Flying as a vegan: What are your options, and which airlines do it best?

Oct 18, 2020

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2019 was known as the ‘Year of the Vegan’. In the past five years, the number of vegans in Great Britain alone quadrupled, with more than 6% of Brits now identifying as vegan.

With the movement becoming mainstream, the vegan food industry has been a booming business, with the big food chains following suit. Most recently, Qatar Airways announced it would be offering a la carte vegan options in business class. However, despite this increased demand, flying as a vegan passenger is still quite a challenge.

`A vegan meal on Norwegian. (Photo by Emily McNutt/The Points Guy)
A vegan meal on Norwegian. (Photo by Emily McNutt/The Points Guy)

With many airlines, you have to book your meal a number of hours in advance. It’s also advisable to double-check upon your arrival at the airport to make sure your special meal request went through properly.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, airlines also have different meal codes, which can add to the confusion about what you’re actually ordering:

  • VGML — Vegetarian Vegan Meal. This meal will be completely free from all animal products including meat, dairy, eggs and honey. However, this will typically come with the same bread as everyone else, which is often not vegan, as well as butter and a standard cow’s milk for your tea or coffee.
  • VLML — Vegetarian Lacto-Ovo Meal. A traditional vegetarian dish with no fish or meat, but it may contain other animal products such as eggs, dairy and honey.
  • VOML — Vegetarian Oriental Meal. These are typically found on Asian airlines and are nearly always vegan and prepared in an Oriental style in dishes such as vegetables with rice. This option also tends to be gluten-free.
  • AVML — Asian Vegetarian Meal. This is most likely not vegan, as it typically includes spiced vegetables (which may contain ghee), as well as dairy products, such as paneer cheese.
  • VJML — Vegetarian Jain Meal. A very safe option for vegans as this meal will be in accordance with the Jainism religious principles. This means it will only contain fruit and vegetables that grow above the ground, and no animal products.
  • RVML — Raw Vegetable Meal. If you’re looking for a vegan dish, you can’t go wrong with this option, as it will exclusively be a selection of raw fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, that often means the blandest, too.
  • FPML — Fruit Platter. For any fruitarians out there, this is the one for you.

These codes are the basic principles, but do all of these options vary significantly between airlines or are they consistently applied? Are there some carriers that are better than others to fly with if you are a vegan?

Editor’s note: Check with your airline before flying for modified menus due to COVID-19.

Emirates

In a study conducted by Vegan World News, Emirates rated as the best option for vegan travelers. Even non-vegan passengers are known to get food envy about the airline’s vegan dishes. In January, Emirates reported that requests for vegan meals increased by more than 40%, an indication of the demand for the alternative.

Emirates’ VGML options range from vegetable curry with rice to vegan lasagne, and even vegan pancakes. Since the carrier noticed an increased demand for vegan options, it also added a nut-based vegan cheese to some flights, with more than 40,000 lbs of it having been served since April 2018. Be cautious though, as some passengers have reported that the roll and butter that come with the RVML meal have not always been vegan.

With Emirates, all special meal requests must be booked at least 24 hours in advance of your flight. In addition, Emirates says that on shorter flights, some special meals may be unavailable in economy. You can view the carrier’s full special meals terms here.

British Airways

British Airways states that it “cannot offer every special meal type on all flights, and there may be flights where we cannot supply your chosen meal”. Social media reports suggest that BA’s vegan and veggie options aren’t the best. Plus, some passengers have reported that they’ve received a ‘vegan meal’ only to find non-vegan ingredients in some of the options.

This could be extremely distressing for most vegans, and even potentially dangerous for those with intolerances. As such, it might be necessary to err on the side of caution when flying with BA as a vegan. There may be hope for the future though, as BA had plans (pre-COVID) to roll out new catering concepts in all cabin classes by 2020. Some recent reviews already seem more positive, with vegan travelers being served options such as grilled tofu with veggies, or granola with soy milk for breakfast.

Special meals must be requested at least 24 hours before departure. You can view the carrier’s full special meals terms here.

Virgin Atlantic

With high ratings for both vegan food and healthy dishes, Virgin seems to be a great choice for inflight meals. Vegan reviews include statements such as, “one of the creamiest (vegan) bowls of porridge I’d ever had”, and an “incredible warm potato salad”. Virgin has also been known to offer vegan snacks such as an aubergine wrap with chips.

In March of 2019, Virgin Atlantic announced that it was removing ingredients that it deemed unsustainable from its inflight menus. It’s removed beef and palm oil and soy thus far as part of its partnership with the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA).

You must book your meal at least 24 hours before your flight departs (48 hours if you’re requesting a Kosher meal). Additionally, Virgin says that special meal requests only apply to your main meal and do not include snacks and condiments. You can view the carrier’s full special meals terms here.

Qantas

Qantas flights are said to have exceptional vegan food available on both intercontinental and domestic flights. Special meal options have been known to include pasta with tomato sauce, stir-fried vegetables with noodles, white bean and pumpkin curry, rye rolls and fresh cakes.

Qantas says that special meals must be requested at least 24 hours prior to departure. Additionally, the carrier says that special meals are not available in domestic economy when only refreshments are served. You can view the carrier’s full special meals terms here.

Bottom Line

Flying as a vegan can still be a challenge, but it is improving. Some airlines are leaders in the space when compared to others. The best advice for vegan travellers is to approach a flight well-prepared, taking your own food with you as a fallback to eat if necessary. Some easy travel options include bananas, nuts, dried fruits, protein bars, vegetable sticks or even oatmeal cups that require just hot water.

Feature image by Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

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