In search of your most seasoned travel advice
February 1, 2019 9:22 AM   Subscribe

I don't fly much anymore. I'd drive or train it if I could but I don't have 3 extra days. Help my flight not suck.

Hello, I'm a little horrified at the "flying while fat" reports as well as random TSA accounts I've read here and other places. I've flown but not since 2010 (I know things are different now) I'm a size 22-24 woman who has interest in going to Associated Writers & Writing Progprams (AWP) in Portland. I'd be coming from the midwest. My first book is out and I feel like I should be there.
I've combed through the related AskMe questions as well as some others that Google brought up; and I've also been combing through the opaque sites, gotten on some mailing lists which purport to have the CHEAPEST FLIGHT!
The great prices have 2+ stops and/or are overnight (i.e. 6 pm to 6 am or later). I am fairly confident that I can actually fit the 17" seat, but I'm interested in not changing planes two times OR staying on plane(s) for 12 hours.
One RL friend always takes Southwest and asks to pre-board, and then sits in the front seat which she claims are roomier, but I'm not sure I can carry that off. Anyway, my questions are:

What is the very best place(s) to buy tickets? What airlines that are friendlier to larger folks as well as best flying experience? If this is a lot to ask, then it is. (Your useful links/sites are also welcomed.)

I can go in to either Portland, which I see has great public transportation, or Eugene, and get a car.

Things to consider:
*As I mentioned, I'm a person of size (22-24)
*I have PTSD and (most likely) sensory processing disorder (but have PRNs for those) and some other invisible conditions that may or many not be relevant.
* I see my dr in 3 weeks and wonder if a medical note would be useful.
*It looks like the prices for Seat+, First Class, and so on, are quite high. I don't have a lot of money, are they really worth it? I see I can buy a second seat on some flights and (hopefully) get that refunded (but then I get kicked off if it's overfull?).
*Or is there a way I can get through this gracefully?

*Any tidbits about Portland, the driving culture of the locals, and so forth are also warmly welcomed. It looks like a great place!
posted by intrepid_simpleton to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It would help us advise you if you tell us exactly where you are coming from, as airports make a big difference to all of this.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:32 AM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

There is a Facebook forum that can help you with lots of this info "Flying While Fat". The only truly fat friendly airline is Southwest. They have a well established "Customer of Size" policy that allows you to get a second seat for free. You just need to go to the full service ticket counter and request it about two hours before your flight. They give you a second "reserved seat" pass to put on the seat next to you, and you are allowed to pre-board. This is generally what SW recommends, but you can also purchase a second seat ahead of time , and then have it refunded after you fly.

Your comfort level will generally depend on where you carry your weight. I'm a size 24, but it's mostly in my belly. I have no problem fitting in a seat, but almost always need an extender. I flew as a size 26-28, and still had very few problems generally fitting in a seat although it was not always comfortable. People with more weight in their hips/ butt may have a different experience.
posted by kimdog at 9:33 AM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, you are not going to get kicked off at a size 22-24.
posted by kimdog at 9:41 AM on February 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

Hi, I'm sitting here in my size 22 pants, and I can't answer your question about prices but I can tell you this -- I've flown a number of different airlines (JetBlue, American, Delta, some weird regional airline) in the past 18 months, and I have never -- not one single time -- felt that there were any issues at all with the flight that were related to my weight, not even on the little regional plane. No issues with the seat (and certainly not a second seat), no issues with the seat belt, no issues with feeling "too big" for my surroundings or being in the isle or the bathroom-- no issues at all.

Seriously, you will not need a second seat.
posted by anastasiav at 9:54 AM on February 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm roughly the same physical dimensions as you are, and fly 5-6 times per year. I can fit into the seat of most airplanes just fine. You may want to watch out for booking a seat in the very first or back row, and be wary of emergency rows, because the tray may be built into the seat, which makes them narrower. I always pay the fare needed so I can pick my seat, and compare my seat to the seat charts on to make sure I'm not getting a "bad" seat.

Regarding airlines for a large person: From a physical standpoint, I avoid Spirit because their seats are too uncomfortable for anything more than a quick flight. I also dislike Frontier for the same reason. All other majors (Delta, United, American, Alaska, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Virgin) have been fine.

