5 things frequent fliers wish you knew (but are afraid to tell you)

Experienced business travelers are the road warriors of the sky, and with so many miles under their belts, there are a few lessons they’ve picked up along the way. And there are some things they really, really, wish casual leisure travelers knew.

1. The person in the middle gets the armrest.

Sitting in the middle is not fun for anyone. The unspoken rule of the sky is that whoever has to sit in the middle should have priority access to the armrests. The folks in the aisle and the window seats have their own armrests to use on the other side. If you are in an aisle or window seat and you’re hogging the middle armrests, the person in the middle really, really, hates you. It’s just rude.

2. If you find yourself in the TSA PreCheck line, do not take off your shoes or belt, and do not remove your liquids or your laptop.

TSA supposedly ended the managed inclusion program, but every time I fly I find newbies in the PreCheck line holding up what is supposed to be a faster, hassle-free process by trying to take their shoes off or remove their bag of liquids. Then the TSA agents waste more time explaining the rules. Please, please, read up on current security rules before you embark for the airport. Bonus tip: even the regular security process is a bit different in Europe.

3. If you’re sitting in the first row in economy, both of your carry-on bags have to go in an overhead bin.

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If you’re sitting in the first row of the economy section, you may notice that there is no “seat in front of you” under which to put your smaller carry-on. If my experience is any indication, most people try to put their bags on their lap. Yes, I know you probably planned to access your bag in-flight. Yes, I know it’s inconvenient to put it up top. Yes, you have to anyway. Don’t wait for the flight attendant to ask if you really have to put it up there. Put that bag up top. You can get it once the plane reaches cruising altitude and the captain turns off the seat belt sign.

4. Under no circumstances should you place your bag in an overhead bin towards the front of the plane if you are seated in the back. And there’s a proper way to put your bag in.

Overhead bin space is precious real estate. Believe me, I know. That doesn’t give you an excuse to stick your bag in the first open bin you see while on your way to your seat in row 35. It forces people towards the front of the plane to have to store their bags in the back of the plane where yours should be — and that means they have to wait for everyone to deplane after the flight in order to get to their bag. That’s rude. Furthermore, check first if your bags go in wheels first to maximize the number of bags in the bin. It doesn’t go in sideways. Be courteous and conscientious of how much space your bag is taking up. If it doesn’t fit, check it.

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5. Some people really don’t want to chit chat. Know your audience.

Have you ever heard the expression “read the room”? This couldn’t be more important than on a plane. Sure, the temptation is high to commiserate with your seat mates if you’ve had a few delays and a few more cocktails. Or maybe you just like to get to know new people. Maybe your seat mate wants to chat, too, and you’ll become lifelong friends. Or, more likely, your seat mate just wants some peace and quiet. Read your audience — is the person trying to put in headphones? Are they leaning away? Closing their eyes? Giving one-word answers to your questions? Not reciprocating questions? Then they don’t want to talk. This is especially true for business travelers. Give them the courtesy of a quiet flight.

Frequent travelers — what else do you wish less experienced travelers knew? What tips can you share to convert them to seasoned pros and make the flying experience better for everyone?

Heather Dratler

Lover of all things travel and hospitality, both from a personal and professional standpoint. A PR pro by day, I've represented a wide variety of clients in the travel industry since 2008. Sharing my passion for and knowledge of travel makes me happy. Cornell University graduate. Follow me on Twitter @HeatherLori7.

  • Extramail

    Don’t fly if you want a pleasant travel experience. Seriously, don’t ask someone to give up a “better” seat if you want to sit with your traveling companion. If you want someone to swap, then give up your “better” seat and you’re more likely to get what you want. And, yes, I hate that all seats are not equal but I didn’t make the rules.

  • John Baker

    Umm… “Like will you switch me your first row aisle for my last row, middle, next to the lav seat so I can sit with my friend” “No ? … How rude!”

  • Scott Fagen

    Please don’t complain _before_ you’ve been wronged. Too many casual travelers get to the airport expecting everything to go wrong and cop the attitude that goes with that expectation. Millions of passengers take uneventful trips every day, the likelihood is yours will be fine, too. A little courtesy (“please,” “thank you”), respect (“excuse me?” vs. “WHAT???”) and even a smile for the people who work at the airport and airlines pays dividends.

