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Airline Food: What You Need to Know

By Liza Weisstuch
January 2, 2019
looking up at airplane taking off
Michal Bednarek/Dreamstime
From snacks to meals, a new study dishes on the nutritional value of airlines' food.

It’s happened to the best of us: You’re sitting 35,000 feet in the air and hunger takes hold. Like, uncompromising, I-just-ran-from-a-jaguar-caliber hunger. And the temptation to eat anything that passes through your field of vision is severe. That diet? That commitment to cut back on additives and processed food? Out the window. But it’s important to remember as the food lands on your seat-back tray that all airplane food is not equal.

In the 2018-2019 Airline Food Study conducted by the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, Dr. Charles Platkin, the executive director and editor of DietDetective.com, undertook an exceptionally thorough investigation of 11 airlines’ food options, from snacks to meals, and provided the calorie count for each, as well as other bits of information, like the exercise equivalent for each calorie count, health ratings, prices, nutrition information, and even how transparent each airline is with nutrition information. He even includes which flights each option is available based on takeoff time and flight duration.

Numbers Don't Lie

Coming out on top is Alaska Airlines, with the study noting that “Alaska’s meals are now on the lighter, better, and healthier side, having gone from ‘Island hash’ and teriyaki chicken bowls, for example, to Fall Harvest Salad on coast-to-coast flights.” The airline, which helpfully lists nutrition information on its app, allows main cabin passengers to reserve food from 12 hours to two weeks prior to the flight.

There were plenty of other interesting finds across the study as well. For instance, generally speaking, calorie counts have decreased. The average number of calories per menu choice in 2016 was 392, in 2017 it was 405 calories, and this year it dipped down to 373. American and Hawaiian Airlines have improved their offerings the most since the last study. On another happy note, the study noted that American and Delta serve complimentary meals in economy class on domestic flights, the likes of which haven’t been seen in over a decade.

The Challenges of In-Flight Dining

There’s a reason you get ravenous on a flight, even if you ate before takeoff. And even if the food might not look quite as inviting as a meal at a five-star restaurant, you’re likely to scarf it down nonetheless. Thing is, your body and your senses react differently to air at high altitudes than they do on the ground. For one, your senses are dulled, which means your taste buds need food that’s high in salt and fat for your brain to register feeling satisfied. It’s largely why tomato juice is so popular with flyers.

Challenges abound when it comes to serving food a mile in the air. Top among them are the logistics of the cabin. The time and space constraints that flight attendants deal with, not to mention interruptions that turbulence or passenger issues could cause, make food prep and service far more challenging than they are in a kitchen on earth. Plus the trays and plates are small, and equipment isn’t exactly designed to the same standards as a restaurant.

“Meat can be served medium-rare on a plane in flight, but if there’s turbulence, the hostess can’t get up and take it out of the oven at the right time,” Daniel Dilworth, director of Culinary Development for Danny Meyer’s Union Square’s catering business, told The New York Times in 2016 when Delta teamed up with the high-profile restaurant group to serve fine-dining-caliber meals in its Delta One cabin. “So it’s probably best just not to try to serve meat done to medium-rare.”

Celebrity Chefs Pitch In

Delta wasn’t the first airline to recruit a celebrity chef to get a leg up in the increasingly competitive market for first-class passengers. Air France distinguished itself a few years ago by getting Alain Ducasse to endorse several food and wine pairings in its elite cabins, while United Airlines partnered with Charlie Trotter to develop menus and worked with alumni of his restaurant after he passed away in 2013.

These efforts to stand out are nothing new. Writing in The New York Times in 1973, longtime food journalist Raymond Sokolov notes that the competition—or “food wars,” as he calls it—began in 1962, when American collaborated with the famous New York restaurant 21 to develop first-class menus on cross-country flights: “Redchecked tablecloths, modeled after ‘21's’ napery, were used and the New York‐Los Angeles flight was dubbed Flight 21. Then TWA introduced its Royal Ambassador service. And then, in 1964, Eastern Airlines used famous Miami restaurants for its Captain's Table flights from New York to Miami. More recently, stewardesses have been set to tossing salads and carving steaks on carts. James Beard and Charles Chevillot have consulted with American (their casseroles were reportedly practical and delicious but not popular with steak‐loving passengers). And now United has hired Trader Vic.”

