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Counting The Spaces In Line

I had an interesting etiquette conundrum on a recent trip away, and although the problem was solved, it did make me wonder about the etiquette of waiting in line when it comes to saving spots for people to cut ahead.

In April, I visited San Francisco for 3 days, and hoped to visit Alcatraz, but was unaware that it was so popular you needed to book days, if not weeks, in advance. However, my hostel told me that every morning they sell 50-100 tickets for the first ferry leaving on the day, so if I was willing to get up early, I could still possibly get a ticket. The office opens at 7:30, but people have been known to wait as early as 5 to get in.

Since it wasn’t a weekend, I decided not to be there quite that early, and made it to the ticket office for 6:15, where there were maybe 8 people ahead of me. I was told I could only buy one ticket, and to make sure I had photo ID so I could prove I was buying it for myself.

The issue I had however, was within the next 45 minutes, the 8 people ahead of me (and those lining up behind) started calling people, or just greeting new arrivals, who would go to the very front of the queue to wait with their party. I don’t begrudge someone holding a spot for one person, but a party of 2 at the very front of the queue ended up swelling to a party of 9 as friends arrived throughout the waiting time! By 7am, there were over 25 people ahead of me. I was still pretty sure I could get a ticket given how many I was told could be sold, but the queue had been lining up behind me as well, and I can’t imagine someone who arrived at 6:30, who counted the people ahead and thought themself safe, was too happy to see themselves go from 25th in the queue to 50th. The employee at the back of the queue warning people about buying one ticket and having ID, never said anything, and neither did anyone in the queue.

Thankfully, the problem resolved itself, when at 7 am the employees started handing out tokens that we needed to exchange for tickets, guaranteeing everyone in line a place, but I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the ticket limit had run out for those who had counted the line, thought themselves safe, only to have someone who showed up at 6:55 rather than 6:30 get in because they jumped the queue?

Is there a limit on how many spots you are allowed to save in a waiting line? Especially if what you’re waiting for is limited in number? And do you have an obligation to tell people how many people will be arriving so they have a more reasonable idea of how far down the line you really are? 0531-18

{ 35 comments }
{ 35 comments… add one }
  • Sarah June 5, 2018, 6:21 am

    Saving a place for the person who went to park the car is one thing, saving for 2 or more is unfair.

    • Liz June 5, 2018, 8:40 am

      Agreed, esp. when it appears they were the ones who got up early, as did the OP, and the others just kind of meandered in after the fact, as if they couldn’t be bothered to get up with everyone else and come early.

    • Queen of the Weezils June 5, 2018, 12:08 pm

      I would agree, Sarah. All line saving is technically rude, but everyone understands when that one person is parking the car or grabbing drinks or something like that. Saving the line for more than a 1-3, and saving it for more than about 15 minutes is just too much!

  • staceyizme June 5, 2018, 7:03 am

    This is akin to the “early seat savers” at concerts and movies. Most people understand if you are saving a seat because there are people in the concession line or some members of your party went to the bathroom. But saving a spot in line is an even more tenuous proposal, socially speaking, and I’d be inclined to give them the side-eye, at a minimum. That said, it’s up to the management of any establishment to regulate the culture of behaviors that are promoted (or even merely tolerated). Since it didn’t impact you other than to cause some stress, letting it go seems best. In the moment, you could have remarked to the person passing out tokens that you were very worried about not being able to get a ticket because the eight people in front of you became 25.

  • E June 5, 2018, 7:55 am

    I tend to be understanding for one person (I assume like Sarah said that they were parking the car, etc)– but anything more than that and the entire party should move to the back of the line, in my opinion. That’s typically what we do in my family to be polite to others– especially because I have seen many instances of half a party getting to the front of the line and the other half of their party hasn’t arrived yet, creating chaos at the front of the line depending on what the line is for.

  • ErindV June 5, 2018, 8:01 am

    I generally go by a 1:1 spot saving rule. If you are saving a space in a line, theatre, what have you, one person can only save one additional space. The exception to this is if everybody arrived at the event to begin with, but some have temporarily left their spot to go to the bathroom/get snacks/etc. (eg. a group of 6 could all arrive at a theatre, get seats, and then 4 could wander off to buy popcorn.)
    Obviously that is just my personal rule, and it is only enforceable to others via a punishment of side-eye.

  • Lyn June 5, 2018, 8:13 am

    Saving a spot for one or two, no problem. Anymore than that is rude.

  • Adereterial June 5, 2018, 9:12 am

    This would not fly in the UK at all. You can save for one person at most, and even then the people behind will be pretty annoyed.

