Air travel is uncomfortable. It usually starts with an annoyingly early morning, a mad rush to the airport, and a clumsy attempt at lifting luggage that feels as though it's carrying the latest archaeological findings of ancient Greece—down stairs, into the cab's trunk, and one last time on the scale—all the while praying it won't hit the limit of the dreaded overweight fee. It continues with a series of long lines and interrogations, through which you're asked to take out your passport, take off your shoes, empty your cosmetic case, remove your jewelry, separate your electronics, and hope you don't contract anything while you tiptoe through the security gate because you again forgot to wear shoes with socks. When you finally make it to the other side, you are greeted by a grumpy crowd of fellow travelers, dry and tasteless food, and coffee that tastes like dirty water.
The flight isn't much better. Dehydrated, cramped, and hungry, you have to navigate a sea of overly chatty neighbors, complainers, chronic coughers, and seat kickers while simultaneously attempting to watch a bad movie on a glare-filled screen with the definition of a 1998 Nokia and having to fiddle with your earbuds for an hour to get half-decent sound because the airline hardware still isn't Apple compatible.
Yes, we are rarely seen at our best during a flight. So how do you keep composure under less-than-pleasant circumstances? How do you become the gracious, smooth traveler who breezes through the airport with no luggage, no problem, and no neck pillow bumping every fellow passenger on the way to your seat? We turned to our editors to find out exactly what makes a great traveler—and what doesn't. Can you take your shoes off on a flight? Should you ask for help lifting your luggage to the overhead bins? How do you silence Chatty Cathy on the next seat? Find out how to be your best self on the plane—even when you're feeling your worst.
"One bag under the seat is fine—a handbag or overnight bag, or something similar. Anything else is probably dangerous and a hindrance to the person who needs to get over it if you're blocking their exit to the restroom." — Sacha Strebe, managing editor
"As someone who always opts for the aisle seat and thus doesn't need to squeeze by anyone, I don't care how many bags are under their seat." — Hadley Mendelsohn, editorial assistant
"Don't take up unnecessary bin space, and for real do not put your coat in there until everyone has boarded. Just hold it until all the bags are in; there's usually room. If you're planning on carrying on, do not pick the largest possible carry-on you can find and then turn it sideways when it doesn't fit in the bin properly. Buy a suitcase that fits the situation in which you will be carrying it. And do not stick your luggage in a bin significantly forward of where you're seated so you don't have to carry it off or worry about running out of space—that's why we'll be 10 minutes late taking off while some poor person wanders up and down the plane trying to find bin space, and 10 minutes delayed getting off the plane upon arrival while they push through half the plane to get to their stuff. Use the bin near your seat and deal with it." — Kate Winick, social media manager
"If we're going to be crammed in this tiny shared space together, keep things mild scent-wise. Plane food is gross, so it's fine to bring your own, but please no tuna-based or egg-centric snacks unless you want me to put my barf bag to use." — Hadley Mendelsohn
"Don't bring any hot food on a plane unless you can consume it without utensils. Slice of pizza: sure. Salad: definitely. Bowl of orange chicken from Panda Express? Hell no." — Kate Winick
"Bringing your own food is fine as long as it's not smelly. That's akin to smoking a cigarette around people who don't smoke. It's just plain rude. Also, be aware of the time you're eating. Opening a packet of crunchy potato chips at night when everyone is trying to get some shut-eye isn't appropriate." — Sacha Strebe
"I think it's okay to bring your own food on a flight if a meal isn't supplied or is purchase-only, but there are a few rules that apply. First: no tuna. Ever. Second: snacks and prepackaged food only. Finally: Try to eat during the plane meal service time so attendants can take your trash soon after." — Sophie Miura lifestyle editor
"I truly hate when people bring their pets on planes because I'm allergic. Generally speaking, airlines make the person with the problem move, not the person causing the problem—so I have to choose between sneezing for five hours or giving up my carefully selected seat and separating from my belongings so I can breathe. That said, please TELL the people near you if you have a dog or cat in a carrier, especially if they arrive after you're seated; I would rather decide if I can deal with it on my own. And if you buy an emotional support certification and vest off the internet so you can be assured Fluffy travels with you, you are a jerk. It's not a thing." — Kate Winick
