Breaking Down the Best In-Flight Meals, Service

In autumn 2010, Continental became the last of the major airlines in the United States to eliminate most free airline meals in coach. While snacks and soft drinks are still available, even on cheap flights, most meal service is relegated to long-haul flights, and it is rarely free in coach. But there are still some decent meals to be had in the air.

Hawaiian Airlines gets high marks for having complimentary meals – even in coach – on flights between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. Frontier‘s chocolate chip cookies (free on flights leaving at 10 a.m. or later) and Delta‘s Biscoff cookies are also favorites in the coach cabin. Though Virgin America charges for meals in coach, they are well-liked by passengers for the variety of food they offer.

Almost all airlines have switched to payment by credit or debit card for in-flight purchases, though United Express flights still operate on a cash-only basis, so be sure to have your plastic on hand if you get hungry or thirsty in the air. With airlines moving toward offering cheap tickets with various fees added on for services like checked luggage, getting a free meal in coach class is almost completely a thing of the past. The following chart shows our FareCompare readers what’s available for free and for purchase on major U.S. airlines.

Food and Drinks on Each Major Airline

Airline Free Food / Drink Food / Drinks for Purchase
AirTran Free soft drinks Premium soft drinks and alcoholic beverages $2 to $5 (Pay by credit or debit card only)
Alaska Airlines Free soft drinks Alcoholic beverages $6-7, snacks, meals for purchase in coach, free in First class (Pay by credit or debit card only; $6 vouchers for on-board purchases available at ticket counters in the state of Alaska)
American Airlines Free soft drinks Alcoholic beverages $6-7, meals available for purchase $5-10 in coach, free in Premium class (Pay by credit or debit card only)
Continental Free soft drinks Alcoholic beverages $6-9, snacks and meals available for $3-10, complimentary meals on transatlantic, transpacific, and South American destination flights (Pay by credit or debit card only)
Delta Free soft drinks, Biscoff cookies Alcoholic beverages $6-7, snacks and meals available for $3-8.50, complimentary snacks, meals and alcoholic beverages in Business Elite and First class (Pay by credit or debit card only)
Frontier Free soft drinks, free chocolate chip cookies on most flights Alcoholic beverages $5-10, snacks on most flights $2-4, fresh food for purchase available on most flights of over 700 miles. (Pay by credit or debit card only)
Hawaiian Airlines Free brunch, lunch, and late-night meals on mainland to Hawaii flights, free soft drinks Alcoholic beverages $6.50-16. (Pay by credit or debit card only)
JetBlue Free chips and soft drinks Alcoholic beverages $5.99, boxed meals $5.99 on flights over 2 hours, 15 minutes. (Pay by credit or debit card only)
Southwest Free soft drinks, pretzels, peanuts Energy drinks and alcoholic beverages $3-5 (Pay by credit or debit card only)
United Free soft drinks Snack boxes $2.99-8.49, alcoholic beverages available for purchase, free meals on all First class and selected Business class flights (United flights accept only credit or debit cards; United Express flights are cash only)
US Airways Free soft drinks Snacks available $3-9 in coach class, alcoholic beverages $7-8, free alcoholic beverages, snacks, and meals in First and Envoy class (Pay by credit or debit card only)
Virgin America Free soft drinks Snacks, meals (on longer flights), alcoholic beverages available for purchase in main cabin, free in First class (Pay by credit or debit card only)

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Published: December 2, 2011