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Airplane Etiquette Rules Every 20-Something Should Know

Getting packed into a space that just gets more and more cramped every day, with no privacy and limited access to things like food and drinks, it doesn't take much to become irritable or even downright hostile to your fellow travelers.
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Illustrations by Norah Stone.

We have a love-hate relationship with air travel. After all, it allows us to traverse long distances in a short period of time, making weekend trips across the country, or week-long vacations out of the country, totally plausible. But that doesn't mean flying is all that fun. Getting packed into a space that just gets more and more cramped every day, with no privacy and limited access to things like food and drinks, it doesn't take much to become irritable or even downright hostile to your fellow travelers.

But what if we told you there is another way?

We spoke to Lizzie Post (etiquette expert and the great-great granddaughter of Emily Post) and Jeremy Saum (executive editor of travel magazine AFAR) for some professional advice on how to confront an assortment of situations that can arise on a plane. Ahead, their tips for dealing with six common scenarios -- from a child kicking the back of your seat to your seatmate becoming ill -- with poise and grace.

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You've made it on the plane, you've gulped down your ration of free soda, and now nature calls. But before you can navigate that tiny aisle to the bathroom, you have to get out of your seat. If the stranger in the aisle seat is napping, it can feel like you're trapped.

The good news: you aren't. "No one sleeping in an aisle seat in coach should expect hours of uninterrupted slumber," Saum points out. Just give that person a (very gentle!) tap or shake and ask politely to be let out. If you're still uncomfortable doing that for whatever reason, or the person is in a very deep sleep, Post says it's perfectly acceptable to press the call button and nicely ask the flight attendant for assistance.

Post also notes that if you're an aisle sleeper who knows a snooze may occur mid-flight, it's courteous to alert your fellow passenger. Something like, "Please don't hesitate to wake me up should you need to get out at any point!" ought to do the trick.

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Even if you're not saddled with a sleeping neighbor, you might wind up next to a talker. Of course, if you're in a chatty mood, this can be a great way to pass the time. Not all of us, however, enjoy conversations with strangers -- and that's fine! Whether you're just a private person, or really excited to delve into the next chapter of The Girl On The Train, you don't have to be an unwilling audience member for the entire flight.

Post suggests engaging in a few minutes of back-and-forth, then saying something like, "It was great getting to talk with you, I'm going to dive into my book for a minute." This is where earbuds can come in handy: Even if you're not actually tuning into Spotify, they will be a pretty clear signal that you don't want to chat.

Keep in mind that the best defense is a good offense. You can always pop in your earbuds as soon as you sit down -- just be aware that other passengers or flight attendants may need to interrupt your musical interlude at times.

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Traveling as an adult is hard enough, even with the ability to order a beer to take the edge off. It's easy to understand why kids can get fussy while on a plane -- and we urge you to be understanding of crying babies and their frazzled caregivers. (After all, isn't the screaming toddler just saying what we're all thinking?)

But even the most patient passenger shouldn't have to put up with a kid who is infringing on personal space. Often, this comes in the form of swift kicks to the back of the seat. Saum recommends patience here. The parents, who are probably already exhausted, are likely aware that their little darling is acting out and are trying to deal with it as effectively as they can without calling too much attention to it.

If, after a few beats, the behavior persists, Post suggests saying something like "I'm so sorry, I'm not sure if you noticed that your child is kicking my seat. I was wondering if you might be able to help me out with that?" Technically, you shouldn't have to ask someone to stop this, but framing it as a question rather than a demand makes the interaction a lot more positive for everyone. Sometimes, an inquisitive (rather than accusatory) glance back can be enough to clue in more oblivious parents or kids that you're in discomfort.

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If someone is over-served, either before boarding or mid-flight, there's really not much you can do, says Saum. Hopefully that person is mostly just an annoying distraction, but if the behavior is crossing a line, you can always ask to be reseated.

Post suggests seeking out a flight attendant in the kitchen area at the back of the plane to make the request subtle. If there's nothing that can be done, once again, you might have to resort to listening to a podcast, but if the behavior goes from boorish to offensive, you'll need to make the flight attendants aware so they can handle it.

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The process of boarding a plane can resemble the Hunger Games, as passengers vie to get on the plane as quickly as possible -- and get some of that coveted overhead-bin space before it's gone. This can mean a mix of people all jockeying for the same spot in line at the the same time: the guy who has been lurking near the checkpoint for 20 minutes, the clump of people hovering just at the end of the Zone One line, and the lady waltzing up from Starbucks, drink in hand, seemingly oblivious to the other passengers waiting.

While it's tempting to play line police, both Saum and Post agree there's not much you can do. "Just find a spot in the line and move forward," Post counsels. It's not your job to monitor the line, and in the chaos of getting on the plane it probably isn't the best time to enforce your version of proper line etiquette anyway. Instead, breathe deeply and remind yourself that you -- and everyone else -- will get to board eventually, and you'll get to your destination after that.

Worst-case scenario, you and your carry-on bag may need to part ways, but, as Post points out, that's why the flight attendants are there. If you've chosen a carry-on because you're worried about a checked bag making it through on a tight connection, consider paying extra to board early. If you can afford it, peace of mind may be well worth the extra bucks.

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Sneezing, sniffling, or nauseous passengers can be all too common on planes, and it's natural to feel uneasy if you're seated next to someone in physical distress. Saum says to be mindful that this person doesn't want to be on the plane any more than you want him or her to be there. After all, we're all exposed to germs in public places all the time, even not on planes, and we mostly manage to stay well. This can be a reminder to take care of yourself: Make sure you're washing your hands and drinking plenty of water to keep your immune system strong.

If it's a more serious crisis, like the flu, Post encourages alerting a flight attendant, offering empathy and well-wishes, and then letting the person convalescence in peace. You can put in a request to be moved, if possible. If it's a life-threatening emergency where the person is incapacitated, of course, immediately notify flight staff.

Similarly, if you're the one with the bad luck to fall ill while traveling, let the flight attendants know and see about being moved. If not, they will still be able to provide you with small comforts, like hot tea, a cold compress, or a blanket. And, of course, make sure you're covering your mouth when you sneeze.

By: Marshall Bright

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