The Best Ways to Deal With Annoying Seatmates

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Man clinging to airplane seat (Photo: Index Open)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on November 30, 2009. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, airport, passenger rights, Sarah Pascarella.

You've purchased your ticket, paid for your baggage fees, and gotten through security. You settle in for your flight, hoping to have an uneventful trip. Instead... you find yourself seated next to a toddler having a meltdown. Or a malodorous passenger. Or a rude seatmate. With cramped quarters, frazzled travelers, and overextended airline staff, flights nowadays are more synonymous with stress, and are widely regarded as a necessary evil that's part and parcel of the modern vacation.

It doesn't have to be that way, however. We recently asked you to describe your best practices when flying with irritating seatmates, and you shared your stories in droves. There are several passenger types that really get under your skin—misbehaving children, for one—but with the proper attitude and a cool temper, you can get through the most challenging flight with your blood pressure still in check.

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Lead by Example

Robin Abrahams, author of the Boston Globe's Miss Conduct column and new book, Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners, says, "The secret to happy air travel is to let go of your attachment to your destination. Just be in the moment, and keep yourself as hygienic, entertained, well-fed, and pleasant as possible." By making such a Zen-like attitude a priority, you may find yourself less prone to irritation from your fellow passengers.

"Much boils down to a lack of common courtesy," says SmarterTravel reader judymoody, who offered a laundry-list of practical advice: "Parents, do what you can to rein in your kids; if you're sick, don't hack on the person next to you; bathe before getting on the plane and use deodorant; don't drink to excess; keep your conversation to yourself unless your seatmate seems inclined to talk; don't kick the seat in front of you, use it to hoist yourself up, or otherwise invade your neighbor's space."

Additionally, before you head to the airport, pack your bag with stress-relieving extras. Make sure you have an MP3 player (preferably with noise-canceling headphones), a sleep mask, snacks, a good book and magazine, and the like. By having something distracting and entertaining on the plane, you may not even take notice of your fellow passengers.

Kill 'Em With Kindness

There's nothing that can escalate a bad situation so much as a heated temper. By making an effort to be pleasant and compassionate, you may find a tough flight becoming more bearable or even humorous. Attitude, as the saying goes, is everything.

Reader Virginia prefers aisle seating; when she travels, she always books two aisle seats across from one another for herself and her husband. She says, "When we board, both of us say to the two seatmates on our row, 'Please don't hesitate to let me know if you would like to get up to go to the lavatory or just to stretch your legs. I know what it's like to be in those seats and would like to get out of them for a few minutes, so ask as many times as you wish.' My seatmates are always gracious and kind when I extend this courtesy to them."

When seated next to a chatterbox, Abrahams recommends polite detachment. "Respond to the first couple of questions in a way that is civil, but makes it clear you're not interested in having a conversation. If your seatmate doesn't pick up the hint (and most people do), be polite but direct: 'It's been nice to meet you, but I have a tight schedule and need this flight to rest up.' Earphones and eyeshades, of course, can also be deployed to strategic effect."

By and large, the majority of reader horror stories came in about misbehaving children (and exhausted parents) on planes. But by taking a serene approach, a bad flight may even turn into a good one. As reader evrenios explains: "I was seated next to a mother who had a five-year-old girl with her. The mother was obviously exhausted and the young girl was noisy and fidgety throughout the flight. Finally, I looked over at the girl and asked what kind of picture she was drawing. She showed it to me and I began drawing and coloring with her. ... When the flight ended (much quicker than I expected), she shyly handed me a picture she had made. It was a smiling lady who was helping a little girl draw! I cherished that for a long time and discovered that there is joy often found in the middle of a difficult situation."

"Try addressing [a misbehaving] child directly: 'You probably don't realize, but I can feel it when you kick my seat. Can you try not to do that?'" says Abrahams. "Kids often respond well to being treated like reasonable beings (as do adults)."

Ask for Assistance

If being polite doesn't have the intended effect, enlist your flight crew for help. If your flight isn't full, you may be able to be re-seated. If there are no empty seats available, there may be creative solutions you can employ to make the best of a bad flight.

For example, when reader Janet Davis found herself stuck in the middle seat next to a less-than-hygienic man on a flight from JFK to Los Angeles, she requested a seat change and was informed the flight was full. "[The flight attendant] apologized ... and went into the kitchen area and gave me two packages of fresh coffee grinds. It was a brilliant solution. I kept the packets right by my nose for the entire trip. Since I could go nowhere else, I thought this was a very good answer." As a pre-flight precaution, you may want to pack a similar packet, potpourri sachet, or other pleasant (but not overbearing) fragrance to take along with you in case you get seated next to someone who's not so clean.

Reader Arianna261 says, "I have found that if you approach the flight attendant in the right away, they will do everything and anything possible to make your flight more comfortable for you."

Reader cebkcmo agrees. "On a Virgin Atlantic flight to London I was confronted with a family with two young children behind me. Even before the cabin doors were shut, the children started to kick the back of my seat. After takeoff I very nicely asked the cabin attendant about options for reseating (the flight looked very full in coach). She could tell that I was going to have an unpleasant flight. After about 30 minutes, the lead flight attendant ... located another seat. I grabbed my carry-ons and proceeded to follow him. I was pleasantly surprised to find my seat was in Virgin's Upper Class. The lesson here is that dealing politely and patiently with the crew will get you much further than confrontation with those passengers who are making your flight unpleasant."

Take Action Post-Flight

If you've exhausted every option on-board and still had a particularly bad flight experience, consider getting in touch with your airline after the flight. Write your airline's customer service department a detailed letter, including the date of your trip and flight number, and describe the unpleasant situation. Be courteous and request reparations. While you may not receive a refund, you may be rewarded with flight credits or vouchers, bonus frequent flyer points, and the like. It never hurts to get in touch after the flight if the experience wasn't to your satisfaction.

You can find the specific procedures for filing a complaint on your carrier's website. Many also post customer service commitment statements, FAQs, and more.

Know Possible Consequences

A final note: Before you leave, familiarize yourself with your airline's contract of carriage. In light of the recent Allegiant Airlines snafu (where a mother and her noisy children were booted off their flight), it's important to know that, in many cases, your airline crew can refuse the right of service to passengers not adhering with company standards or policy. Seen in this context, behavior, etiquette, and hygiene become more than just good personal practices—they can influence whether you even get to take your trip at all.

Do you have a constructive way of dealing with an unpleasant seatmate or difficult flight experience? Share your advice by submitting a comment below!

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