Is it rude to wake up your seatmate if you have to use the restroom?

On long flights it’s often necessary to sleep. Unfortunately, sleep on an airplane isn’t the easiest thing to come by! A Tylenol PMlot of people, myself included, turn to sleep aids—Tylenol PM, Ambien, and the like. But what’s the best thing to do when your seatmate is sleeping and you need to get out of your row?

Last week my mom flew home from Africa. She was sitting by the window,  and the guy sitting by the aisle seemed nice enough.  But about an hour into the flight he fell asleep and slept for the next eight hours. Good for him, right? Except that around hour four my mom needed to use the restroom. She waited patiently for him to wake up, but it never happened. He would stir a bit, and she would think, This is finally it! But no. He would settle and go right back to sleep. By the time he actually woke up she was about to burst. Turns out that he was able to sleep so well because he had taken an Ambien.

There are a couple of things that struck me about this scenario. First, I asked my mom if she had tried to wake him up. “No, I’m not that person,” she said. This made me stop and think. Apparently I am totally that person—I try to wait for the person next to me to wake up, but if I really need to go then I have no problem waking them. And if I’m sitting in the aisle, I fully expect to be woken up if the person next to me needs to use the lav. I don’t want to trap anyone and make them pee in their pants!

On my first trip to Manila I did my usual sleep routine—eye mask, Tylenol PM, white noise app with noise cancelling headphones. After a couple of hours I was awoken by seatmate because he needed to run to the restroom. Yes, it was disorienting to not be able to see, and be woken out of a sound sleep by a Japanese-accented male voice (hah) but I’ve always felt that is part of the deal with flying.

The second thing that struck me was wondering what was going through the guy’s head when he took that Ambien. Did he just assume that my mom would wake him if she needed out? Did he know that he would sleep like a log for eight hours? Did he just not care how his actions affected others? I would never take a sleep aid in public (which an airplane definitely is) without knowing how it affected me first. I’ve taken Ambien, and it put me to sleep pretty well but I had crazy dreams. I also had some hot flashes and woke up having taken off my PJ pants. Not something I want to happen on a plane! So no Ambien for me outside of my house.

Here are my recommendations. If you are sitting in the aisle and planning to sleep, give your seatmate an opportunity to get out one last time. Also, I would make it clear that if they need up while you’re sleeping it’s fine for them to wake you up. For those sitting by the window, try to get up when your seatmate gets up. If they are sleeping, only wake them if you really need to get out.

Readers, what do you think? Is it rude to wake up your seatmate while they’re sleeping because you need to go to the lav?

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  1. I almost never sleep on planes, I can’t, and I try to get an aisle seat whenever possible. It feels like 90% of the time when I don’t get an aisle, the person on the aisle is sound asleep before the wheels leave the ground. Why, if you are such a good sleeper, would you even need an aisle seat? To answer the blog’s question, yes totally wake up a person if you need the restroom. Don’t make yourself ill or uncomfortable – access to a bathroom is a basic right in this setting.

  2. I know if I am going to be up and down I sit on the aisle (when I am drinking a lot of champagne) but if I am going to sleep I choose window. I have no problem waking the person on the aisle seat…..hopefully they know when they chose it that people between them and the window have needs.

  3. This happened to me the other day. I was sleeping, and when I got up to use the lav, the woman in the window seat got out at the same time. I then remembered to tell her: hey–if you need to get out, please just wake me. I think that’s probably common courtesy.

    That being said: I always get an aisle seat, because I have a tiny bladder and need access to the lav. Because of this, I would never have a problem with someone waking me to ask for the same thing. Because I get it. I would assume all other aisle-sitters would feel the same way. If you choose an aisle seat, you value freedom. You should value it for everyone else, too.

  4. I usually get an aisle seat because I always have to go to the bathroom and rarely sleep on flights. But on the occasion that I know I am about to fall asleep I usually try to tell my seat mates that they can wake me up, it’s no problem. Though I have left a note on my tray table that states they can wake me up if they have to go to the bathroom, because they were asleep before I could tell them.

    Though, on the flip side. I have been in the window seat and had to use the bathroom and had someone get angry with me because I had to use the bathroom while they were asleep. While I tried to be as nice about it as possible, they were not nice/happy about it. And I get it to a point, but I think if you choose that aisle seat, you have made a choice to be woken up when others have to go.

  5. I think it depends on the length of the flight. If it’s a short flight (3 hours or less), don’t pick the window if you think you will need to get up, and don’t get up unless the others in your row get up. I am really annoyed if I have an aisle seat and the person in the window is constantly making get up.

