In-Flight Experience

Stinks on a Plane

This weekend, after I boarded a flight and plopped down in my designated seat, a rotten smell wafted my way. It reeked of body odor with delicate top notes of stale cigarettes, and it was utterly nauseating. Following some subtle investigation (arching my neck in various directions and sniffing), I surmised that the smell was probably coming from the passenger sitting directly behind me.

I didn’t want to make a stink or embarrass anyone by requesting a seat change on a full plane. So I spent the rest of the two-hour flight mouth breathing, meditating on pleasant-smelling things, and thinking of ways to turn objects in my carry-on bag into odor-blocking face masks. Would fellow passengers stare or become frightened if I tied a sweater around my face?

Turns out I’m not the only traveler to experience pungent problems in flight — and the solution might have been easier than I expected. A reader recently wrote to us with a similar issue: “What do you do when a person very near your seat is wearing quite a lot of perfume and you are allergic to perfume? Once I was able to change seats — once I tied a bandanna over my face for a five-hour flight. Is there any better solution?”

Senior Editor Sarah Schlichter answered: “Switching seats is certainly the best solution, though it can be difficult if your flight is very full. Explaining your reasons to the flight attendant may help; another passenger may be willing to switch seats with you if he or she is aware that you have a health issue.

“In case you’re not able to switch seats, it’s a good idea to have a bandana or face mask on hand as a last resort. One other idea that may help: Turn the overhead air spout in the direction of the offending scent — that may help divert the problem, at least a little.”

Eureka! The overhead air spout is an excellent defense against offensive odors; if only I had thought of that during the flight. Has this ever happened to you? How do you cope when you’re seated next to a noxious smell on a flight?

More from SmarterTravel:

By Caroline Costello

Caroline Costello's travel accomplishments include surviving a 2 a.m. whitewater rafting excursion in the Canadian wilderness, successfully biking from Dusseldorf to Cologne without a map, and gaining access to a covert pizza speakeasy in New Orleans.

Caroline is an active member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Her work has appeared on USA Today, the Boston Globe,,, ABC News, TODAY Travel, and, among other publications.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *