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22 Rules to Follow Next Time You Fly

Avoid these mistakes for a smooth flight.

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Empty airplane
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Flight done right

Flying in a plane requires a lot of remembering: Did I pack everything on my checklist? Am I wearing the right clothes? Did I bring along my passport? Can I even bring food on the plane? The mental checklists are endless, but it’s more important than ever to be prepared. As Terry Suero, Senior Board Member of Safe Travel Pathways, says, “Until the airlines are back to normal with routes and staffing, it is important to plan for the unexpected. Flights will be delayed; airplanes will be in the tarmac for extended periods of time; staffing is limited; people are stressed; flights will be canceled; etc.” Not to mention getting through security without flagging TSA’s attention. One key to a stress-free trip? Make sure you never do these things on an airplane.

Little girl relaxing in the airplane
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Please! Don’t walk around barefoot

Going shoeless on a plane might annoy your neighbor, but there’s a more important reason you shouldn’t do it. Flight attendants have seen everything from vomit to blood to spilled food hit that carpet. “We see people walking from their seats into the bathrooms all the time barefoot and we cringe because those floors are full of germs,” says Linda Ferguson, a flight attendant for 24 years. “Never walk barefoot into the bathroom or the galley area because sometimes we drop glasses and there could be sharp glass there, too.”

Cup of coffee on airplane tray table by window
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Skip coffee, tea, and ice

An EPA study in 2004 found that out of 327 aircraft’s water supplies, only 15 percent passed health standards. Since the 2009 creation of the EPA’s Aircraft Drinking Rule Act, standards have risen and most airplanes don’t serve drinking water from the tap, but their ice cubes are often still made from the same water. “Water tanks on an airplane are old and they’ve tested them and bacteria is in those tanks,” explains Ferguson. “I would definitely drink bottled water—that’s why they hoard tons of bottles on an airplane.” Your flight attendant won’t tell you this, but that’s also why you should avoid ordering coffee or tea during your flight—it’s been made with plane water.

Airline Snacks (Pretzels) & Beverage
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Don’t eat food after it’s fallen on the tray table

Airline crews do their best to sanitize the plane, but there are still things on a plane that don’t get cleaned as well as they should. “The tray table is notorious,” says Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “Those tray tables are used for all kinds of things,” adds Ferguson. “During flights, I’ve seen parents changing babies on top of tray tables. I’ve seen people put their bare feet on top of tray tables.” One study found that trays harbor an average of 2,155 colony-forming units of bacteria per square inch. Compare that with the 265 units on the lavatory flush button. And while all samples tested negative for potentially infectious bacteria such as E. coli, you’ll still want to steer clear of that tray. An extra safety tip in the time of COVID-19: Wipe down your tray table and any other surfaces with disinfectant wipes before using.

Toilet on airplane

Don’t touch the flush button in the bathroom

It’s a good idea to put a little thought into the way you flush an airplane toilet. Like other public spaces on airplanes, the bathroom is also a major place for germs. To protect yourself, wash your hands thoroughly and use a paper towel to press the flush button and to open the door. “When you go to the bathroom, the right thing to do is always wash your hands, dry your hands with a towel, and then use the towel to turn off the water and even open up the door,” says Catherine Sonquist Forest, MD, primary care doctor at Stanford University Health Care. “You don’t want to not flush the toilet—everyone should flush the toilet—but wash your hands with soapy water and use a towel.”

Man traveling by plane and sleeping
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Don’t use the blankets

There’s a reason airplane blankets are on the list of things you can’t take from a plane. In many cases, those blankets and pillows offered are recycled from flight to flight and don’t get properly washed until the day is over. Items like pillows and blankets are ideal places for germs and lice to camp out and spread from person to person. “I see people wrap their feet in the blankets, I see people sneeze in the blankets,” Ferguson says. Bring your own travel blankets or warmer clothes, like sweatshirts or jackets, to stay warm while flying.

Airplane tray table with a cup of water
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Don’t forget to stay hydrated

Parched throat mid-flight? Don’t just blame the salty snacks. Airplane cabins are known for their low humidity because the manufactured air in the cabin is made to mimic the highest altitude humans can breathe at, usually between 6,000 and 8,000 feet, according to the World Health Organization. “For every leg of [a] flight, each flight attendant will try to drink a full 16 ounces of water,” says Ferguson. “That’s the most important. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.” You might not think of it as an airplane hack, but drinking plenty of water could be the difference between showing up at your destination refreshed and stepping off the plane with a headache.

