Airplane etiquette: How to behave before and when you fly in the sky

Close quarters, tight schedules and long journeys… does being gracious matter more anywhere than here?

Close quarters, tight schedules and long journeys… does being gracious matter more anywhere than here?

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

You want to get away, and you should. Travel is an integral part of living a full life, whether it's reuniting with loved ones, trekking to far-off lands or just lying on the beach. However, it's that getting from point A to B that can be the real grind — your tropical oasis seems a lot less inviting when you know you have to schlep for 6 hours crammed next to people you hate at 20,000 feet. The world of air travel is a unique universe unto itself and, as such, many are confused about just how to conduct themselves when it's time to bon voyage. Which is why we've taken this opportunity to lay out some ground (or air) rules, to make your travel experience a little smoother. Feel free to bring this article with you to have the fight attendant read over the speakers.

How big should my carry on be?

Smaller than you think. Packing is an art form all its own and there are many tips and tricks to get anything you want into a bag. While we'd all love to have the luxury of checking a gigantic bag with everything we need, carry on travel is often the most efficient (and cheapest option). It's easy to assume your flight will have copious amounts of overhead space, but that is rarely the case. Full flights and small planes will quickly prove that your bag should probably be even smaller than the suggested dimensions, to avoid a desperate bag-stuffing situation. Also, many airlines recommend you store your heaviest bag underneath the seat in front of you and your lighter items (backpacks, coats, etc.) in the overhead. So if your biggest carry on bag is small enough to comfortably fit under the seat, you'll have minimal baggage (literally and figuratively) holding you back.

And don't try to be a packing magician. If your luggage legitimately cannot fit in the overhead bin or under the seat, suck it up, pay to check it and enjoy some peace of mind.

Can I wear my winter coat?

Airport fashion should always be about practicality. For reasons we will discuss later, your shoes and accessories (belts, jewelry, watches) should be easy to remove, and light, easy-to-move in clothing will help keep you calm while rushing to your connection. A classic Canadian conundrum is having to leave a cold climate for somewhere much warmer. It will do you no good to bring your winter jacket (it's bulky and you'll be instantly hot once you get inside), not to mention the person sitting next to you shouldn't have to snuggle up to your gore tex, so layering is your friend. A t-shirt, a light hoodie and a small jacket combo will give you far more flexibility to handle the temperature changes.

Do I have to get there THAT early?

In addition to sharing space with your passengers, you're also sharing time — many a delay has occurred because of late comers who think the world will stop for them. Be the OPPOSITE of this person — figure out what time you should be there and actually arrive 15 minutes before that.

If you're my father, you'll want to get there a solid 20 hours early. For everyone else, you need to use your discretion and hedge your bets.

How do I handle going through security?

It's all about anticipating what's about to be asked of you — to keep.things.moving.

Different airports and security gates have slightly different requirements, but you know what's likely required of you so be ready to do it. You will be asked to take off your shoes and anything metal so (as we discussed earlier) be ready to slip them off. Do your own body check to make sure there's nothing else on you — you don't want to get pat down just because you have a nickel in your pocket. Have all your major electronics easily accessible, because you may be asked to remove them. The only thing you SHOULD have on you is your passport and boarding pass, everything else goes in a bin or on the belt. If by some strange occurrence you are caught off guard or need a second to gather yourself, let people who are ready go ahead of you.

At the end of the conveyor belt, they dump all your belongings at once, making for a very awkward re-assembly. DON'T start getting dressed at the end of the line — you'll just cause another traffic jam. Instead, take your items away from the line and get yourself together there.

Should I walk around once I'm at my gate?

There are plenty of ways to kill time once you're at your gate, but it all depends on how much time you have to kill. Anything under an hour should probably be spent at or near your gate; grab a seat, read a book, visit a shop, have a snack and only stretch out if there's no one else that needs to sit down.

Over an hour? The world is yours. Lounges, restaurants, shops and (for some reason) pedicures — just know how long everything takes and the quickest way to get back to your gate, so you're not in the middle of a shiatsu when they make your boarding announcement.

Do I have to wait for them to call my zone before I board?

YES! The airline has staggered your process for a reason. Unless you're flying priority, first class or with children, there is a zone number assigned to your ticket — know it and accept it. If your zone was not called, don't crowd the gate and try to board, you're not fooling anyone.

Do I have to sit down right away?

Right away. Frankly, you should know your seat number before you even get on the plane, because that mid-aisle ticket check is a time-waster. And, for the continued sake of keeping the lines moving, you should head directly to your seat, stow your luggage as quickly and compactly as possible and do everything you need to get set before takeoff.

Do I have to watch the safety presentation?

YES. Especially because you should. But also to be courteous. Please stay quiet and mildly attentive during the flight attendant's pre-flight safety feature routine. They don't want to do it either, so the least you can do is pretend you've never heard it before.

Can I get comfortable?

Yes, within reason. Firstly, upon takeoff, you have at least 10 minutes before you're actually allowed to do anything, so perhaps take a moment to marvel at the invention of flight. Post-marvel, you can make yourself comfortable at the discretion of the people near you. Seat-wise, try to keep your extremities and accessories within suggested box your armrests create. If you're in a window seat on a sunny flight, you have the ability to create a terrible glare for the person next to you, so the courteous option would be to ask before opening the blinds all the way. Similarly, make sure your overhead light and air vent are pointing at you and only you.

Can I watch my movie/listen to my music?

Considerately, yes. Under no circumstances are you allowed to play audio off a device without the use of headphones. Furthermore, you should check that said headphones fully contain the sound to your ears. Visually, whether you're watching something on the in-flight TV or your own device, have a little discretion with your content in regards to who is sitting near you — save that grindhouse horror movie for another time.

Can I eat my (insert strong-smelling food here) on the plane?

NO. We love food as much as you do but we're firm on this one. A plane requires more scent-awareness than even a car (considering that you can't really roll down an airplane window). Furthermore, your food of choice should be relatively low maintenance sound-wise and mess-wise too — no passenger wants to hear your crunching for 9 hours straight or to wake up with rib sauce on his pants.

Can I go to the bathroom?

If you've let the people around you enjoy enough sitting time (at least half an hour), then it's totally permissible to excuse yourself to the lavatory. If you have to wake a sleeping passenger to get to the bathroom, it's allowed, but be extra-nice about it or don't be shocked when you get a dirty look upon returning to your seat.

Can I clap when we land?

Ugh. Only if you don't start it. Whoever first decided that landing a plane was a performative art deserving applause remains both a conundrum and annoyance. While you shouldn't be "that guy" who initiates the ovation, if it has already started, feel free to join in with a few claps once it has mysteriously begun.

Can I get up yet?

No! Just because the plane has landed doesn't mean you can hop to your feet. Once the seatbelt sign is turned off, this is not a cue to crouch-stand and hover over everyone while huffing that the line isn't moving. If you are anywhere past the first three rows, stay seated and wait for the row ahead of you to fully clear before you get up to get your bags. And, when you do, don't feel rushed; making sure you have all your belongings is way more important than pleasing that sighing guy behind you. Just for him, take extra long. (No, please don't.)