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.
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:
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.