Girl touching her face on an airplane
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Don’t touch your face after you’ve touched your seat

Though a full meal is a flight experience you likely won’t be having during the pandemic, you’ll probably break open a snack during a long flight. Just don’t do it after you’ve touched your seat. “I see plenty of people carry Lysol wipes with them that will wipe the area around their seat,” says Ferguson. “If there was a backlight and they could light up a plane with all the germs, I think it would petrify everybody. My rule of thumb is I never put my hands in my mouth or near my face.” If you do need to touch your face, just be sure to use some hand sanitizer first.

bathroom sign on an airplane
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Don’t line up for the bathroom

Long lines at the bathroom may be a habit that changes after coronavirus. “If passengers brazenly queue up for the bathroom mid-flight, those who are seated near to the toilets will have no choice but to be in close proximity with several people. So, don’t disregard other passengers’ safety just because this system wasn’t a health issue previously,” says Satwinder Singh of Citrus Holidays. So instead of joining a long line, just keep your eyes peeled for a better opportunity to use the lavatory.

Luggage bag with alcohol gel hand sanitizer in international airport terminal, protection Coronavirus disease (Covid-19) infection. New Normal and travel bubble concepts
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Don’t forget the hand sanitizer

There is perhaps no better use for hand sanitizer than on an airplane. “Because aircraft are small enclosed spaces, they have many ‘high touch’ areas,” aviation industry expert Steve Deane of Stratos Jet Charters says. “For example, it’s very common for passengers walking up the aisle to touch the top of every seat along the way to steady themselves.” By sanitizing your hands before and after touching items while on your flight, you can help prevent the spread of germs to both yourself and others. Don’t forget to bring along some disinfectant wipes as well.

Credit card payment in airplane
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Don’t apply for an impulse credit card

At some point on your flight, or maybe at several points, a flight attendant will probably give you a pitch for a credit card. If you’re trying to pay less for airfare, the offers can be tempting since they come with perks like airline miles, but according to Andrea Woroch, consumer and money-saving expert, you should hold off on that decision. She says, “Flight attendants may present tempting reward offers from the airline’s co-branded credit card that may be enough to earn free flights when you sign up. Be mindful, though, that these bonus rewards will only be activated if you spend a certain amount of money within the first few months of account opening. And, the better the bonus, the bigger that minimum spend will be. This means you need to really consider if that minimum spend threshold is easy for you to meet to qualify for the bonus. Otherwise, you may find yourself spending more to reach that minimum which is a waste of money.”

A roomy interior of an airplane
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Don’t use middle armrests unless you’re in the middle seat

Have you ever wondered who has dibs on middle armrests? Well, you’ll be glad to know the experts agree it’s the person in the middle seat. “The unlucky passenger who has the middle seat should be granted the privilege of using both armrests,” says Rose Gray with Fox World Travel.

Daniel Levine with the Avant-Guide Institute agrees with Gray. He adds, “This is one economy class rule that nobody but the most seasoned frequent flyers know.” Now that you’re “armed” with this information, you can make sure you never make this particular travel mistake again. And yes, the pun was intended.

Passengers disembarking aircraft on arrival, back view
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Don’t try to cut the line when you’re disembarking

We get it. Long flights are exhausting and you want to get off the plane as quickly as possible, but cutting the line isn’t something polite people do on airplanes. Besides that, allowing the people in the rows ahead of you to leave first will actually speed up the process for everyone. Gray puts it simply: “Disembark in an orderly way. Everyone is anxious to get off and many other passengers have a tight connection.”

Interior of airplane with people sitting on seats
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Don’t stand up immediately when the flight lands

There’s a reason the fasten your seat belt sign remains on after you touch down on the tarmac. “Do not stand up immediately when the plane lands” says Bayram Annakov, Founder and CEO of App in the Air. In fact, he says it could be dangerous since the plane is still in motion. So if you want to avoid injury, just follow the airplane safety rules and wait until your hardworking flight crew tells you it’s safe to stand.

Happy woman talking to flight attendant in an airplane.
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Don’t be afraid to ask to be moved if necessary

Kunjana Mavunda, M.D., board-certified travel medicine physician at KIDZ Medical in South Florida, recommends her patients take common-sense precautions like wearing multi-layer or surgical masks instead of cloth masks, using sanitizing wipes to clean their seat, and applying hand sanitizer. She also tells her patients that if someone around them isn’t observing COVID restrictions (for instance, the guy wearing his mask under his nose, or the one not wearing a mask at all) you should find a flight attendant and ask to be moved.