  • Noah Kimmel

    “your poor planning is not my emergency but if you ask nicely and offer a reasonable exchange, I will happily accept”

  • tio2girl

    I’m with you except for the poor planning part. Sometimes changes are made beyond a traveler’s control! Still should make it an up-sell or somehow better for the person you’re trying to trade with.

  • Nathan Witt

    1. If you are in boarding group 5, you don’t need to sprint for the gate and stand in the way as soon as the gate agent says, “We’re now ready to begin pre-boarding…” If you have a boarding pass, you’re getting on the plane. Honest. If there is somehow not room for the coffee-table-sized suitcase you think is a carry-on, the flight crew will gate-check it for you, and they won’t charge you for it. They’ll most likely give it back at the gate on the other end, and you won’t have to go to baggage claim to get it.

    2. While boarding, it would be lovely if you could step into your row while loading your stuff into the overhead. That way, all the folks behind you can keep going down the aisle. I realize that this is not always possible if someone’s already sitting there, etc., and if it’s not, everyone behind you understands. But if there’s space and you’re able-bodied, please notice that there are other people in the world and take those little steps that help everyone work together.

    3. You’re not going to get an upgrade unless you pay for it with cash or miles. The gate agent appreciates that it’s your birthday, anniversary, first time flying, etc., but they aren’t going to give you a pair of first-class seats on that flight to London because you ask. The other people in line behind you at the gate have to work out standby issues and missed connections, or they’re trying to get their family seated together.

  • Regina Litman

    Tip to frequent fliers from an infrequent flier:

    Please do not refer to destinations or airlines by their codes. You may know, to use an example posted here today, that MCO is Orlando, but someone may try to decipher it as Mexico City and think that Orlando is ORL. Or even ORD, which is Chicago, which is not CHI because then what would Midway (MDW) be? And you may know, to use another example posted today, that UA is United Airlines, but others may wonder why you’re still speaking of USAirways (US) in the present tense. I had a heck of a time deciphering WN until I finally learned that it’s what I would have logically thought was SW – Southwest.

    Oh, and we are passengers holding tickets subject to the weather, not pax holding tix subject to the wx.

  • ctporter

    I think travelers SHOULD know the airport codes, they should be checking to see the right code on luggage tags to ensure their bags are going to the right airport. With the ease of internet access and searches it is not that out of line to use the language of travel, especially if they can find sites like this to learn about what they should know and expect. IMHO, I think it is similar to using LOL, FYI, BRB, YMMV, etc. (meanings of all can be found online by searching what is xxx, or what airline is WN, or what airport code is SAT)

  • ctporter

    I would also add travelers should check in online and print up the boarding pass before leaving home. Know the cut off time for checking bags prior to clearing security (which also means asking how long it takes to clear security at the airport at the time of travel, when you need to be at the gate (some airlines do board early), and factor those times into travel plans. Also know that sometimes events happen, have a plan for what to do in that event. For example, when flying through airports that often have flights cancelled due to weather try to avoid the last flight out of the day.

  • Tanya

    Don’t block access to the gate and as people are walking by, shout at them, are you in first/business or a platinum member of whatever airline. Leave that to the gate agents. You will get your seat on the plane. I promise I am not going to take your seat, I have my own.
    Adhere to the carry on rules.
    Don’t think you are special, or your kids. I mean, we are special snowflakes, not just you and yours, right? At least to someone.
    Roll with it. We all have somewhere else we would rather be than stuck in an airport for yet another delay. Getting upset is only raising your blood pressure and is really not helpful.
    Know your rights. Know when an airline should provide compensation/food/lodging AND when they are under no obligation to.
    Don’t get drunk – anyone sit next to a drunk person, yeah, that’s no fun. Or the person who paid for a window and is up 15 times during a 3 hour flight.
    Be polite. This is probably the number one thing.

  • Bill

    Thanks especially for 2. I am really tired of people who think showering can be replaced by an overly-liberal application of nasty cologne, perfume or lotion. I couldn’t care less if your perfume/cologne/lotion costs $5,000 a bottle … it still stinks. My daughter and I both have asthma with one of the prominent triggers being strong smells … especially the chemically-synthesized junk foisted on people as perfume or cologne. I wear none out of respect for anyone and use unscented lotion. If you smell, take a darn shower!

  • tomg63

    This is what google is for. I agree in speech, but in writing I think the codes give much more information than just the city names.

  • Jeff W.