    The advantage of the window seat is control of the window shade; the advantage of the aisle seat is easy access to the aisle whenever you want. I don’t sit in the aisle seat and then bug the window seat person about the shade; they shouldn’t sit in the window seat and bug me about reaching the aisle.

  6. @Laura,

    Wow, what a selfish way to look at it. There are so many illnesses and diseases that can cause a person to constantly have to use the restroom, or they simply had something that didn’t agree with them and they need to go. Sometimes, people don’t get the opportunity to choose aisle or window, they are stuck with whatever is given to them (especially if you are an elite and upgraded on domestic flights, you might get stuck with a window seat). I almost always take aisle seats, and the only time I don’t is when I’m in the bulk head whereas I don’t have to disturb the person next to me in order to use the restroom. Why do I choose aisle all the time? It’s not b/c I use the restroom a lot, or have to get up. In most instances on a 3 hour or less flight, I won’t get up at all. I do it b/c on the off chance that I have to go, or I happened to eat something that didn’t agree with me, I don’t get stuck in the window with a selfish person like you in the aisle who gets annoyed that I actually have to use the restroom. It’s already embarrassing enough for most people to have to get up and use the restroom a couple of times on a 3 hour flight, but to also be guilt-tripped by it so they have to sit and suffer? Get over yourself. Here’s to you having some bad fish sometime and needing to use the restroom constantly and the two people next to you just popped an ambien for that 8 hour flight.

  7. Good topic. On an 8-hour flight, I might go to the lavatory 12 times. I always choose an aisle seat. I also always have an empty bottle with me, in case I can’t get out of my seat for some reason – haven’t used it yet in an airplane. My cost of having an aisle seat is that I don’t sleep. No matter how often my seat mates get up, it is always fine with me. On those occasions that I don’t get an aisle seat, I expect the aisle seatholder to bear that cost. I will climb over him if necessary.

  8. If there is one thing that I dislike about people in the Western world is how so many people are afraid to be “not nice” or not politically correct. They just get so stressed that sometimes it doesn’t make any sense . Being nice is important, but at some point, you gotta understand that if you gotta pee, you gotta pee.
    It’s also not good to have a stressed fellow passanger sitting next to you. To overcome all this, whenever I sit in an aisle seat (on any flight, no matter its duration) I tell my row mates that if I fall asleep and they need to get out of their seat, just elbow me in the ribs till I wake up. This adds some humor to an issue that can be stressful to some people (again, I’m not sure why should it be stressful). More importantly – this makes you more approachable in a way and lets them understand that I know my place and, as funny as this sounds, my responsibilities as a passenger sitting in an aisle seat.

    I forgot to mention – don’t take any sleeping pills, but I think that this policy would apply even if I would. It would probably just leave a few bruises.

  9. Yes, I’m happy to move for someone if they need to use the restroom. In most cases, as someone who chooses the window seat, I am that person. It’s rare for someone to be upset as they’re woken up or about to put their tray table down for meal service. But it has happened. I try to be a friendly, good neighbor. Thankfully I’m not a big guy so squeezing through isn’t much of an issue.

    @Laura — What is constantly? Even on a <3 hour flight I may have to use the restroom once or twice, depending on how much water I drink. Drinking water is healthy. I sit at the window seat to rest my head against the fuselage and fall asleep easier. If it's too sunny in the cabin from the window, I'll pull it down partially or all the way. Or if I notice the person(s) next to me are sleeping and understand it would be more comfortable for them if it was pulled down, then I would most likely pull the shade down. Agreeing with Ryan, I don't want to get a UTI because you wouldn't move for a total of 15 seconds. Get over yourself.

  10. This is always my stress point on flights! I have kidney issues, so I always try to book aisle. Since aisle tends to be more popular, I don’t always get my wish.

    On a *very* long flight, someone took a sleeping pill. I couldn’t wake the person up. I ended up having to ring the flight attendant call button to get help waking him up. It was crazy, but I really, really needed to get up.

  11. In the US you can get accommodation under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACCA) if you have kidney or back issues requiring you to be on an aisle. If you call them over 48 hours in advance you are guaranteed a seat unless they are filled up with others with greater disabilities (not likely in this case).
    But yes, some people have medical needs to sit on the aisle. They will also need to sleep at some point. It’s kind to let others know that they can wake you up, but sometimes we forget. I’m also a little intolerant of people who sit at the window, chug 5 beers, then expect the aisle person to accommodate their trips to the bathroom.
    As far as the Mom goes – hey, she’s a full up adult with grown children and should be able to advocate for herself.

  12. Regardless of seating, I fully expect to be woken up by a passenger needing to use the loo, and have no compunction about waking someone else if I need to go. Why is this such an issue? I rarely sleep on planes, but if I did, I would not be offended if I was woken.

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