How to be a Respectable Traveler

Travel blogs like this one are often filled with suggestions, gentle or not, on how this institution or that business can improve. When a customer knows he has options, he or she does not hesitate to criticize, malign, or complain, especially when he feels he’s been wronged. As it should be.

But what about us, the travelers – the customers? What can we do to be better? Maybe it sounds like a silly question at first blush, but I think it deserves to be asked and answered. Public decorum, especially in the United States, is not what it once was. The freedom to raise hell, and abundance of outlets through which to exercise this freedom, has loosened the bridles on social comportment; the line between customer satisfaction and righteous entitlement has been blurred. On some level, we acknowledge as much; that’s why a man like JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater can become celebrated instead of vilified. Businesses aren’t without blame of course – they’ve played their part. But today let’s focus on how we can improve, in order to make our travel experience better for us and those around us.

Some of these suggestions may seem elementary, but they bear mentioning. You’d be surprised how many people don’t follow these precepts.

1. Educate thyself. Going to Mexico? Learn a few Spanish phrases. Headed to China? Find out what the etiquette is on tipping, or, for that matter, shaking hands. Do the Japanese slurp noodles or bite into them? The first step you can take to becoming a better traveler is to know something about the place you’re going, even if it’s an American-run resort in the Caribbean. Too many travelers expect the world to bend to their customs, and become frustrated and indignant when it doesn’t happen. There’s no shame in not knowing something, and most people will look past your ignorance. But you’ll impress the locals (and probably make more friends) if you study their ways before hand. You don’t need to read an entire travel guide cover to cover. Just brush up.

2. Dress appropriately. This starts at the airport. I don’t care if you have a 24 hour flight from Newark to Singapore; under no circumstances are sweat pants or pajamas appropriate attire for flying. Oh sure, I know it’s a free country and people do this all the time. But you’re not the one who has to look at you. Besides, how can you expect to be treated respectfully if you can’t dress respectfully?

Gone are the days when men wore their best suits on a plane, but you can still dress smartly without sacrificing comfort. I usually wear a button down, a blazer, a nice pair of jeans, and Oxfords or non-athletic-looking sneakers. I might bring a fleece in case the plane is cold. I sleep just fine. Now, I can’t speak for women’s attire, but I’m sure there’s something comparable to what I just described that won’t sacrifice your dignity the way pajama jeans and flip-flops do.

Shorts may be debatable, but I agree with Larry David:

Of course, once at your destination, appropriate attire is relative. Shorts and flip flops work in Costa Rica, while cargo pants are great for the African savannah. Suffice to say don’t dress like an asshole. Example: If you’re visiting Auschwitz, leave the Lebron jersey at the hotel.

3. Keep your carry-on luggage to a minimum. I know that by nickel-and-diming us with checked luggage fees, airlines have foisted onto themselves the opprobrium that is the Fee Wars. Passengers now want to carry on as much freight as possible to save money. On a recent AirTran flight, I saw one gentleman attempt to shove his enormous bag first under the seat in front of him (disturbing that seated passenger’s comfort), then into the overhead compartment. He looked like he was trying to push a fat man through an air duct to save his life. After a dozen or so violent nudges, he finally conceded that he should gate check the damn thing, but this was after wasting other passengers’ time (yet to take their seats and find their own precious luggage space) as well as the flight crew’s.

(In another example of righteousness, a young man shoved his carry-on suitcase into the overhead, right where an older man’s coat had been placed, scrunching it all the way to the back of the compartment. The older man got up and lit into him, rightly so. All the younger guy had to do was ask if he could move the coat first to make room. But with everyone fighting for their little piece of airplane real estate, courtesy often goes out the window.)

Measure your carry-on and don’t overstuff it. If you have any questions, ask an agent at the gate. You can usually have your bag gate-checked for free; is that so bad?

4. Be patient and understanding, even when mistakes are made. Believe me, I’ve violated this one plenty of times. Travel can be stressful enough, but when things don’t go according to plan, someone has to pay, right? A couple of years ago, my wife and I missed a connection in Atlanta due to “air traffic.” We got to the gate just as the door closed, and although we had been assured otherwise, no effort had been made to radio to them of our presence and impending (late) arrival. Told to go to the Delta help desk, I went – about to blow my stack. I tore into the customer service woman asking what Delta was going to do for us, blah, blah, blah. (The got us a hotel in Atlanta for half price.) I took the voucher and sat down at a bar and had a beer.

