By Sally French
For those among us who like a tipple after takeoff, consider this a sign that the world is healing: Many airlines are resuming in-flight meals and alcohol service.
Early on in the pandemic, many airlines completely cut in-flight refreshment offerings (aside from perhaps a hasty water bottle delivery). Slowly but surely, airlines are reintroducing the amenity.
For example, in 2020, Southwest Airlines /zigman2/quotes/201071949/composite LUV -1.28% cut service completely on short flights and offered only water and a prepackaged snack on longer flights. In 2021, Southwest reintroduced a small selection of nonalcoholic drinks to all flights. It wasn’t until February 2022 that its complete pre-pandemic beverage menu returned, which included more soda and juice choices — plus alcoholic beverages for an additional cost.
Other airlines moved a bit more quickly. By July 2020, Delta Air Lines /zigman2/quotes/200327741/composite DAL -2.27% was offering beer cans and single-serve wine bottles. It wasn’t until March 2022 that it brought back hot meals for its Delta One and first class customers on some flights.
Why did in-flight alcohol get the ax?
It’s hard to peg just one reason why alcohol and hot meals disappeared on flights during the COVID-19 era. For some, it eliminated unnecessary lingering in the aisles while flight attendants took everyone’s orders.
Others point to unprecedented rates of unruly passenger reports as the reason to remove alcohol in particular. In 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration initiated 1,099 investigations around unruly passengers. That’s up from just 183 in 2020, 149 in 2019 and 146 investigations in 2018, according to FAA data. And not all bad behavior yields an investigation. In 2021, the FAA received reports of 4,290 mask-related incidents and 5,981 unruly passenger reports.
While it’s unclear how many of those cases involved alcohol (or how many more there might be if alcohol was accessible), flight attendants suggest a correlation.
An online survey of 5,000 flight attendants in summer 2021 by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a union, showed that mask compliance and alcohol were among the most common factors in unruly passenger interactions. Additionally, 17% of respondents reported experiencing at least one physical incident with a passenger.
Some suspect the reason in-flight beverages got the boot comes down to money. Airlines have sought to cut costs by culling refreshments long before the pandemic. For instance, Frontier Airlines /zigman2/quotes/211317788/composite ULCC +0.96% discontinued serving warm, gooey cookies on its flights back in 2012, stating that fresh cookie service “does not align with either the perception or financial reality of the ultra low-cost business model,” according to a memo obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Today, refreshments are available on Frontier flights for purchase, but there are no freebies.
These days, travelers say that while service has largely returned, it’s still been significantly reduced.
“Pre-COVID, United Airlines /zigman2/quotes/205037281/composite UAL -3.49% would always offer a drink before takeoff, and flight attendants would continue to offer drinks during the flight,” says David Decker, an insurance executive and United Million Miler member.
“Currently, the flight attendants make the rounds after the plane has reached cruising altitude, but you are hard-pressed to find a flight attendant for a refill. I’ve seen some passengers even resort to ringing the flight attendant bell.”
How to save money on in-flight beverages
If you want to save money on in-flight refreshments, then the typical advice of “pack your own snacks” likely won’t apply on airplanes. You can’t bring liquids greater than 3.4 ounces through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, so unless you’re drinking a straight espresso shot, there aren’t a lot of beverage options you’ll be allowed to get past security.
You can’t sneak through your own small stashes of liquor, either; FAA regulations prohibit passengers from drinking alcohol on the aircraft unless it’s served by a flight attendant.
These days, unless you’re flying a budget airline, you’ll likely no longer have to spend $6 on a soda in the airport terminal just to satisfy your carbonation cravings. If you can wait until after takeoff, you could get it all as part of the cost of your airfare.
And as far as adult beverages go, here are additional ways to save.
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Look for old airline coupons
Some airlines offer coupons for in-flight snacks and drinks to loyal customers. And though they tend to have expiration dates, many of those have been extended. For example, Southwest drink coupons that were set to expire in 2020 or 2021 (and can be redeemed for an alcoholic beverage) now don’t expire until Dec. 31, 2022.
Fly first class (for free)
You’re unlikely to be offered a free adult beverage in economy, but you will in the premium seats. On Delta, all Delta Comfort+ and first class customers receive complimentary beer and wine service. United offers complimentary alcoholic beverages in premium cabins, and Alaska Airlines offers complimentary alcohol in first class.
Premium cabins typically aren’t cheap if you’re paying a cash fare, but you might be able to finagle your way to an upgrade. There are a few tricks to getting a free upgrade on your flight, such as through holding airline elite status.
Early on in the pandemic, chasing elite status might not have been a smart money move given that many were traveling less and that perks were reduced. But while earning airline elite status is not exactly a walk in the park, it might be worth it these days if you travel often and fully use the benefits (like actually consuming in-flight alcohol).
Use airline credit card incidental credits
Many premium travel credit cards offer statement credits toward airline incidental fees. These fees are additional qualifying charges from your preferred airline beyond the actual airfare. What’s considered a qualifying purchase can vary by credit card issuer, but they typically include checked bags, seat upgrades and — yes — in-flight refreshments.
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Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SAFmedia.