    I can certainly understand the frustration, but this website for a long time dealt with travel issues only and Chris has branched out to other forms of consumer protection. Yeah Chris! A site about computers will use computer jargon, a sports site will use sport terms, and a travel site will use travel lingo.

    But in the age of texting an Twitter, shortening words is becoming more and more common. When I don’t understand a phrase, do a search.

  • Regina Litman

    I’m talking about posts here and in other places, where people are telling stories or otherwise recounting experiences, and some frequent fliers may either be showing off their knowledge,especially about foreign cities or small town commuter/regional airports. I agree that if you are flying to Cincinnati and you are expecting a baggage tag that says CIN and get one that says CVG instead (as happened to me the first time I went there), you should question this. And then you’ll learn that CVG is Cincinnati. Then there are what I call the three mysterious M’s – Orlando MCO, New Orleans MSY, and Kansas City MCI. (Did that last one get changed? I thought I saw something different for them a while back.) And Canada is completely confusing with everything starting with Y! If I ever fly there, I will be sure to triple check that one!

  • Regina Litman

    Funny you should mention this. I have a personal rule of not using Google or other references to look up unknown words, abbreviations, or persons but instead asking the original posters to please elaborate. Education for me in their hoped-for response, education for them that not everyone knows what YMMV stands for or who Alan Rickman was.

    Just yesterday, regular contributor Andrew Der must have anticipated people like me when he told us to look up a word that he knew would be a stumper for a lot of us. Grr! I just skipped over it and didn’t bother to look it up.

    Most embarrassing moment – when I asked for ROFLMAO to please be spelled out. I knew ROFL but not the longer form.

  • ctporter

    Or, as happened to me one evening a long time ago whileI making a connection in CVG. I was in the bar adjacent to my gate and noticed a sign posted that talked about Kentucky liquor laws, it freaked me out because I was sure Cincinnati was in Ohio and thought I had somehow gotten on the wrong flight! (the airport is actually in Kentucky)
    BTW, it is an interesting read to learn how the airport codes are determined. Y for the Canadian airports had to do with whether or not there was an airport associated with a weather station or not. The Navy reserves N for their codes which is the reason why Newark is EWR. There was a great Ted Talk about this a long time ago, can’t find it now but there are lots of other sources out on the internet.

  • ctporter

    For the most part “when” you board does not really matter except for a few seats. When sitting in a bulkhead ALL items must be stored in the overhead bin. Unfortunately the bins near bulkheads fill up first. I can understand why some passengers get frustrated by people that block access to the priority lanes despite not being able to board yet, there really is no excuse for that. It IS possible to stand near the gate and yet not block access to those being called to board before you.

  • James

    Yes — after all, we all know where Norman Minetta Airport is, as well as James Armstrong airport, Tullamarine airport, Frederic Chopin airport, etc.

  • John Baker

    MCO stands for McCoy Air Force base. Its the SAC base that predates Orlando International. Initially the two shared runways and OIA took over the airfield when the base closed (If you look at the southern end of the western most runway you can still see the old SAC alert tree, alert facility and nuke bunkers).

    MCI is the Mid-Continent International Airport. Mid Continent was an airline based in KC that merged with Braniff.

    CVG is short for Covington. The major city in KY closest to where the airport is located (its actually in Hebron).

    MSY is Moisant Stock Yards. Moisant was an early aircraft daredevil that crash in the ag lands that became the airport (NEW was already taken)

    ORD is for Orchard Field. O’Hare’s original name and named after the community it was in. The airport way renamed for a WWII ace (there’s a historical plaque and explanation between terminal 1 & 2)

    I always wondered so I started digging …. especially after I saw the alert tree at MCO

  • pauletteb


  • pauletteb

    I consider every unfamiliar term an opportunity to learn something . . . it’s all part of life’s adventure!

  • Then there’s OGG for Kahului, HI, named after a locally famous pilot called Hogg.

  • The Original Joe S

    a certain airline used to do that, and the rabble who bought the cheapest tickets glommed up all the newspapers before the higher-paying customers got on. Looks like they fixed it after many complaints.

  • Tracy T.

    I wish I could up vote this a million times!

  • CommonSense

    rollaboards should go in wheels out, not in. If they are a tight fit they will be more likely to fit that way. Also, when you lift your bag up to put in the overhead, turn and face the bin squarely. You can then better use your arms and back muscles to lift the bag over your head. If you can’t lift it, then you should check it.

