By traveling barefoot, I do not mean wearing shoes then taking them off later on the plane during an airline flight. This article is about being totally barefoot on an entire trip. Can this be done? Of course it can, and there are people, such as I, who do it routinely and have done it for years.
Contracts of carriage generally don’t outright ban barefoot travel
First, you should understand and be familiar with some of the rules and regulations that most airlines operate under, as well as how and when they could invoke those rules.
Whether you realize it or not, when you buy a ticket on any airline, you are agreeing to their “contract of carriage,” a long and detailed legal document spelling out all their rules and regulations for the transportation of passengers and baggage. According to a recent article in USA Today, “Contracts of carriage: Deciphering murky airline rules,”
These contracts are pretty much designed to protect the airlines, not passengers.
All U.S. based airlines’ contracts of carriage contain some reference to barefoot passengers, which generally is worded to the effect that the airline “may” refuse to board a passenger who is barefoot. Note, they (with a couple of exceptions I’ll explain later) do not say they “will” or “shall” refuse to board a barefoot passenger. “May,” in effect, means it’s totally up to the discretion of the airline personnel at the time someone tries to board.
Non-U.S. based airlines in general do not include any references to barefoot or bare feet at all in their contracts of carriage. I have not seen all foreign based airlines’ contracts of carriage, but I have reviewed the ones from Air Canada, Air France, Air New Zealand, British Airways, China Southern Airlines, Lufthansa, and Qantas. With the exception of Air Canada, none of these make any mention at all of bare feet or someone who is barefoot. Air Canada’s contract of carriage is worded very similarly to those of U.S. based airlines, with a section saying they “may” refuse to board a barefoot person.
Keep in mind though that just because being barefoot is not specifically mentioned in a non-U.S. contract of carriage, those airlines could still find a reason to refuse a barefoot person if they really wanted to by invoking some other rule in their contract. For example, this is typical wording from Air France:
The Carrier may refuse to transport a Passenger and their Baggage, if one or more of the following cases has occurred or is likely to occur:… The carriage of the Passenger and/or of their Baggage may endanger security, health, hygiene or good order on board the aircraft,…
As I mentioned, the wording in almost all U.S. based airlines’ contracts of carriage regarding being barefoot refers to “may” refuse – not “will” or “shall” – thus leaving it to the discretion of the airline employee at the gate or in the door of the plane as you enter. That wording is included in the contracts of: Alaska, Allegiant, Delta, Elite, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, and United. The wording of two other major U.S. airlines is somewhat stricter. American uses the word “must,” and Spirit uses the word “shall.”
Some airlines – Alaska, Frontier, Hawaiian, and Southwest – also include an exception for medical reasons, physical condition, or disability.
Here are links to all the major U.S. based airlines’ contracts of carriage
The reference to being barefoot is generally found under a section called “Refusal to Transport.”
Major U.S. Airlines’ Contracts of Carriage
Traveling barefoot on planes is usually at the discretion of airline personnel
So, all that being said, do the airlines actually invoke or enforce these rules? Very rarely, actually – at least based on my own experience over the years.
In fact, I doubt very much that the ordinary rank and file airline employee that we usually come in contact with is even familiar with most of what’s in their contracts of carriage, in particular the part about being barefoot. I suspect – though I can’t be sure of course – that they may have been given only cursory training in such areas, if at all. Some possibly may have been told that all passengers must be wearing shoes and that they should enforce that; others may never have been told that, or if they have, may personally not feel it’s such a big deal to make an issue out of for a barefoot passenger who is otherwise friendly, well behaved, and nicely dressed. The vast majority of airline employees I have come into contact with while barefoot have been very courteous and friendly.
On the other hand, while being aware of all this about airlines’ contracts of carriage and what they can potentially do to restrict the enjoyment of our trip, I hope to offer here some useful information and advice for barefooters who would like to or plan to fly barefoot. Doing so can sometimes be tricky, and you have to be careful about what you do and what you say if some airline employee does mention your feet. I can only speak mainly from my own experience, but I’ve had a lot of it.
There’s nothing really dangerous or risky about traveling barefoot on a plane
In general, as a full-time 24/7 barefooter, the only reason I would ever put on shoes would be when there is eminent danger of my feet being damaged or injured otherwise, such as extreme weather conditions, caustic chemicals, fire, or similar conditions. Mere risk or what if? are not necessarily good or logical reasons for needing footwear, but only personal preferences. Flying on an airplane is certainly not an extreme or dangerous condition, so there’s no logical reason I should need shoes for that. If I’m told in a store or other business that I need to have on shoes, if I can’t change the mind of the person who told me that, then I just leave. I do not put on shoes in those situations. It’s a matter of principle.
Never argue with airline personnel if there is an issue with your bare feet
Unfortunately, regardless of my or anyone’s principles or commitment to never wear shoes, boarding a plane is NO place to argue for your right or need to be barefoot if you are ever challenged, in my opinion. It is not a place where you can simply walk out and go down to the next airport to catch the next plane, unless the inconvenience of refusal to let you board and/or delay or cancellation of your travel plans makes little to no difference to you. Worst case, since the 9/11 attack, arguing with airline personnel or refusing to follow their directives can get you in a lot of trouble, including possible arrest by federal agents. And I’ve read horror stories of just such experiences from other barefooters that have attempted resisting airline employees’ requests for them to put on shoes or arguing with them.
