Things You Were Never Told as a Plus-Size Traveler

Annette Richmond, pictured during a trip in New York’s Finger Lakes wine region. | Annette Richmond
Annette Richmond, pictured during a trip in New York’s Finger Lakes wine region. | Annette Richmond

It’s hard for me to accept being told what I can and cannot do. But as a plus-size traveler, I’ve sometimes had to learn the hard way. 

Talking about fat bodies in a positive way is taboo. My fat, Black body is constantly under attack and scrutiny -- oversexualized, underrepresented, and generally considered undesirable -- but when it comes to real talk about how to live and move as a plus-size person, the conversation is often lacking. That goes double when it comes to being a plus-size traveler. Traveling while fat can present extra, often unexpected challenges that can leave you feeling humiliated or afraid when you travel. It can be enough to keep you from leaving the comfort of home to begin with.

I created the community Fat Girls Traveling so I could share my travel experiences with other plus-size travelers and also learn from theirs. Fat Girls Traveling (FGT) is a travel community and safe space for plus-size womxn to share travel photos, ask travel questions, and find travel buddies without the fear of shame or judgment from others based on body size. Over the last three years, I’ve learned so much from members of this community and have had the opportunity to share some of the things I’ve learned as a full-time traveler. It can be difficult to get the truth about what it’s like to travel as a plus-size person. So, here are some of the things our community has learned and shared together that will make plus-size travelers more prepared and more confident in their travels. 
MORE:How Fat Girls Traveling is making travel more inclusive

You will be stared at, mocked, and/or made fun of for your size

The number one thing that fat people fear when traveling is being made fun of. Imagine being in a new city or a new country and every time you leave your hotel room people are staring, glaring, or making rude comments about the way you look. Even if it’s in a different language you can tell when people are being unkind, trust me! This happens to me daily and over time I’ve developed a thicker skin, but still, it always stings. 
An FGT member recently shared that after two months of traveling in Southeast Asia she felt extremely lonely and discouraged. She learned that it was culturally acceptable there to openly comment on the weight of others and she’d received many comments and stares. People would discount her abilities due to her size and it became isolating. Her dream trip was beginning to chip away at her self-esteem and she questioned if she should continue and if so, if there was a place that would be more accepting of her. Other members responded with kindness, patience, and understanding. Because unfortunately, this is something most of us deal with daily. 
Fat people are people and have feelings that can be hurt, just like anyone else. Fat people also deserve to live life to the fullest, no matter how big they are. They do not deserve to be disrespected because they don’t fit societal norms. They don’t need to lose weight or shrink themselves in order to be more acceptable. Just like our LGBT+ friends or family with different abilities, our bodies do not define us and we should not have to change in order to be accepted or respected. 
However, it’s my duty to let plus-size travelers know that all of these things will probably happen -- if they aren’t already happening now in your hometown when you go to the grocery store, when you walk into work, when you go out to dinner. People judge us -- everyone judges everyone. But no one’s opinion of you or your body should be the reason you’re not living the life you want. So take a cruise, book that flight, go on an adventure! Life is too short to wait on your weight, live now. 

You might need a seat belt extender on the airplane

Often new members of FGT are surprised to learn that they are able to request a seat belt extender on an airplane. If you’re worried that the seat belt might be too snug you can discreetly ask a flight attendant for one as you enter the plane. Seat belts are generally the same size, but I have run into some extra small ones on international airlines. 
As far as seat sizes, traveling while fat can be more expensive if you need to purchase a second seat. Southwest Airlines does have a customer of size policy that offers additional seats for free. JetBlue is known for having extra legroom, but their economy seats are also about an inch wider than most. 
One of the best resources when purchasing a flight is SeatGuru. Here you will find seat measurements for almost every aircraft. You can also find out if your seat has a television, a window, a power source. The best information is in the user comments section. This is where you’ll find out if your seat reclines if the tray comes out of the armrest, or if it’s worth the money to upgrade.

Richmond, pictured in Agra, India, started the community Fat Girls Traveling to help plus-size travelers support one another. | Annette Richmond

You might not be able to sit in the exit row on the plane 

Seats in the emergency exit row typically come with extra legroom and are coveted in cramped coach cabins. However, if you need a seat belt extender you won’t be permitted to sit in an exit row. The truth is, it’s really up to the flight staff and if their biases deem you unfit, they might just move you. 
It happened to me recently: I was on a flight from Malaysia to Thailand all comfortable in my window seat with extra legroom. I noticed the flight attendants walking past my aisle multiple times looking at me but I thought nothing of it. I didn’t need a seat belt extender so I thought I was fine, but they didn’t. They decided that because I’m fat I wouldn’t be able to help others off the plane during an emergency, so they asked me to move. I didn’t want to put up a fight, so I told them that as long as they could find me another window seat I’d move. 
Don’t get me wrong, it was embarrassing. I know my body and I know I am 1,000% capable of helping people off a plane during an emergency. I also know that others will see my size and think the opposite -- that I’m weak, lazy or unathletic. The truth is, regardless of if I am all three of those things or none of them, I should be the one making the decision. I understand that using a seat belt extender, being pregnant, or being more mature in age will prevent you from occupying that row. But if none of those things apply and if I am asked to vacate based on someone’s assumption about my body or ability, that’s just wrong and discriminatory. 

