One Way or Another
May 16, 2012 3:43 PM   Subscribe

How practical is airline travel for fat people?

I'm six feet tall and north of 550lbs with a 72 inch waist. And I've made a commitment to go to England this coming December/January. But I'm worried about fitting on the plane (I've never flown before).

Is this just a matter of seating (first class instead of coach)? 2 coach seats cost less than half of what one first class seat does. But would that even work?

Which airline(s)? does it matter? Direct flights from Salt Lake City to London don't exist. But they do for Paris, is this a good option?

Money is an issue, but I'd rather pay more upfront to avoid any hassle down the line. Bottom line it for me, what's the best way to do this?

Finally, are there any alternatives modes of transportation worth looking into?
posted by zinon to Travel & Transportation around England (34 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Most airlines will require you to buy two seats, but it's best to check policies on this. I would recommend you do this either way for your comfort first, but also for the comfort of those around you. You don't need to buy first class seats. You should take whatever flights work well for you, but make sure you have enough time in your connection city. If you use a discount site, they usually program in enough time for you, but check anyway. If you are really worried about policies, just call the airline directly and tell it to them straight.
posted by two lights above the sea at 3:50 PM on May 16, 2012

Two coach seats will work better for you probably, depending on the aircraft. First class tends to have more comfortable seats with better legroom, etc but not necessarily wider seats. Also, you may run into a problem (in first class, anyway) of a seat divider/armrest that isn't movable - because its the console for the audio video controls, etc. This might also be true in coach, but you should be very specific about your seat search and considerate of whoever you might be sitting next to (if its a 3 seat row, for example.)
posted by blaneyphoto at 3:52 PM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

You can pay for two coach seats and lift the armrest between them so that you may sit in two seats. Many heavier fliers do this.

The cabin crew often have an extension that enables you to connect the left seat's left belt buckle to the right seat's right tab, so that you're all legal and seatbelted.

Note that your height means your knees will probably spend the entire flight pushed up against the seat in front of you. This makes long flights suck for big and tall people.

You can call the airline you're going to book with directly, and ask them which planes will accommodate you and get your seating issues dealt with well in advance of departure. You can also enlist a travel agent.

Flying is fun. Happy travels!
posted by goblinbox at 3:53 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't speak to someone precisely your size, but My husband is 6'2", around 300 lbs, and about a 50" waist. I've resigned myself to never getting a window or aisle seat again, because he needs every millimeter he can get to fit in a coach seat. His (gorgeous) butt hangs over both sides of the seat. I honestly don't think it's possible for you to fit in one seat.

The seat belts lengthen on both ends, and I believe most planes have extensions available, so with the two seats, you should be set.
posted by freshwater at 3:55 PM on May 16, 2012

I'm 5' and 110 lbs and my legs feel cramped on a long flight. You need a bulkhead row.
posted by desjardins at 3:56 PM on May 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

Yes! Pick exit row or bulkhead seats. You'll have so much more leg room.
posted by two lights above the sea at 4:03 PM on May 16, 2012

The last time I flew on a plane, I weighed 225 pounds (I'm 5'4"). My dad's about 280 and around 6' tall.

Bulkhead row, two seats. I highly recommend calling the airline. I actually prefer not-entirely-direct flights (think SLC to NYC and then to London) in terms of comfort.

You will want to talk with your doctor before you go - DVT is a serious risk, as are blood pressure issues.
posted by SMPA at 4:04 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Which airline(s)? does it matter? Direct flights from Salt Lake City to London don't exist. But they do for Paris, is this a good option?

The different airlines do configure their planes with different spaces between the rows of seats - so which one you choose will affect how much legroom you have. I don't have a specific recommendation for you, but my experience has been that united is particularly cramped, but also one of the cheapest.

There is a train from Paris to London. It takes about 2 hours and costs ~$100. It's more roomy than a plane. If you fly into "London" you'll really be flying into Heathrow airport, which is a 30 minute $15 train ride to London itself. However direct flights are often more expensive than flights with a layover (they're cheaper for the airline, but they're faster and less hassle). And international flights are typically more comfortable than domestic ones, so this might be a reasonable thing for you to do. On the other hand, getting to get up and walk around partway through is a plus as well. Plus then maybe you can schedule in some extra time to hang out in Paris.
posted by aubilenon at 4:07 PM on May 16, 2012

Less-than-full flights are a rarity these days, but you should ask for a refund of the second ticket if the flight is not fully booked.
posted by DandyRandy at 4:07 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another (expensive) option would be to look for something like the United Airlines Boeing 747-400 first class seats which are essentially personal suites.
posted by blaneyphoto at 4:10 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here are some great tips.

