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News & Advice

How Long Is Too Long to Reserve a Pool Lounger?

Our editors discuss the fractious vacation dilemma.

Travel Debates is a series in which our editors weigh in on the most contentious issues that arise in-transit, like whether you should ever switch seats on a plane or if you should check your work email while on vacation.

In the 2021 film The Lost Daughter, Leda (Olivia Colman) sits and reads upon a recliner at a beach club in Greece. But then a newly arrived, expansive family disrupts her peace—the children cavort, the adults bicker while cracking beers—and a member of the party asks Leda if she will move to a seat down the way so that they can spread out together, expecting an easy yes in return. But Leda declines, and spends the rest of the day lounging in the midst of a united front of newfound adversaries who remain indignant over her defiance. 

It's an age old quandary: You book a stay at a resort for access to a beach and/or a pool, and yet the system through which to claim a sun bed to relax on remains lawless and the etiquette unclear. How long can you reserve a recliner without using it? What is the appropriate means of doing so? Should you be amenable, aloof, or aggressive with your poolside rivals? Below, global digital director Arati Menon joins editorial assistants Charlie Hobbs and Jessica Chapel to discuss.

Charlie Hobbs: Today, we are talking about the chairs by the pool and on the beach at a resort, and how it is and is not acceptable to behave with regard to them.

Arati Menon: I want to zoom out and get a sense of what you think. Are we all in agreement that it's okay to reserve a chair, or is it a practice that should be shut down?

Jessica Chapel: It depends, for me, on the vacation. If I'm going on my typical trip to Florida with my little cousins, and it's a lot of people, I’m in the gray because we are with children. You want to be able to watch them. 

AM: It's like—do children get their own chair?

Charlie Hobbs: No child is reclining.

JC: No, but you want to be closer to the pool to be able to watch.

AM: So the best seats go to people with kids.

CH: So that they can play lifeguard. I mean, I don’t object to this idea. I am at an age where I'm mostly traveling by myself and so I’m flexible. If I'm going to the pool, it's to sit and read and maybe to jump in. I don't think that there's an issue with me leaving all my stuff on the chair and going for a swim.

AM: I think that there's two types of people: the ones that reserve chairs and then go do different things, and the ones that are just there for the time that they are there. We've all had this happen: You’re looking down from the veranda after breakfast, the patio seems fairly empty, but you amble down and there are hardly any chairs available. Pre-breakfast, or before they’ve gone to sleep at night, people have reserved chairs with towels. So I think one question is: How far in advance can you plunk down your stuff?

CH: In my opinion, you plunk it down when you get there. It's unimaginable to me that I would go to the pool hours in advance. What would I even put there?

AM: You don’t put down your sunglasses. You put a towel, you put a magazine. 

JC: My family does that. They go before breakfast. And they're the type of people that will put two benches together with one towel. They do have children. 

CH: When does your family actually start to use them?

JC: After breakfast, they stay the whole day. They basically camp out there. 

AM: My thinking is you have 30 minutes between when you put your stuff down and when you have to be there. How does one enforce such a thing, though?

CH: It's the honor system. It's about having respect for your fellow man, to come back and use what you are claiming or else cede it to someone else who can. My question for Jessica: Has your family ever been confronted about reserving spots?

JC: No. Where we go in Boca Raton has a beach and a pool and if you stick to one it’s not a problem. But I see people reserving their spots in both areas and going back and forth, which is beyond the honor system.

CH: They want to have their cake and eat it too, these people.  

JC: It’s complicated with my family—I have talked to them about this. Growing up, they made me put the towels down, this innocent child. It didn't feel right. Now, I refuse to do it. 

CH: Does it follow that, if someone is breaking these unspoken rules of what we think is fair, that you would ever confront somebody or remove their stuff from the chair and take it for yourself? Now that we’ve defined our values, I have to ask if we actually act on them.

AM: I genuinely haven’t, because I'm terrified of confrontation. I don't want to be whacked with something.

CH: I haven’t either, but I’ve fantasized about it for sure—looking at someone’s chair that is just going unused while other people mill about. I’ve never done anything because, at a resort or a hotel you’re in a contained environment with your fellow guests. You throw their towel on the ground? You’re going to see them every day thereafter until one of you leaves. It’s why the honor system has to exist. Do we want to make the pool into a police state? 

AM: I'm afraid not. But what if we could talk about enforcing the 30- or even a 60-minute rule? 

CH: I think you could put that on the sign by the pool that has all of the rules, then people can assume after a certain amount of time that they can take that chair. I’m laughing imagining lights turning red and green above each seat after they’ve gone unattended for too long. The other point that I was going to bring up: Isn’t the getting there super early to reserve your spot far too militant a behavior for a vacation? Is it not completely counterintuitive to the whole idea of a resort in the first place, where you are supposed to take it easy? And how is it fair then that the people who have put themselves properly into vacation mode then lose out as a result and have nowhere to sit. I find it so disappointing. Even this is a paranoid competition where you have to charge forward.

AM: What if there's a signup system for the first ring, right? Yes. Even just at a nice resort. It’s like the cabana option, those that you have to reserve. 

CH: But recliners aren’t supposed to be a luxury experience, they’re basic. 

AM: But why not have a signup system? Like, you get a towel per person when you enter and you get a recliner per person as well.

CH: Did either of you see the film The Lost Daughter? Do you know what I why I'm bringing this up? Olivia Colman’s character is sitting on the beach, having a quiet and pleasant time. But then this big family starts coming to the same beach club. And they ask to give her to give them her recliner and move farther away so that they can all be together. And she says no and ends up caught up in the middle of this family gathering because she won't move her chair. Is it ever okay? 

AM: Oh, no, I don't think it's okay to ask. Would you say no? Because I would just move. 

CH: I would move for my own comfort as well, because the trade-off is that if you keep your seat but you’re surrounded by these people who might now want to make you miserable. Or at least you’ll feel awkward. 

AM: I have another question. You and your traveling companion have two seats, side by side. And your partner is off swimming or eating or whatever. And someone comes up to you and asks if the seat is taken. Do you say: “Yes, but you can have it until so-and-so comes back,” for 30 minutes or for however long? Because sometimes I volunteer—when I’ve seen a big family and they’re spilling over on their chairs, I’ll offer my reserved seat for a limited time. But sometimes it gets hard to manage.

CH: You’re taking a big risk. Not to make another reference, but I’ve just read Naked by David Sedaris and he tells this story about offering his seat on a Greyhound bus to a woman for some declared amount of time, and she stays in it for hours and hours while he sits in the aisle. And then when she goes to the bathroom he takes the seat back and she gets everyone on the bus to turn on him. This could happen to you.

I can also imagine myself being spiteful of my travel companion, who is taking so long to come down or whatever, and I would throw their seat at whoever needed it to show them what happens when you lallygag. 

AM: What is the one thing you should put down to reserve? Sunglasses are too risky.

JC: Flip flops under the chair?

CH: T-shirt?

JC: I really think it has to be a towel.

CH: A towel that’s been decidedly laid out though, or else someone might think it’s there for their own pleasure, left by the resort or something.

AM: What if you just took someone’s towel and put it on the ground as though the wind had blown it away?

CH: I think karma would come for you.