has to deal with other people’s everyday acts of selfishness and innocent-but-clueless misdemeanours.
Tips and guides to travel etiquette pop up here and there. But are they making people more polite on planes? They are not. We still observe countless micro incidents of everyday incivility.
Perhaps such guides haven’t worked because they haven’t been set down in a truly authoritative fashion. Or more likely because such lists only preach to the converted: The rude are rude because they don’t care, and only the courteous would bother reading something like this.
But since it feels like lifting a burden off my soul just to declare them from on high, here are 10 modern commandments for the courteous traveller anyway.
Thou shalt not throw a hissy fit …
… for any reason, ever. This should go without saying, but it won’t work anyway, because most humans simply do not respond to being yelled at by those who wield no actual authority over them.
Remaining courteous at all times – no matter how trying the situation – may pose a challenge, but for reasons both moral (throwing tantrums is unfair) and practical (behaving like a toddler will only worsen your situation, whatever it is), keeping your cool remains your prime commandment as a traveller.
That, and keeping your clothes on.
Thou shalt produce thy documents quickly
Are you in line? Guess what: They’re going to want your passport and/or boarding pass in a sec. Have it at the ready and do your part to keep that queue moving. Chop chop.
If thou art an adult, thou shalt dress like one on short-haul flights
The sages preach true. We cannot put it any better than J. Bryan Lowder, who wrote in Slate in 2014: “Among the cavalcade of (pyjama) pants, tracksuits, nightgowns, painting rags, and ill-fitting sweatshirts that one encounters in the world’s terminals and stations these days, the competently dressed individual stands apart as a beacon of civilized life, an island of class amid a swamp of schlumps.”
Expecting people to dress respectably isn’t elitism, Lowder writes. Most people who can afford a plane ticket can probably also put together a nice outfit – say, a blazer, button-down shirt for men – out of what they already own. Dressing well shows respect to others, gets you respect in return, and it also means if your luggage gets misrouted you’re already wearing an outfit that will work in many social situations. Save your pyjamas for the flight to Auckland.
Thou shalt not bring oversize luggage into the cabin
If you can’t fit all your stuff into a reasonably sized carry-on, don’t make it your fellow passengers’ problem.
It’s understandable that you want to try: Checking luggage costs you some extra time and likely extra fees. However, a big honking suitcase breaks the unspoken covenant between you and your fellow passengers, one that says you shouldn’t jam the overhead bin and take up more than your fair share of the space. And it’s becoming harder to get away with wheeling that midsize suitcase onto the plane anyway; flight crews seem to be getting stricter about enforcing the rules.
Here are your viable options: Figure out how to get by with less junk in your trunk, or check it and deal with the consequences.
Thou shalt not eat of the smelly food
If you bring your own snacks on the plane, remember to only partake of victuals that emit no aroma. Think granola bars, cookies, nuts, fruit. A cold tuna sandwich is pushing it. Something like an Angry Whopper® – delicious though you may find the savoury fire-grilled beef, jalapeño monterey jack cheese, crispy bacon, secret ANGRY sauce, crispy battered ANGRY onions, fresh lettuce, mayonnaise and ripe tomatoes, all served on a warm, toasted, sesame seed bun – will not be so pleasing to the olfactory experience of everyone around you, and is therefore not kosher for flying (it’s not actual kosher either). It’s difficult to draw a firm line between acceptable and unacceptable airplane snacks. Hot versus cold doesn’t work as the shibboleth, for example, because warm oatmeal is probably fine and cold kimchi definitely isn’t. Use thy best judgment and err on the side of courtesy, lest ye run afoul of the unwritten rules and find thyself next to an Angry Seatmate®.
Thou shalt board the plane when it is thy turn
We’ve seen it a hundred times: The lounge PA calls for people in the rear third of the plane to start boarding, yet by some miracle around 80% of the passengers stand and queue up. How could so many people possibly be assigned to the back rows, and so few to the front? The whole phenomenon defies everything science has told us about seating. Unless … wait! Certain passengers must be boarding before their appointed time. The scoundrels. They’re getting away with …
… nothing. I mean, you can’t game the system and get into the air faster, so why are you so anxious to go stand in a line? According our team down in the Billy Laboratory for Travel Science, the entire bloody plane takes off at the same time. Counterintuitive though it may seem to the queue jumpers, there’s no time advantage to boarding earlier. Moreover, you can do your part to encourage a timely takeoff if you do as you’re told and board in stages. In case it isn’t obvious, the practice is designed to keep the aisles navigable and thus fill the plane up quickly and efficiently.
