Tips for the Weight-Challenged Traveler

If you’re weight-challenged, you’re not alone. The American Heart Association says that 1 in 6 adults is obese. Yet the travel industry has not kept pace with our expanding waistlines. From airline policies designed for the comfort of skinny travelers to narrow roller coaster seats that leave the heftier thrill-seeker on the sidelines, travel is not always comfortable for those at the larger end of the spectrum. However, a bit of advanced planning can go a long way toward ensuring a relaxed trip -- no matter what your size.

The Skinny on Airline Obesity Policies

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Due to an increasing number of complaints by smaller passengers who feel that heavier passengers have impinged on their space, many airlines have instituted strict obesity policies. Most airlines, such as United and Southwest, define an obese person as someone who does not fit into a single seat with both armrests down. In general, airlines such as American try to accommodate passengers who do not fit into a single seat by rearranging seating to provide a second seat.

If the plane is full, you might be required to wait until the next available flight and pay full fare for a second seat. For example, Southwest requires obese passengers to purchase a second seat in advance (but provides a refund if the plane is not full). In Canada, however, the One-Person-One-Fare policy forbids domestic airlines from charging extra for a medically necessary second seat. Obesity falls into this category, but documentation from a physician is required.

Regulations vary in other countries. For example, a 2012 court case paved the way for the United Kingdom to follow US policy, while airlines in Australia have rejected proposals to charge for a second seat. Visit your carrier’s website for the latest information.

Inquire About Airline Seat Width

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A standard airplane seat on Southwest and some Delta aircraft are 17.2 inches wide. Some planes, including Frontier, AirTran and parts of United and US Airways’ fleets, have seats as large as 18 inches wide. Not all airline seats on the same plane are the same, however. For example, on the American Airlines Boeing 737, the back row seats are narrower due to the curved fuselage, while on the US Airways Airbus A330, some seats are narrower because of the design of the tray tables. Because these variations are hard to predict, check SeatGuru to find the most comfortable seat on your particular flight.

If you’re thinking of bringing your own seat belt extender, think again. While seat belt extenders increase the length of airline seat belts, allowing larger passengers to be safely belted, the FAA released a memo in July 2012 banning passengers from using personal seat belt extenders on all commercial flights because they are not comprehensively tested for safety.

By contrast, extenders provided by the airlines undergo rigorous testing and are considered safe. Still, the length of both the original seat belt and the extender vary widely by airline. For example, Aeromexico’s seat belts are 51 inches and the extenders are 22 inches, while United’s belts are 31 inches with 24-inch extenders. Call your carrier and ask exactly what length its seat belts and extenders are.

Theme Park Fun for Big-Size Guests

If you’re dreaming of a theme park trip with your kids, you might worry that you won’t fit into some ride vehicle seats. But you have options -- theme park industry leaders such as Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando have pioneered accommodations including bigger seats and longer seat belts for weight-challenged travelers, and many smaller park operators, such as Cedar Point, are following suit by installing rides with larger passenger-size capacities.

Meanwhile, modified seats for larger guests are often available on attractions such as Universal Orlando’s roller coasters. By the ride entrance, you’ll find test seats -- replicas of both a regular and a modified seat -- that allow you to see how you fit before getting in line.

Note that on some theme park rides, such as the Magic Kingdom’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a single lap bar protects multiple riders. For everyone’s safety, avoid seating small children beside large adults -- otherwise, you run the risk of having the child slip out of the lap bar that is resting on the adult’s stomach or thighs. On rides with seat belts, the belts tend to lock when you stop pulling them out. To make sure it goes all the way around, pull the belt all the way out to its maximum length before attempting to fasten it.

Theater shows do not have restraints to contend with, but many theater seats are tight. An example is La Nouba, the Cirque du Soleil show at Walt Disney World’s Downtown Disney. However, in the United States, wheelchair viewing areas are required by law. At any standard theater show in the United States, theater attendants will bring in a standard chair if you are uncomfortable in the traditional theater seats.

Go Big or Go Home

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So you want to do something more adventurous than theme park rides? It is true that most adventure tours have safety-related weight restrictions that often top out around 300 pounds, based on the strength of the gear, insurance requirements and space considerations in the vehicle.

In some cases, it might be possible for heavier travelers to make advance arrangements. For example, while Bungee America generally requires jumpers to weigh less than 265 pounds, for an additional fee (about $30, to cover the gear configuration) larger travelers may arrange a special jump.

If you prefer classic aviation, a biplane ride might be your style. Biplanes are usually designed for 2 passengers with a combined weight between 300 and 450 pounds, depending on the plane’s interior design and engine capacity. However, a single passenger in that weight category may be eligible to fly for the price of a couple. Barnstorming Adventures in San Diego and Fantasy of Flight in Central Florida are just 2 of your options. Both operate multiple planes with different weight capacities. Call your chosen company to ask about weight restrictions before you book.

Keep on Rollin'

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Some weight-challenged travelers, especially those with heart or knee problems, find walking long distances difficult. An electric convenience vehicle, also known as an ECV or scooter, makes travel significantly more comfortable.

Theme parks, museums and other large tourist venues, including the Disney and Universal parks, the SeaWorld parks and the Henry Ford Museum, often provide ECV rentals on-site. Weight restrictions on ECVs vary dramatically depending on the scooter’s design and quality. Smaller travel scooters may hold as little as 250 pounds, while some heavy-duty designs can carry up to 500 pounds.

If you are visiting a place that doesn’t rent ECVs, or if you need one to get around outside of the major venues, you still have options. ECVs are readily available for purchase or rental from a wide range of private companies, such as Scootaround in the United States and Direct Mobility in the UK. Check out scooter models online or in a local shop to ensure that you get the right one for your needs. Popular heavy duty models include the Pride Maxima and the Golden Avenger, both of which hold 500 pounds.

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