>> FIRST – did you know there’s an animation about this? Watch it now! <<
– 9/14/14 – Added info on Aegean Airlines flight from London to Lesvos, Greece.
– 10/28/13 – Please take the Flying While Fat Survey!
– 10/13/12 – Please note: There is now a Facebook Group for Flying While Fat. Join for discussion, support, and resources.
– 8/20/13 – Updated to add review of Monarch model Boeing 757-200 (757).
– 8/2/13 – Updated to add reviews of United models 767-300 (International), 737-900 (Domestic), A-319 (Domestic), 777-200 (International)
– 8/26/12 – Please note, the FAA has banned Personal Seatbelt Extenders. To complain, follow the instructions here.
– 4/29/12 – added experience with United (formerly Continental) Boeing 777-200ER Flat Bed
I can clearly only speak for fatties of my similar shape/size or smaller – so as to aid you in knowing in advance if this blog post has any relevance to your life, here is my general body situation. I am 5’8″ (172.5cm) and my weight fluctuates between about 340 and 360. I’m sort of shaped like an oval. Round shoulders, bigger at the top than the bottom, with narrower hips and legs. My pant size varies between a UK26-28. My shirt size varies between UK28-30. I am not one for form-fitting clothing so, if you are, size that down a notch. Note that UK sizing is slightly inconsistent with US sizing. I’ve heard that US sizes are one size larger but I find the whole thing confusing. I can’t find my tape measure but my last recorded ’roundest bit’ measurement was 63″ – including the largest circumference of my belly and butt. Again, the narrower hips aid me a bit in fitting in to plane seats, though the larger upper body means contorting a bit to avoid constantly being banged on the arm by toilet-bound passengers and drink carts. Also, I am relatively able-bodied which means I’m not able to speak first-hand for those whose mobility may differ.
First, Don’t be Mislead: Flying Sucks:
There’s no way around that fact. It sucks for everyone, not just the fatties. Even First Class flying sucks. It just sucks a little less and you get a little tiny hot towel that no one actually understands. This blog post does not promise to make flying not suck. There are no secrets you don’t know that open magical doorways to private airplane compartments with overstuffed couches and big screen TVs replaying episodes of Roseanne. But I am hoping that sharing my personal experiences and the resultant tips & hints will help give a realistic portrayal of flying that both acknowledges the whole sucking part while still presenting it as possible, tolerable and, I hope, worth it for the ways in which it opens up myriad possibilities for new life experiences.
I’m not exactly sure (year-wise) when I stopped flying. I just know that, at some point, the anticipatory anxiety of air travel began to eclipse any/all perceived benefits of pushing through it. Being a quadruple leo does me a lot of good as an activist but, personally, it means I tend to care far too much about what other people think. Getting over that will probably be a lifetime endeavor for me and it certainly played a large role in keeping me grounded. The fear of people staring, saying cruel things, sighing or making a fuss when I sat next to them or, worse, being asked to leave a flight or purchase two seats — all of this felt insurmountable to me. My world became only as large as my free time and car travel allowed.
Then, A few years ago, I decided to try again. I was working hard and had a little extra money — enough to buy a first class, domestic ticket. I flew from Portland, OR to New York for the annual NOLOSE conference. It sucked, but I made it. Encouraged, I tried again the next year, this time with a coach ticket on Jet Blue, which I’d heard good things about from fellow fatties. I lived! Then, two years ago, I fell in love with my best friend who had, of course, up and moved back to London. Imagine my fatty chagrin. International air travel?!? ME?!? But I steeled myself, determined to not let fear dictate the terms of my love-life. Fueled by lust and giddy with romance, I closed my eyes and jumped. I did the fatty unthinkable – I booked a single, standard coach seat on an International flight. It was all I could afford. I decided to just get to the airport and let the cards fall where they may.
Imagine my surprise when I actually fit in the seat. And no one said a thing. Granted, the guy next to me was a bit of a jerk. He actually took up more room than I did in an effort to “put me in my place”. Luckily I was so doe-eyed about my first trip to England and seeing that Girl o’mine that I didn’t have it in me to give a crap. I just rolled my eyes, popped a Tylenol-PM and went to sleep. When I woke up, I was in England! And my whole life changed. I’ve clocked more fatty air miles in the last 2 years than in the rest of my entire life combined. And while it’s never what I’d call enjoyable, it’s possible. Doable. and Tolerable. (for me.)