"As long as people are mindful of allergies by not letting their pet crawl all over the place, I think it's fine." — Hadley Mendelsohn
"Know the state of your feet before you take your shoes and socks off, and if they're gross, have a plastic bag and clean socks with you. No one should have to wear shoes on an overnight flight, but be polite. If you do this on short-haul flights, you are being ridiculous." — Kate Winick
"Totally fine, but only if you bring a clean pair of socks. I keep a woolen pair in my carry-on that's for flying only!" — Sophie Miura
"If you take off your shoes, pack clean new socks. Do that anyway. It's divine. I always look forward to Mr. Rogers–esque slippers and new socks on a flight." — Jillian Knox-Finley, contributor
"Yay if you have socks on, but put your shoes back on when you use the lavatories, sickos!" — Hadley Mendelsohn
"Should you talk to your seat neighbor or leave them be? I think it depends on the trip. If it's short, then perhaps it's okay for some friendly chitchat, but an in-depth conversation about politics, dating, sex, or the like isn't. Even when the other passengers don't want to hear, they can't help it thanks to the very close quarters of a plane. I also feel like if the person isn't displaying any signs they want to chat—e.g., they have headphones on or are nose-deep in a book—then leave them alone. They probably are not in the mood." — Sacha Strebe
"I'm all for being kind and conversational for the first 60 seconds, and then I'd prefer you go away, unless there's a cool connection and natural chemistry that is very clearly mutual. Also, nothing makes my skin crawl like a looky-loo seatmate. Respect personal space and privacy, please!" — Hadley Mendelsohn
"Take your cue about conversation from your neighbor—if they're not making eye contact and appear to be settling in with a book or headphones, it's probably not time to start talking about your holiday plans." — Kate Winick
"I typically deal with drunk people by telling them they owe me a free drink for third-wheeling their good time in a Texas accent. Once I was on red-eye flight to New York with a band of drunk girls. I politely asked the attendant to switch seats. The plane was pretty empty, so I got upgraded. If a passenger is disruptive on a flight, by all means alert the staff. They're probably annoyed too, so be chill about it. I'd also add in how to politely tell the parents behind you that their kid is kicking your seat—to which I would say a smile goes a long way. Traveling with kids is stressful. Be compassionate. The best flight I was ever on a couple passed out earplugs and a little note to the entire plane that said 'This is our baby's first flight. We hope she's cool! Thank you for your patience.' That was an awesome move." — Jillian Knox-Finley
"If your neighbor is sleeping and you need to go to the bathroom, a gentle pat on the shoulder will suffice. If that doesn't work, then sometimes I have been known to buzz the attendant, and they do the gentle waking for you. I also don't think you should take up the bathroom to do a full face of makeup. Bring a small mirror and do this at your seat." — Sacha Strebe
"There is no nice way to wake up someone who is sleeping, but you gotta go when you gotta go, and your groggy neighbor will get over it. Thus are the perils of flying. Also, bathroom hogs are an unpopular bunch. Bring a compact mirror and do your makeup at your seat." — Hadley Mendelsohn
"I need this advice! I always feel bad waking people up, so I awkwardly climb over them and am terrified they'll wake up halfway through." — Sophie Miura
"Asking for help with overhead bins is always appropriate. When a chivalrous passenger steps up, I always loudly and graciously thank them to encourage the behavior to everyone on board." —Jillian Knox-Finley
"It's absolutely fine to ask for help with luggage! It's also ultimately better for everyone behind you, as well, since struggling to lift something too heavy for you will just result in a longer boarding and de-planing process. Also, if you have an emergency or need to sprint to catch a connection, you probably won't be thinking about how your actions impact others, so manners won't be on your radar. That being said, no, it isn't okay to cut someone off; everyone has important things to do and places to be." — Hadley Mendelsohn
"If you have a short connection and you really cannot wait for everyone to deplane, tell the flight attendant well before landing. They have encountered this situation a million times and will often instruct people with longer connections to stay seated while a few people get off first." — Kate Winick
"Ask someone for help if you don't feel confident putting your bag in the overhead bin yourself; you could get hurt or injure someone else in the process. Also, don't push someone to get your luggage at the carousel when you quickly spot it. Be polite. Also, don't block the way for someone else to get in. Stand at a distance and be mindful of the people around you." — Sacha Strebe
Want to become a better flyer? Breeze through your next flight with these in-air essentials.