Seatguru can help with figuring out seat sizes, locations, and other details about particular seats.

You can buy your own seatbelt extender (not advocating that site, you might do better on Amazon or Ebay). Make sure it's FAA approved where ever you buy it.

I agree with others that buying two coach seats is the way to go. Calling the airline directly is the best way to go so that your second seat is ticketed correctly. But I did find this thread that has some useful info.

Have a wonderful trip!
posted by kimdog at 4:11 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm just under 6 feet tall and my partner is just over, and I agree that in addition to seat width you should be thinking of the distance forward and backward between seat rows. The nice thing is that many airlines sell "economy plus" or "premium economy" seats that are slightly more expensive than regular coach, but MUCH cheaper than business or first class. With your extra weight, I would think the issue of knees jamming into the back of the seat in front of you might be worse than for others of the same height, so if you can swing it I would definitely try to book 2 economy-plus seats.

SeatGuru has a nice comparison chart of the average seat width and seat pitch (length between one seat and the seat in front of it) for different types of airplanes operated by each airline. That's really helpful if you're trying to decide between two equally-priced options--choose the one with more legroom, even if it's slightly worse times!

In terms of routing, I prefer to do any layovers in the U.S., because it's less intimidating / confusing than trying to navigate an airport where English isn't the native language after sleeping poorly on a long red-eye flight. So I'd probably do something like SLC-Dallas-London rather than SLC-Paris-London, assuming the flight prices are somewhat comparable.
posted by iminurmefi at 4:13 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

It looks like taking an ocean liner is still an option. Though it does not appear to be fast or cheap, it looks like it could be a cool adventure (especially if you go the passenger/container ship route.)
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 4:16 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Definitely get a bulkhead or exit row if possible. They will most likely cost extra, but I don't think it's a lot extra. You will most likely have to call the airline to see how to reserve a seat in these rows. I pretty regularly fly trans-atlantic, always book online and don't ever remember seeing an option on a trans-atlantic flight (though I see it on domestic flights) to reserve a bulkhead seat online when I check in the day before to pick my seat. Not saying it's not possible, just that I haven't seen it.

Have fun on your trip!
posted by triggerfinger at 4:41 PM on May 16, 2012

Oh, and it probably doesn't really matter if you fly to Paris or if you switch to go straight into London unless you have a preference for one or the other. If you go into London, you will most likely change in a domestic airport like Philly or Atlanta and then the rest of the flight will be around 7-8 hours through the night, arriving the next morning. I personally would much rather switch in a US airport because then I have a chance to walk around and stretch my legs earlier on in the flight and not muck around taking the chunnel from Paris to London after a long flight. Because - and trust me on this - when you arrive in the UK early the next morning after trying to sleep upright on a plane you are going to be TIRED. The last thing I want to do at that point would be trying to figure out the next leg of my trip. YMMV.
posted by triggerfinger at 4:51 PM on May 16, 2012

There is a train from Paris to London. It takes about 2 hours and costs ~$100. It's more roomy than a plane. If you fly into "London" you'll really be flying into Heathrow airport, which is a 30 minute $15 train ride to London itself.

The trip from Charles de Gaulle airport to Gare du Nord train station is longer than Heathrow to central London.
posted by ellieBOA at 5:04 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just want to mention that you must make sure the arm rest between the two seats you buy goes up! Many bulkhead seats have fixed armrests to hold the tray table so steer clear. Check seat guru for whatever seat you buy and check to see if the airline has a refund policy for one seat should the flight not be full (though international often is). I would think a plane with 2 5 2 seat arrangements would be best as you would have both a window and an aisle to yourself. An issue that you will need to look into will be bathroom access as well. See if there is at least one larger washroom on the plane as the width wall to wall when sitting on the toilet is more narrow than a public (non handicap) stall. The leg room I suspect will be less of an issue (I am 6'1" myself) as with two seats you can sit with your knees rather far apart and I would guess that is likely how you naturally sit now (?). Other things to consider is that the armrest goes up but does not recline so you might want to bring a full size thin bed pillow to put behind you back as the armrest in the back is not the most comfortable. As you likely will be in the upright position you can buy a "portable armrest" (its a loop of fabric basically) that might help you be a little more comfortable and maybe even sleep if you add a U travel pillow.

Ok, I thought of a few more things. I suspect that you will not be able to fold down the tray table so consider having a water bottle that you can open, close and drink from with one hand so that you can hold your food in the other or try using a book as a side table perhaps.

Finally preboarding is your friend! I am tall but not a large as you but when I was flying while pregnant i needed that extra time to get all of me settled in without stopping the flow of boarding behind me.