Booking: I’ve not yet had to book two seats so I’m afraid I can’t offer any insight on this, though I do know that it’s becoming more common for airlines to have official ‘passenger of size’ policies which you can find either on their various websites or by calling customer service. Bear in mind as most of these policies are new, they may be inconsistently enforced so it’s very important for you to know your rights yourself rather than assuming the staff you come into contact with will. Self-advocacy is paramount.
Some tips: If you’re traveling with a partner, book the aisle and the window seat and leave the middle seat empty. The middle seat is the last choice for *everyone* who travels so if the flight isn’t full, chances are it will remain empty. And if someone does book it, they’ll be grateful to switch to one of the outside seats rather than the middle so you and your travel partner can sit next to one another. It doesn’t always work but it’s nice when it does! Same deal if you’re booking solo — choose a seat where the window or aisle seat where the opposite seat is already taken rather than hoping for an entire row to yourself. Leaving two seats available pretty much guarantees that travel partners will book them.
ALSO: Before you book, clear your browser cookies (not just the cache, the actual *cookies*), close the browser, and then open it again. This is unrelated to fat flying, except I realize how many of us repeatedly visit our favored travel sites to check and double-check information before actually booking. Every time you visit a travel site and view the same flights, the price inches up a bit. This isn’t true everywhere but I’ve experienced it myself so I know it happens. Clearing the browser cookies deletes the information related to your repeated visits and drops you back to the original pricepoint for that flight. Doing this saved me about $50 last time I traveled.
Boarding: If you’re at the back of the plane, opt for the pre-boarding. They don’t really argue at the gate and the boarding call is general: “For our passengers with children or those who require extra time boarding the plane.” Opting for early boarding will save you unintentionally hip-checking a hundred people as you pass down the aisle and will also give you time to ask the Stewards for a seatbelt extension without holding up the line. Granted, asking at the onset may mean they forget with all the hustle. If that happens, don’t fret. Just catch their eye and raise a finger and they’ll likely remember.
Pre-boarding will also allow you to raise the armrest next to you and get settled before your fellow passengers arrive. You can negotiate with them when they arrive about how they feel about leaving the armrest up and, if they are kind, that might afford you another inch or so of hip room.
If you’re toward the front of the plane and in an aisle seat, consider boarding later. This will mean you’re not tucking in your arms while others are lumbering through with their luggage.
Check at the Gate:
You never know who has cancelled last-minute or if people have shifted around on the plane. Explain your situation and ask if there are any seats available next to an empty seat. If they can accommodate you, they will. And if you somehow end up in a middle seat, ask them to check with any passenger traveling alone in an aisle or window seat to see if they will change places with you. It’s a long-shot, but it never hurts to ask. While you’re at it, ask if there are any empty seats in business or first class. The worst you’ll hear is no.
If you do end up with a middle seat and no alternatives, wait until you are on the plane and ask the passenger next to you to switch. Explain that everyone will be happier if you can lean into the aisle or against the window. Most folks will be too polite to say no.
Windows Vs. Aisles
There’s good and bad to both and what you choose is really up to your personal preference. Window seats are great if you’ve got a camel bladder like I do. I can hold it with the best of ’em. The only risk to window seats is that, depending on the placement of the window, you may have more or less shoulder room. This is just a 50/50 risk, plain n’ simple. The curve of a well-placed window is great for leaning, but the hard wall between the curves can make for awkward sleeping. Still, it’s nice to not have to jump up every time someone has to use the bathroom. I got stuck on a plane once with an increasingly manic rugby coach who kept jumping up to snort cocaine in the bathroom. I finally just made him switch seats with me and we were both much happier.
Aisle seats are great for folks who want the option to lean into the aisle. It does make for some arm-bumping if you’re bigger in the upper body like me, but it’s a reasonable trade-off if you don’t mind interrupted snoozing.