I’ve had lots of experience over the years traveling barefoot on planes
I’ve flown on lots of flights, lots of airlines, and been in lots of airports. There’s usually nothing much to worry about within any airport itself, as it is highly unlikely that anyone there will have any issue with your bare feet, including going through security.
Actually boarding a plane is when there’s more risk – but not much (less than 1 out of 12 chance they’ll say something, based on my experience).
From 2004 through 2018, I have flown 90 different airline flights, all while barefoot. Those were on 13 different airlines, and through 31 different airports. Of those 90 flights, I have been told I could not board without shoes on only seven times (less than 8% of all boardings). And of those seven times, I actually did put on shoes (flip-flops) to walk aboard only four times. The other three, I either put on my flip-flops briefly but removed them when I was out of sight of the employee making that demand, or said “OK” and kept walking and never put them on. The four times I put on shoes to board, I immediately removed them when I was in my seat and never put them on again for that flight.
Here are some suggestions for a successful barefoot trip on a plane
So, based on my experience, most airline employees will say nothing at all about your bare feet. But you never know what the mindset is of any employee who may happen to notice your feet, so I still always take certain steps to minimize my exposure to any potential foot-phobic employee who might happen to see me while waiting for or during the boarding process. As a rule, I never hide my bare feet, and I don’t look at what I do as hiding my feet either – just discreetly making them a little less conspicuous in those special situations.
So, this is what I suggest. First, ALWAYS be sure to have easily accessible flip-flops or similar footwear tucked away somewhere in case they tell you that you have to have on shoes – as boarding a plane is no place to argue about something like that. Also, while sitting in the gate area waiting for your flight to start boarding, don’t sit where your bare feet are so conspicuous to the employees working behind the counter. I always wear long pants myself when traveling by air, so that in itself may reduce the possibility of notice somewhat. When you get in line to start boarding, try to stay close to the person in front of you as you approach the gate agent, and try not to be the last person in the line. If possible, hold your carry-on bag on the side of your body that’s between the gate agent and the view of your feet. Hold your head high and look as confident as you can – never look down toward your feet. Look the agent in the eye and give him or her a friendly greeting as you present your boarding pass. Move on quickly down the boarding jetway. When actually entering the plane, again, look confident and pleasant as you greet the employee who will probably be standing there. Move on to your seat quickly.
All these suggestions should increase your chances of successfully boarding and flying barefoot.
Now, worse case situation: If anything is going to be said, it will most likely be when you give your boarding pass to the gate agent (see above). If he or she says something, it will probably go something like this:
“Sir [or Ma’am], do you have any shoes?”
Your answer should be, “Yes, right here in my bag.”
Most likely next response from gate agent, “You will need to put them on to board.”
Or, the agent might just say directly from the start, “Sir [or Ma’am], you need shoes on to board.”
In either case at that point, your response should be, “OK, sure,” then immediately take them out and put them on – without argument or hesitation. If you can’t easily do it while standing there, get out of line, sit down close by and do it, then get back in line.
If nothing is said at the gate, the second most likely place something might be said is just inside the plane door as you enter. Same response and procedure as above.
If that happens in either case, simply wear the flip-flops or other footwear to your seat, then remove them and put them away for the rest of the flight. It is highly unlikely that anyone on the plane after that will say another word to you about your feet.
And sometimes, an airline employ may simply ask if you have any shoes or make some similar remark, but not actually tell you to put them on. That has happened to me a few times, including the very last airline flight I was on.
These suggestions are the best way, in my opinion, to have the best chance of flying barefoot for the majority of the time.
Some inconsiderate passengers invading others’ spaces on planes have caused some bad publicity of late
There is one other little issue I want to touch upon. It is unfortunate that in the last few years we have seen quite a bit of negative publicity on social media as well as some pop culture TV talk shows about some rather boorish behavior by a few individuals on airline flights who have removed their shoes and invaded the space of other passengers with their bare feet. People who have done this are not barefooters at all; they are shoe wearers who just don’t know how to behave and be respectful to others in a public place.
We are not those people, and it behooves us to always be respectful of other passengers on airline flights and never prop our feet up on or near where someone else is sitting. That, of course, would apply to anyone whether barefoot or wearing shoes.
And for anyone who decides to wear shoes while boarding, I would suggest to just keep them on throughout the flight – unless it’s flip-flops. Boarding in shoes but removing them later just kind of puts us in the same category as the people that are being complained about, as the general public does not know the difference between true barefooters who never wear shoes and the rude people who board planes in shoes, remove them later, and then put their bare feet in places they don’t belong. Besides, there is also the problem of foot odor that always results when wearing shoes on a regular basis, or even a few hours. Barefooters who don’t have any shoes on in the first place and board a plane are not going to have any foot odor to annoy other people; people who board planes wearing shoes but then remove them are highly likely to have foot odor, and that is another one of the issues that people often complain about.
Most of the time, airlines choose not to invoke restrictions on traveling barefoot
So, to recap, most airlines do have written rules that address bare feet that they could invoke if they choose to. The vast majority of the time, they will not choose to, especially if the barefoot person seems otherwise normal, friendly, and respectful to others.
After all, living barefoot (never wearing shoes), whether on a plane or anywhere else, does absolutely no harm whatsoever to either the barefooter or any other person, and that free will choice to be barefoot should be of no concern to anyone.