    • AJ June 5, 2018, 9:47 pm

      In (Mainland) China, they would get beaten to a pulp. (I’m in Hong Kong and here the crowd would be more likely to try to shame them first.)

  • Kimberly June 5, 2018, 9:13 am

    My family has done something similar – but always told the people behind us. When traveling with kids 1 adult will take the kids off to one side so they aren’t driving people crazy. But when people get in line behind us – the other adults will tell them that adult and those kids are with us. Right now we are actually at the point where the oldest 3 cousins are the ones supervising the younger kids and all the adults would wait in line. We actually love the token system for this because the kids will get their tokens, their adult will hold on to it while the kids wait to the side. That said for this particular tour – it would only be the oldest 4 or 5 cousins so they would probably be in line with the adults. The youngest 4 wouldn’t go on this tour because it wouldn’t be appropriate for their age or their personalities. The middle two would depend on their mood that day.

    • Devin June 6, 2018, 10:47 am

      I think when you can see the rest of the party (kids playing away from the line) you can in theory hold the line for as many people as are in your original party. In a situation like that it’s easy enough to point out to the people directly behind you, those people right there are with us. The rest of the line is probably happy that someone else is minding the children so the whole line isn’t subjected to whining, tantrum throwing, and other behaviors children exhibit when having to wait longer than their attention spans can hold.
      If your family did this but half the family decided to sleep in and then show up hours later to step into line, I’d say no way!

  • MelEtiquette June 5, 2018, 9:37 am

    I think it is unfair to hold someone’s place when the line is for a resource that is limited, like in this case. Yes, it certainly makes the length of the queue misleading when 1 person really represents 4 or more people. With that said, not everyone feels that “saving a spot” is unfair, and otherwise no rules were broken. Management dictated that the limit was one ticket per customer and photo ID was necessary to verify the purchase was for the individual present. It seems like management is already going above and beyond to make the process as fair as possible.

    As a counterpoint, what if management had not set a limit on the number of tickets one could purchase? You could have been the second person in line and deemed yourself “safe”, only to find out that the one person in front of you in line was buying all 100 available tickets. That seems equally unfair but would technically not be breaking any rules.

    I think the only way management can improve this situation is by policing the line to catch the cutters. It’s possible management isn’t even aware that this happens. If the tickets go on sale early in the morning, then there is probably some lone employee who begrudgingly shows up at the crack of dawn to open the ticket window. That person probably does not care much about queuing etiquette or who was there first. Perhaps call management and let them know about your experience, and maybe they will implement some changes to make the process more fair for everybody.

  • Princess Buttercup June 5, 2018, 9:55 am

    Saving a spot for more than one person is inconsiderate. Any more than that and they should have just come with you instead of being so lazy.

    The employees of that place could have solved the problem easily by handing out tokens to people as the walked up. (Or who were in line once employees came out if they didn’t show up until after the line formed.) Then if someone says “I have five friends joining me” the employee says “they can have a token when they get here, if tokens are gone by then they will have to try again tomorrow”.

    • SS June 5, 2018, 12:04 pm

      THIS! 100% THIS!

    • Lerah99 June 6, 2018, 12:59 pm

      The only problem with this idea is you’d need to have an employee show up at 5am to make sure to give tokens to the very earliest people who show up.
      And I don’t think anyone wants to pay an employee for 3 hours before the ticket booth even opens.

      Instead the first employees get there at 7:30am and hand out the tokens to the people waiting in line at that point. That’s not going to stop the people who showed up at 5am and had 7 friends join them at 7am.

  • JD June 5, 2018, 11:18 am

    In a situation like this, where there are limited tickets given out as first come, first served, no one should be holding a place for more than one person. However, what the OP could have done at that time, I’m not sure, except call the management later and tell them what is going on.
    In places where one must have a token — that I know about, which isn’t many — one must walk up and personally be handed a token as one arrives. I suppose an allowance could be made to hold a spot for one extra person, but in the lines I’ve known about, no holding places was allowed. And really, if one person is parking the car, the other person who is with the driver, instead of holding a place in line, could just wait and walk from the parking area with the driver, and both get their tokens at the same time. If parking the car makes the difference in getting a token or not, get there earlier, park, then go get in line. That’s what the OP did, get there early enough to park and get a token. It seems to me that it is just a little unfair to hold a spot for someone else who is parking the car, when people who arrive singly or as the only adult with kids, don’t have that luxury of having someone hold a spot for them while they park.

  • sillyme June 5, 2018, 12:02 pm

    I suspect as far as the tourist site and employees go, this is not their first rodeo. They sound prepared for this situation (assuming they got there at 7am), as if it had happened before.

    Alot.

