From shrinking airline seats and lavatories to cramped restaurants, tiny island puddle-jumpers and high off-road vehicles, plus-size travelers often find their journeys exceptionally difficult.
TW illustration by Jenn Martins
TW illustration by Jenn Martins
In 2017, Jimmy Lierow and Amanda Ervin were bored and frustrated. Lierow, a surgical technician, and Ervin, a wedding and event planner, wanted to travel more, but as large people they felt limited.
“As bigger people, we were kind of viewed as a burden, for lack of a better word,” Lierow said, especially when it came to airplanes and their notoriously small seats. “There’s virtually no support out there for people of size to go out and travel.”
They decided to change that. They started a YouTube channel, Chubby and Away, documenting their travels “to show other people that you can travel while you’re bigger,” Ervin said.
The channel took off. It has more than 9,000 subscribers, and each video has thousands of views.
“We’re really proud of where we’ve come,” Ervin said, “because we don’t look like everybody else.”
The duo went on a whirlwind, 367-day trip through a dozen countries in Asia. Their experiences weren’t always comfortable — people would often touch them without permission — but, as Ervin put it, “it was an experience.”
Today, the Dallas-based couple is spreading the word that people of size can and should travel.
“What’s amazing to us is the travel industry hasn’t embraced this like other industries have,” Lierow said. “Bigger people are here, they’re not going to go away.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 40% of adults in the U.S. were classified as obese in 2016, the last year for which such data is available. And while many industries have made the world easier for plus-size people, travel has not.
Rebecca Alexander is the founder of AllGo, a review site where plus-size people rate the comfort and accessibility of public places.
“Traveling is where we feel these issues most acutely,” Alexander said. “As a plus-size person, you know what places are comfortable in your own town, but when you try to go on vacation or on a business trip, the anxiety goes through the roof because you don’t know the places that are comfortable for you.”
For large people, it is about more than comfort. From ever-shrinking airline seats to weight limits on ziplines to compact cars, AllGo’s website asserts that as people get bigger, their world gets smaller.
It is for this reason Lierow and Ervin hosted an affinity cruise for their YouTube audience, and they plan to host more. They hope to lead travelers-of-size groups to help them navigate travel abroad and create merchandise suited to plus-size people. They want to go beyond showing plus-size people that they can travel.
“We need to make an impact larger than that so people who may not have the confidence level that we have in their skin can feel comfortable going somewhere and experience the life-changing positives that we did,” Lierow said.
A challenge for the trade
For travel advisors, catering to the needs of plus-size travelers is a mix of finding the right accommodations in the right destinations and setting expectations for everything from their plane ride to transfers. That can be a challenge.
“Suppliers would do well to attract this underserved market,” said Tony Harrell, owner of Dallas-based Abundant Travel.
‘Suppliers would do well to attract this underserved market.’
As a former accountant for ASTA, Harrell saw that many successful travel agents focused on niches, and he had a number of friends who were larger people.
“Listening to their stories about their struggles or concerns about traveling, from flights to hotel experience or just a welcoming destination, I thought that’s something I could make a difference in,” Harrell said.
He launched his agency in 2010 and mainly focuses on helping people of size travel to Mexico and the Caribbean. He carefully inspects properties to ensure they have features or amenities that are comfortable for larger people.
It comes down to many details, some of which are not necessarily obvious, such as pool railings to ease getting in and out of the water. Harrell also helps clients fly comfortably, whether that means getting an extra seat in coach or upgrading to business or first class.
Destinations matter, too, he said. A favorite example is Miami versus Fort Lauderdale.
“South Beach is a place where people tend to be rather body conscious, and a larger person may not be welcome or made to feel welcome,” Harrell said. “But just up the road in Fort Lauderdale, there’s much less of that attitude, and a client can enjoy the sun and all the features that South Florida has to offer, without the attitude.”
Nora Blum, vice president of Travel Leaders in Maple Grove, Minn., is not a plus-size specialist, but she draws on personal experiences to advise such travelers.
The part that can get tricky, she said, is getting clients to ask for help. As is the case with other special needs, an advisor won’t know about an issue if the client isn’t forthcoming.
“It’s delicate,” Blum said. “You don’t want to offend anybody, ever.”
‘It’s delicate. You don’t want to offend anybody, ever.’
In the qualifying process, Blum’s agency asks if clients require special accommodations, but it’s a question that can be interpreted in a number of ways and doesn’t always lead travelers of size to identify themselves.
“The more information they give us, the more questions they ask, the better we can actually respond to them, the better we can provide what they really want,” Blum said.