Sorry, one more. There are a few rows of seats that don't recline usually near exit rows. Try to sit behind a row that doesn't recline so you don't get your knees jammed. Or you can do what my 6'5" husband does and just lock your knees when you see the person in front of you try to recline to stop it. (Sorry to anyone he's done this to).

K. Now I am done. I wish you a wonderful trip!!
posted by saradarlin at 5:17 PM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is all good advice. But ultimately, you should call the airline, and see what they recommend, and how they can accomodate you. In fact, you should call a few airlines, and see what they say - I bet you find one that is more willing to help and ready for this. I would base my decision on which airline to fly based on which one is most accomodating.

You need customer service support from your air carrier.
posted by Flood at 5:19 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you fly into "London" you'll really be flying into Heathrow airport, which is a 30 minute $15 train ride to London itself.

The Underground costs less than that (considerably less if you get an Oyster card), but I'm pretty sure takes more than half an hour to get into central London.

I actually prefer changing planes in European airports to US ones, for what it's worth. Part of it's psychological, as despite having run through de Gaulle at least once I'm less stressed about missing flights, I think because you're at least on the right continent and there are lots of alternate routes to your final destination. (I got stuck on the tarmac at SFO for three hours once, needing to change at ORD to fly to Frankfurt. I made it after running the length of a terminal at O'Hare. At many other airports, that wouldn't have worked because you'd have to change terminals. If I missed that flight, there were few others choices to get to Europe that day and none on the same airline.) Changing somewhere in continental Europe will entail going through immigration twice, though Schengen Zone immigration is pretty painless compared to US and UK immigration.

Though one point in favour of changing at O'Hare (and possibly some other US airports) is that you don't have to change terminals, as the bigger US airlines have all their flights in one terminal, rather than some in the international terminal (this is true of United and American--Delta is probably a KLM flight out of terminal 5) . See this list.
posted by hoyland at 5:22 PM on May 16, 2012

Oh, Delta through MSP will be a connection without changing terminals as well. I'm assuming the whole 'little train between terminals' thing would be a bigger pain for you than for me, who's a pretty small guy, and I think it's a pain. (Though I was spoiled by growing up in Chicago. Having a connecting flight still boggles my mind a bit.)
posted by hoyland at 5:26 PM on May 16, 2012

One more thing to keep in mind is that you are unlikely to fit comfortably in the restroom. So, plan ahead.
posted by Pineapplicious at 5:27 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Exercise caution with bulkheads; bulkhead rows often have the TV or tray table stored in the armrest, so the armrest is not movable, defeating the point of buying two seats together. (You will need two seats in coach; I'm 6'3" and 350 and I would not be able to fit in a single coach seat if I weighed any more.) In general, exit rows offer more legroom, although check SeatGuru. I had a recent flight where I had a seat behind an exit row with no seat in front of me; the tray was in an unmovable armrest (17F). My butt barely fit in the seat, and even though I had all the legroom I could handle, I was pretty uncomfortable (and this was a one hour flight).

First class going transatlantic is often lie-flat seats, from what I understand, which is an entirely different kettle of sardines than domestic first class.

You also asked for other options; your other option is by boat. A transatlantic cruise starts around $1K+ and takes a week to go to the other side; obviously, Salt Lake City isn't much of a cruise hub, so you'd have to get to the east coast. You can also travel by freighter; the last I checked, the prices were slightly lower and the duration slightly longer (and the facilities crummier, but if you need an uninterrupted week to do work with no contact from the outside world, there you go.)
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 5:34 PM on May 16, 2012

Do NOT get a BULKHEAD seat unless you are 100% certain that the armrests will move. It will defeat the purpose of buying two seats. Bulkhead seats are good for tall people but they are usually very, very bad for fat people.

As others have mentioned, first class can actually be a problem because the seats are very rigidly configured. They might be a touch wider, but if it isn't wider enough, you're screwed.

One thing to look into is airlines that have a premium economy with more legroom for a slightly higher price. Two seats in United Plus, for example, would be about the best flying experience I could imagine (and I've flown international first class in those lay flat beds), because it would be both wide enough for my ass and deep enough for my knees.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:51 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding United's Economy plus. I'm not tall or big myself (I'm just 5'8") but my dad is 6'4" and on the larger side, and he does ok in Economy Plus, even if the person ahead of him rolls the seat back.

I don't know the international fee for Economy Plus (or the equivalent on other airlines; I think there are several that have a similar feature), but it's usually in the 25$ish range, I think, for domestic.

