If you’re not a gigantic nerd like me, flying probably isn’t your favorite activity. Though I’m someone who will take any excuse to get on an airplane, even I can acknowledge that air travel has its frustrations, from limited legroom to unpredictable delays and often minimal cabin service. So, maybe you need something to take the edge off?
You might need a drink.
Before delving into the joys, benefits and “hacks” for adult beverages onboard, I want to first acknowledge that drinking on planes is of dubious benefit. Sure, it might make the experience marginally more enjoyable, but indulging can make you dehydrated, which can ultimately make your jet lag worse if you’re crossing time zones, not to mention the potential for extra bathroom trips or worse if you imbibe a little too much.
But assuming you’re planning to be responsible about it, you should know that airlines do actually give some real thought to what they stock on their beverage carts, especially in premium cabins, and you may even be able to get the drink of your choice for free in many cases.
What’s in the bottle?
For this column, I spoke to Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research, a travel industry analytics firm, who gained some fame on social media earlier in the pandemic, posting weekly “avgeek cocktails” on his account.
“I just thought, since we can’t travel, we can at least pretend we’re traveling. I made a cocktail in one of my vintage airline cocktail glasses, posted it on Twitter and it became very popular. I was really surprised by it,” Harteveldt said of his three-year-long project. But in addition to mixing and photographing his drinks, Harteveldt has experience helping airlines manage their brands.
He said onboard beverages aren’t always the absolute first priority for airlines, but they are still important to the overall experience onboard.
“Alcohol on the plane is more of an accommodation than a profit center,” Harteveldt said. “On short-haul, or short to medium haul flights, whether it’s in the U.S. or elsewhere, the focus is really more on the basics. While airlines certainly have given more thought to the various products they are offering, they’re not trying to recreate the breadth or depth of selections that you would get at a cocktail lounge or your favorite neighborhood bar or pub.”
Harteveldt also said that airlines often see themselves as the flag carrier for their home country or some of their key destinations.
“In some cases, airlines also view themselves as an extension of their country’s agriculture. An airline, for example, like LATAM,” he told me, “views itself as an ambassador of providing wines produced in Chile, Argentina and other parts of Latin America.”
How do I get free drinks while flying?
If the flight is long enough, your meal may include adult beverages. Many airlines offer complimentary beer, wine and spirits on long-haul international flights. But for shorter domestic travels, some flyers can still avail themselves of 21+ perks.
“Some airlines will give certain elite status tier members complimentary drink coupons to redeem on their flights. If you’ve been delayed, sometimes the gate agent has the ability to give you a voucher that you can present (the flight attendant) for a beverage,” Harteveldt said.
In premium cabins, including domestic first class and even economy seats with extra legroom, alcohol may be included with the fare.
But also, it’s not worth stressing over if you really want that beverage. Airlines typically charge just a few bucks for adult beverages. Southwest, for example, recently upped its prices, setting beer at $7, wine at $8 and hard liquor at $9.
“If you can afford the cost of the ticket, you can probably afford the six or seven or $8 they’re charging you for beer or wine, or the nine or $10 they’re charging you for the cocktail,” Harteveldt said.
Andrew Henderson, one of the authors of the Two Guys on a Plane blog, previously told me you shouldn’t be extra nice to flight attendants just to squeeze out a free drink, either.
“There’s been a lot of articles recently that say if you give your flight attendant a gift, they’ll treat you better on the plane,” he said. “That’s my hesitation. I wonder what the motives behind it are now.”
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Just don’t be too picky
Airlines – as I’ve seen firsthand – have complex, large operations to get their galleys stocked, but the space onboard is limited, which means selections can be limited. You may not have access to your favorite beer or a freshly shaken cocktail during your flight, but airlines try to provide a decent variety of choices to satisfy every palate.
“Don’t get on an airplane expecting that you’re going to get an artisanally-made beverage, even if you’re flying somewhere long-haul first class, there are only so many items that will be stocked on the plane,” Harteveldt said. “When you are 35,000 feet up you’re going to have to accept some compromises, so if you’re craving a really well-made cocktail, wait until you’re back on the ground.”
Keep it under control
Above all, if you choose to partake, don’t let your drinking get out of hand on a flight. You don’t want to end up like that drunk American who recently bit a flight attendant on a Japanese airline.
And flight attendants are empowered to cut you off if you’re acting like a fool, or trying to BYOB onboard.
“Flight attendants now are very keen on keeping an eye for people who may be trying to sneak their own alcohol on the plane. That is a strict no-no,” Harteveldt said. “Flight attendants now very clearly state as part of the safety briefing that passengers may not consume alcohol that they have brought onboard.”
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Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at [email protected]
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