Inflight food options, which used to be elaborate, have dwindled over the years. Yet many international airports have made a concerted effort to bring in reputable restaurants, from quick-service chains like Shake Shack to higher-end fare like Chicago’s meat-and-beer-centric The Publican, which recently opened an outpost in the city’s O’Hare airport.
Still, there’s reason to be wary about the quality of food in airports, not least of all because of a 2015 FDA report citing poor sanitation practices in Los Angeles’ LAX kitchens. There’s even more reason to expect sticker shock, as there’s little competition once you’re planted at your gate. Here are rules to make sure you get the tastiest, most dependable, and affordable bites the next time you’re at an airport.
1. Skip fresh produce and salads
It may seem counterintuitive if you’re trying to be health-conscious, but raw fruits and vegetables are at a higher risk of carrying bacteria that will make you ill. Given the hasty nature of many airport kitchens and uncertainties about transportation into terminals and how long some ingredients sit out in the frequently labyrinthine structures, it’s much safer to stick to cooked items. And no one wants a sad $12 salad with nutrient-deprived iceberg lettuce.
2. Also rare meats
A little pink in a burger is not cause for alarm. The USDA recommends an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit for ground meats, 165 for poultry, and 145 for whole cuts of non-poultry meats. So a medium or even medium-rare steak, for instance, should be fine. Burgers, meanwhile, are a great value when eating out. But avoid anything clearly on the bloody-red side if you’re concerned about an airport vendor’s meat sourcing.
3. Order simple, comforting items like fries and eggs
The airport is generally not the place to taste-test a chef’s culinary innovations. Many airport restaurants, even when they’re branded differently, operate using the same kitchens and teams, so the familiar and popular are much more likely to come out as they should. Fries are nearly impossible to screw up and come straight from the fryer. Same for eggs, toast, and melted cheese off the griddle. At La Vie, a French brasserie in New York City’s JFK airport, you can get a delicious, extremely filling croque-madame (essentially, a fancy name for a grilled cheese with egg) for about $10 dollars. Add a Bloody Mary with a nice kick to wash it down.
4. Avoid anything that’s clearly been sitting out a while
Buffet food is cheap for a reason: It’s made in bulk, not to order, and sits in heated pans sometimes for hours on end. The same is true of any airport quick-service restaurant that’s serving wan-looking pizzas, pastas, and the like from large, warmed trays and plates. A few bucks for a slice of cheese pizza might seem like a deal, but not if it’s lukewarm and dried out. If the place you’re passing looks popular and employees are racing to replace dishes, it’s a good sign the food is tasty, rather than overcooked and soggy. If that’s not the case, keep walking.
5. Stay away from inflight food
Sure, on a nonstop, 11-hour flight to, say, Hawaii or London, you’re liable to get hungry. Longer flights tend to stock better snacks and even meals, but be wary of flights that require paying usually exorbitant upcharges on chips. (JetBlue is a welcome exception, with its very laissez-faire as-many-snacks-as-you-want-for-free policy even on domestic flights. Grab the Terra chips.) Heavily touted meal “boxes” can cost $12 and generally come with tiny portions. Cooked food on flights often starts out frozen, so it tends to come out bland and mushy, and something about the environment of a flight doesn’t suit itself to a full meal. That might be why chef and Parts Unknown host Anthony Bourdain says he never eats plane food. If you know you’re going to be on a long flight, just fill up your carry on with items from your grocery store — save a few bucks and get full.
6. Watch those “express” food stations
It gets tempting when you’re crunched for time at the airport to hit Starbucks or a Cibo Express for a sandwich. But places like that charge a lot and the food is typically prepared well in advance. If you’re feeling starved, a cheese plate is a safe way to go at one of these venues. Anything more advanced than that is going to be a disappointment.
7. Embrace the chains
Well-known, successful restaurants are desperate to keep their customers happy and their brand image in good standing. Beloved chains like Shake Shack, even when they partner with third-party travel-dining companies, make agreements to insure certain standards in ingredients and preparation. Spots like Potbelly, Chili’s, and other fast-casual places you might see at a strip mall deliver dependable favorites in airports that are basically exactly what you would get in their normal locations. It’s hard to beat $5.20 for a hulking Potbelly smoked ham sandwich oozing with swiss cheese when that flight gets delayed.