Flying is the hardest part of traveling while fat: Here are 9 ways to make it easier

Chaya Milchtein
Special to USA TODAY
  • Plus-size travelers have a whole extra list of things to consider during air travel.
  • All airplanes are not created equal so before booking your flight, look at Seatguru’s website.
  • Depending on your size and weight distribution, you may require more room than the standard seat for comfort or fit.

A lot of planning goes into a trip that requires air travel. Planning a trip while being fat is a different thing altogether. Plus-size folks have a whole extra list of things to consider, including seat width and lavatory sizes, both of which especially come into play on longer international trips or flights with multiple legs. 

“There have been situations leaving a flight where I had bruises on my thighs from armrests,” says Emily Ho, plus-size content creator at Authentically Emmie in Louisville, Kentucky. “Or felt a lot of muscle pain because I had been constricting my arms and legs together the entire ride to make myself as small as possible.”

According to plus-size travel blogger Jae’lynn Chaney, “traveling as a plus-size individual can come with many obstacles, but it's so worth it.”

Ho, Chaney and Sami Schalk, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, helped me, a plus-size international travel writer, compile a series of tips that can help anyone, regardless of their size, feel a little more comfortable and confident about their next flight. 

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Delta Air Lines' A220-100 planes have 109 seats. The main cabin seats measure 18.6 inches in width and have a 4-inch recline.

1. Look up your plane seating on Seatguru

All airplanes are not created equal. Discovering that you’re seated in a bulkhead seat or one that's smaller than usual can make your flight that much more complicated. Before booking your flight, take a look at Seatguru’s website. Seatguru has detailed information on the seat sizes of most planes and can advise you about bulkhead seats and more. That way, if the route is flown by two different planes, you can choose the one that will work best for you. 

“I choose window seats, so I can lean against the wall more,” Schalk said. If you’re debating between premium economy, business class or a standard seat, the different measurements can help you make an informed decision. 

Deciding which seat to select, remember that FAA regulations do not allow you to sit in an exit row if you require a seat belt extender. 

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2. Buy two seats and check the customer of size policy

Depending on your size and weight distribution, you may require more room than the standard seat for comfort or fit. 

“If you know you'll need a larger seat than those in standard coach, but business or first-class fare isn't in your budget, most airlines will allow you to buy two coach seats, which may be a more affordable comfort option – and even wider than first-class provides,” Ho said.

Airlines have written guidelines, called “Customer of Size” policies, on how they will treat plus-size travelers. 

“I look to see if they have a Customer of Size policy or if they offer any special accommodations for plus-size passengers,” Chaney said. 

Southwest refunds the cost of a second seat if plus-size travelers need it. Other airlines, including United, penalize us by setting narrow guidelines requiring the purchase of a second seat if the armrest can’t stay down, even when seated next to a family member. Be sure to read the policies to see whether you can get a refund or prevent being forced to buy another seat when boarding.

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3. Get TSA Precheck

Maybe it’s our luscious thighs or ample love handles, but those damn full body scanners really don’t like plus-size people. 

“If I have to go through a standard scanner, I'll get an extra pat-down on one side of my body near my chest and also down the back of my inner thighs,” Ho said. That’s where TSA Precheck comes in. Not only do you get to keep your shoes on, skip the regular line and leave your liquids inside your carry-on, but you also get to skip that scanner. Instead, you’ll be guided through a standard metal detector, allowing you to avoid what can be an uncomfortable and sometimes humiliating pat-down. 

Global Entry includes TSA Precheck if you travel internationally, so it might be worth springing for that. 

4. Ask for a seat belt extender when you get on the plane

Like most things related to air travel, seat belts aren’t made for bigger bodies. The seat belts on a plane tend to be smaller, sometimes much smaller, than a car seat belt. 

The Federal Aviation Administration requires airlines to inspect seat belt extenders, so they prohibit personal extenders and can confiscate them. “I always ask for a seat belt extender as soon as I get on board,” Schalk said. This allows the flight attendant to provide one discreetly. If there isn't an extender on hand, the attendant will ask for your seat number and bring it before taking off.

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5. Use the bathroom in business class on long-haul lights

Going to the bathroom on an airplane is impossible for a lot of plus-size people, so folks go out of their way to avoid it by limiting fluid intake before a flight and skipping the beverage service. But what about long-haul international flights?

I had to use the bathroom on a flight from Vienna to Chicago. It couldn’t be put off or avoided. Popping into the business-class facilities, I was stunned to discover a bathroom I could call spacious! It was easily double the size of a regular airplane bathroom. If you need to go on a long-haul flight, ask the flight attendant to let you do your business in the business-class lavatory. 

6. Bring a blanket

If you utilize a Customer of Size policy to get a second seat or pay out of pocket for one, “sitting in between two seats can be very uncomfortable, so I recommend bringing a thick blanket to lay down between the two seats,” Chaney said. 

7. Secure your purse or carry-on

As luggage gets lost all over the world, more travelers bring carry-ons and fill the overhead bins. If you have a smaller bag or purse, it’s probably going under the seat in front of you. Getting it out from there midflight is a lot harder than getting it down there, leaving you in a predicament. What I do is stuff the strap from my bag into the seatback pocket, then tuck the bag under the seat. That way, when I need it, I can untuck the strap and pull the bag up without having to contort my body to retrieve it. 

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8. Take care of your feet

Travelers of all sizes are encouraged to think about how their blood circulation will be affected on lengthy flights, especially those with health conditions that leave them more susceptible to deep vein thrombosis and blood clots.

“It's super important to stretch and move around during flights, especially long ones,” Chaney said. “Wearing compression socks can also help improve blood flow, prevent blood clots and reduce swelling. I also highly recommend that plus-size travelers do heel pumps, flex their ankles and stretch their legs as much as possible during flights.”

9. Carry a change of clothing

It’s no secret that airlines have trouble getting folks' baggage to their destination. This problem is more critical for plus-size people – especially those who wear a size 4x and larger. 

Prepare for this problem by packing a change of clothing and undergarments in your carry-on. It doesn't have to be much, but a pair of leggings, a T-shirt, underwear and socks really improve a bad situation if there's nowhere to buy clothing.