After calming down a bit, I walked back to the representative, and told her plainly that I was sorry for being so angry, but that I was just upset about missing our overnight flight to Rio. “I’m sure you get a lot of angry customers, and I know you’re just doing your job,” I told her. She accepted the apology and told me she understood my frustration.

I see this all the time, and what’s funny about it is that when it comes to travel, “you made a mistake” quickly turns into “where’s my restitution?” A flight to Chile I was on had to stop in Lima to drop off and pick up passengers; those of us going to Chile were allowed to keep our seats. Two college-aged guys were accidentally woken up and told to exit the plane. When they came back on they were reassigned seats they didn’t like. Supremely offended by having been abruptly awakened only to endure this discourtesy, these slack-jawed yokels (in sweat pants no less) started chewing into the very patient and professional LAN Airlines attendants. Not surprisingly, the next words out of their mouths was, “You can just bump us up to first class to make up for this.”

It wasn’t about being moved from window seats to middle aisle seats anymore; these guys just wanted to know what they could possibly get out of the airline for the injustice they’d suffered. The attendants kept their cool and explained to the men that they would find them two window seats (of course not in first class). The problem was solved, but would it have killed these guys to address the attendants with a little respect and humility? Those of us in the audience of this tempest in a teapot were sufficiently embarrassed by the attitudes of these two jokers, especially after having been treated so well by the flight staff.

The next time you’d like to petition for a redress of grievances, think about the flight attendant, the ticketing agent, or the customer service line representative. They listen to people like you bitch and moan all day. Remember that old idiom, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar? Try a little charm – you’ll get better results and you won’t make such an embarrassing spectacle. You’ll probably feel better, too.

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12 Responses to How to be a Respectable Traveler

  1. Really interesting and entertaining post! I’m off inter-railing round Europe in the summer and have set myself the task of learning a few phrases for every country 🙂 definitely the best advice to educate thyself

  2. kramerjen says:

    Great post, I whole-heartedly agree. Some people are so over-the-top rude to airline staff, who in many cases are just trying to get home, themselves.

  3. ehoney121 says:

    Great post–I agree with everything you said! It goes along perfectly with traveling in the Dominican!(:
    By the way, thank you for the “like” on my blog, its great seein’ you there!(:

  4. Good tips. I myself am a carry-on person, but my main reason is because I absolutely HATE waiting for the luggage carousel to give me back my bag. However, I’m a pretty efficient packer and I go through great lengths to ensure that my bag is the proper measurements. I was terrified that my bag would be oversized with a shoe poking out of the regular measurements; little did I know people were bringing on bags twice the size of mine!

    Also, good point on the sweatpants. I don’t mind seeing it in America because it’s more acceptable, but people need to be respectful when traveling to other countries.

    • I’m amazed how huge carry-ons are now. But I understand the desire to avoid the fee. As for sweatpants, I bristle every time I see someone in public wearing them unless they’re headed to/from the gym. But that’s just me.

      • Well, maybe it’s because I’m in and out of the gym a lot that I don’t mind them and am so comfortable in them haha! I’m also unrealistically terrified of planes and have read that you should wear things that are comfortable enough to run in lol.

  5. Haha really good article…pretty spot on.

  6. Totally with you! There is a lot to say about reciprocity. A simple smile will do wonders – even if it is to tell the check-in staff in Spain that even though Switzerland is not part of the EU, EU citizens do not require visas to get in… I will admit that my attempts at keeping a smile on my face during the whole ordeal may have made me come across as more of a maniac than a mentally stable passenger!

  7. cheriarnold says:

    Wonderful post! Sometimes I feel ashamed of my fellow Americans who insist on travelling to other nations and then expect the everything to be like it is in America! Just today as I took a day trip from Krabi to Koh Phi Phi, I heard an American on our boat say something about the fact that the driver for the boat was late and things like that would never be tolerated in an American business and why do they keep an employee like that??? Seriously, if you want to be treated like you are in America…go back there! But please don’t disgrace the rest of us who recognize that the Thai culture is not the same and are grateful for this wonderful opportunity to enjoy their country and the lovely people who live here….late or not!! Thanks for putting to words what many of us truly agree on – we are guests in another country…let’s act like a guest!! 🙂

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