Alexander also advocates for more communication. Too many people, she said, are embarrassed to ask people of size what they need.
“A hostess should simply ask for a preference around where they sit,” she said of restaurants. “Don’t take people to a booth and pretend they’re going to fit. Ask if they prefer a table.”
While vacationing at a resort in Mexico, an employee realized Alexander might need a stronger chair than the one she was about to sit in and got one for her.
“I was so grateful for him to not pretend this wasn’t an issue,” she said. “I think that’s what we’re trained to do in the U.S. in particular. We’ve decided the most polite thing to do is not to comment on other peoples’ bodies. While I understand that, it definitely leads to us ignoring very real limitations on the physical world that we’ve designed.”
The unfriendly skies
Flying is generally the toughest travel obstacle for people of size. It is exacerbated by airlines’ steady move in recent decades to smaller and smaller seats. This creates a vexing problem both for plus-size passengers and for those seated next to them.
Michelle Couch-Friedman, executive director of Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit consumer organization founded by journalist Christopher Elliott, said, “The airline industry has an obligation to address this issue, because it is not going away. The whole cabin area is starting to become claustrophobic.”
Couch-Friedman said she believes a fair way to handle plus-size passengers is to offer them empty neighboring seats at no extra charge when a flight is not full.
With the notable exception of JetBlue, major U.S. airlines have policies related to what they refer to as “passengers of size.” Armrests are generally the definitive divider between airplane seats. Passengers who cannot remain seated with the armrest down or who spill over the armrest are subject to being asked to move to another seat or to disembark.
Southwest offers the friendliest passenger-of-size policy of the major U.S. carriers. Plus-size passengers are urged to purchase two tickets ahead of time to ensure an additional seat is available and help the airline manage inventory. After the flight, Southwest refunds the second seat. Southwest also allows customers to ask a gate agent for a second seat and will provide it free of charge.
“If I can fly Southwest, I do,” Alexander said, adding that the carrier’s policy “benefits all customers. No one wants to sit next to me on a flight, and I understand that. … The hidden beauty of the policy is that it’s good for everyone.”
Alaska Airlines also offers a friendly plus-size flyer policy, guaranteeing a refund on a second seat if each leg of an itinerary ended up having at least one empty seat.
Other airlines are less generous. United, for example, requires passengers who cannot fit into one seat to purchase two, and it offers no refund. If the passenger doesn’t purchase a second seat, he or she is subject to being charged the same-day price at the gate. If no extra seats are available, the customer must rebook, though United will waive change fees.
Airlines are under no obligation to do anything else. Obesity alone is not a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning travel suppliers do not have to accommodate people of size.
The question is whether they should. Couch-Friedman said that based on the complaints she gets from airline consumers, situations related to passengers of size often come to a head on the aircraft, placing all parties involved — the traveler, neighboring passengers and the flight attendants — in awkward positions.
“That’s why it would be a good idea for all airlines to have a standard policy that would remove the stigma of the overweight passenger, so that a passenger could feel comfortable to call ahead of time and say, ‘I think I need two seats,’” she said.
It’s not just seats that make overweight flyers feel the pinch from tightening aircraft interiors. In recent years, planes have been outfitted with a new generation of smaller lavatories.
“When I’m tired and cranky on an airplane and I have to use the bathroom, I get livid,” Alexander said. “It’s impossible for me to use it. How is this legal?”
Plus size-friendly hotels
Hotels don’t offer the same challenges for plus-size people that airplanes do, but they can have their drawbacks.
For hospitality entrepreneur James King, a 2001 mishap involving a plus-size woman and a flimsy beach chair left an indelible mark on his career. He was the managing director of a resort in Grenada when he and the owner saw a woman sit on a plastic beach lounge chair and “go right through it. People were laughing, and she was totally mortified.”
The incident might not have been particularly memorable had the resort owner not charged the woman $150 for destruction of hotel property.
“Not only had she been humiliated, now she was being financially blackmailed,” King said. “We had provided her with something that wasn’t adequate for her needs, but that somehow became her problem.”
King’s suggestion that the resort get sturdier furniture for larger guests was shot down, but it became the seed of an idea: to open a resort designed for people of size.
King opened the Resort on Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas in late 2016. It is billed as “the world’s only plus-size-friendly resort.” The property can only be booked in its entirety, and it can accommodate groups of up to 24 people. King said demand is strong, and there are no openings this year.
He doesn’t book any excursions ahead of time because more than 90% of his guests don’t leave the property.