First Class is comfortable, but typically too pricey for me to ever pay for. The only time I get First Class is when they offer it as a cheap upgrade, e.g. JFK-PDX for $99. Mostly, it's not worth it. Economy Plus/Premium Economy mostly is for getting better leg room, and in some cases, free alcohol. If you have long legs, then it might be worth it.

For booking, I usually search through either Google Flights or through the more complicated Matrix Airfare Search. Once I find the fare I want, I book directly on the airline's website. This works for most airlines except Southwest (Southwest's booking systems are only on their website).

I would recommend flying into PDX for reasons. First, Eugene is 100 miles away. That adds an easy 2-3 hours to your journey both ways, plus the cost of a rental, plus fuel. I also found the conference you are attending is at the Convention Center, so add expensive parking on top of that. All of the close hotels to the convention center charge exorbitant costs for parking. The DoubleTree charged my parents $30/day.

If you fly into PDX and don't rent a car? You can take the MAX Red Line from the airport directly into Lloyd District and Downtown for $2.50/ride, or $5 all day. Rideshare usually costs around $20 from the airport to that area. This is going to be easier and cheaper than flying to EUG.

Or is there a way I can get through this gracefully?

If this is really stressing you out: contact a Travel Agent. You might pay a touch more, but they'll be able to get you routes with minimal stops, and can also help sort out a good hotel, etc.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:17 AM on February 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am size 26/28 or 30/32 depending on the clothing company, carry most of my weight in my hips/rear, and have never been kicked off a flight. I have needed to ask for a seatbelt extender a couple of times, but the attendants have always been discreet about it. (They would rather you be safe!) I always try to get an aisle seat because I tend to feel claustrophobic, but I have endured a middle seat in coach a couple of times when flights were cancelled and rearranged. (including one 8+ transatlantic flight).

When we fly longer than 4 hours we try to upgrade to whatever the equivalent of premium economy is, and pay for it by running all our purchases through a cash back credit card and use the cash back for upgrades, but that's a long-term plan rather than a short-term. I'll just say that sometimes, especially on 777s, the premium economy seats are slightly less comfortable for those with ample fundaments because the seat arms do not move, so you're crammed into a rigid box, and the tray tables come out of the arms instead of the seat back in front of you, so if your thighs are thicker than the armrest height, the table won't lay flat. We upgrade to those anyway so we can recline the seats fully without bothering the person behind us, and I just juggle the meal tray during mealtimes and put my drink on my husband's tray at other times.
posted by telophase at 10:19 AM on February 1, 2019

i am currently a 30/32 and didn't need to start getting a seat belt extender until i was in 28/30 territory. i carry my weight in my huge giant apple stomach. my former partner, who carried her weight in her hips/thighs but had a small stomach, was usually more uncomfortable than i was. at your size, you don't need 2 seats and it is highly unlikely you'll need a seatbelt extender. if you're super nervous about that, you can buy 'em on amazon (i have several from there). my experience, at my size, is that everybody is kind of shitty to me (passengers and staff alike). but i am paying to be there just like everyone else, and i'm not the asshole with the suitcase too big for the overhead bin, so fuck them.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:49 AM on February 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

Sadly, Southwest is the only airline that is consistently humane to people who are fat. Going beyond the formal policies, the boarding process really helps out fat people, since no one is forced to take a seat next to you unless the plane is completely full. Or, conversely, you can choose to sit next to a child or smaller person if you're boarding later. Also, none of their seats have the narrow armrests. They also don't charge extra for bags, so you can check without having to worry about fighting for overhead bin space. Their prices are a bit higher than the other airlines but I really prefer them.
posted by wnissen at 10:49 AM on February 1, 2019

When shopping for flights, note the airline and plane type, then use SeatGuru to find out what kinds of seats are available. Different airplanes have slightly different seat sizes. Leg room doesn't really matter to me, but 18" wide vs. 17" wide seats does.
posted by Hatashran at 10:56 AM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yes, as a similar size, you'll be fine with a seat as long as you don't take Spirit or one of those super discount airlines. Here's the thing for me: flying Kinda sucks regardless. Like, I've sat in First Class and the better service was nice, but it didn't solve the discomfort of pressure changes and trying to make connections and all of that.

