11 Tips for Flying Comfortably as a Person of Size

Review seat sizes on your plane in advance.
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Written by Tiffani Sherman
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Edited by Meg Lee
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Traveling isn’t always comfortable, and airplane seats certainly aren’t one-size-fits-all. But there are ways to make your time in the sky more pleasant, even as a larger-bodied flyer.

Here's our best advice for flying comfortably as a passenger of size.

1. Research the size of the seat before flights

There is no standard size and pitch of an airline seat. Every airline designs their planes a bit differently, which can make things difficult for passengers of size.

Knowing the width of the seat might help you decide how to proceed with your reservation.

So how big are airplane seats? Here are some general dimensions for economy class seats, broken down by airline:

  • Alaska Airlines: Seats on Alaska planes range from 16.5 inches to 18.2 inches.

  • Allegiant Airlines: Seats on Allegiant planes range from 16.5 inches to 17.8 inches.

  • American Airlines: With several kinds of planes, American has several types of seats ranging from 16.2 inches to 19.3 inches.

  • Delta Airlines: Delta has a wide variety of planes and therefore a wide range of seat dimensions, from 17.3 inches to 18.6 inches.

  • Frontier Airlines: Seats on Frontier range in width from 16.5 inches to 19.1 inches. 

  • JetBlue Airways: JetBlue seats are a bit wider than seats on many other airlines. The seats vary from 17.8 inches to 19 inches.

  • Southwest Airlines: Seats on Southwest planes range from 15.5 inches to 17.8 inches. 

  • Spirit Airlines: Seats on Spirit range from 16 inches to 18.5 inches.

  • United Airlines: Seat width on United planes is between 16.1 inches and 18.5 inches. 

The variability of the width of the airline seats highlighted above is due to different aircraft types and seat configurations. For instance, on Alaska, passengers on all plane types except the Embraer E175, can expect a seat width between 16.5 inches 17.3 inches.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Resources like aeroLOPA and SeatGuru can also help you check out plane configurations in advance of booking.

2. Consider purchasing a second seat

The armrest between the seats is often the deciding factor on whether a single seat is comfortable for your flight. If the armrests do not lower completely or a body part encroaches into the next seat, another seat might be necessary.

Airline policies about who needs an additional seat and the cost of that seat differ.

Here’s a sample of airline policies about buying additional seats:

  • Alaska: Alaska requires the purchase of an additional seat if a customer does not fit comfortably in one seat with the armrests down. Alaska does allow the refund of the second seat if the flight departed with open seats available. 

  • Allegiant: Allegiant requires customers to purchase an additional seat if they cannot lower the armrest and/or if they take up any part of an adjacent seat.

  • American: American requires an additional seat if a customer needs extra space to travel safely, and the airline encourages customers to “address all seating needs when booking.”

  • Delta: Delta does not have a published policy for passengers but does advise travel professionals about how to book extra seats for a passenger’s “personal comfort.” 

  • Frontier: Frontier says the armrest is the boundary between seats and encourages customers to buy an extra seat if the armrest will not lower or if any portion of the adjacent seat or aisle would be compromised. 

  • JetBlue: JetBlue allows passengers to book extra seats at the same fare class when making a reservation. 

  • Southwest: Southwest considers the armrest as the boundary between seats. A customer can buy additional seats when booking a reservation to make sure there is space for everyone and then apply for a refund of the extra seats. Because of this policy, some say Southwest is the best airline for passengers of size

  • Spirit: Spirit requires passengers to buy an extra seat if they “encroach on an adjacent seat” or cannot lower the armrests. Spirit does have what it calls the Big Front Seat, which has additional room. 

  • United: United requires the purchase of an extra seat if the seat belt will not buckle, the armrests won’t stay down or a person is taking up space in the seat next to them. If an extra seat is not available, a flight change might be required. 

3. Purchase a ticket in (or upgrade to) a higher class

Some airlines offer different classes of service, even within the economy cabin, which can be a more affordable alternative to booking a seat in business or first class.

