One size does not fit all when it comes to traveling and exploring the world. For plus-size globetrotters, that presents some challenges along the way, whether it’s too-snug airplane seats or spa robes meant for someone of more diminutive stature. Take heart, though—the problems are surmountable. Where there is a desire to take a journey, there are workable solutions to ensure grand experiences.
Tips for Plus-Size Travelers
Here are tips geared to fellow voyagers of size, gleaned from my own travels as a Rubenesque gal who has racked up visits to more than 70 countries.
Choose Size-Friendly Airlines
In the U.S., most airlines require that you be able to lower both armrests and buckle up your seatbelt (using one extender). That’s the litmus test in determining whether you may be required to buy an adjacent (aka “comfort”) seat. If you do need an additional “comfort” seat, you’ll need to call the airline directly to book them. Policies differ by airline and by country, so don’t hesitate to talk to a customer service agent for clarification.
The standard width for a seat used to be 18 inches, but that number has been shrinking steadily as airlines attempt to maximize profitability, despite the fact the average weight for adults is increasing. Seat widths vary from aircraft to aircraft and by airline, so before you book, refer to SeatGuru to see the options on your flight. For example, Canada’s Air Transat offers a width of just 16.5 inches, one of the smallest in the industry. Hawaiian, Delta, and Allegiant range between 16.8 and 17.5 inches.
You might want to get extra legroom by booking the emergency row, but be aware that armrests in these rows cannot be raised. Purchasing a premium economy seat might do the trick, and note that though business and first class seats are roomier, they don’t have armrests that can be lifted, either.
When it comes to window versus aisle, there’s no single best spot for plus-size travelers. You’ll have more shoulder room in a window seat, but if it’s a flight where you’ll need to get out of your row frequently, the aisle is a better option. But choosing the aisle seat means you risk being bumped by every person and trolley passing by.
Bring Your Own Seat Extender
Sometimes standard seatbelts aren’t long enough to be secured safely and comfortably. Airlines always have a few seatbelt extenders available for the asking; however, not all flight attendants are sensitive in their delivery.
Ideally, the flight attendant discreetly passes the neatly rolled extender to the passenger. But I have witnessed less-than-gracious handling—imagine a bright yellow belt dangling down the aisle as the flight attendant comes your way. Save the hassle and bring your own.
Arrive Early to the Airport
I have no interest in trying to sprint through an airport like a gazelle to catch my flight. Plan your arrival time well, so that you have at least an hour of chill time before you have to board your flight. You can move at your own speed—whatever that is—through security and on to your gate.
Go to the washroom right before you board to avoid unnecessary visits to coffin-sized airplane bathrooms. And take a few minutes while you’re at the airport to grab a sandwich and a bottle of water. Sometimes airplane tray tables won’t fold down flat when you have an ample belly, so stick the water into the back of the seat pocket for easy access without the tray.
Take advantage of the pre-boarding call meant for passengers with young children and anyone who needs extra assistance or time (perhaps you) getting onto the flight, especially if you’re sitting at the back of the plane. It spares fellow passengers from getting hip checked while you head down the aisle with bags in hand. This also gives you a chance to ask for a seat extender as you board (tell them your seat number), to get settled, and to adjust armrests as needed.
Be Extra Kind to Your Seatmates
Your row might be a bit more snug than some others on your flight. And it’s hard to endure a huffy seatmate who resents your very existence. Smile, say hello and introduce yourself to your fellow passengers. It’s tougher to be nasty to you if you’re sweet as pie. I’ve even bought drinks for those in my row as a thank you for their cooperation and understanding.
If your row is full and there are open seats around you, feel free to move. Ask the flight attendant. If you’re trying to make the switch before takeoff, check with the flight attendant first. If you’re switching mid-flight, just do it.
If the situation is unbearable for all, ask for assistance from flight attendants who tend to be masterful problem solvers and may be able to move someone to make extra room.
Avoid Teeny Spa Robes
Part of your vacay might include getting in some spa time. Some spas offer only one size of robe to guests, and that can be problematic for people of size. Ask if there are any larger robes available. I ask for the “roomiest.”
