To buy or not to buy -- that is the question that plagues some airline passengers who aren't certain whether they are going to get fed on their flights.
Nowadays, airlines show in-flight food options on their Web sites. Sometimes, the carriers will tell you when you make a reservation whether your flight includes food service. If they don't tell you, ask. But when you're told "snack," don't assume anything.
For a recent 4-hour, 32-minute United Airlines flight from Chicago to Vancouver, the gate agent announced that a snack would be served on the flight. So I bought a turkey sandwich from a food stand near the gate. The snack, when it was served, consisted of chips, cheese, crackers, raisins and a tiny candy bar.
On the return flight, I also knew that a snack would be served, so I bought a sandwich from an airport food stand. This time, however, the snack included a chicken and cheese sandwich and other nibbles.
A colleague recently flew coach on United from Chicago to Oakland, a 4-hour, 34-minute flight that sold food from Au Bon Pain Bakery Cafe -- $10 a pop for lunch options.
So here you had United flights almost identical in length, one with snacks, the other with food for sale. What gives? Well, it depends upon the time you're departing and whether food is sold on a particular route, explained a United spokeswoman. Onboard sales were being tested on the Oakland flight, but not on the Vancouver route.
Food-for-sale service is available in select markets on flights of three to five hours westbound from Chicago and two to three hours eastbound. Meals, she said, are determined by time, distance and departure times: 5 a.m. to 9:59 a.m. for breakfast, 11 a.m. to 1:29 p.m. for lunch and 4 p.m. to 7:29 p.m. for dinner. A light snack is offered during nonprimary meal hours. United's meals for sale come from TGI Friday's, Bennigan's, Hard Rock Cafe, Eli's Cheesecake and Au Bon Pain. Every domestic carrier, as one might expect, has its own formula for the care and feeding of its coach passengers. (If you're flying first class, you can count on being fed for free usually on flights exceeding one to two hours.) But when in doubt, you can always brown-bag it. In any case, here's what coach passengers can expect from major carriers usually on a cash-only basis:
American Airlines. Only coach passengers on flights four hours or longer get complimentary meals as well as those on flights between Dallas/Fort Worth and Boston and the New York City area. If you are on a Chicago-Dallas flight, for example, better bring your own. American sells meals at the gate only at Dallas/Fort Worth and San Juan.
Continental Airlines. In the aftermath of 9/11, when airlines were really hurting, Continental chose to continue its in-flight meal services, but within time parameters: 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. for breakfast, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. for dinner.
On flights of one to two hours, a snack is offered for breakfast, beverage and munchies during lunch and dinner hours and at in-between times. On flights more than two hours, there's a cold breakfast snack and a cold sandwich snack for lunch and dinner. On flights more than three hours, there's a breakfast snack basket and a hot sandwich snack basket for lunch and dinner.
Delta Air Lines. Meal service is determined by time of day, flying time and mileage, but in general, food is served on flights of about four hours or more than 1,750 miles. Meals and snacks are available for purchase on domestic flights longer than three hours or 1,550 miles. Delta's food selections, ranging in price from $2 to $10, come from Atlanta Bread Co. and Gate Gourmet.
Northwest Airlines. Alternating caterers, Northwest's meals for sale currently are prepared by Hard Rock Cafe and are available in the main cabin on flights to and from main hubs -- Minneapolis/St. Paul, Detroit and Memphis and on certain flights from Milwaukee -- in all on 220 flights a day. Prices range from $2 to $10 and food options include breads, rolls, fresh fruit and juice for breakfast, and gourmet sandwiches, salads, fruit, cookies and bottled water for lunch and dinner.
US Airways. Coach-class passengers get In-flight Cafe service on domestic flights over 700 miles (about two hours) consisting of meals from TGI Friday's. There's a $7 breakfast with a choice of a croissant with ham and cheese, fresh fruit and a yogurt topped with granola, or apple crumb cake, fresh fruit and yogurt.
The $10 lunch/dinner options are a tomato pesto chicken sandwich, Caesar salad and a cookies 'n' cream bar, or a Southwestern Cobb salad. In-flight snack boxes with items such as breakfast bars, crackers, chips, raisins and smaller sandwiches are available for $5.
Smaller, low-cost carriers have their own formulas for taking care of their passengers.
It was America West that launched the trend for in-flight food sales in January of last year. The service has been so successful that the carrier will now offer its In-flight Cafe service on all flights longer than three hours starting this summer.
Southwest Airlines, of course, still maintains its no-frills formula of free peanuts or pretzels on flights of 450 miles, but on trips between 450 and 1,120 miles passengers get a Nabisco cookie pack on morning flights or a salty cracker snack in the afternoon. On flights of 1,121 miles or more, passengers get a "full snack pack" with even more name-brand munchies.
Always keep in mind your ultimate in-flight food option: BYO. You then can eat on your own schedule.