Interview: Travel Content Creator, Activist + Resource Jeff Jenkins

A launch member of the Black Travel Alliance and founder of Chubby Diaries, tells us about inclusion on flights and in faraway destinations

Launched last month, the Black Travel Alliance intends to be a lobbying organization for Black travelers and a force capable of directing attention to injustices and intentional oversights with regard to diversity. “Black Travel Alliance is a new group of Black Travel Content Creators from across the globe. Our three pillars of the community are alliance, amplification, and accountability,” the initiative’s mission reads. “We unify to amplify. We also aim to provide training and business support to our members, as well as hold destinations and travel brands accountable on the issue of diversity in travel marketing and storytelling.”

One such traveler is Jeff Jenkins, a launching member of the BTA and the founder of online travel resource Chubby Diaries. He’s catered his content to Black individuals and people of size since 2018, posting informational articles on his blog, acting as a resource on Instagram, and even consulting for tourism boards and crafting custom trips for his followers. An avid traveler himself (we met him on a trip to Vermont last year), Jenkins successfully organized a sold-out plus-size group trip to Bali last year. For most of 2020, though, he’s remained in Austin, Texas—with the exception of a few (restriction-abiding) road trips to nearby parks and other public destinations.

Jenkins recently explained to The New York Times, for a piece on the resurgence of the summer road trip, that for him, as a Black man in America, there’s little freedom on the open road. Rather, driving across America is a fearsome proposition, but it does offer more practical solutions regarding accommodating people of size. Airlines (outside of when they provide extra space to customers as a means of social distancing) typically charge people of size for two seats. Sometimes, they’ll make individuals upgrade out of limited-space cabins at their cost.

In an article on Chubby Diaries, Jenkins runs through each airline’s written rules regarding people of size. There, he’s an activist working on behalf of travelers. In his videos, he’s a tourist scaling a volcano in Antigua, tagging along with a Park Ranger on a tour of the Muir Woods National Monument, or dining in the streets of Guatemala City. On that visit to Guatemala, he takes a serious moment to feature the only other Black man he met on his trip: Richard, a Honduran migrant who shared the same bus stop on a route to Belize. But, Jenkins’ sole intent isn’t to call out the glaring disparity in diversity in race or size in the countries he’s visiting. Rather, he is showing who travels and what those experiences look like with the content he produces. When necessary, he points out where changes can be made most immediately. We spoke with Jenkins to discuss traveling as a person of size, how design can help and more.

How often are you forced to consider whether or not a place will be accessible/accommodating before you book? I saw your airlines breakdown. Are airlines the worst?

I think about it all the time, especially when it comes down to airlines. Airplanes can be uncomfortable for straight size people, so for a plus-size person it can be uncomfortable not only for myself but possibly the person sitting next to me. I do my research to find out which flights are typically not as packed and/or I do my research on “customer of size” policies that airlines have and plan accordingly. I tend to do a lot of research about size restrictions, weight limits, if an excursion requires safety or protective gear to see if they have my size. For Great White Shark cage diving in South Africa they required a wetsuit to participate. I brought my own just in case they didn’t have my size (which they didn’t).

What changes do you want travel companies to make to be more inclusive and accommodating?

128 million (about 42%) of Americans are considered “chubby” (obese). 128 million—that is a huge total available market size! Let me first preface this by saying I am not here to promote obesity, but I promote people to “live life now.” I want “chubby” people to be courageous and experience the wonders of travel. With all that being said, there is a huge market that I personally feel is untapped and the majority of travel companies have overlooked their customer potential. They can be more inclusive by revamping their products and services (ie: the shark diving company could purchase more wetsuits that can fit bigger people). Ziplines and other excursions can make harnesses that fit us and start using equipment that can support more than 250 pounds.

Where are the inclusion gaps that are most prominent? 

One could say airlines, but they do have more accommodating options—but the price is not as affordable. I would say the biggest inclusion gap is the excursions. We as a society are innovative people with tools and knowhow to take a problem and find a solution. Some things are as simple as redesigning straps, harnesses, and seats to safely accommodate “chubby” people.

Regarding those booking the experiences that you plan, do you find that many people don’t travel otherwise? Or, do they travel often but want a trip catered specifically to their needs?

[On] my experiences, it’s both. I have people that this possibly may be their first international travel experience. Then I have people that travel but have not had a group trip where everything on the trip is catered to them. All of the excursions we do are size-inclusive meaning that if people want to do them, they can.

What sort of adjustments are made to ensure your trips, and those hosting your guests, are accommodating?

Well, I do my research. I don’t look for places with small beds or bunk beds. I look up tour companies that do less intensive tours, like tour around one certain area or district instead of a full city tour. I base a lot of my decisions on if I can do it myself. I feel that if I can do it, a majority of people in my demographic can do it as well.

Images courtesy of Jeff Jenkins / Chubby Diaries