By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/16/2010 10:09:13 AM ET 2010-08-16T14:09:13

They’re loud. They smell bad. And their clothes would make Mr. Blackwell blush.

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What is it about travel that makes people jettison their manners?

Whether it’s the Ugly American or the Entitled Elite, travel has no shortage of unflattering stereotypes. They’ve always been with us. They’ll always be with us. But are their numbers growing?

Hard to say. When it comes to air travel, it’s difficult to tell whether unruly passenger incidents are on the rise. Both the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration keep records on aircraft incidents, but they’re just the cases they’ve acted on, and don’t necessarily reflect any trends. Same for hotel and cruise incidents. There are no reliable statistics.

But the anecdotes. Oh, the anecdotes!

You name it, chances are, it’s happened. Passengershitting flight attendants? Check. Flight attendants fighting back? Roger. Bad hotel guests ? Yep. Really bad hotel guests? But of course.

Then there’s Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who jumped out of a parked plane after getting into an altercation with a passenger. That story, it seems, has everyone talking about our loss of civility in air travel.

An online poll of my 14,000-member travel panel suggests people are getting ruder on the road. Seven out of ten respondents said travelers were behaving worse. One-quarter of travelers said the behavior was “about the same” while only a fraction of respondents — roughly 2 percent — said people were behaving better.

But let’s break it down. How, exactly, are travelers misbehaving? And what can be done about it?

What happens here, stays here
That’s not just a cute advertising slogan used by Sin City. It apparently applies to almost any travel experience, anywhere — but thanks, Vegas, for the help.

Pam Evans, who works for a plumbing company in Norwalk, Conn., watched in horror as one of her friends turned into an Ugly American on a visit to Europe. “She was rude and never said ‘thank you’ to anyone,” she says. A second friend, also on a trip to Europe, dressed like a gang member. “I was embarrassed by their behavior,” she says.

Phrases like, “What happens here, stays here,” while catchy, tend to give travelers a license to let it all hang out while they’re away. And that can easily morph into rudeness.

The fix: Although there’s always been a natural tendency to take certain liberties when you’re away, I think destinations can help by not encouraging their visitors to be whoever they feel like being. Slogans like “Come as you are” and “Always turned on” don’t engender good behavior now, do they?

You stink
One of the most common complaints I get about inconsiderate travelers is the way they smell. Apparently, this extends far beyond your aunt’s God-given right to douse herself with Gardenia perfume, pre-flight.

Travelers gripe about stale tobacco smells, body odors, aftershave and spicy food prepared with an abundance of onion and garlic. “I think everyone should have to pass a stink test,” says Liz Zollner, a college instructor from Tampa, Fla. “If they don’t, they can’t board until they sanitize themselves. I’m not kidding around.”

Make no mistake, we’re not talking about a little whiff of something unpleasant. Take the issue of smoking in a hotel room. That can seriously affect the next guest — which could be you.

The fix: You’d think the TSA’s liquid and gel ban would at least put a lid on this problem. But no. I think perfumes and colognes should come with warning labels to use them responsibly in public places. But short of that, you can always turn to your seatmate and say, “You smell.” How’s that for rude?

Are those your pajamas?
I’ve never been a big supporter of dress codes, but enough is enough. I’ve seen too many passengers and hotel guests that look like they live under a bridge.

Anne Sweeney remembers the way passengers used to dress when they flew. “They were classy,” says the former Pan Am flight attendant. “They dressed up, people were courteous and well-groomed.

Deregulation lowered fares and made travel more accessible, but now the barbarians are at the gate.” A few years ago, Southwest Airlines got my hopes up when it suggested it had a dress code, but it turns out it didn’t. Oh well.

The fix: A dress code may be too much, but how about minimum dress requirements? You see them in restaurants — “No Shoes. No Shirt. No Service.” Why not on planes, hotels and ships?

Totally clueless
There’s a whole subset of travelers whose behavior is offensive because they don’t prepare. They act as if they’re still at home.

“They are the goofballs who have a roller bag, carry-on, oversize purse slung over their shoulder, and a cup of coffee,” says Greg Nieberding, a Dallas entrepreneur. “They bang into everyone already seated on the aisles. No ‘excuse me’ or apology. Then they look all hurt if you won't help them put their 40-pound bag into the overhead.”

But is cluelessness always obnoxious? No, not always. When kids are clueless (“What state are we in?”) it can be cute. When an adult asks what state you’re in — not so much.

The fix: There are any number of terrific guidebooks and Web sites that are a guaranteed fix to the cluelessness. Try ‘em.

Show a little respect
Self-centeredness has been with us since there have been airplanes. And cruise ships. And hotels. And yes, people. Maybe more travelers are complaining about the selfish behavior of their fellow travelers. Then again, it could just be the times we’re living in. Every man for himself. I though we got over that in the ’80s.

Jeanette Matlock, who works for an information systems company in Oldsmar, Fla., remembers the last resort hotel she stayed in. A large sign asked guests to observe “quiet time” from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. “Some people let their kids and teens run loose in hotels like it was some kind of personal playground,” she says.

I had a similar experience at a Florida hotel a few weeks ago. Our neighbors decided to throw a party at 11 p.m. I heard their teen-agers giggling and hooting into the early morning hours. That was no fun.

The fix: Respect is something taught by parents and reinforced in school. If our kids are flouting the rules, guess who is to blame?

I admit that these five ways travelers are misbehaving only scratches the surface of a problem that afflicts society, not just people who are on the road. You don’t have to get out much to know that travelers are often self-centered, clueless, offensive and that they dress badly.

The solutions, while obvious, remain elusive.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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