I use my pen on flights (in plain sight), for written work in general.

On one flight, after seeing that I used it to complete customs forms, my seatmate asked to borrow it to do the same. I said 'yes', as I enjoy helping others. After my seatmate finished, everyone else on my whole row asked to borrow it too. I still said 'yes', to not appear selfish. Then one borrower sneezed mucus on my pen that she wiped with her shirt, but she apologized.

On another flight, a borrower unscrewed my multicolor pen "out of curiosity", and broke it.

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    This might be a better question for interpersonal.SE. Commented May 29, 2018 at 23:31
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    @ZachLipton I tried, but it was closed as off-topic. Because this involves flights, I thought Travel SE more fitting?
    – user13759
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 23:39
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    I have a really nice pen to use and I also carry a spare generic one for people to borrow. It doesn't answer your question but it avoids me feeling uncomfortable saying no.
    – Itai
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 23:50
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it does not appear to be about traveling within the scope defined in the help center.
    – AakashM
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 10:32
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    @Greek-Area51Proposal: You asked it on interpersonal and got answers and even accepted one of them. What more are you hoping to get from here?
    – Chris
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 10:36

12 Answers 12


If it were me, I'd take the Politician's approach and answer a different question to the one they're asking. By saying "The cabin crew normally have one you can borrow" as you tuck your pen back into your pocket/bag.

You're not saying no, you're just giving them some friendly advice on where they can acquire a pen.


Let's be honest, refusing a pen will never be polite in the eyes of people! It's your right for sure, but no one will understand, they will always think "it's just a pen, how rude!". Besides, people never ask for pens just for fun, they ask only when they really need to.

What I do (as a cabin crew or a passenger) is to only use free pens (I collect from hotels I visit) or really cheap ones whenever I need to use a pen in a flight, especially when there's a form to fill by all passengers (like customs or landing cards).

You might think "why do I have to carry an extra pen just for that"? Well, you asked for it, you want to refuse letting others use your pen, which is widely known to be a very OK thing to do. So, It's your burden to carry the other pen :)

Or; you can simply say NO, and forget about the "being polite" part because no one will really understand.

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    +1, I think it can also be pointed out that a “no” which may come off as rude is irrelevant in these scenarios as you won’t see the stranger again, in all likelyhood. Commented May 30, 2018 at 7:13
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    Using 'no one' here is assuming everyone has the same opinion as you. Next to myself I know enough people who wouldn't lend out their pens, for various reasons. Germs being a very big one among the people I know.
    – Summer
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 7:16
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    @JaneDoe1337 in my native language, when we use generalization terms like "no one" we usually mean "most". The thing is, is there any situation where the use of terms like "no one" really means "not a single person" in real life? however, I can change it if in English it really means "no one". Commented May 30, 2018 at 7:21
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    @NeanDerThal In English, "no one" might not be intended literally but it certainly carries connotations of "almost nobody" or "no reasonable person", which are much stronger than just "most people". Commented May 30, 2018 at 12:26
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    “Besides, people never ask for pens just for fun” — Wait, what? What on earth do you spend your Friday nights doing, then? Commented May 30, 2018 at 13:22

You could say "I'm sorry, but this is my lucky pen." You would need to look serious and somewhat inwardly reflective when you say this; ideally as soon as someone makes the request to borrow the pen a look of discomfort, concern, or alarm should flash across your face. A weird person may have a "lucky pen" which they would not want other people touching, or moved further from them than they could reach. You might but don't necessarily need to put the pen in your pocket on saying this.

Some people may understand and/or accept the "my lucky pen" concept. Some people probably won't, for whatever reasons. But you start right out by apologizing (suitable here since social pressure / norms / their expectations would pressure you into sharing the pen) while also stating that you feel you cannot share the pen because of personal reasons which are centered on yourself and the pen, not exactly on other people or the impact of their request(s) or their mucus.

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    +1. Superstitious people do exist and as superstition does not follow reason, you cannot bring arguments against it. Commented May 30, 2018 at 10:01
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    @ThorstenS. "Oh God, I saw you in my dreams last night and you didn't give me your lucky pen and you choked with it, I am just trying to save you".. Commented May 30, 2018 at 11:48
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    @NeanDerThal "YOU! I saw you last night in my dreams, too. You approached me, bursting the mirror on the wand in pieces and 13 male black cats were running across your path. Yesterday was Friday, so STAY the hell away from me!!!!!" Commented May 30, 2018 at 12:21
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    "It's only my continuing to tightly clutch this pen that is keeping this plane in the air!"
    – user52701
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 17:41
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    I upvoted but I seriously don't think I could "look serious and somewhat inwardly reflective" about a pen with a straight face. Commented May 30, 2018 at 21:26

It's your pen, so you're perfectly entitled to refuse if you want. Simply "sorry no," with a follow-up of the old standby "that won't be possible" if you're pressed, is always an answer.

Still, it's a relatively small favor, people need to complete their customs forms, and those around you may view your unwillingness to help as selfish. You can simply not care about their reactions, or you can offer an excuse if you have a reasonable one. Since you complete written work on flights, you could simply tap your work with your pen and explain you really need to get something done.

Wearing headphones may also create a distance that discourages people from asking you for things.

