I feel like I've seen it all, having spent what feels like years of my life on planes, on trains traveling to jobs in Manhattan from the Connecticut suburbs, and within NYC on subways and buses. I've tried to ignore the woman wearing a mask of makeup who was screaming on the floor at JFK after missing her London flight (even though there was another in 90 minutes); I've seen myriad parents ignoring kids who were having major breakdowns that involved earsplitting shrieks; I've heard countless cellphone conversations that I had no interest in hearing — because people were shouting into their phones. Traveling — especially long distance — is a challenge under the best of circumstances. And most of the challenge is dealing with other people, and sometimes their devices.
Since the holiday travel period is heating up, here's how I deal with three of the most annoying, uncomfortable travel situations:
A kid kicking your seat/adult using your seat back to move around: Whether it's a kid or an adult, this person is not respecting that another human being is sitting and either working/relaxing/trying to sleep in the seat in front of them. Your job is to make them aware that other people inhabit the space around them. With kids older than about 4, I speak directly to them, in a very, very stern voice, and start out very formally (90 percent of the time, kids will be totally afraid of you if you speak formally to them — it's a great trick): "Please, do not kick my seat. In case you are not aware, I am sitting in this seat, and you are being extremely rude when you kick it. Stop right this instant." I speak directly to kids, because honestly, if a kid is kicking a seat, it's clear their parent either A) Is a rude person themselves and doesn't care or B) Their kid doesn't listen to them anyway. Speaking to the child (take a low tone and look right into their eyes) is much more effective. They are in a public space, and you are part of the public; don't be afraid to speak up.
If it is an adult who keeps pulling on the back of your seat to get up or even (this happened to me once) to adjust their sitting position, turn around and explain to them that you are quite ill and it is making you feel like throwing up every time they touch your seat. This has never not worked.
Exemption: An elderly or disabled adult may not be able to move out of a very narrow airplane row without grabbing the seat in front of them; these people get a break.
A person who smells: There's nothing you can do about this: the person might be on flight three out of four (or may have even more miles to go), might have an illness that gives them crazy BO no matter how clean they are, or they just might not shower much. Once you are on a train/plane/bus, there won't be any time or space to clean, so telling them about it isn't going to help (and could be extremely hurtful). However, you can be prepared. A small vial of organic peppermint oil is a travel necessity; you can use it yourself if you feel a bit stinky, to wake up if you are nodding off or when you wake up after a plane nap, AND certainly if someone's funk is invading your nasal passages. Use a very small amount and rub it on the skin around your nose. I guarantee you won't smell anyone's body odor.
Someone chatting loudly on their cellphone/playing music or video games on their device: I have used the "can you keep it down" and/or "shhhhhhhh" motions with a very high success rate. No verbal even needed. The key is eye contact: Make it with the offending person, then put your index finger in front of your lips in shooshing motion and then wave your hand down. If this doesn't work, I will walk over to the person and interrupt their call. I say, "Can you please keep it down, I can hear all your private details." Honestly, it is a very small percentage of the time that one or both of these tactics don't work is because the majority of the time people think they are being quiet on cellphones but aren't. Gamers and music-listeners either think they can get away with it or don't notice that they're not using earphones. Remind them, politely, but forcefully, that the aural world is shared, and not theirs alone.
Or, you can try this hilarious tactic below, which I would totally do.
Of course, the prankster above got the idea from Larry David, who shows us how it's really done: