Let’s get one thing straight: Users of electronic cigarettes, they insist, do not smoke. They “vape,” which is short for “use battery-powered nicotine vaporizers.” And although the swirl of white fog or vapor they exhale looks like smoke, it’s not the same as the smelly, carcinogenic by-product of burning analog cigarettes. Therefore, they say, the activity shouldn’t fall under anti-smoking bans.

I say “they” when I should say “we.” I’ve been an e-cig user for more than a year now. And if there’s one thing I can attest to, it’s that some businesses truly don’t care about the distinction. They care about not upsetting their customers and employees. Fair or not, because the act of vaping looks like smoking, that’s how they’re treating it.

Where that leaves users is in a strange new territory—particularly as this high-travel, three-day weekend arrives. Vaping may not be federally regulated yet, but that hasn’t stopped airlines, hotels and others from restricting or even prohibiting e-cigarettes.

The “Vape Anywhere” Promise Gets Vaporized

See also E-Cigarettes: The Last Bastion Of My Analog Life Goes Digital

Electronic cigarettes—battery sticks that heat up a liquid solution of propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin, nicotine and food additives—may be only six years old, but their use mirrors the older and dangerous addiction of analog smoking. 

But they are very different. There’s no smell and no fire, plus they don’t leave behind ashes, as electronic cigarette vendors rush to point out. Those are key selling points in their marketing schtick, which often features a “vape anywhere” message. (In fact, many still market their products that way.) Taking that to heart, early users whipped out their e-cigs wherever they went, gleefully getting their nicotine fix in places where regular smoking was not allowed. 

Bewildered business owners simply didn’t know what to do. It looked like smoking—many e-cigs even intentionally resemble traditional cigarettes—but it wasn’t. 

As so often happens in technology, this invention went from curiosity to phenomenon before the laws could catch up. According to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, e-cigarettes have grabbed as many as 10 to 14% of the 44 million tobacco users in the U.S. And sales are on track to reach $1.7 billion by the end of the year. Despite the success—or perhaps because of it—the Food and Drug Administration has been eyeing the product with suspicion. But even though it threatens to ban online sales, the FDA still hasn’t actually regulated the devices. 

Researchers haven’t managed to clarify things either. For every German or French study that says e-cigs are harmful, there’s a researcher from Boston or Philadelphia who says they offer very little risk to health or should be actively pursued for harm reduction from cigarettes.

It’s a quagmire of confusing findings. And well-meaning lawmakers and businesses, not knowing what else to do, are erring on the side of caution.

Beware: Varying Policies Ahead

There’s only one rule to know about vaping in public, especially during this peak travel period: There is no one universal rule. Policies differ by industry, and sometimes within the same one.

Most airlines do not permit the use of e-cigarettes on board, but they do allow users to pack their batteries and juices in carry-on baggage. (Bear in mind that TSA regulations on liquids apply.) Most major American airlines—including United, JetBlue, American Airlines, Delta and Southwest Airlines—ban the actual act of vaping in flight, as do many international airlines like British Airways and Japan Airlines. Although it may be tempting to “sneak a vape,” take this as a warning: You don’t want to be the person who gets caught and makes an entire plane turn around

It’s not just airlines either. Amtrak also forbids e-cigarette use. In general, transportation services are strict about anything related to smoking.

Hotels may be another matter, considering some still have smoking and non-smoking rooms. But every operation is different. For example, I’ve stayed at many bed and breakfasts, hotels and motels that met my vaping behavior with keen interest, not loathing. However, it’s worth noting that none of them were a Marriott. The hotel chain charged one Chesapeake, Virginia woman $250 for vaping, citing the hotel’s anti-smoking policy

The rules are even harder to pin down for restaurants, bars and cafes. Even though nicotine and caffeine are an infamous match, Starbucks doesn’t permit e-cig use. Restaurants can be equally testy about the activity, as well as some bars. But not all of them. Mark Birnbaum, co-owner of EMM, Group which owns clubs like FL and Finale, likes that that they don’t encourage customers to leave the premises. “It’s hard enough for us to get them in,” he explained toThe New York Times. “Then you’re forcing them out on the street to smoke.” 

But many businesses don’t share Birnbaum’s sentiment, so it’s a good idea not to make assumptions. Common sense prevails. Vaping is allowed anywhere smoking is. As for everywhere else, remember that the rules vary. When in doubt, check. It’s a simple step, and it could go a long way in putting people at ease—which is exactly what you want while you’re on vacation. 

Feature image of Johnny Depp in The Tourist screencapped from YouTube video by Elusion EcigaretteSingle e-cigarette image courtesy of Bedford SlimsMultiple e-cigarette image/retail counter image courtesy of Susan Yeung. Katherine Heigl image screencapped from YouTube video by eCigsHQ.