If you like to recline your *own* seat, you should also check that that's possible in the seat you choose. And yes, you want to ensure that you can raise the armrest.
posted by nat at 6:00 PM on May 16, 2012

Definitely get a bulkhead or exit row if possible.
posted by triggerfinger

I'm not so sure about the bulkhead option, since its very variable but I'd caution against the exit row unless you can absolutely perform the duties that may be needed in the event of an evacuation. If you're requiring two seats for yourself, you may not be able to facilitate the evacuation of the plane as is usually required of those who sit in those rows. Would you impede the ability of others to get the heck off the plane in a fire/crash/waterlanding? Its statistically unlikely, but anything can happen.... Also, I could imagine a scenario where you buy two seats yet get reseated by the crew who aren't confident in your ability to perform the required duties and then you get stuck somewhere truly inadequate for the long flight.
posted by blaneyphoto at 6:47 PM on May 16, 2012

You need a bulkhead row.

Unless you are certain [and check seatguru] many flights have exit/bulkhead seats without movable armrests. This will not work for you. As jacquilynne and others said above, good for tall people, will not work for fat people. Arrive early so that you can seat yourself early (People who need a little extra time in the jetway" is often what they call this, it's okay to go if you think this might be a pain for you) if you are concerned about this working out okay. You can ask flight staff for a seatbelt extender.

Ralphie May is a standup comic who isn't quite your size but is quite large and he talks in his stand-up bits about the toughest thing about airline travel is usually having to hustle from one part of the airport to another carrying all your stuff (stand-up, another funny anecdote from him with some helpful info maybe). Consider checking a bag, even if it costs a little more so that you don't have to do this and also be aware that you can avail yourself of the beepy carts that take people from one gate to the next. You don't say what sort of shape you're in so forgive me for being presumptuous, but keep in mind that there are lots of accessiblity options at airports that will make your travel much more agreeable as long as you know you can take advantage of them.
posted by jessamyn at 7:09 PM on May 16, 2012

I'm a big guy and fly frequently, the only thing that I would hesitate about with the suggestions here is "get an exit row".

Tall people will love the exit row seats, but wide people will not. The arm rests do not go up, so you have to fit in one seat, period.

There was also a period where they would move large people away from exit rows, don't know if this is still the case.
posted by lundman at 7:36 PM on May 16, 2012

If you're not up for trying to figure out all the pro's and con's yourself, I would highly recommend talking to a travel agent. They will know the right people to contact at the airline to make any arrangements you need. I organize my own flights and and I am a huge fan of Seatguru as recommended by others, but my mother has mobility issues that require a few special tweaks to her travel arrangements and the one time she tried to organize it herself it went wrong so now she is more than happy to pay the travel agent the little bit she might save doing it herself.

If your budget allows I'd look at getting 2 seats in economy plus so you get some leg room as well as seat room. Avoid bulkheads and exit rows as they often have narrower seats or arms that won't lift up. International flights tend to have a teeny bit more room than domestic, but not much.

Things you might want to look into, moving up and down the aisles, they can be worrying narrow, I am about half your weight and a foot shorter, and I find the aisles hard to move up and down even with just a shoulder bag. Also restrooms can be tiny on some airlines, international flights seem to have slightly larger ones on some airlines so that might be something you want to check into.
posted by wwax at 9:01 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) has a brochure with travel tips for people of size.
posted by Yma at 9:40 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't reccommend taking the train from Paris to London - you'll have to lug your luggage through the Paris subway (no elevators is likely) - and the train seats themselves are very narrow.
posted by motdiem2 at 10:20 PM on May 16, 2012

Back when I had a 64" waist, I had to do quite a bit of business travel, so I'm fairly well acquainted with traveling as a super-sized big guy. Since having lost weight (I managed to get down to a 34" waist around a decade ago, and am around 46" right now) I've also done a substantial amount of international travel both across the Atlantic and Pacific as a more conventionally big and tall guy.

While I am a huge proponent of fairness to big folks on airplanes, and am greatly against the policies of discrimination many carriers such as Southwest have against big folks, I do have to warn you that flying internationally at your size, especially if it is the first time you've flown, may be deeply uncomfortable or very expensive.

International flights generally have four classes of seats:

Coach/Economy: Expect extremely small, cramped seats. International coach seats generally have a width of around 17"-18", and a seat pitch of 30" (or 30" between the front and rear seats), which is a very small amount of legroom and almost no personal space between you and the seat in front. You will definitely not fit in a single coach seat at 6' with a 72" waist. Two coach seats together would not be spacious - with only three feet in width, and so little space between the front and rear seats, I suspect it would still be deeply uncomfortable. You will not be able to put the tray tables down, and you may find it so cramped you will be unable to hold a book in a position where you can read comfortably.