Airlines differ in what they call these products and what they include. United's Economy Plus and Premium Plus tickets offer more legroom to passengers (6 inches and 7 inches, respectively). Delta's premium economy fares, called Premium Select or Delta Comfort Plus, meanwhile, offer up to an extra inch of width and 3-7 inches more legroom than standard main cabin tickets.

Generally speaking, premium economy tickets are typically more expensive, include other perks beyond more comfortable seating and are physically located in the front of the economy cabin.

Another option are first or business class seats, which are usually more spacious than economy seats (Southwest Airlines' Business Select passengers buck the trend and fly in the same seats as the economy flyers). Generally speaking, long-haul business class seat widths start around 20 inches and can go up to 22 inches (unless it offers lie-flat beds). Long-haul first class seat widths typically start at 20.5 inches.

4. Pick your seat (which may cost you)

It might cost extra to select your seat in advance, but with this plus-size flight hack, you can choose one that will be the most comfortable for you.

A seat at the front of the plane will mean a shorter walk down the narrow aisle with all of your luggage. It can also mean a shorter walk to the restroom if you need it during the flight, assuming the plane has a restroom in the front.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Bulkhead seats (in the first row of a cabin) usually have fixed armrests to store the tray table, so the seats can feel narrow.

Be careful of choosing an exit row.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations do not specifically state that people of size or anyone who uses seat belt extenders cannot sit in exit rows; however, flight attendants have the discretion to reseat anyone they do not think can assist them in an emergency or can impede the evacuation of others.

5. Choose when you board

When you choose to board is a matter of preference, and there are trade-offs in either scenario.

If you can secure preboarding, you'll get to board the plane ahead of many other passengers. This will give you time to get situated and potentially request a seat belt extender before you are knocking elbows with neighbors.

Others might opt to board last. This will allow you to go straight to your seat and sit down. And others still may board the plane when their ticket suggests, which is a reasonable decision, too.

6. Ask if there are empty seats

Ahead of boarding, ask the gate agent if the seat next to you is empty or if they can move you to a row that has an empty seat.

Alternatively, you can ask an onboard flight attendant after you've boarded and sat in your seat. It never hurts to request a move to a more spacious row if one is available.

7. Request a seat belt extender

A 2020 report by TripSavvy found that the length of airline seat belts range anywhere between 31 and 51 inches. Currently, the only way to know in advance the length of a specific plane's seat belt is by contacting your airline.

If you want or need a roomier seat belt, request an extender from the flight attendant when you get on board as you head to your seat.

🤓Nerdy Tip

The FAA does not allow passengers to bring their own seat belt extenders since it isn't possible to confirm the extender is compliant with safety regulations.

Seat belt extenders for airplanes are free and can make your flight more comfortable.

8. Raise the armrests

If you are sitting in an aisle seat, consider raising the aisle-side armrest after the flight attendant gives permission to. There is often a button under the aisle armrest that releases the lock.

As for the armrest between the seats, it’s polite to ask the person sharing the armrest if it is OK to raise it.

The window armrest typically cannot be raised as it's part of the plane's structure.

9. Ask about the bathrooms

Planes have multiple bathrooms. They are usually different sizes, and some are downright tiny.

If you are flying on a wide-body airplane with dual aisles, ask the flight attendant to point you to the wheelchair accessible lavatory, which is typically more spacious. If that isn't available, consider using the lavatory with the baby changing station, which might be bigger.

🤓Nerdy Tip

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced in July 2023 that it will require all single-aisle aircraft of 125 seats or more operating in the U.S. to have an accessible lavatory. The downside? The law doesn't fully go into effect until 2035.

10. Wear compression socks

No matter your size, the gentle pressure from compression socks can help increase circulation and reduce swelling. They can even help prevent deep vein thrombosis.

11. Pack backup clothing in your carry-on

If your luggage is lost, replacing basic items like underwear and pants might be challenging. Bring a few extras with you in your carry-on to buy some time in case your suitcase goes missing.

Flying as a customer of size recapped

Airplane seats and reservations policies regarding second seats for people of size differ. Some airlines and aircraft are more accommodating than others.

Once on board, getting a seat belt extender, knowing which restroom to use and lifting the armrest can make the flight more comfortable.

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