Here’s a New Year’s resolution we can probably all agree on: Don’t be a jerk when you’re on the road.
There’s something about travel — whether you’re flying, driving or sailing — that brings out the jerk in all of us. Like the guy in seat 26B just in front of me right now on a flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles, who is probably a nice guy on the ground, but put him on a plane, and shortly after takeoff, he jams his seat into my knees without so much as an apology.
It’s the flight attendant who kicked me out of the row of empty seats in the back of the plane, after I moved there to avoid the wedge. He did it with a stern, “You’re gonna have to get out of this seat, now. These are blocked for the crew.” It wasn’t the passive-aggressive way he phrased it as much as it was the tone — he might as well have been saying, “It’s a federal offense to interfere with the flight crew.”
It’s the fellow passenger who almost ran over me as I was disembarking, swearing under her breath because I wasn’t moving fast enough. I know I wasn’t moving fast enough. I had to help my three kids off the plane and lift their luggage out of the overhead compartments.
It doesn’t make any difference how well you are treated or how much you are abused. In the end, we all turn into jerks.
I’ve spoken with psychologists about this phenomenon, and they tell me that there’s something about travel that just makes us insufferable. It is, they speculate, the fact that when we go somewhere, we are away from the social restraints that make us behave — our friends, family and community. It could also be the fact that we know we’ll never see the people we meet again. So we treat them like props in a movie, as if they are not real.
But they are. I can hardly read my computer screen now because the jerk in 26B had to lean all the way back and because the idiots who installed these seats only gave me 31 inches of seat pitch.
I beg to differ with the experts. I don’t think we turn into boorish imbeciles just because we’re away from home, although that may be a contributing factor. I think it’s cause and effect, and on two levels. It’s travel companies slowly removing many of the services and amenities that made travel tolerable, on the one hand. It’s a little bit like taking a well-behaved dog, locking him in a cage, depriving him of food and then taunting him.
He’ll turn mean, eventually.
But how does that explain the childish behavior of the entitled elites — you know, the ones who lurk on sites like Flyertalk or one of the mileage blogs littered with scammy affiliate links? Opposite problem there: Like the children of dictators, these super-platinum elites are given everything that the travel companies took away from us, the long-suffering passengers in the back of the aircraft.
While we have no room to move in steerage, they complain when their lie-flat sleeper seat doesn’t recline all the way. They’re told, “You’re more special than everyone else; you should expect the world.” The result is a cabin full of spoiled babies who fire off complaint letters to their airline when the Chardonnay isn’t chilled to the right temperature.
They believe they are God’s gift to travel, but they are not. They are jerks.
You don’t have to be. If you’re lucky enough to sit in a first-class seat, be grateful. Thank your employer, who allowed you to collect enough miles for the upgrade. Thank the flight attendant who has to put up with the other whiners in the forward cabin.
Take nothing for granted, because when you stop traveling for business, your elite status will expire and so will your miles, and then you will email me for help getting your status restored.
If you’re sitting in the bleacher seats or staying in a standard room, you don’t have to behave like a jerk, either. Don’t take it out on your fellow passengers and guests. It’s not their fault that you’re being tortured. Instead, stand up and let the travel company know you won’t be treated like cattle. Fly on airlines and stay in hotels that treat you like a person.
They do exist.
You have it in you to end the incivility that’s made travel a ridiculously bad experience. Do something. Now.
Christopher Elliott writes the Travel Troubleshooter column that runs Sundays in The Miami Herald and the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chriselliott.org.