Premium economy/Economy plus: These are the same narrow seats as coach, but with an extra 4 to 6 inches of legroom. You will definitely not fit in a single premium economy seat, but two seats in premium economy is likely your best bet. There would likely be enough room for some leg mobility and for placing things in front of you.

There's a catch, however: armrests on coach seats will generally fold upwards (with exceptions, as below), but they'll only go up 90% of the way. If you sit in the middle of the two seats, you will feel the armrest on your back.

Business class: Here you'll find wider seats than coach, usually around two feet in width - but they're still smaller than two coach seats. Legroom is extremely spacious, however, with quite a lot of space between rows of seats. The problem is this: you also can't generally book two business class seats to make things larger, as they generally have a large, immobile armrest between them. I used to fly in domestic first class seats quite a bit - which is very similar to an international business class seat - and with a 64" waist, I honestly found it difficult to get settled into the seat. A business class seat may actually not be wide enough.

First class: you'll almost definitely fit fine here, as many airlines have upgraded to gigantic, wide, sleeper-seats in first class. However, as you know, first class is extremely expensive. If you can afford first class, and comfort is important, you should do it.

What folks are saying above about bulkhead seats is true: they generally do not have movable armrests. Unless you are in first class, I do not believe that a bulkhead seat would work for you.

Exit row seats are a gamble. Not only is it hard to book exit row seats in advance these days, but a number of exit row seats do not have movable armrests, and some airlines prohibit the use of a seatbelt extender, which you'll need to use, in the exit row. While exit row seats can be a huge convenience for tall guys of a certain weight, I don't think they'd necessarily work well for you. You would need to talk to the airline to ensure that they would work.

You should do everything possible to get the seats on an aisle. Even in premium economy, there will be barely enough room to get to/from the window. You should also, as many people advise above, look at SeatGuru for info on the specifics of the sizes of various seats on various airlines and planes.

You don't need to buy an extender. When I needed an extender, I would always either be discreetly handed one by a flight attendant or they would provide one when I asked. They were always available.

I would actually recommend *avoiding* a direct slight from SLC to any point in Europe unless you are going first class. Even if you're deeply uncomfortable in an airline seat, it's generally possible to push through the first several hours - but things can get maddening late in the flight.

Direct flights from SLC to Paris are over 10 hours. That's a long haul, especially for your first flight. You may find a 5 hour flight to JFK followed by a 7 hour flight from JFK to London with a break in-between to be far more tolerable, and possibly less expensive.

So, unless you've got a lot of money to spend, you'll probably want to book two adjacent premium economy seats that are not bulkhead seats (and probably not exit row), and it may actually be advantageous to have a layover on a flight this long.

But I have one very serious, very important piece of advice. If you do one thing, do this.

Try flying domestically before you book an international ticket. Seriously, don't make a flight from SLC to London your first flight. Book a flight on a standard-size jet - a 737, 757, 767 or A319/A320 - for somewhere 1.5 to 2 hours away. Las Vegas would be perfect, but Phoenix would also work. Take a weekend trip. See how it goes, and see how comfortable you are in two standard domestic coach seats. If it works out, you'll be able to extrapolate what you need to do on the international flight from that. If you find it doesn't quite work out for you, it'll be with an inexpensive, low-stakes trip.

I hope this helps. Feel free to MeMail me if you have any other questions.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 10:21 PM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Stay away from United if you can. I'm 6'2", 190lbs, and have never had trouble fitting into an airplane seat... until I flew to Japan last year. The United Boeing 747 had the smallest seats I've ever been squished into. Even the domestic budget aircariers (Spirit, Southwest, Frontier) had more leg room.
posted by sbutler at 1:39 AM on May 17, 2012

The Underground costs less than that (considerably less if you get an Oyster card),

If the line you take has seat rests between seats (the Central line doesn't, but I think the Piccadilly line which runs from Heathrow does) you will be unlikely to fit into your seat at your size. The train might be more comfortable for you.
posted by mippy at 6:07 AM on May 17, 2012

A lot of great advice here, but I wanted to point out that often bulkhead or exit row seats have unmovable armrests, and sometimes even solid dividers, which makes the seats have even less room than usual, and makes using two seats impossible. I'm short but fat, with wide hips, and just barely fit into one of the seats with solid dividers on either sides--and literally had bruises on my hips after the long cross-country flight. So this may not be the best option for you.

Seatguru is great and I see it's already been recommended. is in general a great place to get obsessively detailed information about air travel and plane configurations, and this thread specifically has some good info for big n' tall flyers.
posted by rhiannonstone at 1:44 PM on May 17, 2012

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