Flying as a big bodied bear can be a real nightmare, which stinks because I love to travel. If I could, I’d travel the world unendingly. Its one of the supreme joys in life. There’s nothing more thrilling than exploring a new city or walking through some ancient ruin or casually strolling through a museum while enjoying priceless art. There’s also nothing more rewarding than meeting all the gorgeous bears around the world and hanging out in new bears spaces. That’s the fun part; but getting to these far-flung destinations can be a real challenge.
As a society (despite recent setbacks which we can and will push back against), we are steadily becoming more socially conscious. For the most part people at least understand that it is wrong to to be homophobic, transphobic, racist, sexist or prejudiced. However, one area where we seem to be lagging in is size and body acceptance. As a culture we just cannot seem to shake the notion that thin is better and muscles somehow equate to beauty and value. For as much as I now feel comfortable in my skin there are days where I am terribly self-conscious, and nothing brings those feelings to the forefront of my mind like air travel.
Before I book any vacation, I take whatever measures I can to ensure a comfortable journey for myself and my seatmates. A huge fear of mine is to be ridiculed by whoever I am sitting next to or even worse to be told by the flight attendant that I need to buy a second seat. It sounds silly but it truly causes me a lot of anxiety. Luckily, I’ve only ever encountered one person that was a little rude with me. I am happy to say that most people are cool, and I certainly do my part to not encroach upon their personal space as much as I possibly can. I always take the aisle seat so I can lean into that open space. I physically shift my body away from the arm rest as much as possible, so they do not feel crowded. Its my choice to do so but it is so uncomfortable. I often give myself leg and arm cramps just to not be that ‘fat guy that ruined someone else’s trip’. Its exhausting. I do all this to avoid confrontations like so many we have heard of between so called ‘passengers of size’ and their seatmates.
So what is there to do you might ask? I wish I could say I had a definitive answer, but really there needs to be a shift in the airline industry. I know there are profit margins to be met but why they have made coach seats so narrow is beyond me. I’d gladly pay a bit more money for a seat I fit in, but I do not think I should have to pay two full priced airfares or pay the exorbitant business/ first class fees to be comfortable. In fact, I bet many ‘normal sized’ people would be willing to do the same just to be comfortable; but I digress. There are some steps you as a plus sized traveler can take to try and maximize your travel experience.
The first website I visit when booking travel is Seat Guru. You can search out virtually every airline and plane in their fleet and check the width and pitch of every seat in every fare class. I have my preferred carriers always in mind but sometimes due to scheduling I have to fly with someone else. This resource truly helps me make my decision. I don’t care much for the pitch, even though I am very tall. Its all about the width for me.
In my personal experience I have found JetBlue and Delta seats to be the most accommodating with the notable exception of the small regional jets meant for short distance flying, those seats would be comically small if they weren’t so uncomfortable.
Another great thing I’ve seen is that, especially on domestic flights, you can upgrade to business class about a week before your departure date for a fraction of the cost. I believe some airlines also allow bidding for these seats on the day of the flight but that’s too much of a gamble for me. I once scored an upgrade (pre-pandemic) for $100.00 which I thought was a worthwhile deal.
Credit card points and airline loyalty miles can go a long way towards upgrades as well if you are a frequent flyer. Some airlines even sell massive amounts of miles at flat rates throughout the year that you can use towards these upgrades too; though I realize that financially this may not be an option for many. I also realize that it’s generally not fair for bigger people to have to pay more for simply taking up space, but it is unfortunately the system within we must navigate.
Advocate for Yourself
Many flights, especially nowadays due to post pandemic surge pricing and airline staff shortages, are not sold out. This is usually more true of early morning flights which means you can and should be able to have a seat assigned to you without someone next to you. In order to ensure that though, you would need to see the airline representative at the gate who is managing the boarding process. Often times they can and will help you.
Similarly, if you’ve already boarded and notice an empty seat to your liking, it never hurts to ask. The flight attendants usually will not mind shifting your seat once the boarding process is complete. In fact I once had an experience on American Airlines where a flight attendant just asked me if I’d like to move into the Economy Plus section, free of charge, since she saw I was uncomfortable.
The worst they can ever say is no and all you’d have lost is a minute or two of your time.
Let’s say none of the above works for you and you have to fly coach and it’s a sold-out flight; what then? Well, you can contort yourself into a pretzel like I’ve done or take a chance and introduce yourself and ask if your seatmate would mind keeping the armrest up. I’ve done this one or twice and it usually works. Ultimately it will make a more comfortable ride for them too. Perhaps offer to buy them a cocktail for their troubles.
Whatever you do though, do not stop traveling and do not apologize for taking up space. It’s hard to unlearn the things society has drilled into us, I know, but we have to try. I’m still trying. And even though I still get butterflies over making flying arrangements, my fears are usually unfounded. Plus, I refuse to allow anyone to deny me of the travel experiences I yearn and work so hard for, and neither should you.
This article was originally published in our sister publication Vacationer.