  • disruptivethoughts

    The same could be said about failure to replace or stack the X-ray machine trays despite printed instructions in multiple languages. This and failure to remove coats or respect the restrictions on liquids, slow up the process for everyone, passengers and staff alike! I should add that this even happens in the priority security lane.

  • disruptivethoughts

    This does happen occasionally, particularly with Lufthansa, and it makes obvious sense. Frequent flyers still have to go first though, which somewhat defeats the object because they’re more likely to be sat at the front. Another option is not to use an airbridge and therefore board by the front and back doors at the same time.

  • James

    CDG was blissful after going through CAI.

  • Noah Kimmel

    sadly, those internet lists for “how to get an airline upgrade” are utter garbage. Dress nice? Fake an occasion? Be friendly and ask? The gate computers are now sophisticated enough that they have an upgrade list of elite members usually much longer than the number of available seats + a list of who can upgrade if the list is fulfilled (usually by cost of ticket) + tracking and reason codes required for any changes to those lists where “he dressed well” is not an option. On this site, we see airlines have trouble showing compassion in difficult times, they certainly won’t give you a big upgrade for nothing.

  • 42NYC

    Show a little courtesy to airline/airport employees. Yes there may be some bad apples in the bunch but you’re bound to have a much better interaction if you start off on a positive note. Take out your earbuds. Say please/thank you. Smile. Don’t bark orders at them.

    And yes, sometimes things may go awry. Weather happens, connections are missed, planes have mechanical issues. You may be frustrated but its not the fault of the gate agent that thunderstorms are causing severe delays or that the plane has an issue. Believe me, they want to get you to your destination timely and safely just as much as you do and likely have dozens if not hundreds of other passengers theyre trying to assist as well. They’ve likely already been yelled at by a dozen other passengers in the past hour, so why not try to be friendly and work together rather than criticizing their airline, telling them they should be fired and proclaiming you’re never going to fly their airline again.

  • Noah Kimmel

    And here I thought MCO was Mickey’s corporate offices… :)

  • Noah Kimmel

    it has been shown a few times that pure random boarding i.e. calling “all aboard” is the fastest way to board a flight. But fastest is not the same as best for all customers. Back to front is certainly more efficient than the current system, but the timing difference is small.

    Airlines like rewarding frequent fliers, and frequent fliers like the benefit of boarding first – in premium cabins it lets you have a drink on the ground. In coach it gives you access to bin space. If one major carrier dropped it, a lot of low elites might change airlines as being forced to gate check more often would be frustrating for people who fly each week. In addition, things like random boarding have been shown to be more stressful for customers.

  • 42NYC

    Would make more sense but in the era of the ‘status passenger’ and the credit card that gets you ‘zone 1 boarding’ you’re going to get a lot of upset passengers who lose this privelege and board last (since theyre likely to be closer to the front of the plane) then get forced to gate check their bags.

  • James

    I don’t understand why airlines don’t require passengers to use the overhead ins nearest their seat. A long time ago I recall once seeing this, a late passenger (late connection) arrived to a flight, and the bins overhead were packed with no seats occupied (1990’s .. when airplanes didn’t fly at 95% capacity) The flight attendant looked at the bags and asked nearby passengers to identify their bags — and the bags that were not identified were gate checked….

  • Zann77

    I was with you until you now, Regina. Why depend on someone else to do for you that which you can so easily do yourself?

  • sofar

    YES on #1. So much YES. I hate it when I’m in Boarding group 1 or 2 and politely stand at the back of the boarding line, only to find out the jerks in front of me are Group 4 and just milling around/hoping to trick people into boarding after them so they get overhead space.

    So, lately, I’ve begun asking people, “Hey, which group are you?” and if they’re a later boarding group, I jump ahead of them. I get glared at sometimes, but what can you do?

  • Peter

    Last year I had the experience of being asked to give up my aisle seat (that I had booked weeks earlier) in exchange for a middle seat so that a couple could sit together. I politely declined their generous offer.

  • Peter

    People who try to push ahead after the plane lands (pretending everyone near and in front of them doesn’t exist) are pretty rude (unless they have some kind od emergency cinnection, in which case they might ask the flight attendant to make an announcement and ask their fellow passengers to let them off first, but this is rarely the case).

    Also, people with hanging bags who wack every aisle passenger the entire length of the plane win few friends.

    Also, people who find their new-found friends in the seat behind you, and proceed to have a loud, multi-hour conversation for much of the duration of a red-eye flight are being pretty thoughtless.

