Why I’d rather go hungry than buy food in an airport terminal
As a frequent traveler for both work and leisure, I’ve become pretty good at navigating many of the frustrations people tend to have at airports.
I check in online and travel with carry-on bags only wherever possible to avoid lines at check-in. I always have my liquids already packaged in a clear bag so I can zip through security.
One thing that still surprises me, however, is the quality and cost of food available in airports. I navigate this particular frustration by doing my best to avoid airport food outlets entirely.
There’s a scene from the iconic 1990s sitcom "Seinfeld" where Jerry Seinfeld discusses the cost of food in airports during a stand-up set which still makes me chuckle to this day for its accuracy.
Do you think that the people at the airport that run the stores have any idea what the prices are everyplace else in the world, or do you think they just feel they have their own little country out there and they can charge anything they want? “You hungry? Tuna sandwich is $9. Tuna is very rare here.”
I think the whole airport/airline complex is a huge scam just to sell the tuna sandwiches. I think that profit is what’s supporting the whole air travel industry. I mean, think about it. The terminals, the airplanes. It’s all just a distraction so that you don’t notice the beating that you’re taking on the tuna.
Adjusted for inflation, that $9 in 1990 would now be $19. Every time I think of the outrageous prices of food and drinks in airport terminals, I always grin, remembering how ridiculous the prices were in the early 1990s and how they have remained so.
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My own memories are of being asked to pay $10 for a bottle of water at Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ) in the Dominican Republic earlier this year (I gasped, handed it back and walked out). Also, I once paid $17.50 at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) for a terrible, pre-made chicken wrap that was so "un-fresh" the edges of the wrap had gone soggy and mushy.
Jerry Seinfeld and I aren’t the only ones who have noticed. Early this year, a $27 beer led the agency that oversees the three major New York City-area airports to crack down on sky-high prices being charged for food and drinks.
An investigation by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which has oversight over John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), found multiple instances of beer and food being sold to travelers in these airports at “totally indefensible” prices.
The Port Authority says it has since implemented new pricing standards for concessions at the three New York-area airports, setting a cap on food and drink prices at what is described as local “street prices.”
The new policy allows for a maximum surcharge of 10% to be added to the sale of these goods. Part of the problem, the agency said, was that the previous street-pricing policy was not specific enough in its instructions to vendors. The revisions presumably address that issue.
So what’s the solution for global travelers — beyond trying to keep hunger pangs at bay?
My colleague Zach Griff spends as little time at his departure airports as possible by arriving just before departure and zipping straight to the gate. Pre-COVID-19 that was a sensible strategy. However, with the airport meltdowns Europe saw over this past summer, I wouldn’t recommend arriving 45 minutes before departure and assuming everything will go smoothly.
My trick has been to eat in airport lounges when possible. I try to remember to do my research before I arrive at an airport to make sure there is a lounge available, it will be open when I am there, and, most importantly, I will be able to access it.
With British Airways status, The Platinum Card from American Express and a Priority Pass membership, I’m often able to find a lounge I can access. The food available may not be refined or particularly nutritious, but I can usually make myself a salad or a sandwich that would be somewhat similar to what I might eat at home. And best of all, it’s free.
If there isn’t a lounge available, I try to eat at home or on the way to the airport. In some instances, I wait and eat on the plane. Plane food isn’t usually much better than what’s available within the terminals. However, if I’m flying a full-service airline, I at least don’t have to pay for it.
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If I find myself without lounge access and I haven’t been able to eat beforehand or on board the flight, I will occasionally peruse the terminal food outlets. However, the jaw-dropping prices and a quick scan of what the food actually looks like usually mean I would rather sit at the gate hungry than waste good money on a subpar airport meal.
If airport food at least tasted amazing, I might consider paying the extortionate prices charged. However, the few times in the past where I’ve taken the plunge and parted with $17 or higher for a sandwich or burger, I've been consistently disappointed with the quality I received for the price paid and kicked myself for making this mistake.
Thankfully, airport lounges have been my savior and usually fill the gap. Otherwise, I would rather go hungry than pay those outrageous prices for average food and drinks in an airport.