Tips while seated: I keep my arms crossed most of the time if I’m flying alone, but eventually this hurts my shoulders and my hands/wrists. It’s also problematic if I fall asleep as my muscles relax. What I’ve done in the past is fashioned a bit of a ‘sling’ out of the blankets they provide. I place the blanket over me as I would normally, and then I grab the corner edges with the opposing hands and pull them in until it’s comfortably tight, then tie them. This helps me relax my arms and shoulders, keep warm, and fall asleep without worrying about accidentally flopping an arm across my neighbor’s lap.
Also, while I’ve not tried this myself, someone mentioned once that, if you’re prone to lower back pain during a flight from holding your legs tightly together, bringing a belt from home and closing it loosely around your upper thighs might allow you to relax those muscles without crowding your neighbor. Just be sure you remove it regularly and move your legs around to maintain proper circulation.
Totally not fun. I’m bendy, thankfully, so I can manage with some acrobatic maneuvering but I avoid drinking water for a couple of hours before any flight and I only drink soda while traveling. Not the healthiest option for hydration’s sake so be careful of you are prone to dehydration and be sure to drink a LOT of water after any flight. Some International flights have accessible bathrooms which tend to be marginally larger. Ask the stewards as you are boarding if there are any on the plane. Best advice: PEE BEFORE YOU GET ON THE PLANE.
Fly with a Lover or Friend:
If you can wrangle it, traveling with a lover or a friend is SO MUCH NICER. My partner happens to be smaller than I am and that has some benefits when traveling. She also likes it when I squish up next to her and that’s awful nice, too. Traveling with other rad fatties is nice as well. You don’t have to argue about the armrest going up. It’s just a given! The distraction and comfort of traveling with someone you like is really wonderful and a huge stress-reliever. Also, as mentioned above, when traveling with a companion, always book the aisle and the window seat, leaving the middle seat empty. This helps increase your odds of that seat remaining empty unless the flight is full.
Feel free to stand up when the fasten seatbelt signs are off. There’s generally a bit of standing room at the back and/or front of the plane near the restrooms, especially on International flights. Being wedged into an airplane seat sucks and it’s terrible for your circulation. Standing for even just a few minutes at a time, even just stretching in the aisle next to your seat, offers some welcome relief and helps thwart the potential for flight-induced thrombosis. If standing isn’t an option, be sure you stretch your legs out where possible.
Let’s start small — Puddle Jumpers:
In 2006 a fellow fatty and I hopped a plane from Portland to Vegas. It was one of those tiny little propeller planes with two seats to either side of the aisle. Whooboy, that sucked. We liked each other a whole lot and that, combined with the merciful brevity of the flight, was really the only saving grace. We basically just wedged together, took turns being each other’s armrests, and cracked sardine jokes for the duration. But we got there. And that’s the important thing.
Tips & Hints for Small Planes
I avoid these like hipsters avoid self-actualization. If I can drive, take a train, bus or ferry, I will opt for that instead. If I can fly with a smaller friend, I will. But pretty much it’s an emphatic NO wherever possible. If you find yourself with no other options, buy two seats if you’re my size or larger.
Also, bear in mind that, for even smaller planes such as those which fly folks across to the Aran Islands from the Irish mainland, you may be required to physically step on a scale in order to aid in load balancing. For the most part, they weigh everyone. They also weigh luggage/cargo. Do not take this personally. You’re just part of the equation. You weigh what you weigh and there’s no right or wrong to it.
Yep. Still sucks. I’ve flown to NYC and back at least twice a year for the last several and I have to profess my undying adoration of Jet Blue. If they fly the route you’re booking, USE THEM. I have to admit that I’ve not flown domestic coach by myself on any airline other than Jet Blue in the last several years, so this post will be a little biased, as it were. That said, my anxiety about domestic air travel (at least on Jet Blue) has dropped to about a 3 on the 1-10 scale. And it *was* a 10. So that’s saying something.
I have recently flown United from Houston (IAH) to Portland (PDX) and back on United. The plane was United Airlines Boeing 737-900 (739) (Originally Continental). It was not the most comfortable nor the least comfortable flight I’ve been on. I did fit. The armrests did go down. The tray tables did not work for me. One one leg of this trip, the seatbelts actually worked for me without an extender, but I was a bit overstimulated-slash-exhausted on this journey so I’m afraid I can’t remember whether it was the International or the Domestic flight. If I fly this route again, I’ll update with the information. I tried to gauge my comfort level on this flight to see if I would be fine with doing it alone and my leaning would still be to go with Jet Blue if possible, but United would be my second choice. Scroll down for the International leg of this journey.
