Traveling While Fat: 11 Essential Tips
By Sharon Maxwell
You want to travel, but you believe your body is the problem. And that belief holds you back from your dreams of exploring and adventure? I’ve been there, too. And the harsh reality is – a lot of our world wasn’t created with fat people in mind. Don’t get too discouraged; there IS hope.
I spent a long time sitting on the sidelines of my life because of my body size. Since deciding recovery is something I will fight for, I have also decided to get off the sidelines and jump into my life. Friend, you deserve to travel, too. You are worthy of that trip, that experience, the connection and love that comes from visiting loved ones. I’m here to help you navigate these challenges.
Here are some tips I’ve learned along the way:
Tip 1: Plan ahead.
The most valuable tip I can offer is to plan ahead of time. Research. Take the time to get accommodations taken care of in advance. This will make your travel infinitely better.
Tip 2: Choose the right airline.
If you’re traveling by plane in the United States, fly Southwest when at all possible. Southwest has a Customer of Size policy. This policy allows you an additional seat at no extra cost.
Before you panic and start thinking you could never get two seats on an airplane, hear me out. Technically, my body fits in one Southwest airline seat. However, it’s not worth it for me to go through that discomfort at the risk of facing the anti-fat bias of the stranger sitting next to me. Accepting help and accommodations is not a sign of weakness. In fact, I see it as a sign of strength.
There are two ways to access this accommodation. Here is how you go about it:
For those with the financial resources to purchase two tickets ahead of time and wait until post-flight for a refund for the second ticket, follow these instructions. Select the flight for two tickets and put your name in both fields, but put “XS” as your middle name on the second ticket. Once you finish the flight, call Southwest and request a refund for the second ticket.
If you don’t have the financial resources to purchase two tickets ahead of time and wait for the refund (I have almost always been in this boat), you can ask for an additional seat at the ticket counter, and they will accommodate.
Whichever route you take, plan to spend extra time at the airport. I usually get to the airport two and a half hours before takeoff. You will need to go to the full-service counter, where they will print two boarding passes for you – one for you and one that says “reserved seat,” which you will place on the seat next to you. You will be allowed to preboard, which will give you time to get on the plane and get situated before general boarding. I like to choose a window seat and then place my “reserved seat” ticket on the middle seat tray table until take off.
If Southwest is not an option for you and you are flying in the US, JetBlue has slightly larger seats and more legroom than most airlines.
Whichever airline you take, look on their website for their policies about seating on the airline. Some common names these are under are: “customer of size,” “special seating arrangements,” “special needs,” etc. If you will be required to purchase an extra seat, do it with your initial booking, as most airlines will not honor the initial price you landed for your first ticket and might not be able to accommodate the request post purchase.
Tip 3: Invest in TSA precheck.
TSA precheck is a worthwhile investment to forego the dreaded pat-down most folks of size have to endure.
Tip 4: Ask to preboard.
When flying, ask to preboard. This will help you get to your seat and not have to deal with those ridiculously narrow airline aisles and other people’s bodies at the same time.
Tip 5: Ask for extra leg room and seat belt extenders.
If you were unable to acquire an additional seat, you can ask the gate agents if there is room on the plane to move you to another seat with extra room. A little bit of kindness goes a long way, and more often than not, people want to help and accommodate.
Also, ask for a seat belt extender. I have found that the easiest way to go about this is to ask the flight attendant who is greeting passengers at the door for an extender. They typically hand it to me right then before I head to my seat. This makes the interaction quick and just between me and the attendant, leaving the potential embarrassment of having to ask for it later in front of others.
Tip 6: Hydrate and nourish your body.
- Staying hydrated and taking care of yourself can make traveling much more enjoyable.
- Use the restroom before getting on the plane. I have managed to squeeze my body on the toilet in an emergency, but folks living in larger bodies than I am would likely not be able to.
- Stretch before your plane ride. Gentle movement and care of your body goes a long way.
- Put headphones in while people are boarding and use a distraction to get by the discomfort of the potential of unkind experiences.
- Remind yourself that you are deserving of taking up space and accessing travel.
- Once you land, repeat the intentional care. Hydrate, nourish, stretch, and thank your body for getting you through that.
Tip 7: Be prepared for public transit.
If seats are assigned, ask for a seat with extra room. The worst thing they can say is no. For trains or buses where seating is open, try to snag the one-seaters.
If there are no accommodations and your body is up against others, remind yourself that your body isn’t the problem. Capitalism has made it so seating in modes of transit are as small as possible to pack as many people as they can – all in the name of profit. Take up space.