“Our guests get a chance to just chill out and be human and do things most take for granted,” he said. “When you get somebody who says, ‘I haven’t taken my T-shirt off in front of my wife in 10 years,’ and he takes his shirt off and does a cannonball in front of everybody, that’s amazing. They become so comfortable and relaxed that they don’t feel a need to leave.”
Among the Resort’s other draws is its furniture. Wooden beach chairs can hold up to 560 pounds, wicker furniture is reinforced with steel and king beds can hold up to 2,000 pounds.
“The No. 1 reason people of size don’t go out, even in their own community, is because of a fear of finding a safe and suitable place to sit,” King said. “And that’s a real shame.”
Blogger making room for positivity
Tired of feeling excluded from most travel media, Annette Richmond, who helms the travel and style blog From Annette With Love, created a body-positive platform of her own.
Richmond launched Fat Girls Traveling (@fatgirlstraveling) on Instagram in 2017, and the community has since amassed more than 20,000 followers.
“While I did see plus-sized women traveling, I didn’t see that reflected in marketing or in the travel communities I was a part of,” said Richmond. “I wanted to create a space that highlighted women that looked like me and encouraged travel.”
The group has even expanded offline, with Richmond set to host the second annual Fat Camp retreat this summer. Held in North Carolina, the event blends body-positive workshops, speakers and photo shoots with traditional summer camp activities.
Blogger Annette Richmond is the founder of the body-positive travel community Fat Girls Traveling.
Off-road vehicles and small planes
It’s no surprise that King’s guests are loath to leave the property, given what many plus-size travelers face when they do.
Obstacles come in the form of small vehicles — in other countries, tiny cars are very common — or activities like ziplines, which are generally limited to people under 300 pounds.
However, tour operators, particularly those in the upscale and luxury sectors, said traveler size is rarely an issue.
Abercrombie & Kent (A&K), for example, said that while certain challenges might arise, they have the resources to make modifications in order to make the guest as comfortable as possible. A&K USA spokeswoman Jean Fawcett suggests that clients discuss their concerns with a destination expert when they begin the planning process.
On A&K’s small-group journeys, each guest on its coaches gets a window seat plus an empty adjacent seat.
“This makes for a much more comfortable experience for all guests, but especially a person of size,” Fawcett said.
However, she said safaris can present challenges, as guests must be able to climb into and out of a tall off-road vehicle and occasionally board small planes that fly between camps and lodges.
Some four-seat planes can be uncomfortable for a person of size. In that case, A&K might recommend that the guest fly on a larger plane and drive the rest of the way. She also suggested that safaris in Kenya might be better than those in a place like Botswana, as the flights between camps in Kenya usually use larger planes.
Cruise ships keep getting better
One place people of size can now travel with relative ease is on cruise ships. But that wasn’t always the case. In the past, challenges included tiny showers, oddly angled bathrooms and narrow hallways.
But with each new ship, things get a little better, said Charles Sylvia, vice president of membership and trade relations at CLIA, who describes himself as “a man of a certain beam.”
Sylvia recalls being on a ship 20 years ago where the cabin commode was awkwardly positioned. “Just being a tall person, let alone big, your knee was going to rub up against the vanity very uncomfortably,” he said. “But you’re not seeing that anymore.”
Now, he said, shipyards and naval architects are designing cabins to be “comfortable for people of all shapes and sizes.”
Today’s cruise cabins are ‘comfortable for people of all sizes.’
Cruise line investment “in better sleeping surfaces is another example of their commitment to people of all sizes,” Sylvia said. “When you’re heavy like me, your sleep surface is tremendously important.”
He also commended cruise ship service training, citing a dining room experience on Royal Caribbean International’s Harmony of the Seas a few months ago. Upon seeing him, a wait team “in a very subtle way” swapped out his chair for an armless one without being asked.
“It avoided any potential chance of embarrassment for me,” he said.
Another advantage is that ships are designed with evacuation in mind, so corridors and elevator lobbies are easy to navigate. And as ships get bigger, hallways get wider.
“When you’re walking down the passageway and there’s another passenger coming at you, back in the day you used to have to turn sideways, but not anymore,” said Sylvia, who recently sailed on Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge. “It had amazing passageways.”
Since the flight is usually the hardest part of any plus-size vacation, it also helps that so many cruise homeports are within driving distance of much of the country’s population. And a cruise anywhere enables plus-size people to visit a number of countries without facing numerous flights.
Jamie Biesiada, Jeri Clausing, Johanna Jainchill, Christina Jelski, Robert Silk and Tom Stieghorst contributed to this report.