So for me the two biggest factors in flying are always minimizing the flight time and price. Make one connection if you must, but absolutely do not choose to fly overnight or take 3 connections or otherwise drag out the trip.

Most of the online tools (orbitz, travelocity, google flights) seem pretty similar to me, and have options for how many connections you're willing to make, etc., so you can choose "direct" and see prices. The only thing I'd be willing to pay a bit more for (but usually don't) is choosing my own seat. Otherwise the upgrades are just expensive without much payoff to me.

For the flight and making the airport easier with sensory issues, bring good headphones. Be aware that some planes have music you can use (if you're usually streaming internet music from your phone, for instance, you won't be able to on the plane), but you'll need normal headphone jack headphones (instead of lightning cable iphone ones). Having my own music bubble helps my anxiety a Lot.

You've got this. It's unpleasant to fly, pretty much always, but you can do this, and then you'll get to Portland!
posted by ldthomps at 11:03 AM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

The most important advice I can give you is to enjoy the experience of flying. Only sixty years ago, flying was a luxury for the elite. 120 years ago, no one had ever flown before. It's pretty incredible how technology has progressed to where something that was unthinkable is now so common as to actually be despised. Louis CK is probably not the best person to take advice from anymore, but this is spot-on: the fact that anyone can hop on a plane and, a couple of hours later, be on a different side of the continent (and for a rather low cost, all things considered) is pretty amazing. Don't take it for granted. Flying used to be fun, and it still can be, if you have the right attitude.

Airfare is not a perfect example of supply and demand, but it's close. The reason that multi-stop and red-eye flights are so cheap is because no one wants to take them. Nonstop flights are more expensive because they're the most convenient option. You'll have to find a balance that works for you. For me, one stop is fine, as long as the layover is at least an hour. Nonstop flights are usually too expensive to be worth it, and multi-stop flights take too much time.

Southwest is the best airline, IMO, but they only book through their own website. That's always my first stop when I'm looking for airfare. If Southwest doesn't fly where I'm going, or if they seem really expensive, then I'll go to Google Flights or Skyscanner, but that's rare.

Southwest is also one of the best experiences. Having just flown JetBlue for the first time, they're also pretty good. United is probably the worst, but not as bad as people say. Legacy carriers (United, American, and Delta) are more bureaucratic, and therefore less fun. Southwest and JetBlue have a more playful atmosphere.

First class is probably not worth the extra cost, but Southwest doesn't offer first class anyway. Just fly coach.
Southwest does allow you to pay to board first. It's called Early Bird or something like that, and last time I checked it was something like $15 per leg. I've never done it, because it's not important to me. But if you do, bulkhead (front row) and exit row seats are the roomiest. The downside is, there's no seat in front of you to store your personal item (a bookbag, in my case), so you have to store it in the overhead bin.

I'm not familiar with either the Portland or Eugene airports, but I can't think of a single reason why I'd ever consider flying into Eugene if I were going to Portland. They're too far away for that to make sense. (That's like flying to into Philly if you're going to NYC.) Not to mention, PDX is served by a lot more flights, giving you a lot more options.

I don't know about on the airline side, but in terms of other passenger side, I think the "flying while fat" is mostly a thing created by the media. There are going to be assholes on every flight, but flying is the same as any other social situation. If you're nice and considerate, people will generally be nice. One of the most comfortable flights I've ever been on was filled with professional bodybuilders and powerlifters (including Rich Piana). They were aware that they're big people, and that they'll sometimes spread out into other people's space. The poor kid next to me was probably 350 pounds, and he kept apologizing, and I had to keep reassuring him that he's fine. The most annoying people on planes are usually the super skinny fitness show-offs, not the big people.

I will say that I don't think a size 22 will have too many problems, based on size charts I found online. I'm a guy with a 38" waist, and it sounds like a 22 isn't that much bigger than me, and I always have enough space, even in coach.