    People who do things like trying to save a spot for a small mob in line think they’re being very original in trying to “game the system,” but very rarely, if ever, are. Someone has always already thought of it, tried it, and the people and charge nipped it in the bud.

  • Jelly_Rose June 5, 2018, 12:30 pm

    Ugh, I had to deal with this when I was sitting for a midnight release of a game, I was lucky to be seventh in line, I was further ahead at first but apparently the second person in line was ‘saving’ for four friends that showed up. After that nobody was putting up with it, even one of my not really a friend ‘friends’ approached me and tried to get in line. I gave them a can of soda (I had a pack) and told them that should hold them over for the line they needed to get the back of.

  • Girlie June 5, 2018, 12:36 pm

    There are a few exceptions to this, but in general, I do think it’s rude in a situation like this to save spots for someone.

    The exceptions are if someone who IS present has simply stepped away to go to the restroom or handle some sort of short-ended emergency, waiting for someone who is with you but was held up by something like parking the car, an adult holding small children off to the side so as to not bother other people in line, and elderly or handicapped individuals who may not be able to physically stand during the entire wait.

    • staceyizme June 5, 2018, 3:49 pm

      You bring up an excellent point. However, in a case like this it should be fairly moot. If someone is planning to take a tour and they cannot stand in line, they can bring a lightweight chair to sit in or use a walker that has a bench attached (or a wheelchair or whatever works for them). I don’t see how you can easily excuse someone from standing in line to be served when one’s place in line is tied to a very limited number of opportunities to participate.
      The suggestion upthread to hand out a token to each person as they walked up would be ideal here. Most of us can comply with a variety of rules and procedures if they are spelled out and if they are uniformly enforced. It’s when we think that someone is “gaming” the system that we become annoyed.

      • CherylAC June 5, 2018, 10:25 pm

        As a handicapped person who has problems standing in line, I have never asked someone to save me a spot. The last time it was an issue was at an event I went to and just about everyone there wanted to meet the speaker and talk for a minute (almost literally that long). I purposely stayed seated until the line was fairly manageable for me and got into line with a friend who was nice enough to wait for me. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the group of about 10 people coming in and out and standing to the side chatting until all of them decided to join the friend/family member who was just ahead of me saving places for them. I objected and they “graciously” let me go ahead of them.

      • Lara June 5, 2018, 10:41 pm

        I’m reminded of certain local government offices where I live, such as the DMV, and I think even the post office at one point. They have an automatic ticket dispenser that gives you a numbered paper ticket when you first walk in. You just tear it off. That way, you can then go sit down, or find a label for your package, etc, and get called up in the order that you arrived.

        • Margo June 6, 2018, 5:50 am

          That works well. I’ve seen it done at large signings, too – you are given a cloakroom-style ticket when you arrive / buy the book and then people are called up by ticket number.

          If you know you have ticket no. 750 you can go and get a sandwich or something while you wait, or just sit and read your new book! And it also stops people leaping up in the closing minutes of the event, to try to get near the front of the line.

          In the situation the OP describes, I think it would have been fine for her to have said something to those pushing in.to say that she wasn’t happy to let them cut in, and to ask them them to go to the end of the line – I think often people will do as they are asked in those situations, and if they refuse you’re no worse off than before.

        • NostalgicGal June 9, 2018, 5:10 am

          The DMV had changed, closing offices, so the few that were still open were impossible. I went in after lunch one day and noticed the sequence of numbers being called and the speed, and glanced at a few sitting numbers, and decided nothing was going to happen today. The speed wasn’t going to happen…. next morning I came early (they were in a mall) and I brought a small padded stool I had (squat stool) and got in line (two hours before door opened I became about 30 from the front). And the line got LONG before that door opened. Once I stepped in I claimed the pull number. They were starting the day with a number 90 after the one I had seen the day before. Yep. Some had looked at me with my stool outside, but. Post office had call-a-number but they had so little sit down space it didn’t help much on pulling numbers. One of the clerks said at the holidays it was mandatory they use it or they would have several hairpullers over people trying to jump the line a day.

  • Michelle June 5, 2018, 3:42 pm

    I enjoy going to the movies and this kind of thing happens all the time- people “cutting” the line by seeing a friend or someone they know, start chatting and slowly edging in to the line. I used to silently stew, but now if I notice someone is trying to ease into/cut the line, saying “Excuse me, the end of the line is there ” pointing. Most people will be embarrassed enough to move on to the back of the line, but the ones who try to argue with me get the “Yes, I understand that you are talking to your friend, but the rest of us got here early because we knew there would be line and you are trying to use the excuse of talking to your friend to cut in line hoping no one will say anything.” I have only had to get the manager once for something like this.

