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TPG round-up: Top 5 economy meals in the sky

Dec. 27, 2020
8 min read
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We've said it before and we'll say it again: Not all economy food is bad.

After rolling out our round-ups of the best and worst economy experiences, we thought we'd dig a little deeper and focus on certain aspects of our past reviews.

For starters -- and mains and dessert -- we're kicking this series off with the culinary delights experienced during economy class flight reviews over the past couple of years. The below rankings take into account the best food options our reviewers took in pre-COVID-19 times. Note that if you plan to fly with one of these carriers during the pandemic, the inflight food offerings may be significantly different.

Here are the top five economy class meals in the sky.

British Airways

Score: 13.8/15 (in line with the updated scoring system)

You might not believe it, but the winner for the best economy meal in the sky was a flight from San Francisco (SFO) to London (LHR) with British Airways.

Less than an hour after takeoff, TPG Reporter Katie Genter was already double-parked with two mini bottles of wine and two cans of Coke Zero.

Katie described the main meal of olive and mushroom pasta as "tasty" and the salad as "crisp and fresh" -- three adjectives you don't often hear when describing an economy meal.

The presentation and colors of the meal made it look, dare I say, appetizing. If it wasn't for the plastic trays and cutlery, you could be fooled into thinking this was a restaurant meal.

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(Photo by Katie Genter/TPG)

Even the pre-arrival breakfast offering hit the spot, which again, is a rare occurrence on overnight long-haul flights in economy.

There were two hearty pastry options: a mushroom, spinach and potato vegetarian option and a bacon, egg and cheese for the carnivores. Katie tried both, which she enjoyed, despite the meat option being "a little too oily".

(Photo by Katie Genter/TPG)

All in all, I think it's safe to say that BA deserves the top spot. To manage to serve a tasty, fresh meal for both dinner and breakfast in economy service on an overnight flight is something to be proud of. I could eat one of those pastries right now.

El Al

Score: 13.2/15 (in line with the updated scoring system)

I've never flown El Al before, but former TPG Creative Director Isabelle Raphael's experience from New York (JFK) to Tel Aviv (TLV) made me want to. What's even more compelling is that as an avid hater of airplane food, she "mildly enjoyed" her meal.

While she was careful not to be too congratulatory with her adjectives, the "semi-fluffy pita," "healthy hummus" and "pretty good" couscous and beef meatballs clearly hit the spot.

Related: 7 things you must do during your first trip to Tel Aviv

Even from the picture, I think you'll agree that this looks a lot better than your average economy class meal.

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/TPG)

Before you finish drooling over those meatballs, the breakfast Isabelle was served was just as enjoyable, if not more so than her evening meal.

The blintzes, mozzarella and tomato side with a bagel and cream cheese are treats I've never come across before in economy. As Isabelle described, the breakfast was "fit for an Israeli king".

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/TPG)

Related: A review of El Al's 787 in business from TLV to LHR

South African Airways

Score: 13/15

South African Airways appears to be an airline that is very generous with its alcohol offering. Former TPG Reporter JT Genter was served two little bottles of whisky during the pre-dinner drinks service alone. A second full drinks service was also offered while dinner was being served only a short while later -- the drinks were more free-flowing than at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun during spring break.

Now for the food.

JT described his chicken dish as "pleasant" -- it looks quite tasty in the picture, too.

(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

You might be wondering what was so special (other than the plentiful booze) that warranted SA's economy meal breezing into third place.

The answer: breakfast.

Economy breakfasts are often a letdown, so when an airline pulls this out of the bag, it's worth shouting about. JT's frittata was "delicious," and it certainly looked it. It almost reminds me of the frittata that used to be served in BA Galleries Lounges pre-pandemic.

(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

A small gripe was that drinks were served after the food rather than with it, which meant passengers had nothing to wash their frittatas down with.

Overall, SAA's economy meal on this flight from Washington (IAD) to Accra (ACC) is definitely deserving of its spot in the top three.

Virgin Atlantic

Score: 12.6/15 (in line with the updated scoring system)

The high rating here was all thanks to the top-notch nosh that was served up by Virgin on a day flight across the Atlantic from Boston (BOS) to London (LHR).

Things started off great with TPG Points & Miles Editor Nick Ewen begin given a menu. While the options available didn't quite match what was printed on the menu, we still love to see a menu being handed out in economy in the first place.

The breakfast served was not really what Nick was expecting having read the menu, but despite it being more of a light snack than a full meal, he said: "It was nice to put something in our stomachs so early in the flight." I had a similarly disappointing breakfast offering on a Virgin Atlantic day flight from New York to Heathrow last year.

(Photo by Nick Ewen/The Points Guy)

Outstanding is not a word often used to describe economy meals. However, Nick's second meal was exactly that. His Italian sausage marinara was flavorful and well-balanced.

(Photo by Nick Ewen/The Points Guy)

That said, the peculiar timing and reversal of the order of the main meal and lighter snack meal on this flight did mean that Nick and his family went hungry at various points on the flight as well as just after landing.

Delta Air Lines

Score: 12/15 (in line with the updated scoring system)

In fifth place, we have Delta Air Line's economy meals on a flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Amsterdam (AMS). On this flight, economy passengers were even given a menu. While this might not sound ground-breaking, this is a welcome and rather rare and unexpected bonus when flying in economy.

TPG reporter Katherine Fan was impressed with the three options available and even more impressed with the flavor of her lemon caper chicken that she "never anticipated experiencing in economy." Big words, right? Even the salad served was "impressively fresh."

Despite the chicken being a little on the dry side and the texture of the bread roll being reminiscent of a dish sponge, it was a huge thumbs up from Katherine, who liked her main course so much that she nearly asked for a second serving.

(Photo by Katherine Fan/The Points Guy)

Delta got extra points for the snacks, which were available in the galley between meal services and were "surprisingly good."

(Photo by Katherine Fan/The Points Guy)

Breakfast the following morning before arrival into Amsterdam didn't quite get the same fanfare. The yogurt (which is hard to get wrong) was "very good" while the muffin was a little on the sugary side.

Bottom line

Hungry now? I am after writing that.

These meals are examples of economy class food done right. Anything less, quite frankly, just isn't good enough. The airlines that provided these meals have proved that eating in economy can be a pleasant culinary experience and that a little care and attention to inflight menus and catering goes a long way.

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  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

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Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023