One good piece of advice I've seen here on AskMe is to book a short regional flight before your big trip, so you can acclimate yourself to the airport and the plane.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:38 AM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am a woman your size and I fly Southwest without an issue. I pay the $20-$30 for priority boarding and I always get a window seat close to the front. I use the bathroom before boarding so I rarely have to use it on the plane, but its not a big deal to ask people to move once. Southwest often means a short layover for me, so I have two one hour flights with a nice break in between. I try the seat belt and about half the time it is fine and the other half I need an extender. I just ask a flight attendant for one and they bring it, though sometimes I have to ask twice and wait until they come around checking and reiterate my request. They are never rude about it. Southwest flights are usually only bookable on their website.

If this big trip is a huge expense, you may be able to do a trial run on the same airline with a cheap flight somewhere (like $99 one way) to test out the seats and boarding procedures.
posted by soelo at 11:48 AM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I always bring my giant over ear headphones and load up my iPad with downloaded movies (or tv shows or comedy specials) from Netflix. They expire in 14 days, so be sure to grab some when on wifi just a few days before you leave. Flights go so much faster with something to watch. I read a lot, but I can't really do it for more than 30 minutes on a plane.
posted by soelo at 12:02 PM on February 1, 2019

Not much to add except that I find that noise cancelling headphones (of the sort that completely enclosed your ears) help me with pressure changes as well as dampening ambient airplane and airport noise. I can fly long distances and not get headaches with them.
posted by eviemath at 1:05 PM on February 1, 2019

i always pick aisle seats; in some of them you can flip up the armrest during the flight for a bit more room.
posted by brujita at 1:51 PM on February 1, 2019

I once flew into Eugene for a deposition and then took a car to Portland to fly out. It was an interesting trip through the mountains but I don't think I'd do it without a compelling reason, especially after a long flight. (I didn't drive myself.)
posted by praemunire at 4:42 PM on February 1, 2019

I (most likely) have sensory processing disorder too, and noise cancelling headphones make a huge difference for me in terms of how much downtime I need after a flight. They can be pretty expensive though.

Other things that are important to me, that I've found are important probably in relation to SPD, are water that tastes good (I try very hard to not buy bottles of water at home where our tap water is awesome, I make exceptions when flying), wearing the most comfortable clothing I can and taking my shoes off once the plane is it the air (if you have trouble getting to your feet when sitting in a plane's seat try wearing slip-ons, the only time I am okay with socks + sandals is plane flights), and almost never using any overhead storage and usually checking a bag (this means, like many others above, I usually fly Southwest when I can.)

If you choose an airline that does have first class as an option that generally includes bypassing a big chunk of the security line during check-in. There are a lot of secondary security bypassing things these days, it all depends on your airport of course, but the first class check-in is one of the most consistent ways to make airports less annoying. It is, predictably, one of the most expensive. I wonder if maybe because you are such an infrequent flyer it might totally be worth it to you this one time? It's all about where you're flying from and what your budget is.

I would second the advice above to fly directly into Portland and not rent a car unless you strongly believe you'll want to drive out of town during your stay - even then you can rent a car when you need to and not pay for it and parking it the entire time.
posted by Mizu at 5:09 PM on February 1, 2019

If you happen to know someone else going to the AWP from your same airport, you could book a window and aisle seat together, near the back of the plane. The middle seats in the rear fill up last.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 6:16 PM on February 1, 2019

Response by poster: I should have mentioned (and didn't 'cause I was caught up in proofreading) that I have a friend in Salem (who had also offered to host me) and one in Dexter, thus the interest in Eugene; but it sounds like the hour drive through the forest is not quite the same as an hour on the interstate on the Plains. I really appreciate all the good advice.
posted by intrepid_simpleton at 9:48 PM on February 2, 2019

It is a very easy drive on the highway from Eugene, mostly straight and pretty flat, but I would still fly to PDX. Rent a car if you want to pop down to Salem one day.

In PDX you will be able to ride the Max train directly from the airport to the Convention Center area. The Max station at the airport is all the way to one side of the baggage claim, but that’s the only tricky part about it.
posted by janell at 8:06 PM on February 11, 2019

Oh you definitely don’t want to -commute- from Salem, on rereading your update.
posted by janell at 8:06 PM on February 11, 2019

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