Added 9/14/2014: Just back from Lesvos, Greece (again! couldn’t stay away!) and wanted to report in. We flew Aegean Airlines across two legs with two different planes (AIRBUS INDUSTRIE A321 from London to Athens and reverse, and AIRBUS INDUSTRIE A320-100/200 from Athens to Mytilene and reverse). They were short flights so I didn’t check out the toilets on either plane. Seats worked for my 5’8″, 360lb frame (I’ve added 20lbs this year as I quit smoking and spent a lot of sedentary time writing a dissertation). As mentioned, I’m bigger across the shoulders and narrower at the hips. The tray tables didn’t work for me on any of the planes, but I was *just* able to get the seatbelt buckled on the flight from Mytilene to Athens (though on no others). I traveled with my partner and most of the flights weren’t crowded so we were lucky enough to have a seat between us (due to booking the aisle and window in advance) on all flights but the one from Athens to London. Traveling *with* my partner, I was totally fine. Even kept the armrest down for one of the legs because I forgot about it. That said, I’d be a little nervous about overspill were I traveling alone. Then again, they’re such short flights (3.5 hours from london to athens, and 35 minutes from athens to mytilene) that I likely wouldn’t worry about it *too* much.
Added 8/1/2013: I flew United again this year from London to Portland via Chicago. I have to say I was less impressed this time than I was last year. Got a 767-300 from London to Chicao, 737-900 (again) from Chicago to PDX, A-319 from PDX to Chicago and a 777-200 from Chicago to London. I can report a similar experience for all of them. The version of 777-200 I got this time was different from last year’s more luxurious model where the tray tables worked. Must have been an older plane. I can say, due to the variability of the aircraft and the tight fit, I’d be unlikely to choose United as a solo flight (without a travel companion) and would likely either try to spring for Economy Plus or Business Class if they were my only option. The lack of tray table is problematic on longer flights. We did fly back to London on a Tuesday and the flight from Chicago to London was very undersold — there were several empty rows (that stayed empty, meaning people spread out and there were still empty rows) so Tuesday seems a good day to travel! I believe the first leg of the journey (on the 767-300) I did not require a seatbelt extender. The rest did require it. I brought my own and was never questioned. There was an accessible bathroom on the 767-300 (though I balk a bit at what they consider accessible as it was only marginally wider than the standard) which allowed for slightly more room. I didn’t see another accessible restroom on any other flights but I was heavily dosed on dramamine for motion sickness the last two legs so I’ll admit I wasn’t careful about looking.
Added 8/20/2013: I flew from London to Mytilene, Greece last week on a Monarch flight (chartered by Thomas Cook). I traveled with my partner, which is good as the leg room on these flights was pretty terrible. The good news was that, on the first leg, we were able to upgrade to extra leg room for only £25 — a fairly unheard of price! That made a difference. I did need a seatbelt extender (I have my own and it worked just fine) and the tray tables didn’t work for me even in the extra leg room but I felt relatively comfortable and fell asleep for most of the flight. I did put the armrest down to see how it would be. It was OK. Not super comfortable, but tolerable. It did ride up a bit, though as my leg slipped under it which might be annoying to a seatmate that isn’t my partner.
On the flight back, we arrived quite late to the airport and were among the last to check in. This meant we weren’t seated together. I was tossed into the bulkhead at the front of the plane and my partner was seated in row 31 — also the emergency exit row. The armrests in these rows don’t go up and I was pretty nervous that I wouldn’t fit. I did, in fact, fit. And it would have been OK, but thankfully my partner worked some magic with other folks who weren’t seated next to their travel companions and we both ended up seated together in a standard row. This row wasn’t extra leg room and I have to say that my knees were pressed into the seat in front of me for the duration. It wasn’t awesome, but it was doable for a short (3.5 hr) trip.
Tips & Hints:
If you can afford it, and if the airline you’re traveling with offers it, bump up to the Extra Leg Room option. Last check, it was between $30 and $60/leg. The benefits of this are both a relief from the claustrophobia of having your face 2 inches from the seat in front of you and the fact that it offers a much higher likelihood of the tray table coming all the way down. It’s little things like that that make all the difference in a flight.