There are certainly more celebrity chefs now than ever before, so time will tell who gets recruited to design a gourmet mile-high menu next.

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Travel Tips

5 Mishaps That Made Me a Better Traveler

My best-laid plans went awry. And I'm glad. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating just a little. But I can tell you that, this past July, I was forced to face some of my most nagging travel fears (what if… I miss my connection, my flight is canceled, my bank card stops working, my kid gets sick…) when all of them actually came true. Here, a few minor and not-so-minor disasters that made me a better traveler. 1. My bank card stopped working Yup. I tried to pay for lunch at a Boston Market in Oakland (long story, don’t judge), and the cheerful young woman behind the counter announced, “Oh, sorry, your card is invalid.” What I learned: I should have told my bank back in New York that I was going to be traveling in California. It turned out the bank blocked my California transaction as suspicious, but was easily able to unblock it. And I got to eat those delicious Boston Market mashed potatoes. 2. I was told I couldn't rent a car using a debit card Huh? I had plenty of hard-earned (and carefully saved) money in my checking account, yet I was being told I could not use my debit card to rent a car. What I learned: The dude at the rental counter was basically, um, lying. Or at least exaggerating to an unforgivable extent. Most rental car agencies (including the one we were using) will rent you a car using a debit card, but they first put a hold on the estimated rental total (days rented, distance you plan to cover), and may ask to see your flight itinerary to confirm that you’re actually taking the car where you say you are taking it. The process is a bit of a hassle for travelers and agency employees alike, which is why, I suppose, that dude flat-out lied to my face until pressed to tell the truth. 3. I missed a flight connection Sorry, but I hate layovers and connecting flights, mostly for the same reason you may hate them: My fear of a missed connection. I always imagined the missed connection leading to disaster, sleeping on an airport floor, sustained only by expensive airport food. What I learned: It turns out, at least in our case, dealing with our missed connection was as easy as stepping up to a friendly gate agent who re-ticketed us on the next available flight. (Psst: We were lucky enough to be flying Southwest, which deals with this kind of thing exceptionally well.) 4. My flight got canceled This one was not quite as easy to handle as the missed connection I just mentioned. We boarded a flight, the plane began taxiing toward takeoff, then the pilot slowed us down, stopped, and announced there was a mechanical problem and we’d have to get off the plane. Of course, I appreciated the pilot’s unwillingness to take to the skies with a broken plane, but I also knew the chaos that a cancelled or long-delayed flight would cause for every passenger onboard, and that our chances of making it home that day were fading with the afternoon sun. What I learned: Long story short, we walked away with $800 in vouchers for future flights on that airline. Our secret weapons were chocolate and patience (I know, Chocolate & Patience sounds like the name of a long-lost Noel Coward play). After an hourlong wait on a seemingly endless line to get re-ticketed, my wife offered the gate agent a chocolate bar. The agent smiled wearily and said, “Can you tell how much I needed this?” Although we did miss any chance of getting home that day, we were booked on a flight for the next morning and took home not only our happy memories of a vacation in Southern California but also those much-appreciated vouchers. 5. My child got sick an hour before boarding I know I risk sounding churlish when I admit that I really like flying alone, and the more traveling companions I have, the greater my anxiety. That goes for flying with my kids especially. It’s not that I don’t enjoy traveling with them, it’s that my tendency to catastrophize travel mishaps is perhaps at its most pronounced when it comes to the safety and happiness of my children. So, when one of my daughters admitted that she wasn’t feeling at all well shortly before we were scheduled to board a transcontinental flight, I panicked. My wife, however, remained calm and approached a gate agent, asking (politely) for any special accommodations to ease our child’s situation. What I learned: Telling airline professionals what’s wrong and asking for help is not the same as being a “doting parent,” (parents: please read the previous sentence aloud several times) and it is far better than keeping it to yourself. We were given “pre-boarding” privileges that allowed my child to get comfortably situated for a sleep-filled flight. Has a travel mishap ever taught you a valuable lesson? Share it in a comment below.

