Sophia Loren for Fendi

How to Get More Respect When You Travel

When I was a kid, people dressed for travel.

Not to sit in a car for 10 or 12 hours, mind you, but for public transportation. Trains. Ships. Planes.

Especially planes.

In fact, the term “jet set” was first used in the 1950’s to describe those members of cafe society who could afford to travel the world. Dressing well for travel was just another hallmark of status and wealth, and ads and movie images from the era typically looked something like this:

Audrey Hepburn in SabringaAudrey Hepburn in Sabrina (1954)

 Sophia Loren for FendiSophia Loren for Fendi (c. 1972)

Catherine Deneuve for Louis VuittonCatherine Deneuve for Louis Vuitton (c. 2010)

But when “Casual Friday” came along in the 1990’s, dressing well for anything fell by the wayside, including dressing for travel.

Today, airports are filled with people wearing jeans, sweats, and leggings. Comfort is the name of the game, and don’t you dare criticize. If you dress up to travel like people used to “back in the day,” other passengers look at you like you’re from a different planet.

But travel personnel treat you extremely well.

Add a friendly smile and compliment, and you’ll get all sorts of unexpected perks.

That’s why I discovered by accident years ago when I flew home one time for a visit.

It was summer in the early 90’s, and that morning, I gave a presentation at work wearing a white skirt, white top, and navy blue jacket and pumps. My bags were in the trunk of my car, and I thought I’d have enough time to change before my afternoon flight. But things got hectic and that didn’t happen, so off I went to the Houston airport, dressed in white and navy.

Crazy, I know – nobody travels in white.

Or in heels.

But I wore both…and was treated like royalty.

It was the craziest thing I ever saw.

People stopped me to tell me how nice I looked. The flight attendant tried to seat me in First Class (I was traveling coach). One little girl asked for my autograph. It was thoroughly entertaining.

When my sister met me at the gate in Colorado Springs, she laughed and said, “You look so glamorous! Are you sure you didn’t come by private flight?”

“People have been asking me stuff like that all day,” I said. “Do I really look so different from everyone else?”

She nodded. “Look around. See anyone else who’s dressed like you?”

I didn’t.

Until the return flight.

That’s when I wore a t-shirt and shorts…and promptly blended in with the crowd. No special perks, no mistaking me for first class.

Typical Airport

It was a VERY eye-opening experience.

Since then, I’ve always made a little bit of an effort to dress better than average when flying. I haven’t worn all white again, but I have worn a skirt and heels. Invariably, I’m treated well.

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That’s what I was explaining to my daughters recently when I read a “Top Ten Things Travelers Want” list, with number one being…

Buzzfeed.comBuzzfeed.com

 Ugh.

“But people want to be comfortable when they travel,” my 16 year old insisted.

“I don’t have a problem with comfort,” I said. “It’s equating sloppy with comfort where I take issue.”

Apparently, so do a lot of others.

If you Google, “why people don’t dress when they travel,” it returns articles about how NOT to look like an American tourist when you travel.

Uh-oh.

Here are a couple of comments from the “Why do people dress up nice to travel on planes?” thread on LetsRun.com:

“Actually people USED to dress up to get on a plane because it was exotic and reserved for the well to do. Now the airport is more like a bus station.”

“People are a mess, I hate going to the airport. Everyone is wearing pajama pants and flip flops, looks like hell, and probably hasn’t bathed. I think bus stations might be a better option.”

“I’ve been on chicken buses in Central America that had better dressed occupants than most domestic flights. It’s amazing how much Americans stick out due to the clothes and overall shabby appearance.”

But commenter “anti-tard” hit the matter on the head:

“The real reason is that dressing well usually equates to getting better service. This is equally applicable everywhere, but getting better service in an airport has a much bigger impact on your life than getting good service at a 7-11. Therefore, when flying, it makes sense to dress well.

