Travel Debates is a series in which our editors weigh in on the most contentious issues that arise in-transit, like whether you should ever switch seats on a plane or if you should check your work email while on holiday.
The sight of a flip-flopped individual approaching security, removing their shoes, and passing through the detector with nothing between the soles of their feet and the airport linoleum is not unfamiliar to most travellers, nor is the subsequent image of said passenger burying their toes into the airline carpet’s depressing detritus. Perhaps the least polarising of the debates yet amongst our editors, the matter of the plane dress code – in particular the presence of socks in one’s onboard attire – has been resolved with resounding clarity: No socks, no service. That’s right, nary a soul on any Traveller team dared stand up for their right to go barefoot aboard an airplane. Socks are non-negotiable. Most airlines agree, by the way, even going so far as to mandate their presence in the air.
But from here, intricacies arise, and tangents are embarked upon. Yes, socks are a must, we can all agree, but what of the other horrors we as individuals have seen? And when the socked foot emerges from the shoe, what is one allowed to do with it? Our team weighs in below.
Discretion is the better part of valour
There is already a total lack of personal space on airplanes – nobody needs someone else’s bare feet within arm’s reach to make things worse. I’m all for loosening shoes during a flight, but if you plan to slip your footwear off completely, I sure hope you’ve got the cleanest pair of full-coverage socks underneath, and that those socked feet stay beneath the seat in front of you. (In other words, I as your seatmate should be kept in blissful ignorance.) I’m not trying to tell people how to dress, but when shoved into unjustly small economy seats with our arms and legs pressed up against those of strangers, being thoughtful of how you impact others is mandatory. — Megan Spurrell, senior editor, Condé Nast Traveler US
I understand the urge to take off shoes during a flight – our feet and hands swell up on planes. But under no circumstances should your seatmates be subjected to the sight of your bare feet. I’m guilty of removing my shoes under the seat in front of me during a long-haul (I’m talking six-plus hours here) to discreetly slip a cosier pair of socks on, but under no circumstances would I put my bare toes on the filthy airplane carpet – or worse, head to the germy hellscape that is the plane bathroom in just a pair of socks. Have some decorum. – Shannon McMahon, destinations editor, Condé Nast Traveler US
Airlines cast abominable filth upon thee
I once watched a young woman board a plane in a wet bathing suit. She tossed a pair of denim shorts over her bikini bottoms and sat through our five-hour flight from Las Vegas to New York. After witnessing that, I became a lot more aware of people’s in-flight uniforms. At the minimum, everyone on board should wear dry clothes that cover their legs. I wouldn’t want my bare legs pressed against a cramped plane seat for hours – it doesn’t sound comfortable and I’m sceptical of just how clean those seats actually are. Another non-negotiable: a pair of socks. I’m frightened when I see people remove their flip-flops or sandals at the airport and walk around barefoot through security. I’m even more surprised when I’ve seen shoes removed on the plane. Not only is it not very kind to your seatmates, but it’s certainly not very kind to yourself. Dress comfortably on your next flight, but carefully consider just how clean those surfaces are. – Meaghan Kenny, associate commerce editor, Condé Nast Traveler US
As I write this, I’m sitting on a plane with my shoes off. I have no issues with any of my fellow cabin-mates doing the same – altitude can cause swelling and discomfort at the best of times. Add to that those flights where you’re required to wear your bulkiest pair of shoes to save precious luggage space, and slipping off your shoes becomes all the more appealing. I’m firmly in the socks-on camp, and I shove my shoes back on before walking around the cabin or to the bathroom, but I’m not staunchly against people going sockless, either. Of course, I draw the line at anyone’s bare feet invading my personal space. But if your neighbour can’t grasp those basic manners, their feet are probably the least of your worries. – Sarah James, deputy digital director, Condé Nast Traveller
A version of this article originally appeared on Condé Nast Traveler US.