Airline seats, UK car rentals, and lugging

Q:Dear Steve, I’m a large lady, and on a recent domestic flight a gate agent took me aside and requested that I buy a second seat for myself. Fortunately, both the flight and my credit card had room on it, so I was able to do this, but I wondered, ‘What if I were traveling overseas?’

I’ve asked several international airlines what their policy is regarding “passengers of size” — inquiring how big the seats in the plane are and when a person would be required to buy two — but I cannot get a consistent answer over the phone.

To be blunt, how overweight can I be before they make me buy two seats? Some reservations agents said, “We don’t require you to buy two, but you can if you would be more comfortable that way.” So does that mean that if I DON’T buy two seats, they will let me on? If a flight is crowded and my budget tight, I’d rather not wait until I get to the gate to find out that they’ll insist I buy two seats. — Jane Albusche, Sacramento, CA

A:Dear Jane, the airlines realize this can be a very sensitive subject, falling under “special needs” and “health-related concerns” and even potentially being the spark for legal issues when a person feels he or she has been unjustly embarrassed or discriminated against. Consequently, many avoid having a written policy on this topic and instead rely upon the discretion of the passenger, allowing each to decide whether he or she (or any seatmates) will be more comfortable if an extra seat is purchased.

Traveling long distance in economy class is, at best, generally “uncomfortable” for anyone. In past economic downturns, airlines often removed seats from aircraft, giving each passenger a little more room and perhaps making their product a little more attractive, but for the last few years airlines have mostly elected to park unneeded planes and pack the ones still flying as full as possible. Apparently, this has increased the number of complaints received from passengers, who each feel their own space is being encroached upon by large seatmates.

Seat room is measured in two ways, by width and by pitch, and measurements vary from airline to airline and aircraft to aircraft.

Width is determined from the center of the armrest on one side to the center of the armrest on the other side, hence this width is overstated since the real available space should be from the inside of each armrest. Pitch is the measurement from a specific point on a seat to the exact same point on the seat in front or behind. Generally, the greater the pitch, the more legroom you’ll have.

The website I prefer to use to determine this for a particular airline and its specific aircraft is For example, this site tells me that in Lufthansa’s A330-300 Airbus, their economy seats have 32 inches of pitch and are 17.5 inches wide (before subtracting the area used by half of each armrest).

The airline you flew does have a written policy that states, “The armrest is the definitive gauge, as it serves as the boundary between seats. Customers who are unable to lower the armrests (the definitive boundary between seats) and/or who compromise any portion of the adjacent seating should proactively book the number of seats needed during the initial reservation.”

I don’t know how overweight you can be before you have to buy a second seat, but I can tell you that Air France says that if your waist is greater than 53 inches, you will be required to buy an extra seat.

In any case, to make certain you’ll have no surprises at the airport, be sure to candidly discuss in advance — directly with the airline or your booking agent — your status as a “plus size passenger,” considering your personal comfort and whether you will be invading the personal space of the people sitting next to you.

Should you opt to buy two seats, sometimes airlines can grant a special discount for the second one. And some airlines have a few seats specifically dedicated to overweight passengers on long-haul flights.

Another thing — on the domestic airline you flew, if the flight was not oversold, they should have told you that after you had traveled they would have refunded the cost of your extra seat purchased.

Q:Dear Steve, I have taken advantage of many ideas presented in your column and I have two questions to ask regarding travel in the U.K.

First of all, in your experience, which are the best car rental companies to deal with in the U.K.? We will be traveling from Heathrow and spending a week in Cornwall and a week in Wales.

Second, we have problems handling our suitcases without help on trains. Given this, what are our options for getting from Heathrow to the Hyde Park area of London? — Kenneth P. Unrath, Roverside, CA

A:Dear Kenneth, from my viewpoint, if you’re looking for a better chance of receiving good customer service, a newer car and the greatest likelihood of getting the car you ordered, you should stick with Hertz, even though they often can be in the more expensive realm. I would also recommend old “We try harder” Avis, the “quality brand” of Cendant Corporation, which also owns a less expensive brand called Budget.

Altogether, there are at least 10 different car rental companies with locations at Heathrow. Thrifty, Enterprise, Fox and Alamo are among the lowest priced. Often, however, those companies that advertise the cheapest rates are the ones most desperate to “upgrade” you at an additional cost or to sell you options. You can avoid this hassle by doing two things.

First, always rent the biggest car you’ll ever want and then stick with your decision. Don’t be duped by “We’ll upgrade you for free if you’ll only just buy full-coverage insurance.”

Second, check with your car insurance company or your credit card issuer to see if they don’t already insure car rentals in the U.K. Maybe even carry along a copy of this coverage. If you already have collision coverage, either through your existing car insurance or by paying for your rental with your credit card, then you can successfully decline purchasing it again from the rental company and avoid perhaps just about doubling the total cost of your rental.

Be sure to share your age with the booking agent, since some companies have limits.

Here are other ideas that may save a few bucks.

Avoid prepaying your tank of gas. You’ll never use it all, and the only one to benefit from this scheme is the car company. Instead, promise to return it full, and then make sure you spot a gas station when leaving the airport so that you can use it upon your return.

And when considering places to stay, inquire about the cost of their parking. Free beats a fee any day.

Lastly, ask your booking agent to also contact either Kemwel (877/820-0668, or Auto Europe (888/223-5555, for special advance-purchase deals. Since they do not own any of their own cars, you’ll end up with a Hertz, Budget, Europcar or other brand but often at a lower rate than you could get booking direct.

Regarding getting to the Hyde Park area without a lot of aggravation from dragging your luggage, I suggest you use a taxi for about £45 to £50. (Think double to give you a rough idea of what it’ll be in dollars.)

Or you may save a pound or two by reserving a private car and driver in advance with Executive Car Service (phone 011 44 870 766 9252, or Airport Express (011 44 208 208 2809,

None of London’s hotels provide airport transfers, and bus service presents some of the same problems you’d face when using the train, such as going to a terminal rather than your hotel.