The Etiquette Rules of Getting Up to Use the Airplane Bathroom (When Your Neighbor Is Asleep)

Quit awkwardly holding your bladder and follow this etiquette expert's advice.

You’re sitting on a long flight when all that bottled water finally catches up with you. After all, there’s a gross reason you shouldn’t drink the tap water. When you turn around to ask your neighbor if you can get out, though, you realize the passenger is fast asleep. What’s a bathroom-bound traveler to do?

“First off, know that it’s a completely normal and appropriate thing to have to ask someone next to you to move so you can get to the restroom,” Courtney Fadler, founder of professional etiquette service CF Etiquette, told Reader’s Digest. “This is not a faux pas, no matter how many ‘sighs’ your seatmate may give you when you ask.” These are the 13 things you should never do at the airport.

As long as you figure the logistics out, you should feel free to shimmy past without interrupting your neighbor’s nap, etiquette expert Jo Bryant tells the Telegraph. “You need to be confident there is enough room to get past comfortably, without using the headrest in front as a lever,” she says. “If you decide to go for it, then always face forward and keep physical contact to a minimum.” Falling asleep on a plane is hard enough after all, so as long as you don’t bump your aisle partner, there’s no harm done. Once you’re back in your seat, steal these 14 tips for sleeping on a plane so you arrive refreshed.

If you’re wondering whether you should tell your seatmates about your bladder situation, Fadler says there’s no need to specifically tell them you are going to the restroom. “A simple, ‘Excuse me, may I trouble you to get by you for a moment,’ will do,” says Fadler. “Just like when excusing yourself from a dining table, your fellow seatmates don’t need to know the details of where you are headed. So, in the name of good manners, feel free to keep that one to yourself.” Still figuring out where you should book your seat? These are the very best airplane seats for every type of need.

However, mentioning your bathroom break to your seatmates may not be such a bad idea after all. Checking beforehand “perhaps is the most sensible and least embarrassing option of all,” Bryant says. And if you’re the lucky one with the outermost seat, feel free to tell your aisle mates what you’d prefer, too, so they don’t have to have that same awkward inner debate. Make sure you know these genius tricks flight attendants use to deal with smelly bathrooms.

No one likes being woken up from a nap, especially on a red-eye or a long flight. “If the person next to you is snoozing or enjoying something on their headphones, simply say “excuse me” and tap them lightly on the arm,” says Fadler. “Once you have their attention, it’s nice to offer a small and sincere apology and ask if they mind if you pass by. The polite thing on their end is to either stand up if possible or at minimum shift their knees to the side so that you may pass by.” If you’re looking for a better seat, flight attendants reveal the right way to swap airplane seats.

But if you’re considering inching by without waking your seatmate, you have to be absolutely sure you can make it, Bryant stresses. If you think there’s a chance you’ll wake the sleeping passenger up, you’re better off waking the person up and asking to get out. Don’t worry, as much as no one hates being lurched awake, your neighbor will most likely understand. About 80 percent of travelers say it’s OK to wake someone up to get to the bathroom, according to a British Airways survey of 1,500 people.

But what happens if you try waking up your seatmate but they’re fast asleep and don’t wake up? Fadler recommends in those situations to reach out for help. “If the person is asleep and you cannot wait and are unable to wake them in one or two tries, enlist the help of the flight attendant. They are trained to handle all of these situations, so never be afraid to lean on them for help in tricky situations!” Here are 22 things your flight attendant won’t tell you.

“Lastly and just as important, when you pass by to make your way into the aisle, please take care not to pull back on the headrest of the person in front!” Fadler says. “Your goal is to disrupt as few people as possible.” Next, make sure you know these 10 things polite people don’t do on airplanes.

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s Medscape.com and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.
Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at RD.com. Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: www.madelinehwahl.com