You might not be able to go parasailing or ziplining 

Certain activities have weight restrictions, so it’s important to get all of the details before signing up for something that might not be suited for you. You can usually call the tour company before booking to make sure you’ll be able to have accommodations like everyone else in your crew. Because getting there and not being able to fit the ride or being over the weight limit can be humiliating and not worth the risk. 
Last year while I was in Bali I decided to visit the Tegalalang Rice Terrace for the obligatory Bali Swing photo. After hiking up muddy rice paddies in a maxi dress and sandals in the Balinese heat, I was devastated to learn the harness wouldn’t fit around my waist. The people who manage the swings are basically independent contractors; it’s not a business per se. So they just buy a basic harness and make as much money as they can in a day. I visited with three friends and I was the only one who didn’t fit and I silently cried while my friends enjoyed the swing. I told the operator that he would make more money if he purchased a larger harness. 

You might not fit into that kayak or canoe

People often ask me why my community focuses on empowering fat people to love their bodies now instead of encouraging them to lose weight. As a fat person who loves their body, I don’t see weight loss as the ultimate solution. I also know how isolating and inaccessible the world can feel for fat people. 

As an active person, I like to move my body in ways that feel good like dancing, hiking, and swimming. I especially love being out in nature and trying new things but they aren’t always accessible to me. For example, some kayaks and canoes have weight restrictions. The cockpit size and shape varies on kayaks, meaning some are more size-friendly than others. If you are planning a day on the water, it’s important to do your research beforehand. You may need to call the rental company and get the brand name and the boat’s cockpit dimensions, or inform the operator that you are a plus-size water enthusiast and want to be sure that their equipment will accommodate you.  

You might be unamused at your favorite amusement park

Unlike parasailing or ziplining, roller coasters don’t generally have weight restrictions. But many plus-size travelers worry about their belly or hips fitting safely and comfortably. 
If you’re going to Disney, there is a great Facebook group dedicated to informing plus-size travelers about size restrictions and considerations, and you can often find such groups for other theme parks as well. You can find details down to the width of the seat on your favorite coaster and plan your park day accordingly. I recently visited The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and was unable to ride the Forbidden Journey due to my size. At least in that case, there is a sample seat in front of the ride, which makes it easy to test before waiting in only to be turned away if the over the head restraint won’t close. 

What I’ve learned, what you can learn too

Travel has taught me to see the beauty in countries and cultures that I never imagined having an opportunity to visit. I’ve learned to appreciate my legs for allowing me to walk through the bustling markets of Delhi and swim in the Dead Sea. I’ve learned to love myself wholly and to resist the urge to pick myself apart, despite the persistent reminders in marketing and media. 

For straight-size travelers and allies, I hope these tips will give you a better look at what it’s like to travel as a plus-size person: the fear, humiliation, and considerations that we have to endure in order to have a similar experience in the world. I hope this encourages you to be kinder when you see a plus-size traveler taking up space. I hope this empowers you to stand up when you see or hear these injustices happening to fat people. 
The biggest takeaway for plus-size travelers is the more research the better. Call the company, ask questions, and try to plan ahead in order to prevent the humiliation that is sometimes connected to traveling while fat. From these stories, you can see that doing all the research in the world might not spare you the embarrassment. However, sharing your experience might prevent someone else from feeling the same way. 

I hope everyone reading this is more kind and forgiving to their bodies and others. We’re often so focused on the things our body is not and the things our bodies don’t allow us to do, that we forget to be grateful for all of the incredible things our body provides for us. Regardless of size, shape, color, or ability, I encourage everyone to get out of their comfort zone and go explore. Whether that means visiting the next town over or a city on the other side of the globe.

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Annette Richmond is an award-winning content creator, writer and advocate. A globe trotter and goal digger, Richmond is the creator of the body positive travel community Fat Girls Traveling and Fat Camp, as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Fat Girls Guide.
The native Californian got her start in the fashion industry and has used that experience to create a platform that is inspirational and aspirational for people living life in marginalized bodies. As a Digital Nomad she’s constantly on the move. After two years and twenty countries, Richmond hopes to continue to inspire people of all sizes to see the world and be seen.