Travel Etiquette: Sunburns and Airplanes

Etiquette expert answers questions on sunburned strangers and airplanes.

July 9, 2011— -- In this edition: Commenting on strangers' sunburns; pillows on planes

Q: What do you think of people who comment on other people's sunburns? I sunburn easily, and on the first day of my cruise, I got a very bad burn on my forehead and nose. Total strangers didn't stop commenting on it. In the elevator, I'd get, "Whoa, caught a little sun there?"; at dinner, the first thing our tablemates said to me was, "You have the worst sunburn I've seen in ages!"; and at the pool, people thought nothing of saying, "Excuse me, but you're getting quite a sunburn on your face." I know it was impossible not to notice it, but I was really sick of having it be the first thing people said to me for the entire week.

A: In general, I agree. If you're not currently out in the sun, it's kind of rude for strangers to comment on your sunburn. Even if it's remarkably bad, it shouldn't be a conversation topic. It's just a basic principle of etiquette not to comment on flaws in other people's appearance that aren't easily fixable. (So: "Excuse me, you have something caught in your teeth," is fine, because it only takes a second to fix it, but "Wow, that's a horrible sunburn / enormous zit / misspelled tattoo!" is not appropriate.)

The pool goers who speak up, though, might just be trying to be kind. TripAdvisor recently did a survey that revealed 57 percent of travelers think it's okay to say something if someone's getting a sunburn but seems unaware of it. So while I completely understand your frustration when random elevator occupants and dinner companions mention your sunburn, I think you need to cut a little slack to the people who speak up at the pool.

Q: Is it okay to bring a full-sized pillow on a plane?

A: Well, can you sit in your seat while using the pillow without infringing upon another passenger's space? If not, don't bring it. A few years ago I sat next to a college student who brought her own enormous pillow (in a satin pillowcase, no less). She was in the middle seat, and she couldn't find a way to position the pillow so it wasn't spilling over into my space or the space of the guy in the window seat. She'd fix it, then it would slip (thanks to the satin case). I don't think she got much sleep because the other passenger and I kept asking her to move her pillow off our arms! Now, she might have been fine in a window seat, where she could lean against the wall of the plane, but she really shouldn't have tried to squeeze the pillow into the middle seat. I think a travel-sized pillow is a much better bet. Plus it's much easier to tote it through the airport.

Lesley Carlin has been writing about travel and etiquette professionally for more than 10 years. As one of the Etiquette Grrls, she is the co-author of "Things You Need to Be Told" and "More Things You Need to Be Told" (Berkley). Have a travel etiquette question of your own? E-mail Lesley at