Anyone who has flown recently to reach the mountains for skiing or riding knows that on most flights there is no more free lunch, or breakfast, or dinner, for that matter.
Here is my airline adventure to tweak your tastebuds. Maybe.
I am on my way to a conference at Alyeska Resort, 40 miles south of Anchorage, Alaska, this week, concluding with the ceremonial opening of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Several colleagues are flying from Philadelphia International Airport on an American Eagle plane scheduled to leave at 6 a.m. E.S.T. for Chicago. We then grab an Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage at 9:30 a.m. Central Time, then from Anchorage another Alaska leg to Fairbanks. With luck, we touch down in Fairbanks at 4:46 p.m., Alaska time.
Again, with luck, that’s a total of almost 15 hours, not counting the time it takes to drive to the airport, park, and reach security at 4:30 a.m.
Food is sold on the first two legs of the journey. Anchorage to Fairbanks is shown as 61 minutes, and no food is sold.
Karen Ansel, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, contributing editor for Woman’s Day magazine, and co-author of The Baby & Toddler Cookbook,also specializes in eating away from home.
Ansel said the first step in thinking about your nutritional needs is to check the time difference between where you start and where you end, in this case four hours.
“Prime yourself to be on Fairbanks time,” Ansel told me. So, for us, we’re taking off at 1 a.m. (The situation is opposite if you’re flying from North America to Europe for your snowy vacation; it’s later in the day where you’re headed.)
Ansel recommended against buying food on the plane or food at the airport, although she acknowledged the difficulties posed by the TSA 3-1-1 rule (3-ounce containers of liquids or gels, in a 1-quart zip-loc clear plastic bag, 1 per passenger). You can have no more than three ounces, if you want yogurt from home, or peanut butter, or cream cheese.
For us, she said to pack breakfast, lunch, and a snack. Here’s the menu Ansel proposed: a whole-wheat bagel, low-fat cheese, and an apple for breakfast, “as late as possible;” a nut butter and banana on whole wheat bread sandwich with sliced peppers and cucumbers for lunch; and at 4 p.m. Alaska time, the snack, tart cherries and walnuts. This combination contains melatonin “which helps reset the body clock.
“Two cups of coffee will also help reset the body clock,” the dietician said. Water. Water. Water.
Travelers without access to someone whose name is followed by “MS, RD, CDN” (master’s degree in science, registered dietician, and clinical dietician/nutritionist) have to do some research.
The food service pages on websites for American Airlines and Alaska Airlines tell travelers what is sold on each flight and how much it costs. However, there is no nutritional information, especially important to those with gluten issues, hypertension, diabetes, and others complications, not to mention vegetarians, those who keep kosher and the like.
A call to each airline’s toll-free number doesn’t help. A cheerful woman at American said she buys yogurt and water at the airport. A contentious man at Alaska Airlines spent almost 30 minutes trying to find nutrition specifics with no luck.
Tim Smith, a spokesperson for American Airlines, said, “We sell Fisher Nut & Berry Mix and Fisher Roasted & Salted Almonds. We also sell a Cheese and Cracker tray that includes Carr’s Table Water Crackers, Glacier Ridge Farms Swiss Cheese, Walkers Shortbread Cookie and Ocean Spray Craisins. Nutritional values are on each individual package except for the crackers, cheese and cookie.”
Kirsten Robinett, product manager for Alaska Airlines, which means she is in charge of things sold on that carrier’s planes, said, “Nutritional information is available from our flight attendants,” so passengers should ask. Because the flight attendant “may not know she has it,” the staff person should be told it’s in the flight attendant manual.
Robinett told OnTheSnow, “We pride ourselves on using fresh ingredients, especially Northwest specialties” in the two picnic packs already for sale. The airline is adding a third picnic pack that meets “vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free” requirements.
Robinett said she hopes the airline will post nutritional information on its website in the near future. She said “Always carries a zip-loc bag of salt-free almonds. After security, I buy the largest bottle of water I can find” to take onto the plane.
Anna DiGregario, who represents what is called Philadelphia Marketplace, the food vendors and shops at that city’s airport, advised travelers going through there to check the company’s website.
All food establishments at Philadelphia International must file a quarterly report, she said, proving that prices for items sold there are the same as the price off the airport. The company also requires every food vendor, from take-away to white tablecloth, to serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
What about our 6 a.m. departure? No problem, DiGregario said, “locations open based on flight patterns” so food is available 45 minutes before the first flight from a terminal. Furthermore, she said, there is an Au Bon Pain at the airport available 24/7.
One final word from a seasoned skier and traveler who told me: “Make it an adventure - although it may be expensive - eat on the planes. The food is about the same cost as at the airports.”