My favorite spas are ones that provide you with an adequate robe without asking—but they are the exception rather than the rule. If there isn’t an appropriate size available, ask if you can change in the treatment room before your service. There’s also the option of bringing your own lightweight version. On the downside, even lightweight robes can be bulky to pack.
Choose Destinations Where Big Is Beautiful
Even the most beautiful spot in the world isn’t going to be enjoyable if you feel like you are being judged negatively for your size. Fortunately, there are options—most notably, countries where fatness isn’t a big deal.
Jamaica is very accepting, for example, especially for plus-size women. As the local men say, “Bone is for the dog. Meat is for the man.” While in Myanmar, I heard men tell our guide she was “looking big.” She explained that it was a compliment, meaning you’re doing well and are successful.
The list of countries where bigger is better includes: Samoa, Fiji, South Africa, Gambia, Egypt, and Kenya (nabbed a marriage proposal myself there from a Maasai chief). But there are plus-sized people most places, so carry yourself like you belong wherever you go.
The part of the world where I think it’s the toughest to be fat is Asia, particularly in places like Korea and Japan (sumo wrestlers exempted). Obesity is not as common, so you might draw stares and comments that make you feel like a freak. Don’t let that stop you going there or anywhere you want to go. Learn to say hello in the local language and smile confidently. It’s disarming.
Seek Fat-Friendly Resorts and Specialized Travel Agents
For some plus-sized travelers, the idea of being in a bathing suit in front of average weight people and potentially facing disapproving looks can be anxiety-provoking to the point they don’t want to travel at all.
One alternative is to seek out a size-friendly environment such as with the use of a travel agent that specializes in making arrangements for the plus-size crowd. Abundant Travel founder Tony Harrell is a former national board member of NAAFA (National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance), so he gets it.
When booking hotels, travelers with mobility issues should ask for details on the location and number of stairs, how far rooms are from the lobby, and whether the hallways are wide enough to accommodate devices like scooters, if necessary.
Bathrooms can be an issue, too. You might want to know whether a hotel has a walk-in shower or tub-shower combo, should there be mobility and access issues. Showers stalls on cruise ships can be teeny tiny and not suitable for some larger guests, so ask how they are equipped.
Protect Your Health and Stay Comfortable
Obese people are six times more likely to develop deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a potentially deadly condition caused by sitting for extended periods of time. Prevention means getting up every two to three hours to stretch, plus flexing toes, rotating ankles, and doing calf stretches while seated. If you’re doing a long-haul flight, talk to your doctor about your DVT risk before you fly.
Wear loose clothing and layers—nothing tight. Dress in light layers and bring a shawl or lightweight blanket. Also keep your shoes on. If you take them off, you might not be able to get them back on, since feet tend to swell while flying.
Plus-sized folks tend to run a bit hotter. Keep your cool by packing a facial mist, pre-moistened towelettes, or a fan. Or get a neck wrap like Kafka’s Cool Tie. Filled with polymer crystals that activate when wet, it keeps you comfy via cooling evaporative action.
Pack with a Back-up Plan in Mind
If you check luggage and it doesn’t show up at your destination, airlines may give you funds to buy replacement items, or reimburse you later. That’s great, except when you’re somewhere where plus-sized clothing isn’t readily available.
There are two ways to deal with this possibility. You might consider traveling only with carry-on luggage so you don’t have to worry. If you do need to check a bag, be sure to tuck some essentials in your carry-on bag, key items like a pair of underwear and a change of clothes. You’ll be ready to go explore upon arrival, despite an AWOL bag.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Airline Obesity Policies: Will You Be Forced to Buy an Extra Seat?
- Flight-Cancellation Rights: The Ultimate Guide
- 11 Budget Travel Lies You Should Stop Believing Right Now
Michele Sponagle is a prolific lifestyle journalist who has visited more than 70 countries. Her work has appeared in major media outlets, such as Good Housekeeping, ELLE, Washington Post, iExplore.com, Paste Magazine, SheKnows.com, The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post, and others. Follow her on Instagram @Michele_Sponagle and Twitter @Msponagle.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.