Tip 8: Plan ahead of time when visiting amusement parks.
Research the size of seats and types of seat belts present on rides. This will help you plan for being able to get the most out of the rides you are able to get on and will help you avoid the endlessly long lines for rides that do not accommodate your body. Some theme parks, including Universal Orlando, provide test seats for you to try near the attraction entrances.
There is a Facebook group called Disney Parks & Travel for Plus Sized Guests. This group is super helpful when planning to go to Disney, specifically. People also ask questions in this group about travel tips in general.
Tip 9: Consider these tips when packing.
- Pack a towel that fits your body. There’s nothing worse than being given a washcloth-sized towel.
- Chub rub is a must. I personally always have Megababe Thigh Rescue on hand.
- Wear shorts under skirts and dresses to lessen the likelihood of chafing (in addition to the chub rub!)
- Pack comfy clothes and shoes. I promise, the pic for the gram won’t be worth the pain and discomfort of packing for aesthetic over comfort.
Tip 10: Research weight restrictions and policies.
Some activities have weight restrictions. If you have to provide your weight to someone, try to remind yourself in these moments that weight is just a number. Be honest. Don’t take the safety risk of lying about your weight. Some activities and items that might have a weight restriction are kayaking, rafting, all-terrain vehicles, sleeping bags, horseback riding, harnesses for ziplines or bungee jumping, amusement park rides, etc. Read the policies online. Call ahead and ask what accommodations can be arranged.
Tip 11: Find resources and community.
My hope is that these 10 tips help you feel empowered. And real talk: when I learned about most of these restrictions, I experienced a lot of grief. I questioned my recovery – who hasn’t at some point? But being in my eating disorder never gave me a day of life; it stole more from me than society ever could. Please honor any grief that comes up. Talk with your therapist and/or a trusted friend about it. Find fat community online and in person when you’re able. Celebrate fat joy. You may also want to check out these resources:
- Friendly Like Me is a website and app filled with reviews on how fat-friendly and accessible places are. The app is free and you can select what is important to you regarding accommodations. You can also review places you go to tell others about their “friendliness.”
- Interested in hiking? I recommend checking out the book and online community Fat Girls Hiking: An Exclusive Guide to Getting Outdoors at Any Size or Ability.
When you experience weight stigma – and yes, I said when because it is inevitable – pause and remind yourself that your body is not the problem. Phone a friend and ask them to remind you that your body is not the problem. Take a moment and do something kind for yourself. You did nothing wrong. Your body is not wrong. You deserve to engage in your life in the ways you desire.
I gently and eagerly invite you to step off the sidelines of your life and to step into your best life worth living! You’re so worth it, and let me tell you – it is so much fun!
Tips for the loved ones of fat folks
Do you want to travel with your loved one living in a larger body, or do you want them to travel to you? Please know that engaging in travel means your loved one is putting themselves in a vulnerable situation. They are likely part excited and part dreading the trip – for all of the valid reasons mentioned above.
Self-advocating for travel accommodations can be extremely challenging, exhausting and defeating, especially while navigating recovery from an eating disorder. Having to do so is a constant reminder that you have to fight to prove to strangers that you deserve to take up space.
Tip 1: Have an honest conversation.
I recommend having an open conversation with your loved one before planning the trip. Acknowledge how unjust it is that the world is filled with so much anti-fat bias. Assure them that you are going to do everything you can to support them and help them engage in the trip as much as everyone else. This conversation is a fantastic time to ask permission to step in and help advocate in the moment when needed. If possible, extend an offer to help your loved one make their travel accommodations.
Tip 2: Tips for group travel
If you’re planning group travel, save this list and make sure the person planning your trip makes sure each activity – from transport, excursions, to sleeping arrangements – takes your loved one’s needs into consideration. If you have a travel agent making your arrangements, ensure they utilize this list and that they communicate any accommodations made with you.
Tip 3: Practice empathy.
During your trip, try to see the world through your loved one’s eyes. Survey a restaurant before putting your name down to make sure the seats will work. If they don’t work, find a place that does. If you witness your loved one experience anti-fat bias, do what you can to support them in the moment and in the aftermath. Support looks different to everyone, but none of us should have to struggle through this alone. If you can, remind your loved one that they are not an inconvenience. Society is the problem -- not them and not their body.
Thank you for helping make this space safer for folks living in fat bodies. We need more people like you!
This content is reflective of this individual’s lived experiences. It is intended for informational purposes only. This piece is not to provide medical advice, nor is it a substitute for professional medical diagnosis or treatment. Learn more about weight stigma and weight-inclusive care here.