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Six Shocking Stories of Travelers Gone Wild

You’ve seen the headlines about celebrities acting like jerks on planes. Alec Baldwin and his fondness for Words With Friends. Green Day’s Bille Joe Armstrong and his defense of saggy pants. Gerard Depardieu and his use of the aisle when temporarily barred from the bathroom.

But the recent story about English actor Colin Firth keeping his cool when a brawl broke out on his flight reminded me that not all celebs are misbehaving cretins. And it got me thinking: what about travelers who don’t have the star status to garner a big headline? Surely the rest of us are just as addicted to word games, occasionally wear ill-fitting clothes, or maybe have prostate issues. 

So, I went looking for eyewitness accounts from experienced travel editors describing bad manners they’d encountered among “regular” folks. Here’s what I found. 

Me, Me, Me

I’ll start with my own brief tale. Years ago, while flying back to Boston, I observed a first-class passenger traveling with his son. The man was reading The New York Times from front to back. As he finished each page, he carelessly pulled it from the still-folded newspaper and dropped it on the cabin floor at his feet. By the end of the trip, the stack of single sheets reached high enough to engulf the child’s seat. When the cabin door opened, the man grabbed his coat and bag, stepped through the pile, and left. The boy waded through the waist-high papers after him. Not celebrity-level outrageousness, certainly, but his disdain for the other people who had to confront his mess earned that man a permanent spot on my most-despicable list.

Illustrating another behavior in the same vein of “devil take the hindmost” effrontery, Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic, shared a recent experience. “When you’re lucky enough to score a row in coach that’s bookended by passengers, with empty seats in the middle that neither of us had paid for, who has the right to the space? On a 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney last month, my fellow row-sharer on our string of four chairs—two unoccupied—immediately stretched out across three of them (with his head on my armrest). I was too stunned to react quickly, though I’m pleased to say he slept well throughout the flight, if his snores were any sign. On the return flight, the same seat availability scenario applied. This time I immediately stacked my books, laptop and iPod on the seat next to me, as did he on his adjoining seat. That I thought was a fair use of the good luck.” 

It’s Not the Kids, It’s the Parents 

Crying babies may have a bad reputation as traveling companions, but they’re not trying to be rude. I mean, they’re babies. Of course, that doesn’t mean kids can’t be the catalyst for shamelessness in the “responsible” adults traveling with them. 

At, Senior Online Editor Jason Clampet compared notes with Editorial Director David Lytle, and sent along this example: “Parents on planes who screen movies for their children on laptops, tablets, or DVD players without using headphones. I see it all the time—usually on long-haul flights—and I don’t understand it. Would they put up with me blasting music on a boom box? I once asked a parent to turn it off and was told their kid didn’t like headphones so what could he do? I’ll point out that both David and I have kids under the age of five, so we know what it’s like to deal with a picky kid.”

Even auditory intrusiveness, however, pales beside an olfactory assault. Caroline Morse, Travel Deals Editor here at SmarterTravel, spoke of her most recent trip. “On my 35-minute flight back from Newark last night, the passenger behind me changed her baby’s diaper on the tray table and then just left the dirty diaper out, stinking up the plane!”

Personal Space? What Personal Space?

Sometimes, passenger rudeness transcends selfishness, smells, and sounds. Getting physical takes incivility up a notch to abusiveness.

Lissa Poirot, Executive Editor of Family Vacation Critic, spoke about one miserable flight. “The worst encounter I ever had was on a flight to Israel. After taking off on an overnight flight, I leaned my seat back only to have someone behind bang on my seat. I looked back and the woman sitting next to the man directly behind me yelled at me for putting the seat back, saying I was basically in her husband’s lap. I told her it was always tight but it was my right to lean back and go to sleep on an overnight flight, but she continued to yell at me, so I apologized and put my seat back up. While I was trying to sleep, the couple would grab my seat to stand up, and when I asked them to please stop, they said they couldn’t get out of their seats without pulling on mine. They stayed awake all night, and most appalling was when the woman decided to place her elbows on my chair and lean on my seat as she chatted to the couple across the aisle. They had absolutely no respect for anyone around them, and it was the worst flight I’ve ever had because of it.”

Travel Deals Editor Caroline Costello, also here at SmarterTravel, recounted how one traveler progressed beyond simply banging on the seatback. “When flying out of Portugal once, I reclined my seat and fell asleep. I woke up when the man sitting directly behind me grabbed my arm and shook me, yelling something in Portuguese (of which I know nothing). The flight attendant heard the ruckus and came over. The man was upset because my seat was reclined during mealtime, which he apparently thought was some kind of crime. I, on the other hand, felt that another person putting his hands on me was the more shocking offense.”

A Simple Solution 

Amid all the stories of travelers behaving badly, Patricia Magana, SmarterTravel’s Airfare Deals Editor, finds hope. “I’ve never really witnessed any shockingly rude behavior during my travels, but while flying once, a flight attendant gave a run down of common courtesies she wanted travelers on her flight to adhere to. Her most striking point was that those sitting in the middle seat got the short end of the stick and should therefore get both armrests. I thought her pleasant, yet authoritative, tone set the mood for the whole flight. In particular when they’re out of their element, adults will oftentimes behave like children and will try to get away with as much as they’re able to. If the cabin crew immediately sets the stage for a comfortable yet respectful flight, then travelers—celebrities or otherwise—will feel at ease, all the while behaving in a respectful manner.”

Your Turn

So, what do you think? Does civility go in the hold with checked bags while obnoxiousness gets comfortable in the cabin with the carry-ons. Please let us know what you’ve seen by adding a comment below or by emailing

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