“Think about it. You’ve all complained about sloppy people populating airports. Imagine being a customer service rep for an airline, dealing with these people all day long. Then suddenly a man comes up to you wearing a nice pair of jeans and a well-tailored blazer with a button-down shirt – nothing crazy, but he looks well put together. He’s polite when he makes his request and asks for your help. You as a rep are about 1000x more likely to go the extra mile for this guy who acts and looks classy than you are for the 10,000 slobs acting like jerks that surround him.”

It’s true.

Especially if you do it on a hard travel day when everyone else is bound to be short tempered.

The world “travel” comes from the French word travail (trav al), meaning “to engage in painful or laborious effort.” Traveling was so difficult for so long that the only people who bothered with it were armies, explorers, and scholars. For thousands of years, most people never ventured more than 20 miles from where they were born.

But those who did were richly rewarded. Not only in experience by seeing how others lived, but by engaging in trade with other countries. The Silk Road Trade route was the main source of income and wealth in the world for thousands of years, and it’s what allowed Europe to emerge from the Dark Ages when soldiers brought back exotic goods from the Holy Land after fighting in the Crusades. Because when people saw what was available elsewhere, commerce quickly followed.

Silk RoadSilk Road Trade Route, c. 1100

Yet today, most people don’t give a second thought to the technology that allows them to circumnavigate the globe. Whereas the original Silk Road was 4,600 miles and took over a year to travel, today that same route would take about a week by car or a ten hours by plane.

So why the history lesson?

Because sometimes, you just have to give people their “props” – or proper recognition.

Marco Polo, Columbus, Vespucci, Dias – total stud muffins. Fearless. Inspired.

The conditions under which they traveled are mind-boggling. Camels. Cramped ships. Hurricanes. Bandits. For months or even years on end. They had to make instant, far-reaching decisions, often with “do or die” consequences.

Sir Joseph Banks was the lead naturalist on Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific (1768-1771). After spending more than two years studying, cataloging, and collecting plants from Brazil, Argentina, Tahiti, and New Zealand, their ship, the Endeavour, hit the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. Sinking fast, Cook ordered the crew to “lighten the load” by casting off all non-essential items – including most of Sir Joseph’s plant specimens. He stood there, mouth agape, watching two years’ worth of work being tossed overboard. Luckily, being a man of vision, he’d brought along artists and a secretary to help record his findings. Which was fortunate – because he never made the trip again. He’s credited with introducing bougainvillea, eucalyptus, acacia, and hundreds of other plants to the Western world.

Cook's First VoyageCaptain James Cook’s First Voyage, 1768-1771

Isabella BirdThen there’s Isabella Bird.

An inquisitive woman of frail health, Isabella was encouraged by doctors to engage in sport and travel as a way to improve her health. She made her first trip to the United States in 1854 at age 23, and published a book about it two years later called, “An Englishwoman in America” (1856). From then on, she was hooked on traveling, and continued to write and explore the world by train, ship, and horseback. Later books include “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” (1879), “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan” (1880), “Among the Tibetans” (1894), and “The Yangtze Valley and Beyond” (1899). The first female travel writer, Isabella Bird’s tales served as a source of inspiration for thousands of less adventurous women, and she’s still well-regarded in the travel community today.

Then, of course, there was Amelia Earhart.

Born into a middle class family and raised as a tomboy, Amelia had a fascination with aviation and male-dominated fields in general. After her first 10 minute flight in 1920 at age 23, Amelia became determined to be a pilot and worked at a variety of jobs including nurse, photographer, truck driver, and stenographer, in order to pay for flying lessons. She had to take the bus to the end of the line and walk four miles to the airfield for each lesson, but she didn’t care; she was determined. She broke the first female flying record in 1922 by flying at an altitude of 14,000 feet, and in 1923, became the 16th woman to be issued a pilot’s license. She became a celebrity with her first transatlantic flight in 1928, and legend with her disappearance in 1937. Like Isabella Bird, she was an inspiration to women the world over.

Amelia EarhartAmelia Earhart in 1931

So when I think about all these intrepid explorers who bravely faced challenges most can’t even imagine in order to advance civilization and create the modern travel industry, it seems kind of disrespectful to NOT dress up when partaking of the fruits of their labors.