My best friend for air travel in general is SeatGuru.Com. If you can’t take Jet Blue, you can use this to research the dimensions of the plane you’ll be flying on and choose a seat that might be better for you than others. They have a constantly updated listing of all models of airplane flown by most airlines. If you’re not sure what airplane model you’ll be taking, you can always call the airline to ask.
Sometimes you can bump up to Extra Leg Room as you’re checking in for a flight at a discounted rate. Don’t wait if you can afford to book it up front, but it never hurts to ask.
Domestic First Class
If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford this, do it. I’ve only managed it once, but it was the most relaxed flight of my life. It’s not entirely without its drawbacks but the extra room (especially upper body room) is wonderful.
Tips & Hints:
The first downside of domestic first class is the immovable armrests. They are wider than those in coach because they contain the tray tables and also serve as a drink holder between seats. They don’t lift up and that can cut into the available inches in the seat. Also, because the tray tables are in the armrests themselves rather than on the backs of the seats in front of you, it’s iffy as to whether or not they will extend enough to be usable. Check SeatGuru thoroughly to be sure you’ll have enough butt room.
The other downside to first class is the level of entitlement held by your fellow passengers. These folks are the most likely to be huffy, largely owing to the ridiculous amount of money they paid for their tickets and the resulting smugness. (Or, more likely, the smugness was what caused them to fork out the dough for the nicer seat in the first place.) Don’t take it personally. You paid the same amount to be there and, even if you didn’t, they aren’t entitled to any more pleasant a flight than anyone else on that plane. Take up the space you paid for and drink in their huffiness like the sweet nectar of long-overdue justice.
I’ve only flown International coach alone twice. I won’t lie. It sucked. The first time more than the last. I referenced the jerk I sat next to earlier in the article so I won’t waste time with him again. The second flight was better. I sat next to a nice woman. She let me raise the armrest and I popped another Tylenol PM and zonked out for the majority of the trip. I flew Virgin Atlantic at the suggestion of fellow fat travelers and was pleased for the most part. In coach, the tray tables on some planes come folded in half. This meant that, while I couldn’t extend it entirely, I did have half of a tray table to work with which allowed me to precariously balance my dinner tray and to have a drink without being forced to hold it.
Tips & Hints – Virgin Atlantic:
As referenced earlier, try to board early and lift up the armrest. Because I was flying to an english-speaking country, I didn’t have a language barrier to contend with. This may prove more complex for those traveling to places with different languages or customs regarding personal space. Perhaps others will share related experiences in the comments?
On Virgin Atlantic flights, the controller for the TV screen is inside the arm rest, resting against your outer thigh. This is annoying. I generally remove the controller and balance it across my lap for the duration to avoid having to shift in my seat. The plug-in for headphones is also on the inside of the arm rest, which is equally annoying as it pokes into your leg. Seek out headphones with the flattest possible plug and bring your own. The ones provided by the airlines are pointy and inflexible.
Virgin Atlantic also offers an Extra Leg Room option, but you cannot book it online. You have to book it at the time of check-in. I cannot recommend this enough if you can splurge for it. It’s generally around £50/leg. I actually like the economy with Extra Leg Room better than Premium Economy (which is the equivalent of domestic Business Class.) It’s the most like the Jet Blue experience I’ve found. You don’t have the extra upper body room but the thinner and movable arm rests mean more butt room and the extra space means you can use your tray table. Get to the airport EARLY to book this.
Tips & Hints: United International:
My most recent trip (April of 2012) was from London to Portland and I traveled with my Partner on United Airlines (formerly Continental.) The first leg was from London (LHR) to Houston (IAH). The plane we traveled on Internationally was the Boeing 777-200ER Flat Bed and I have to say that I was pretty surprised by how comfortable it was. There was quite a lot of legroom, on par or just below par with the Extra Leg Room seats on Jet Blue domestic. Not only this, but the tray table had a bit of curvature to it (belly-shaped indent at the front of the tray) which actually allowed the full tray to come down. The armrests did come down fine for me, though thankfully I was traveling with my partner and didn’t require them. I had the window seat on this journey and may choose the aisle instead since it’s a 3-person row rather than two and so I stayed in my seat more than I might have were someone not required to move for me every time I wanted to stand. The bathrooms were standard for International flights, a bit larger than on the domestic but still requiring some acrobatics. Scroll up for my experience of the domestic leg on United.
