How to travel: Basic airplane etiquette

How to travel: Airplane etiquette

To me, travelling is a part of the expat lifestyle. Usually, this involves flying – at least for me, since my family lives about 10 hours by car away. The same is true for other expats whose home country is even further away. Before I started my job here in Denmark this year, I worked in consulting, and I accumulated quite a few frequent flyer miles working on and travelling to projects across Europe. And I thought I’d share some thoughts on general airplane etiquette, and some tips on how to make airplane travel easier and more comfortable. In today’s post, I’m focusing on the first part.

Now, a lot of these will probably make you go “how is this news – this is basic knowledge/ human decency”, and honestly, it should be! But sadly, at least in my experience, so many people really, really lack in this department, and I’ve witnessed things on board of planes that made me question my general faith in mankind. No matter how cultivated, nice, or reasonable someone is on the ground, as soon as they step on a plane, many people devolve into egomaniac savages with no respect for others. So here are some of my basic guidelines on how to not be a giant jerk on a plane.

It’s kind of a long post, so here are my key points:

  • Security control is not that complicated – just be prepared.
  • When boarding, go about it smartly instead of just pushing and shoving.
  • Five huge bags is not “carry-on”.
  • Be nice to your seat neighbor – just act like a human being!
  • Don’t order ALL the food and drinks just because it’s free.
  • Don’t start a war over reclining seats.
  • When travelling with kids, try not to let them ruin other people’s flights.
  • We’re not at the circus, so don’t applaud after landing.
  • We’re not animals, so disembark in an orderly fashion.


Before the flight

What do you mean, no fluids? I’m regularly baffled by how stupid some people can be when it comes to security control (no, you can’t take that huge bottle of shampoo with you!). To me, security control is a hassle, but it mainly is because there are way too many people who are either clueless or careless or just basic idiots. It’s not that hard. Take off your belt. Take your laptop out of your bag. Have your fluids ready in a Ziploc bag on top of your suitcase or bag so you can quickly take them out. If I’m wearing high-heeled shoes or boots, I usually take them off as a precaution, it makes things so much quicker. And when you’re through, take your stuff and move away from the goddamn line! You filled four boxes with your belongings, and now you’re taking five minutes to lace up your shoes, so I can’t reach my stuff. Basics, people!

Engage your brain during boarding. Do you have a seat in the back of the plane, or are you travelling without any carry-on? Then be my guest and board early. Otherwise, just take a chill pill and wait! There is no reason for you to jump up from your seat and run to the front of the queue as soon as boarding is announced, especially if you have an aisle seat in row 4. I usually check in early and select and aisle seat as far in the front as possible, so I’m usually one of the last passengers to board. Once you’re on board, quickly put your luggage away and sit down to let others pass. There will be time for you to rearrange your stuff and get your phone out of your bag, but there is nothing worse than some guy blocking the aisle for all the passengers behind him because he needs to wrestle his suitcase and giant backpack into the overhead bin. Trust me, they are not going to leave you behind if you’re not the first in line!

On the flight

Is that really carry-on? Yes, you might have succeeded in squishing your suitcase into one of those testing containers to check if it’s suitable for carry-on. But you also carry a massive backpack and a huge bag full of liquor from duty free. That’s about half of the overhead bin filled with your stuff. I hate waiting at the conveyor belt for my luggage, too, but if you have so much stuff that it’s hard to maneuver on board, consider checking the largest item. Most airports have gotten better with baggage handling times, and it might even add to your relaxation factor if you don’t have to drag five bags across the entire airport! Or, if you absolutely must have all your stuff within your reach, at least put one bag under the seat in front of you.

Carry-on luggage can be dangerous.

Respect thy neighbor. Chances are, your seat neighbor doesn’t want to engage in a long conversation with you, listed to your music, or read your newspaper. He most certainly doesn’t want you to take a nap on his shoulder, either! So whatever your in-flight entertainment, try to keep it to yourself and your own space. Fold your newspaper. Turn your music down to an acceptable volume – that’s better for your ears anyways. Don’t choose the window seat if you have to get up and pee every ten minutes! If you have the window seat, you’re in control of the blinds, but if you see your neighbor sleeping, maybe don’t rip it open every ten seconds. Also, think for three seconds before taking your seat if there’s anything from your carry-on you need during the flight, and take it with you, so you don’t have to climb over your neighbor fifteen times. If you have the aisle seat, get up if your window neighbor needs to leave his seat – don’t make them climb over you! And PLEASE don’t start a war over the armrest! If you want it, ask nicely. That can go a long way.

This applies to the people in front and behind you, too.

