How cruises work for plus-size passengers: 'The worst part ... is getting on the flight'

  • A number of plus-size travelers who have found cruising to be a largely inclusive way to travel.
  • Some aspects of the sailings could be improved, such as tight theater seating.
  • Guests can take steps to ensure they have a comfortable trip, like booking a balcony room with more space.

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It took a divorce to get Brittany Bloomfield on a cruise.

When her best friend found herself without a plus-one after splitting from her husband, Bloomfield decided to face her fears and step aboard. The 31-year-old administrative assistant and model was scared of both being in the middle of the ocean and that, as a plus-size traveler, she would not be welcome.

But sailing on Disney Cruise Line's Fantasy ship for a seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruise last November, she got a series of pleasant surprises. Unlike elsewhere, the metal deck chairs supported her well, there was ample armless seating in the dining rooms, and the bathrooms in her cabin were comfortable.

Brittany Bloomfield went on her first cruise in November.

"I felt like I had just wanted to travel my whole life and I finally was able to and it was everything that I wanted it to be," Bloomfield, who lives in New Jersey, told USA TODAY. She is among a number of plus-size travelers who have found cruising to be a largely inclusive way to travel, from the design of the ships to the service on board.

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'Pretty much the best way to travel'

Matt Waitt, a sales assistant based in Michigan, has found cruising to be "pretty much the best way to travel," as compared with other modes like trains or airplanes. On flights, the 38-year-old said, he has had to purchase an extra seat or preboard with other people "looking at me kind of funny that I got to go on first when I don't have a physical impairment."

Waitt, who has been on five cruises with Carnival Cruise Line and Princess Cruises and has another coming up in October, has never felt that sort of discomfort on a cruise or that he was the subject of unwanted attention.

Matt Waitt, right, pictured with his husband, David Haines, has been on five cruises.

For Libby Sergey-Kalen, a mental health therapist from Massachusetts, who has also been on five cruises "the worst part of trying to do a cruise is getting on the flight."

On cruises with Princess and Royal Caribbean International, she was impressed by the customer service and she has not felt "particularly cramped or like things aren't made for people my size," she said, even if the cabins can be on the small side.

Some travelers take particular pains to avoid other kinds of travel. Bloomfield, who has not flown since she was 7 years old in part due to concerns about how others on board might treat her, drove about 20 hours to Florida for her cruise.

There is room for improvement

However, some travelers have found that ships are still not as inclusive as they could be. Amanda Ervin and Jimmy Lierow, who make YouTube videos about their travels under the name Chubby and Away and run a travel agency, said how well a cruise accommodates plus-size travelers varies by ship – or within the same vessel.

"It's always: one thing's really great, one thing really sucks," said Ervin.

In addition to tight theater seating, which Ervin called "one point of absolute misery and pain," the Texas-based couple said bathrooms are hit or miss. Some showers, for instance, have curtains, making it easier to maneuver, while others have a hard door that can limit movement.

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On Bloomfield's cruise, she was disappointed that the pools did not have stairs and only had ladders, which she could not use. A Disney Cruise Line spokesperson told USA TODAY that the line's pools have "a variety of entry points for guests," and that some hot tubs and shallow pools have steps while others have ladders. "Each of our ships offers pools and hot tubs with pool lifts that guests may request in advance," she said in an email.

Sergey-Kalen, 26, added that she wished cruise lines have more excursion options for plus-size travelers, as some activities, such as zip-lining, have weight limits.

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What accommodations do major cruise lines offer plus-size passengers?

► Carnival offers a number of accommodations for plus-size travelers, including life vest extenders, chairs without arms in main dining rooms and cabins, and tables rather than booths in main dining rooms, spokesperson Matt Lupoli told USA TODAY in an email.

► Celebrity Cruises makes "great efforts to consider all body types and abilities" in designing its ships, spokesperson Susan Lomax said in an email, including trying out chair prototypes with "trial guests" of different sizes. The line also works to make sure guests with mobility challenges can safely access onboard amenities and experiences.

The Magic Carpet on the line's Edge Series ships, for example, was originally conceptualized as a means for "guests of different abilities to easily board and disembark the tenders without stairs or ramps at ports where the ship is unable to dock," she said. Celebrity also offers life vest extenders, plus-size bathrobes and large towels.

► Princess Cruises spokesperson Briana Latter said the line "strives to accommodate all guests’ individual needs to ensure they are comfortable" during their sailing. "If there is something a guest requires pre-cruise, our Customer Support team is available to assist," she said in an email.

Latter said aisle seats in the Princess Theater do not have armrests "to allow for more space," and passengers can ask for a chair without armrests while dining.

► Royal Caribbean also offers armless chairs, mobility assistance getting on and off the ship, and more. "Royal Caribbean International’s fleet of ships and private destinations provide access and accommodations so all guests can make the most of their time and have memorable vacations," spokesperson Khiavett Diaz said in an email.

Diaz continued, "Guests that need these services have a dedicated team (Access Department) that can help plan every aspect of their vacation with their needs top of mind."

Tips for plus-size cruise passengers

Travelers can take steps to ensure a comfortable trip. Waitt frequently uses the website Cruise Critic to research cruise lines and ships and looks at the floor plan of cabins he might stay in. He has also searched YouTube for video tours of those rooms.

Ervin recommended booking a cabin with a balcony, which gives passengers a bit more room.

"It does cost a bit more, but in our opinion, it's worth it just for the ease and the space," she said.

Travelers can also call the cruise line, as Bloomfield's friend did, to get their recommendations. In her case, the Disney representative recommended they switch to a different type of cabin where they'd be more comfortable.

Amanda Ervin and Jimmy Lierow have found that inclusivity for plus-size travelers varies from ship to ship.

Given that passengers "vary in size and mobility," Ervin said, they can always pick a room near an elevator or book an accessible cabin. She also urged guests "to not ever feel embarrassed to advocate for yourself" or to ask for what they need.

Bloomfield already has another cruise booked to Bermuda and feels it has opened a new world of travel options. "I wanted to see all these tropical places and I just felt like getting on a plane and crossing the ocean on these long plane rides was never something I was going be able to do," she said. "... I feel like (going on a cruise) changed my life."

How cruising is improving for all

Cruise lines have also taken steps to enhance the guest experience for all passengers. 

On Celebrity's new Edge Series ships, for example, there are bigger bathrooms with more cabinet and counter space, and king beds "in virtually all rooms," Lomax said. The line has also simplified booking, offering three types of room rates, and guests can now complete their safety drill from the brand's app on their phone or via their cabin's TV.

Disney Cruise Line's spokesperson also pointed to the line's staterooms, the majority of which feature a "signature bath-and-a-half design." One bathroom has a sink and toilet, and another has a shower and an additional sink. Bed frames on board are elevated, giving families room to store suitcases and items like strollers, and many rooms have bathtubs and connecting doors.

"Disney Cruise Line staterooms are catered to the unique vacation needs of families, combining comfort and luxury with spaciousness and functionality," the spokesperson said by email.

Royal Caribbean has used its mobile app to streamline processes throughout its cruises. Guests can scan their passports and provide a selfie to generate a boarding pass on most sailings, and can also complete their mandatory safety briefing using a feature called Muster 2.0.

On multiple ships, the app can serve as a digital stateroom key. Passengers can also use it to control the TV and, in some rooms, the lights, curtains and temperature. "We continuously find ways to innovate (and) improve the cruising experience for our guests," Diaz, the spokesperson, said.

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