I tend to make a habit of tossing a couple of free pens from hotels, conferences, and other giveaways into my travel bag. They're handy for customs forms, and if someone asks to borrow one, it's a random free pen, so it's no real loss to me if it comes back broken or germy or never gets returned at all.

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    The last few words make this: or never gets returned at all -- if it's not landing cards but someone needing it to work during the flight, you can even say "keep it" and it's no loss Commented May 30, 2018 at 9:01

Somebody had to say it! My apologies for playing the a***ole.

Then one borrower sneezed mucus on my pen that she wiped with her shirt, but she apologized

Try coughing or sneezing over your pen while using it, nobody will ask for it.

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    maybe chew on the end
    – Abdussamad
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 16:04
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    For some people, you might have to look them right in the eye while you draw your tongue along the entire length of the pen. Commented May 30, 2018 at 18:45

As already said, you are permitted to say no for any reason or no reason. There are even training courses teaching people how to say no, and that it is acceptable.

But if you want to avoid seeming rude, just tell them you have a medical condition that causes you extreme stress when personal items are out of your control. It may even be partly true. If they choose to think the worst of you after that, then they really are inconsiderate themselves.


Carry a very nice pen.

People generally consider pens to be a commodity, and that's why they can get insulted when someone refuses to lend theirs; they are usually more understanding of your reluctance to lend you an item that looks more like a personal effect than a common tool.

I enjoy using higher-end fountain pens for which I pay considerable amounts of money and I've been in similar situations, albeit not in flights, where I refused to lend my pen. (I've had some damaged nibs as a result of lending them out in the past). I usually simply reply

"sorry, I don't lend my pen."

Most people understand right away, especially if they've seen the pen up close. If they ask for further explanation I just explain past problems (maybe slip in the cost of the pen) and so far everyone seems understanding. I've even had friends refuse to borrow my pen from fear of damaging it.

Someone suggested to carry a disposable pen for the purpose of lending it out, but I disagree with that solution. If you were to follow that suggestion, you'd still be stuck carrying the lady's snot...

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    I would be interested to know if fountain pens regularly leak on flights. I would have thought this likely. Many other non fountain pens, including ballpoints, do due to the change in pressure. I have a fisher space pen to avoid this (and because the bullet sized one fits in the pocket well).
    – abligh
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 21:03
  • @abligh, some do, some don't; depends on the pen (its capping mechanism, its fill mechanism, etc)... and some fountain pens that can be prone to leaking if there's substantial air won't have that problem if kept full enough that the contents are almost all ink. While they take a lot of care to use, for example, a safety pen is quite proof against leaking on flights; see also vintagepens.com/FAQhistory/practicality_safety_pens.shtml for a second source. Commented May 30, 2018 at 21:41
  • ...also, since misusing a safety (as by extending or retracting the nib when not in an upright position) is an easy way to get ink all over one's fingers/lap/surroundings, it's very easy to justify saying no! Anyhow, even on more conventional fountain pens, I've never had a problem with a Pilot Custom on a flight, whereas I can almost count on most Noodler's pens (other than their safety-pen variant) to leak in the presence of a significant pressure differential. Commented May 30, 2018 at 21:48

I have no such experiences, I think maybe you can prepare two pens. the better one for yourself and the other one could be borrowed to others. hope this help. :)


This doesn't answer your question but it avoids me feeling uncomfortable saying no. It is obviously up to you to say no but really seems odd when its such a small thing.

What I do since I usually have a really nice limited-issue pen to use and I also carry a spare generic one for people to borrow. I pack at least one with me and usually keep free pens being offered to have a set of those since they do not tend to last long but only pack one per trip, although often I return with some more.


You could try "I'm sorry but this is a special pen to me and the last time someone borrowed it they dropped it down a gap between the seats and it took an hour to get it out. I'd hate to lose it."

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    To which the person who asked will probably reply "i'll be extra careful"
    – lord2701
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 16:36
  • If they respond with "I'll be extra careful" I guarantee they would apply pressure to any response. "No, you can't use my pen." -> "Ah, come on, I only need it for a second!"
    – industry7
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 13:52

While reluctant to post yet another answer, mine is different from everyone else's:

Don't take out your pen and fill out the form right away. Stall. Don't say anything, don't make a big deal about it. Wait until the people sitting closest to you have figured out how they are going to fill out their forms. If someone offers you a pen, you can either decline and see if anyone else wants to use it, or you can accept and never even take out your pen.

Once those who are in your line of sight have at least started filling out their forms, then take out your favorite pen and start working on yours. The others are no longer in need of your pen, so they won't ask to borrow it.

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    The OP do writing work, not filling his form.
    – VMAtm
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 22:22

If you were already using the pen, as you say, you can reply "Sorry I need it or I will lose my train of thought", which could be true.

Their landing cards are not your problem, and I bet they have a pen in their own bag or pocket. Who travels without a pen? So why don't they get out their own pen? For the same reason you don't want to lend yours.

You should put politeness in the right context: it's not just that you won't see the other passengers again, but you should not be put upon. Extending that idea, the cold calling salesperson will take advantage of social customs to put upon you, and you have to be ruthless and hang up the phone or close the door.

If they persist just say "use your own pen".