What are the rules about looking professional in the airport?

a black and white shoeTravel days. No time in the office, just the airport. Tons of walking, sitting, bending, stretching.  The conundrum: what to wear? If you’re not seeing any of your clients or coworkers, exactly what are the rules about looking professional?

If you’ve spent any time at the airport you know firsthand there is a wide range of opinions about appropriate clothing for travel. You’ll see everything from tee shirts to maxi dresses to formal suits.

For international trips there is no need to stress too much about looking polished. Yoga pants or leggings are just fine when you’re traveling for 25 hours. But what about when you’re headed to Charlotte or Miami or Chicago, only traveling for a few hours before heading to the hotel? That’s where I struggle. (And obviously I’m not suggesting anything offensive or too revealing—that’s never okay on a business trip!)

There are generally two schools of thought on dressing for travel days.

  1. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, I’m wearing my most comfortable clothes. Since I’m not going to the office, who cares?
  2. Even though I’m not working in the office today I want to exude professionalism. It may not be the most comfortable day but I care about projecting a polished image.

I love people-watching at airports to see what passengers are wearing. I certainly appreciate and admire those who look put-together at midnight after clearly working and traveling all day. At the same time I can’t help but envy the comfort of those sporting sneakers and sweatpants.

Typically I end up somewhere in the middle. Jeans or leggings, a tunic, and ballet flats are my travel outfit of choice. I may not look like I’m headed to a boardroom, but I like to think it strikes a balance between comfort and style.

Readers, I am very interested to know your thoughts on looking professional in the airport? What do you wear on travel days? Are you office-ready or do you dress strictly for comfort? Somewhere in between?


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  1. My industry skews toward a business casual (with emphasis on “casual”) dress code 80% of the time, so my attitude toward airport attire takes its cue from that. My cooler weather travel day “uniform” has become substantial leggings, a chambray tunic with long cardigan or structured jacket, and either boots, flats, or streetwear sneakers. In the summer it’s generally a maxi dress, flats and a denim jacket.

  2. my thoughts are that this article is about as stupid as discussing about what looks professional in an airport

  3. …until, never thinking about it before bc it seemed stupid, come face to face with a client at EWR while in comfy hobo clothes. don’t be me.

    ever since then I think ‘would I be embarrassed running into a client wearing these as travel clothes.

    LizC has great rundown. A mid weight embroidered or knit wrap can ‘formal’ up a t-shirt or everlane sweatshirts.

  4. The only rule I have is that I go out of my way to avoid showing company-identifying logos when I travel, because if it really is just a travel day I don’t want to feel guilty about having an early cocktail. There are packing solutions that get my suit to the hotel in better shape than if I wore it, so on pure travel days I go comfortable. That said, I usually don’t have really casual clothes to wear on a short business trip, so I can’t get too dressed-down.

  5. People look at you for a microsecond. Any judgment they make reflects poorly on themselves and is likely forgotten a nanosecond later. Thus, who cares? Dress for yourself and what makes you feel good about you. If you feel good in A Gucci cocktail dress, wear it. If you feel good in some Lululemon and a tank top, wear it. I guarantee that no one but you cares.

  6. I don’t think most people wouldn’t care what you wear but they may judge. That being said I tend to go with business casual or resort casual depending on the time of year. That way you don’t accidentally run into a co-worker, boss or client in your Sponge Bob Pj’s and flip flops. The other thing I will offer up is footwear..footwear people.I never understand why someone is going to walk miles in airports up and down escalators, in front of others that are in a hurry, etc. and wear the worse footwear possible. At least put on some running shoes or something. Wearing a blown out pair of flipflops is not a wise choice, even on vacation through airports.

  7. I don’t see why professional has to be separate from comfortable. Buy clothing that fits and it *should* be comfortable, even suits; my only real concession is switching from heels to flats when I leave the office. For extra comfort on travel days when I’m working somewhere that doesn’t require a suit, I typically wear stretchy dresses and cardigans, with a pashmina in my bag to help stay warm on chilly flights. That looks perfectly professional, but is also exceedingly comfortable in flight.

    My rule is that if I wouldn’t wear it at the office, I shouldn’t be wearing it while traveling for business. It’s not at all hard to stick to that.

  8. There are any number of comfortably casual styles of clothes for women that travel well. More than comfortable enough even for a transatlantic flight. Same for shoes. Unless you need them for exercise on a trip, I don’t see any point in even taking a pair of sneakers. They’re so bulky, and wearing them at the airport means dealing with laces, unless you have Pre-Check or Global Entry.

    Personally, I prefer to present a stylish appearance even on travel days. I find that it invariably gets me better treatment, regardless of whether that should be the case or not. And comfort is always my top priority. But a pair of slightly wide legged stretch pants, paired with a non-constricting top in a fabric that doesn’t wrinkle and rubber-soled shoes are all super comfy and look great – plus, a nice pair of lightweight earrings and versatile shawl will kick it all up a notch.

    It’s not any more trouble to look good than to look like a slob, or anything in between, it’s only a matter of preference. But, to be honest, I don’t give much thought to the way anyone else dresses. And, barring the previously mentioned offensive/revealing clothing, I don’t pay any particular attention to what others are wearing. I’d bet most people are the same.

    We may admire something particularly nice, or privately think something is really ugly. But I don’t see anything inappropriate in wearing sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers to travel – and I doubt that clients would, either. They may be wearing the same themselves. It’s perfectly acceptable these days, as is most of anything else.

    I just like to dress nicely to please myself – and to give me a slim edge in case I need assistance with anything. But, first and foremost, I insist on being comfortable.

    (Although, I have to admit, I am far more judgemental about how people act. And, imo, offering a comment limited to calling things stupid displays a significant lack of meaningful intelligence – practically an indication of stupidity in itself, in fact. What a waste of time and space. Tsk.)

  9. Betabtand does a fabulous job of disguising comfortable clothes business casual/professional. I have a couple of their “kimono” dresses that I wear that I only have to add pearls and nice shoes to be perfectly fine to meet clients, or wear with a pair of sneakers to be totally comfy. The secret is that the dresses have soft fleece inside like a thin sweatshirt. They keep me warm on the plane and look good! I actually had a woman stop her car to tell me how ‘adorable’ I looked while walking home, because I was wearing sneakers and a small backpack! Totally incognito casual!

  10. My travel style is similar to my dress-down days at home. It’s usually some variation on Eileen Fisher elastic waist trousers or leggings with a tunic top, usually black. It feels like pajamas, but looks better in public. Add a statement necklace and some metallic flats, and I’m good to go. I call it “pajamas with bling.” The pajamas are for my own comfort, and the bling makes people think I made an effort. 🙂

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