Thou shalt leave thy neighbour in peace
Other than saying hello, and dealing with any essential practical matters that may arise – thank yous for passing the tomato juice are essential, and so on – only proceed with conversation with your seatmate if the other party exhibits clear and enthusiastic interest. The problem with gabbing away at the person strapped in next to you is that they’re trapped, and yet will feel socially obligated to give no sign that your every word is making them scream inside their heads, at the volume of a thousand Metallicas, wishing you’d JUST. SHUT. UP.
Some may object at this point: “But I like people! I like talking to people about their lives and where they’re travelling!”
Rebuttal: Haven’t you noticed that some people don’t like people? According to Susan Cain’s mega hit 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, somewhere between 20% and half of humanity exhibit signs of introversion. Such specimens will be especially likely to regard a solo flight as a welcome break from communicating with others.
Rather than dumping the responsibility for entertaining you on a total stranger’s lap, consider the following options: magazines, a tablet, the Billy app (ahem), podcasts, Sudoku, a book, cat’s cradle; I don’t care, just be quiet, please be quiet, oh please please please be quiet.
Remember that 8A is thy seat, not thy throne
Thus do I command thee: If you’re sitting in the aisle seat, the armrest on the aisle side is yours. If you’re sitting at the window, the armrest under the window is yours. If you’re sitting in the middle between two strangers, your consolation prize that you get the armrests on both sides. Likewise, if there’s some poor sap next to you flying alone in the middle seat, be a mensch and relinquish all claim to the armrest between you. Think of it as charity for the unfortunate.
Finally, if you’re sitting in a two-seat configuration next to a stranger, like on most flights out of Billy Bishop, the armrest between you is neutral territory. You and your neighbour may share it by resting your arms on its sides or corners but you may not simply plop your arm on top of it like a basking sea lion.
Thou shalt observe an orderly exodus
Many people cling to the belief that it’s polite and proper to depopulate the airplane row by row, slowly and gradually. If the logical goal is to get the last passenger off the plane in the shortest possible time, this approach could hardly be more wrong.
Here are the real, efficient rules, which we have observed being followed more faithfully in Europe and Asia than in North America:
1. Speeding off the plane ahead of others is actually polite if you’re flying solo and have an aisle seat. Just grab your stuff as soon as you’re allowed to stand, and prepare to beat a hasty retreat, advancing up the aisle as soon as any opportunity arises. Yes, it’s alright to trot past people in the rows ahead of you if they’re still not ready to deplane. Why should you wait? You’re doing them a favour: When you and all the other aisle sitters are adios, it will free up space for the others to move around and gather their stuff together.
2. For people who can’t just grab a bag and run — the couples, families and window seat singles: Be patient. Kindly wave your fellow passengers past you so they can get out while you get organized. Don’t feel entitled to block others just because your row number is lower.
3. Stopping and gesturing to the a passenger in a row ahead of you that you will wait for them to get their stuff together might feel polite, but it’s not. What you’re really doing is holding up whoever is behind you.
Thou shalt not storm the luggage carousel
Hey you! Yes, you, the person who’s practically running toward the baggage conveyor as soon as you spot it.
Are you a Level 12 wizard, and have you learned the spell “Conjure Luggage”? No?
Hold on, you have no magic powers of any kind?
Then plunking yourself right next to the conveyor probably won’t make your suitcases come out any faster, will it? For courtesy’s sake you may as well hang back a reasonable distance and let other people advance to the belt without having to push past you when their precious cargo pushes out through the plastic flaps. You’re almost there; just a little more patience and you will have successfully completed a plane journey without behaving like a child. Sad though it is to say, this qualifies you as some kind of a saint.
Adam McDowell is deputy editor of Billy. He's also that guy in the departure lounge who's silently judging people. Not you, surely – other people.