    I agree that if someone is parking the car, getting refreshments, etc., no problem saving their place in line. But if I am in line for an hour and someone breezes in 10 minutes before the door opens and tries to cut the line by talking to a friend I’m going to say something. My time is just as important as theirs and if they can’t make the effort to arrive in a timely fashion, then they just need to go to the back of the line and wait like the rest of us are doing. You are not entitled to cut the line or hold a space for someone who wants to wait until the last minute to arrive.

  • Calli Arcale June 5, 2018, 4:26 pm

    I remember one particular line-saving experience that really sticks out in my memory. I was in college at the time, and went to get some groceries. I saw one line where the cashier was busy ringing someone up, and got in line behind that person. Once there was enough room on the belt, I started adding my groceries, patiently waiting, until suddenly this woman came storming up in high dudgeon because I had taken her spot in line!

    She’d placed her shopping basket on the floor at the end of the belt to save her spot. It wasn’t obstructing the line or anything; it was out of the way. I hadn’t even seen it, it was so unobtrusive. But she’d put it down to “save her spot” while she went and got some more groceries. (Mind you, I wasn’t in line for just a few seconds, but for several minutes before she returned, and based on the position of her basket, there must have been a couple of people in line when she left it there.) I was completely flummoxed; I’d never heard of saving a spot in line for *yourself* except by occupying it! But I wasn’t in a rush, and it seemed she apparently was, so I graciously offered for her to go ahead of me. She said no, I should go first, since obviously I was in too much of a hurry to wait, but I insisted, since again, I was in no hurry to get back to class. She put her few items on the belt ahead of me, leaving one parting shot, insinuating that (this being a college town) that I must have grown up somewhere far away that didn’t teach manners. I shrugged, and let her know I was actually local, and she had nothing else to say, flouncing on out.

    The cashier apologized for her after the woman had left, saying she had no idea where this woman’s idea about line-holding behavior came from. Very odd.

    • Goldie June 6, 2018, 7:37 am

      We must all have grown up in that same faraway place, because I’ve never heard of this spot-holding method before. I was born and raised in Eastern Europe. I practically spent my teens and 20s standing in lines. If someone had put their belongings on the floor and walked away, not only would that not have guaranteed them their place in line, their stuff would also be gone by the time they came back. (There was a shortage of groceries, so people probably would’ve happily taken her groceries too.) I’ve seen people step out for a few minutes and ask the person behind them to let them back in line when they’d return. But if you step away without telling anyone and there’s no one behind you, that’s on you. And to assume that anyone will see your basket on the floor at the end of the belt is ridiculous, no one ever looks down there except to place an empty basket on the floor. Where did she come up with that idea?

    • MelEtiquette June 6, 2018, 8:22 am

      This was the subject of a podcast I listen to this week. Apparently there is a growing trend (especially in NYC apparently) for people to place their baskets in line and then resume shopping, with the expectation that people who queue up behind the basket will not only honor the spot in line but also move the basket forward as the line progresses until the person returns. I was flabbergasted that people thought this was acceptable. To me, you get in line when you are finished picking out your items for purchase, end of story. The only possible exception is if you forgot something and can run quickly to get it, but even then I think it would be more appropriate to step out of line, retrieve the item, and then return to the back of the line.

    • Soop June 6, 2018, 8:51 am

      I have seen people try this, but mostly their wishes are ignored. Someone usually slides the basket out of the way (say to the next cash line if it’s not being used).

      At the store where we do most of our grocery shopping, they have the cart deposit lock thingys. Put in a dollar coin (I’m Canadian) to unlock the cart, get it back when you return the cart (combination of that and locking wheels outside a certain perimeter means their carts aren’t floating around the neighbourhood). In spite of the dollar being refunded, there are people who won’t get a cart. They get a basket, load it up and leave it near the cash (not in line, but still in the way on a busy day), get another basket, repeat with multiple baskets until shopping done.

  • Kry June 5, 2018, 6:05 pm

    This reminds me of two Christmases ago on my sons last visit to see Santa Clause.
    A mid teen girl was lining up to have her photo taken with Santa. The line was over an hour long and she stood there on her own until she was only a few people from the front.
    Then the hordes descended.
    The entire local girls hockey team (all aged in their mid teens) pushed up to her and the team captain started organizing how she wanted the team. Fine, it was still one photo so I grit my teeth.
    Then they started organizing who wanted individual photos, ones with their BF, small group shots etc.
    At that point I signalled for a worker and told them what was happening. The team were told that they could have the team picture but any more and they would have to go to the back of the line and line up individually.

