Remember how we used to make jokes about airplane food? Then remember how outraged we were when they took it away?
Most of us assumed those trays with the little food compartments would never return; after all, even when the U.S. economy recovered from the Great Recession, airlines didn’t suddenly drop their bag fees, did they?
Except … free meals are making a comeback, on some airlines anyway. And maybe more will follow. Here are four things to know about free meals in the cheap seats.
1. Where to find free meals in economy right now
Delta: Earlier this month, passengers flying economy class between New York’s JFK and Los Angeles or San Francisco began getting free meals, such as the Mesquite-Smoked Turkey Combo.
According to news reports, American and United are “studying the possibility” of adding their own complimentary meals in economy. Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly, told me these two large legacy carriers generally match Delta with other product enhancements “when doing so doesn’t break the bank” and he guesses they will probably start offering their own free meals on competitive routes at some point. When this might happen, though, is still up in the air.
2. Where else can you find free meals in coach?
Hawaiian: Fly from the mainland to Hawaii in the main cabin and you too will be fed; you won’t get the first class meal of “grilled chicken with creamy caper leek sauce, potato gratin, carrots and asparagus” plus a crab meat appetizer and guava cheesecake but economy passengers can still enjoy “ginger chicken with green peas, carrots, corn, and steamed white rice” and a cookie.
American, United: Both airlines offer free meals in economy on flights to Europe, South America, Asia and more. So do most large airlines that fly similar long-hauls around the world.
3. Where you won’t find free meals in economy
Discount carriers: Whether flying short hops across the U.S. or Europe or elsewhere, popular discounters with often very cheap fares often typically offer no food for free, including soft drinks (non-alcoholic drinks for the cheapest Norwegian Air tickets will set you back between $4 and $5, while a pre-ordered full meal is $45).
4. If you don’t get a free meal, is it worth paying for?
I like to save money, and I know what I like so I often bring something from home or grab a bite in the airport. Just remember that you can’t bring what I’ll call gloppy foods through security (such as salsas or jars of jam or even jars of peanut butter) as liquids are only allowed in containers no bigger than 3.4 ounces.
The one thing about meal service is, it used to be such a great time killer; the clock ticked away as you watched in anticipation the food cart slowly making its way down the aisle. Today you open up your own goodie bag of food while you kill time in the air.
Rick Seaney is the CEO of FareCompare, a website that curates the best deals on flights from around the world. Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.