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Why I’d rather go hungry than buy food in an airport terminal

Nov. 22, 2022
6 min read
airport dining area
Why I’d rather go hungry than buy food in an airport terminal
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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.

Related: How simply doing my food shopping earned enough miles for a flight to New York

JEFFREY GREENBERG/UIG

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.

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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.

Related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access

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.

The excellent food at the Centurion Lounge at Heathrow Airport in London. NICKY KELVIN/THE POINTS GUY

Bottom line

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.

Featured image by BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Cons

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  • 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
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Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • Intro Offer
    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

    75,000 bonus miles
  • Annual Fee

    $395
  • Recommended Credit
    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.

    740-850
    Excellent

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 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our 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