Don’t be greedy. Especially on short flights, more and more airlines have started to charge for food and drinks on board, which I think is fair enough, especially for low-cost airlines (not so much for the supposedly high-end ones – I’m looking at you, SAS!). I flew from Luxembourg to Frankfurt a couple of times with LuxAir, a flight that takes all of 40 minutes, and the flight attendants had to rush through the cabin, basically throwing snacks at people, so that they would be done before they had to buckle up again for landing. I didn’t really need the crackers that badly. But when drinks and snacks are offered, people tend to get greedy, all in the name of “I paid for this!” Nobody likes that guy who orders a beer, a coffee, a water AND a coke – dude, are you expecting guests?! Just ask for a glass of what you need and be done with it. PS: It is also totally acceptable to say no.

To lean back or not to lean back – that is the question. A controversial topic! It’s no secret that leg room is scarce, especially in economy class. Seatbacks are one of the main sources of conflict on board, as in the recent case of a United Airlines flight from Newark to Denver that was diverted to Chicago to kick out two passengers who got into a fight over a reclining seat. We’re at the point of physical violence here, people! I’ve read and heard comments from both ends of the spectrum: there’s the “I’m tall and the person in front of me is restricting my personal space, so I’ll enforce my leg room, if necessary, by pushing my knees into their back really hard, that’ll teach them!” fraction (really mature, dude, wow!). And on the other side, we have the “I paid for the seat including its reclining abilities, so I will enforce that right no matter what, even if I have to slam the seat back with full force – that’ll teach them!” fraction (exactly as mature, hope you guys are all proud of yourselves!). Here’s my personal approach, which has served me well so far: Generally, I don’t see how it’s that big of an issue, because at least on short-haul flights, the seats don’t recline more than a couple of centimeters anyway. I believe that it is your good right to recline your seat, but for God’s sake, go about it in a decent way! Just turn around real quick and let the person behind you know in a friendly way that you’ll be pushing your seat back, so they can re-arrange their legs if necessary. If they make a fuss or even start the knee-pushing thing, just politely ask them to stop. If they don’t, alert a flight attendant. But don’t engage in a pushing back-and-forth game or even get loud and abusive. You’re an adult, for crying out loud, so act like one!

Control your offspring. On the topic of crying out loud – my worst nightmare are kids on flights. Whenever I see kids at the gate, I pray they’re not sitting near me. Not because I have something against kids, but because I think most parents are handling this all wrong. Flying with kids requires a bit of planning, in my (inexperienced) opinion. I don’t mean to say that kids should be quiet as a mouse and not move during the flight, I get it, they’re kids! But I see it as your parental duty to have a little foresight, for example, don’t give your kid coke or other caffeinated beverages – they are already pumped up and restless, probably also a bit nervous or even scared of flying. Don’t hype them up more. Bring some entertainment – let them play with your phone or iPad, if necessary. Often, flight attendants also have a little box of books and toys to give to kids, so just ask for that. Finally, stop your kid from behaving inappropriately! I once spent an entire flight from Vienna to Copenhagen being kicked in the back non-stop by a little Russian boy whose father pretended not to understand English when I repeatedly asked him to please stop this behavior. The flight was fully booked so the flight attendants couldn’t even put me in another seat.

If you want your kid to live to graduate high school, don’t let her do this to me.

At the end of the flight

A quick word to my fellow Germans out there. In my experience, it’s usually Germans who do this, and usually on the charter flights down to Mallorca, Spain, or other popular vacation destinations. For the love of God, stop it with the applause after the landing! It just outs you as a socks-in-sandals, fanny-pack tourist who’s on a plane for the first time in their life. The pilots don’t really hear it in the cockpit anyway. Do you applaud your taxi driver, too, when he’s driven you home? Pro tip: The flight crew will often stand at the cockpit door when people disembark, a personal thank you to the pilot is a much nicer touch!

“Sir, please stay seated until we’ve reached our parking position.” Does this sound familiar? The plane has literally JUST touched down and is still taxiing to the gate, when the first overeager people start jumping up from their seats and rummaging through the overhead compartments. They stand in the aisle or crouched down over their seat for the next 15 minutes, until the doors open and they can disembark. For getting off the plane, the same rules apply as for boarding. First off, RELAX. You will get off the plane. But are the 45 seconds you save by squeezing past three people while hitting a fourth one in the head with your backpack really worth it? Just wait until the people in front of you have gone out, then quickly take your stuff and leave the plane. Let people in seat rows before you exit first. And don’t put your fricking jacket on! There is no room, and you’re about to walk into the airport building, why do you need to wear your coat?

This concludes my rules on plane etiquette - what do you think? What’s the worst thing people do when flying, and how should they do it differently? Looking forward to hearing your comments and anecdotes!