Travel Tips

How to Find Cheap Flights to Europe

Early winter can be the perfect time for taking a trip to Europe. Between the mild weather, smaller crowds, scenic outdoor activities, and lower hotel rates, there are a handful of reasons to fly across the pond. There’s more good news: You can score low-priced flights if you plan accordingly. Here, 8 easy tips for flying to Europe in the off season. 1. PICK THE RIGHT DESTINATION (Lukas Bischoff/Dreamstime) Of course, where you’re traveling to affects your fare, so choose a destination with better deals. “The cheapest cities can vary depending on where you fly from, but we’ve been seeing some excellent deals to Copenhagen, Dublin, London, and Paris this year,” says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com. Case in point: Fare Compare found round-way flight deals from New York to Copenhagen for $320 and New York to London for $354. Moreover, a recent Kayak report found that flights to Northern and Western Europe are currently offering the most competitive rates. Iceland (Reykjavik airport) and Dublin are the travel company’s top picks for cheapest European destinations. 2. PICK THE RIGHT DEPARTURE CITY Generally, flights to Europe from Boston, Chicago, New York City, Orlando, Denver, and Washington, D.C. will be the most affordable, since these cities are hubs for many international carriers. 3. FIND AN ULTRA-LOW-COST AIRLINE Some airlines offer better deals than others. Norwegian Air, British-owned Condor, Icelandic carrier Wow Air, France-based XL Air, and Latvian Primera Air have some of the lowest priced transatlantic flights. Wow Air, for example, recently offered a $160 flight from Boston to Amsterdam in December. Primera Air, meanwhile, is selling flights from Newark to Paris for as low as $99. 4. AVOID EXTRA FEES Low-cost air carriers often charge “hidden” fees for extras, like carry-on bags, checked luggage, seat upgrades, or even beverages. While budget airlines are notorious for nickel-and-diming passengers for added fees, “you can score some serious value from their cheap tickets,” says Emily McNutt, associate news editor at The Points Guy. “Just be sure you read their pricing structure and terms and conditions so you know what you're getting into,” McNutt warns. 5. FOR REMOTE DESTINATIONS, FLY TO A NEARBY MAJOR CITY (Chert61/Dreamstime) To cross the ocean as affordably as possible, it often makes sense to break up your trip into two separate itineraries, says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights (ScottsCheapFlights.com). “Once you're in Europe, you can hop a train or budget flight most places for under $100,” Keyes explains. Often, flights to remote destinations, such as national parks or Mediterranean islands, cost more than flights to major cities. Hence, it pays to map out your trip and plan your flight path accordingly. 6. LEVERAGE GOOGLE FLIGHTS There are certainly a ton of websites and booking search services for finding deals on flights, but Tarik Allag, founder of SecretFlying.com, recommends Google Flights. The tool lets you view fares from your city for specific travel dates, and it searches all but the smallest airlines, as well as the largest online travel agencies (OTAs) like Orbitz and Priceline. You can also use it to set an alert for a flight, and Google will send you an email if price goes up or down. In addition, by utilizing Google Flights’ calendar function “you can scroll through to see if leaving one day earlier or returning one day later will help to save you some serious cash,” says McNutt. “If you're flexible on your destination, the ‘Explore’ function allows you to input your departure city and when you want to travel to see where in the region offers the cheapest flights.” 7. DEPART ON WEDNESDAY, RETURN ON TUESDAY Many articles tout headlines like “This is the best day of the week to fly!” but few have hard evidence to back up their claims. Yet thanks to Kayak, we can put this subject to rest. After analyzing more than a year’s worth of flight data leaving the U.S. and Canada to Europe, the website’s price forecaster found that flying across the pond on a Wednesday and returning home on a Tuesday typically gets travelers the cheapest flights. A recent report from CheapAir.com supports this, finding that travelers can save an average of $76 by reserving flights on a Wednesday (the least expensive day to fly) instead of on a Sunday (the most expensive). 8. GET TWO VACATIONS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE (marchello74/Getty Images) Want a free stopover in Iceland on your way to another European city? With IcelandAir you have the option of adding a stay of up to seven nights when traveling from the U.S. and Canada to Europe for no additional cost to your original plane ticket.