Yet that doesn’t even register for most people. Cold chicken and warm champagne in First Class qualify as “bad travel”; being chased by Mongols or getting lost at sea isn’t even a blip on the radar.

So if you want to get more respect – and by default, better service – when you travel, just dress better than average, like people used to “back in the day.” Not only will you enjoy the attention and perks from those in the travel industry, you’ll be paying respect to all those fearless travelers who went before you. Even if you’re the only one who acknowledges it.

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24 Comments

  • Shella

    Reply Reply July 25, 2014

    I had to laugh when I read this article today! So True! Our local airport concourse could easily produce the same photos that circulate in email showing the unflattering outfits of Wal-Mart shoppers. I’ve seen airport screeners scrutinize a scruffy guy in sweats and flip-flops, but hardly pause a man dresses in a business suit as he floated through the line. For those who “know,” it’s quite a show!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply July 25, 2014

      Hi Sheila,

      So true! It’s like a secret club or something… 😉

  • Dina

    Reply Reply July 25, 2014

    Your article is so true. I have another story for you. I also used to dress like I was catching a bus from the gym when I was traveling. On a business tirp, one day, however, in my jeans and sweatshirt, I found myself checking into the hotel next to the president of the company. He was in slacks, polo shirt and sports coat. I was so embarrassed and wanted to crawl away.

    My next trip I knew as soon as I landed I would head to the cocktail, networking hour of a business conference. I wore slacks, comfortable but nice flats, a blouse and jacket. My flight was overbooked and the gate attendants were asking people to give up their seats. At one point a gate agent walked around, asking people for their tickets. She asked for mine and went back to the gate desk. Then she game back and returned everyone their tickets. You guessed it, I was bumped to first class. When we started boarding, I stopped by to thank her. Her comment to me? “Well, you just looked so nice.”

    You know, with careful selection, I was just as comfortable in my “first class” clothes as the jeans and sweats. But never again. I’m a first class woman and will dress that way from here on out.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply July 25, 2014

      Hi Dina,

      Just a little effort can make such a HUGE difference! And you’re right – if “first class clothes” will give you first class service (and seating!), why NOT wear them?

  • iamloved

    Reply Reply July 25, 2014

    How interesting! I must look for some books on Amelia Earhart (I believe there was a Hollywood film about her?) and Isabella Bird… I’m hoping to travel next week with my toddler for a short holiday, so I’ll keep in mind what we wear to fly!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply July 25, 2014

      There are several movies about Amelia Earhart; there should certainly be one about Isabella Bird. Both women ahead of their time…

  • Valeria Martin

    Reply Reply July 25, 2014

    Thank you for the wonderful lesson! These intrepid explorers reach us that we must leave our comfort zone to make things happen in our lives. Let’s do it with style!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply July 25, 2014

      Valeria – absolutely! You can be your own agent of change. All you have to do is step up to the plate… 😉

  • FrancesAgape

    Reply Reply July 25, 2014

    Sad but True
    And I too am GUILTY
    I rarely fly (phobia and shorter trips)
    but
    have bookmarked this
    and
    will try to remember for next time

    Oh, a question, please.

    What about the others in your travel party
    (family, tour group, friends) –
    how much nicer can one dress
    without alienating others ?

    THANKS for all your TERRIFIC help !

    • Diana

      Reply Reply July 26, 2014

      Glad you’re enjoying the info! Thanks for your note. If you’re vacationing, stick with casual attire – collared top or dress, crisply pressed pants or skirt – and you’ll command respect yet still be relatable to the rest of your traveling party. If you’re traveling for business and everyone else is wearing formal business attire, however, then obviously, so should you.