  • LonnieC

    With the exception of knowing the “TLAs” (Three Letter Acronyms) related to the locations to which one is traveling, I think I disagree. Readers of this site vary in their travel knowledge. By using travel-related acronyms it slows down the process of comprehending what the writer is trying to say. The hallmark of good writing is communicating well so that one can be easily understood. Most acronyms (obvious exceptions: FBI, IRS, JFK, etc.) just serve to slow down the reader by adding the process of leaving the text, going elsewhere to determine the meaning, and then returning to the original text. (And yes, I had to look up “BRB” and “YMMV”.)

  • Grant Ritchie

    Couldn’t agree more, Lonnie. We get the most impossible requests for assistance, “I was flying from FAQ to LOL with a layover in SOB, when weather forced a detour to CYA and rerouting to OMG. IMO that’s a POS so thanks, but no THX. Can you help me get a refund?” Uhhh… what? :-)

  • LonnieC

    Love it!

  • Noah Kimmel

    the goal is a speedy turn. Adding a requirement would only annoy people and introduce a greater divide between “elites” and “others” making the rush to board even worse and increasing the work of flight attendants (who would tell you they aren’t paid until the door closes anyway). It’s one of those things that sadly, shouldn’t have to be said, but poor customer behavior makes it seem like a good idea.

  • Travelnut

    And as I’ve said before, people don’t take kindly to being dictated to. On the bright side, this has been a very interesting discussion on the origin of the airline codes. The more you know!

  • Travelnut

    With all due respect, if one is to use the internet thingie, the acronyms are a fact of life on the interwebz and it can only help to learn the common ones. YMMV, I will admit I’ve only seen used on a couple of sites. Your Mileage May Vary, meaning you could have a different opinion than me. It’s very useful!

  • Travelnut

    Another great acronym, that I had to look up but when I did I saw its infinite wisdom: LMGTFY.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Oh that’s perfect… especially since I had to do a search to find out what it meant. Thanks for the morning smile. :-)

  • Travelnut


  • Bryce Leinan

    Here’s one of the things with acronyms: you most definitely want to know the letters of the airport you are going to and any airports nearby. Why? As an example, one time I was flying from Reno (RNO) to Las Vegas (LAS) – only one slight problem: my bags were bound for Los Angeles (LAX). Had I not known that LAX was not the code for Las Vegas, I would still be hunting for my bags to this day. Even the customer service staffer behind the counter didn’t catch that she grabbed the wrong tag for my bag because the codes were so similar.

    The other thing is to know the acronyms of the different airlines, especially if you’re on a codeshare. While you probably won’t see codeshares too often on Southwest (WN), you will with airlines like American (AA) and United (UA), who may fly on regional planes with different codes, or even through a different airline (Alaska makes connections with American going into LAX out of Reno as an example, and their gates are on opposite sides of the concourse.) I’ve also wondered why some of the airline designators are goofy (WN for Southwest being an example) – if you used SW for Southwest, I can see where they could be confused for SkyWest Airlines (SK).

  • LonnieC

    Generally, I agree. However, here we are writing to an audience of folks with varying degrees of online experience. I am an attorney, and have lots of legal and Latin terms I can – and do – use when writing legal documents to other legal staff. However, when I write or speak to a more general audience I greatly limit the “vernacular”. It simply makes it easier for them to understand, and to focus on what I’m saying or writing, rather than going back and forth to a source for translation. That’s all I was driving at. ?

  • KarlaKatz

    BE, yet, Altosk. BTW, TY… RFLMAO

  • KarlaKatz


  • KarlaKatz

    OMG, that’s great!

  • stephen_nyc

    I’m glad I wasn’t holding my coffee cup reading your response. :-)

  • stephen_nyc

    Good point. Here’s a family story:
    Years ago when my brother was still a New York City Transit Police Officer [before they merged with NYPD], he was telling the rest of us a story and used the TLA of “EDP.” Now, as I am a computer person, to me it meant Electronic Data Processing. I sat there trying to guess from the context of the story what it meant to a police officer (again, way back, before the CSI’s and such where we all learned about BOLOs & LEOs and other things). Finally, I had to interrupt him and ask about it. Emotionally Disturbed Person.

  • LonnieC

    And some might say that only EDPs do EDP…. (Sorry about that – couldn’t help myself.) ?

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