Travel Tips

7 Easy Holiday Travel Tips

Flying home for Christmas? Do those words inspire a kind of once-a-year cognitive dissonance that blends fond sentiment with deep-seated dread? You're not alone. Recent surveys suggest that holiday travelers do not, in fact, love everything about the experience. Shocked? We didn't think so. Here, we've consulted with some of our favorite travel pros to deliver stress-melting travel tips that are almost as effective as that second glass of eggnog. 1. FLY EARLY OR DRIVE LATE While a 6 a.m. flight may seem like a rough way to start your holiday trip, Andrea Feczko, host of the ABC series Vacation Creation, reminds us that the first flight of the day is often the most affordable and, of course, flying early means there’s less of a chance that your flight (and any connecting flights) will be delayed. But if you’re driving to your holiday destination, it may be best to try the opposite approach and hit the road after dark, when the roads are almost always emptier. Let the kids sleep in the back seat, and when you get to Grandma’s house, you may sleep in before the festivities start. 2. TRAVEL LIKE SANTA ON CHRISTMAS EVE Before we leave the subject of the best times of day to travel, the Budget Travel editors swear by imitating St. Nicholas’s approach: Travel on Christmas Eve night. For real. A red-eye from Cali for NYC on Christmas Eve, for instance, is a surprisingly peaceful, drama-free way to get home for the holidays. 3. MAIL YOUR HOLIDAY GIFTS AHEAD OF TIME Unless you’ve got eight tiny reindeer and a flying sleigh, chances are your gifts are going to slow you down. Wrap your presents (and bulky winter coats too, if you want) and ship them to your destination ahead of time to save time and money on the whole checked-bag experience. And be sure to pack an empty expandable bag, too, so if you end up acquiring a multitude of items while you’re away from home and you don’t get a chance to mail them home, you’ll got something to haul them around in. 4. THESE APPS MAKE FLYING EASIER “Appy Holidays!” When you’re flying at one of the busiest times of the year, such as the last two weeks of December, “know before you go” becomes an urgent necessity. Before you head to the airport, be sure you have downloaded some essential apps, suggests Wendy Perrin, the editor of WendyPerrin.com and travel advocate at TripAdvisor. Get the MyTSA app, which will keep you updated on your airport’s security lines and wait times. And download your airlines’ app, so you have up-to-the-minute intel on delays and cancellations at your airport and any connecting airports. 5. BOOK GROUND TRANSPORTATION IN ADVANCE Tim Hentschel, CEO of HotelPlanner.com, suggests that, during the busy holiday travel season, book your ground transportation in advance instead of relying on the kindness of on-demand apps or taxis to get you from the airport to your lodging. “Book ahead of time with a shuttle service or private driver that will be there waiting for you on arrival.” 6. TURN A DELAY INTO AN ADVENTURE Try to look at an unexpected flight delay as a good thing and embrace your newfound free time to explore the city where you happen to be "stranded," says travel writer Kaeli Conforti (@KaeliTravels on Instagram). Remember, a flight cancellation isn’t a disaster if you can think of it as a travel adventure. 7. DON’T BELIEVE “THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS” Instead of going over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, consider going your own way over the holidays, at least every so often. (Surveys suggest that 7 out of 10 travelers aren't all that crazy about staying with relatives anyway.) Caribbean beaches, European cities, and Las Vegas may be calling your name. This year, we're seeing reasonable holiday airfares to Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Orlando (remember, Orlando's theme parks see a lull in crowds and a dip in hotel rates between the busy Thanksgiving weekend and crowded Christmas week).