Domestic Premium Economy
This represents the bulk of my International flying experience. I flew enough to have a lot of extra miles which made upgrading much more feasible for me. The benefits of Premium Economy are a slightly more attentive staff, a higher likelihood of an empty seat next to you (because of the higher price), and more upper body room.
Tips & Hints:
Like domestic First Class, the armrests are immovable. This was deeply frustrating when I happened to have an entire row to myself but couldn’t raise the armrests to enjoy it. There’s slightly more hip room but it’s not quite enough to justify the cost. I will opt for it (if I can afford it) over coach if there is nothing available in Extra Leg Room – but it’s not my favorite. Because the tray tables are in the armrests, they’re not ideal. They work for me, but just barely.
Again, talk to the folks at the gate, or even the stewards once you’re on the plane, if you find yourself situated uncomfortably. I’ve found the staff of Virgin Atlantic to be helpful. They’ve never actually bumped me up to first class but they did once shift me to a two-seat row with no one next to me–and that was heaven (comparatively).
International First Class
HA! I wish.
Much like domestic Coach. Sardined into a plane. I’ve only flown this with a partner but the same rules apply here as those for domestic coach. There are a lot of ‘economy’ airlines like EasyJet and RyanAir. These airlines will nickel and dime you to death and I’ve heard rumblings of similar treatment of fatties as the infamous Southwest Airlines. I haven’t had any personal experience with them yet but will report in should I chance it. I flew British Airways with my partner and it was quite comfortable. Again, a short-haul and no usable tray table – but doable!
TRAIN TRAVEL: EuroStar
Love it. Even coach is fantastically roomy (comparatively) and the bathrooms are really reasonable. I’ve heard wonderful things about First Class but haven’t seen it yet. Definitely a wonderful way to travel if you have the time.
So that’s that. I feel certain I’ve left out a hundred little details and I am completely willing to answer any questions I can. Just leave them in the comments. Please also feel free to share your own experiences with airlines not listed here or simply regarding travel in general.
So listen — I know airline travel is hard. But I want to encourage those of you whose lived experience is similar enough to mine for this to resonate to consider taking the risk. In the last 2 years I have been to San Francisco/Oakland, New York (several times), Italy (Rome, Naples, Florence and Pisa), England (London, Brighton, Avebury, etc,), Ireland and Belgium. I have clattered down railways in the shadow of Vesuvius on the way to explore Pompeii. I have eaten Gelato beneath the Leaning Tower of Pisa with live opera streaming through the night air. I have climbed to the top of the Tower of London and seen the final resting place of Anne Boleyn. I have watched a beautiful light show projected on the glorious buildings of the Grand Platz in Brussels, Belgium. I’ve hiked the hill to the Long Barrow and rested my head against the ancient stones of the Avebury Henge. I have, weary and sunburned, taken in the landscape from the top of the Roman Colosseum. I even flipped the bird at the Vatican! Last, but not least, I up and moved to London, England.
AND – I did all of this at 375lbs. I’m a little smaller now than I was when I started (not intentional, just happened) but I still clock in 300+. I never thought travel like this was an option for me. Turns out I was wrong.
I realize that travel is expensive and that not everyone has the option to do this. I totally don’t want to come off as all bootstrappy. I chose this a priority for myself and it required a ridiculous and completely unsustainable amount of working to pull it off – often at the expense of maintaining friendships and having a more generally well-rounded life. I realize it may not be as enticing or accessible for everyone. Still – there may be a happy middle ground. A series of small adventures, or one really big one. And I want to remind you that, wherever you go, however often, however far from home –You are fierce and deserving. You are strong and worthy. And what other people think doesn’t matter. What matters is your life and what you want to do with it. Put on your blinders, drug yourself with Tylenol-PM if you have to, save up and buy two seats if it makes you more comfortable, and to hell with anyone who has an opinion about any of it. If you want to — Go. Do. Be in the world. And then come tell me all about it!