  • koolchicken June 5, 2018, 8:06 pm

    I’m of the opinion people should extend mutual courtesy towards one another. But that’s all. You should never ask more than you’d be prepared to give. I go to Disney with my family a lot. It’s generally understood that it’s acceptable for one person to hold a space in line while someone else takes smaller children to the bathroom. The entire family shouldn’t be expected to get out of line because a five year old needs to use the restroom 45 minutes into the wait for a ride. We’ve all been that age, and we all know when small kids say they need to go- they need to go now! But there WILL be grumbling, or even words exchanged if one person waits for an hour only to have 4-5 people (of any age) suddenly jump in line. I think that’s fair.

    In a situation such as this, I’d take it case by case. I can understand assuming one person could go and buy for the group only to discover that’s not possible. If that happens, you step out of line and only re-enter when the group arrives. It’s not acceptable to think you can stay in line and hold a space for 2+ people. What is okay (in my book) is to have one person go ahead and hold the space if it’s just one person running behind. Maybe they’re parking the car. Or, if there’s an emergency and someone suddenly needs a bathroom break. Even if one in the group was suddenly not feeling well and needed to get something to eat or drink. At that time in the morning, I personally have trouble and might need to suddenly stop for something like orange juice. I could skip it, I might also pass out. But again, that would mean only one, maybe two (like if the affected person needs to be accompanied) is running behind. It’s just never okay for 3 or more people to jump in line. In instances when I’ve been “informed” an excessive number of people will be joining the line, I always say the same thing, and I say it rather loudly. “Oh, that’s fine with me. But you should be sure to ask all the other people in line behind us too.” Believe it or not, that’s actually shamed a few people into making different decisions…

    One observation though, I have seen people making “deals” in line before and it went reasonably well. If one person was holding space in the line for what was determined to be “too many” people they let the same number go ahead of them so the people behind them weren’t affected. Obviously it doesn’t help the people at the very back of the line, but it’s kept those who would have been affected immediately from complaining. I’m fairly sure from an etiquette standpoint this is still wrong. But most people seem to feel this falls into a grey area. Just wanted to mention this as something I’ve seen work successfully as a compromise, even if I personally wouldn’t do it.

  • kingsrings June 5, 2018, 11:18 pm

    This used to happen quite a bit at a food pantry I used to frequent years ago. People would get there as much as 2 hours early to get a good spot. And we waited in the bright sun. Inevitably, it would turn out that somebody would allow their friends who came by at the last minute to cut in line ahead of all the people who had gotten there early to get a good spot. The rudeness of that was unbelievable! When we would call them out on it, they would insist that it was okay because they’d been “saving” those spots for their friends. The pantry workers didn’t care enough to do anything to stop it.

  • Moose June 7, 2018, 8:17 am

    Back in 2003, we were going to a Lord of the Rings Marathon — extended director’s cut of the first two movies than a showing of the (new) third movie. This was back before movie marathons were a thing, so this was A Big Deal. It was also before reserved seating in movie theatres, so my mom and I got there at like 0600 for the marathon that started at 1:00 and we were the second group in line. By 0630 or maybe 0645 the rest of our group was there (there were 7 of us total). The theatre let us in at 10:00 am and being the second group in line, we got great seats.

    At 12:30, the theatre was pretty full except for some seats down front and my friend decided to take his 11yo son to the bathroom and to get some popcorn before the first movie started. They had been gone about 15 minutes when a guy and his girlfriend came in, looked around and made a bee line for the two “empty” seats in our row. They had made their way half way down the row when they got to where our group started and my mom — never one to shy away — said “Im sorry, all the seats in this row are taken.” “Not those two. Those are empty” “No, they are taken by our friends.” Cue immediate offense from the guy and his girlfriend “You can’t save seats in something like this” They tried to walk past my mom and she put her foot out to block their way “they aren’t saved. They are taken. Our friends have been here since 615 this morning and are downstairs getting popcorn” “You cannot save seats! We’re going to management!” My mom shrugs “Have fun with that” Grumbling and complaining they made their way out of the row. Our friends actually passed them on the stairs.

    They did come back with management, but the manager looked to where they were pointing, shrugged and pointed them to the empty seats at the front of the theatre. Don’t show up to something like that 15 minutes before it starts and expect prime seats!!

  • NostalgicGal June 8, 2018, 12:36 am

    Then there are professional line holders. They get in the line, buy the tickets, and hold spot to load for the performance/showing. And someone else shows up and they collect the tickets and the place in line. Those I sure don’t like…

  • Eliza June 8, 2018, 10:32 am

    seems like the people in charge should be handing out those tokens as soon as people start lining up.

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