Travel TipsProduct Reviews

Stylish Steals for the Polished Traveler

You've seen them at the airport and at the train station; you may know them personally, or you might even be one of them yourself—those people who practically float through the terminal, not a hair out of place or a bead of sweat in sight. The secret to such serenity? Having the right tools for the job, and our picks will do the trick. 1. A Trusty Sidekick (Courtesy Away) Still trying to make it to your gate while lugging a bulky bag and pulling an unwieldy rollaboard? Streamline your approach with Away's trim, handsomely designed tote. Equally appropriate as an under-seat personal item and a weekend-trip carry-all, it has a pocket for everything—laptop, tablet, phone, notebooks, pens, even a wet umbrella—but the external sleeve that slides over your suitcase handle and lets you wheel the two together is the real game-changer. When used on its own, the handles are sturdy and amply padded, and there’s a removable crossbody strap for hands-free shlepping. We like it in the sturdy, water-resistant nylon, but if you’re really looking to splurge, the limited-edition leather versions receive rave reviews too.The Everywhere Bag, from $195; awaytravel.com. 2. An Optical Illusion (Courtesy Spanx) When you’re on the go, leggings are one of the most comfortable things you can put on your body; the downside, of course, is that they rarely look as good as they feel. This faux-leather pair from Spanx will give your travel-day outfit a stylish upgrade: They’re effortless and form-fitting, as leggings should be, but the matte finish makes them look like the real-leather deal, with a gentle sheen instead of the bright, cheap-looking glare of other synthetic fabrics. And not for nothing, the brand best known for its shapewear has a way with spandex. Here, the natural waistband contours and supports for a smooth silhouette, so you’ll seem pulled together, even on the laziest day.Faux leather leggings, from $98; spanx.com. 3. A Versatile Cover-up (Courtesy prAna)Pair your swank new leggings with another travel-day essential: a light, slouchy, easy on-and-off layer that’ll let you breeze through security and keep you cozy in transit. With its loose fit, deep, angled pockets, and stretchy, wrinkle-resistant modal fabric, prAna’s soft, dolman-sleeve cardigan does just that. Stash one in your daypack in case the air-conditioning kicks in or the weather shifts, and you'll be well prepared for frigid temps.Foundation Wrap, $69; prana.com. 4. A Magic Hat (Courtesy Goorin Bros.) Tossing and turning on that overnight flight is bad enough; you shouldn’t have to deal with a wild ‘do on top of a lack of sleep. This trilby-style fedora from Goorin Bros. lets you roll off the plane without giving your hair a second thought: It folds to take up minimal space in your bag and pops back into shape remarkably well, its paper-straw construction and moisture-wicking sweatband combine to keep you from overheating, and its striped-grosgrain ribbon adds a chic touch. And while the straw might lend it a warm-weather vibe, the neutral color palette means it’ll pair with pretty much anything, so it won’t be one of those things you pack and never wear.Keep It Real hat, $50; goorin.com. 5. A Makeup Must-Have (Courtesy Sephora) If you have an extensive skincare regimen or makeup routine, this Sephora Collection organizer is the solution to your packing needs. 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A Real Eye-Opener (Courtesy Thrive)Sure, you could use Thrive’s cushy, oversized eye mask en route to your destination, though it’s a bit heavier and bulkier than the ones we normally recommend. But we’ve found that it’s most effective as a recovery tool once you’ve touched down, thanks to its massaging gel beads and hot/cold capabilities. Throw it in your hotel-room microwave and heat it up to treat symptoms of travel stress like headaches, sinus pain, and even soreness from tight shoulders or clenched jaws, or stick it in the freezer for cool relief for puffy, bloodshot eyes. Regardless, it's a soothing, non-prescription restorative for what ails you.Hot/cold eye mask with gel beads, $13; amazon.com. 9. A Tiny Treasury (Courtesy UncommonGoods.com)Don’t fancy sporting the same neckwear each day you’re away? Pack a variety of ties and keep them wrinkle-free with this tidy cylindrical case from UncommonGoods. The vegan-leather caddy holds three at a time, and it’s a mere four-by-three-by-three inches in size, so you won’t sacrifice space in your bag to do so. Grab one for yourself, and gift one to your favorite fashion plate.The Necktie Travel Roll, $24; uncommongoods.com.

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