Passengers on airplane
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Don’t wait until the last minute to use the bathroom

One of the simplest airplane hacks is knowing when to use the bathroom. Says Levine, “Don’t wait for the announcement that the plane has started its initial descent to go to the bathroom unless you want to wait in a long line.” Even if you don’t mind lines, there’s another reason to avoid using the bathroom at the end of the flight. At that point, those toilets have seen a lot of action. As Levine puts it, “Don’t wait until the end of the flight to go to the bathroom if you like clean bathrooms.”

Empty airplane seats in second class on an international flight during August peak season
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Don’t recline your seat during take-off or landing

There are constant debates about whether or not it is appropriate to encroach on the space of the passenger behind you by reclining your seat. While this might come down to personal opinion, there are actually times when reclining your seat is illegal. Levine says, “According to the FAA, it is illegal to recline at the very beginning and end of flights. That’s because those are the most dangerous times during a flight and it should be as easy as possible to get out if you have to.”

Overhead luggage storage on empty airplane
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Don’t close the overhead bins

While you might think you’re being helpful if you close an airplane bin that appears to be full, it’s up to the flight crew to make that determination. Says Levine, “Travelers coming down the aisle need to know if those bins have any room left for them. Maybe someone else is just looking for a place to stash a bulky coat. Even in a bin full of bags, there may be room for something small or squishy. I’m constantly walking down the aisle popping open bins to see if there is room for my tiny computer case. Unfortunately, almost every flyer closes the overhead bin when they themselves feel they are full.” So resist the urge to be “helpful” when it comes to closing the bins to make sure everyone has a chance to stash their carry-on items.

Young woman using a phone while traveling in an airplane
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Don’t make loud phone calls

Yes, technically you’re allowed to use the phone while boarding a plane, but that doesn’t mean you should. Gray says, “Be respectful when using your phone. The entire plane does not need to hear that urgent last-minute business call.” So whenever possible, opt for a text message or email instead. Gray also adds that if you absolutely must make a call, it’s important to obey the flight attendants when they tell you it’s time to put your phone in airplane mode. And definitely don’t turn your phone on before the plane has touched down. Pilots won’t tell you this, but it can interfere with their readings of how high the plane is.

Flight Attendant
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Don’t recline your seat during meal or snack service

You might not be hungry, but the person sitting behind you might be looking forward to having a bite to eat. Gray says, “Don’t recline your seat during in-flight meal service (mostly for international flights where full meals are served, but also for snack/beverage service on domestic flights).” If you do, the person behind you will have very little space to enjoy their snack or airplane meal.

Stewardess on airplane
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Don’t argue with the flight attendant

Flying makes some people crabby, especially when something goes wrong. We get it, but don’t take it out on the flight attendant. You might not like wearing a mask or a seat belt, but it’s the flight attendant’s job to enforce the rules, so “no” is on the list of things you shouldn’t say to a flight attendant. Not only is it the wrong thing to do, but as Levine says, “That’s the quickest way to get you booted from the airplane or even the airline altogether.”

High Angle View Of Man Removing Pills From Bottle
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Don’t pack your medication in your suitcase

In a perfect world, our checked bags would always arrive at our final destination on time. In real life, however, that doesn’t always happen. According to Suero, medication is one of the things you should always keep in your carry-on bag. He says, “Bags can easily be delayed or even lost. Clothes can be bought, but those pills might be harder to replace, especially internationally.”

Senior man puts heavy luggage into plane's overhead compartment
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Don’t forgo a seat assignment

If you’re flying basic economy on certain airlines, you won’t have an option to choose your seat until a day or two before you depart. Otherwise, it’ll be assigned at the airport. Suero says it’s far more advantageous to get your airplane seat in advance. He explains, “People with unassigned seats tend to be the first ones taken off planes when the flights are oversold.” So if you don’t want to miss your cousin’s wedding or spend six hours at the airport, select your seats in advance if you can. Speaking of being reliable, this is the most reliable airport in the United States.


Tamara Gane
Tamara Gane is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest. She's a travel expert who takes an average of 30 to 40 trips a year and covers vacation destinations, luggage, road trips, air travel and hotels.