  • Kerry

    Reply Reply July 25, 2014

    I remember a traveling outfit my mother wore in 1961. She was stunning! I don’t remember much else about the trip (I was 5 years old!) She wore a skirt and matching jacket, black patent leather pumps, a statement necklace of gold beads, and carried a huge black patent leather purse. She was flying from America (with four small children) to Japan where my father was stationed with the Air Force. She is eighty years old now, and still very stylish!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply July 26, 2014

      Hi Kerry,

      I can easily envision that outfit, as it would have been standard fare in the early 60’s. But managing that AND four small children for an overseas flight? Awesome! Military wives are a breed apart. My father was also stationed in Japan in the early 60’s, but they went over by ocean liner. I was born nine months later… Ha! 😉

  • Joy Livingwell

    Reply Reply July 26, 2014

    Great article, Diana! It’s amazing how scruffy Americans look compared to everyone else in an international airport. I used to be one of the scruffmeisters, and thanks to you I am changing my ways.

    Another great travel heroine of mine: aviator Beryl Markham, who flew planes around Africa and wrote a couple of wonderful books about her experiences.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply July 27, 2014

      Hi Joy,

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying the newsletter! Thanks for your note! I will have to check into Beryl Markham – I hadn’t heard of her.

  • Ruth D. Bruno

    Reply Reply July 27, 2014

    This news letter is fabulous. So true and so informative.
    All of your new letters are very interesting, timely and so well written.
    Thank you. Sincerely, Ruth Dee. Images
    colortools.com

    • Diana

      Reply Reply July 27, 2014

      Hi Ruth,

      Thanks for your note! Glad you’re enjoying the newsletter.

  • Bettye Brown

    Reply Reply August 11, 2014

    Dear Diana,

    I enjoy your fashion articles, especially the history included.

    I’m planning soon, in a few weeks, to travel to Cost Rica to possibly retire there. I’ve researched the country and culture. I wasn’t surprised to learn the Costa Rican people refer to Americans as “dirty gringos” because of their habitual attire: shorts, T shirts, and flip flops. Determined not to fall into that category, I plan to dress always in a collared shirt, neat creased slacks or a skirt, and closed in shoes unless I’m going to the beach.

    -Bettye

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 12, 2014

      Hi Bettye,

      Yes, Americans have a horrible international reputation for how they dress, act, and speak. Glad to know you’re working to dispel the stereotype! 🙂

  • Paula Christen

    Reply Reply June 1, 2016

    Thanks Diana for a post so needed in today’s society. I learned the “dress well” lesson very early as a teenager. The better dressed I was when I went shopping, the better the attending clerks treated me. I saw how that rippled out in life; getting seated in restaurants, returns to stores and getting help with a problem.
    Call me old fashioned but I’d love to see a retro trend where bra straps doesn’t show, boys pants don’t drop below their shorts and pj bottoms remain for sleeping.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply June 5, 2016

      Hi Paula – glad you enjoyed the article! How you dress definitely impacts how others perceive you, so when you know what you’re doing, it make a HUGE difference in the quality of your life. Thanks for your note!

  • Catherine

    Reply Reply March 26, 2017

    A short trip from Seattle to Victoria, B.C. on the ferry presented an amusing event. While on deck , we were approached by a staff member asking for our assistance with a film they were doing for publicity. We were escorted to the Captains’ quarters and a film was shot of my husband and I relaxing in the easy chairs. I inquired as to why they had chosen us from the many passengers. We were told it was how we were so nicely dressed which was exactly how they wanted to depict their cruise line. It is so very true that you will be given preferential treatment sometimes based solely on how you present yourself……..

    • Diana

      Reply Reply March 31, 2017

      LOVE this! It’s SO true! Thanks for sharing!

  • Frances

    Reply Reply April 1, 2017

    After re-reading this wonderful article, I was shocked to see this article in Thursday, March 30, 2017 USAToday, page 6D:
    LEGGINGS ON A PLANE? NOT SO HORRIFYING, ETIQUETTE EXPERTS SAY

    I read it. TWICE.

    Lizzie Post (great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, nonetheless) says so! What is appropriate is subjective.

    Post or no Post, I am sticking with YOUR recommendations, Diana.

    • Frances

      Reply Reply April 1, 2017

      NO, this is NOT a joke. That is why I included the newspaper, date and page number.
      After clicking post, I remembered today’s date. So please verify and comment.
      THANKS !

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