Overpriced airport menu items do tend to go viral, such as when a LaGuardia Airport traveler snapped a pic of one terminal menu last year that was pouring Sam Adams Summer Ales for almost $30. The incident led the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to audit the menus at NYC-area airport concessions.
While these may be extreme examples, anyone who’s ever bought a sandwich, beer or bottle of water in an airport terminal has probably paid more than they would outside. “As a frequent flyer, I am painfully aware of how costly nabbing food at an airport can be,” Gabe Saglie, senior editor for Travelzoo, told MarketWatch. “I am always newly-shocked by some of the pricing airport shops are doling out — $4 for a Clif Bar? Come on!”
So why are airport prices so high in the first place? There are a lot of complex factors at play with airports, such as the high commercial-space rent and operating expenses, pricey employee parking and staff turnover, as well as extra delivery fees, which all need to be factored into pricing. And the airport and its vendors still want to make a profit on top of all of that, too.
It’s not just food burning a hole in travelers’ wallets, however. The overall cost of travel is up 12% this year compared with August 2019, according to NerdWallet’s Travel Price Index, which combines data from individual travel categories tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index data. And this past August, the cost of food away from home, period, was up nearly 7% compared with the same month last year — and up 25% higher than they were pre-pandemic in June 2019.
So how can you save money on food and drinks at the airport — especially if the unexpected happens, like your flight is delayed and you spend hours longer than you had anticipated hanging around the terminal? MarketWatch spoke with travel industry experts and personal finance pros to get their hacks to filling your belly without busting your budget the next time you’re at an airport. Here are four of their top tips.
Pack your own snacks
One thing many frequent flyers advise is simply not spending any money in the airport if you can help it. “Not as easy to do when traveling with my three kids. Sometimes I need to take the hit with them,” noted Travelzoo’s Saglie. “But if I’m flying solo, I generally resist the hunger urge for the sake of not paying through the nose for basic food.” He packs snacks like beef jerky and granola bars that are filling, finger-friendly and security-friendly. “Anything that’s a liquid or a gel, though, would not make it through the TSA checkpoint,” he warned. Remember that liquids — including dips, spreads, yogurt and peanut butter — are limited to 3.4 ounces, with special exceptions for breastmilk and baby food. But for solids, TSA’s food list allows cookies, crackers, dried fruits, nuts, pies, cakes, pizza, protein powders and sandwiches, so you’ve got plenty of DIY options.
Bring your own bottle
Guess what the No. 1 item people purchase at the airport is? Bottled water, according to a 2016 report from the Hudson Group, which operates more than 950 stores in airports and transportation terminals. In fact, six of its 10 most popular products in airports were beverages. So bring your own empty, reusable water bottle, thermos or other vessel that you can fill up at a water fountain once you get through security.
Pick prepackaged grab-and-go goods over sit-down restaurants in the airport.
If packing snacks doesn’t cut it — or perhaps you’re stuck in a longer-than-expected layover, or you have several hungry kids in tow — then you’ll probably need to pay for something to eat. Melissa Lambarena, personal finance expert and writer at NerdWallet, says you can save some cash by choosing prepackaged food to-go from a cafe or kiosk in the terminal, instead of sitting down for a meal at an airport restaurant. “Prepackaged meals are easy to grab and have a fixed cost,” she said. Plus: “At a sit-down restaurant you’ll also have to pay for service and factor in a possible tip. The price can be significantly higher at a restaurant, and it adds up for different family members.”
Related: Here’s how much to tip everyone — and a list of people you should never tip
If you’ve got extra time to kill before your flight anyway,, Lambarena also suggests comparing prices at different restaurants, cafes and kiosks before handing over your hard-earned cash. “If time permits, you can shop around for the better price at a grab-and-go food kiosk, fast food restaurant or other option, instead of going with the most convenient,” she said.
Take advantage of airport lounge memberships
Some airlines and credit cards reward members who buy into their loyalty programs with access to airport clubs and lounges that offer free food and alcohol. There is an upfront cost — for example, the American Express Platinum Card, which offers access to more than 1,400 airport lounges worldwide through various partners, among other travel perks, charges an annual $695 fee. And some of its other fees are going up, possibly due to airport lounge overcrowding. But lounges could make financial sense for frequent flyers. “For those of us who travel often – several one- or two-night trips a month, sometimes — a club membership pays for itself over time,” said Saglie from Travelzoo. “Huge for me and our family of five: my wife and three kids can join me for free!”
Some cards and airlines also offer day passes to their lounges, although these often have restrictions around who can come in with you. Many of the comments beneath Brooks’s viral Newark post, for example, noted that instead of dropping $78 for a burger and booze, he could have dropped $59 for a one-time pass to the United lounge. “A one-time pass can be worth it, especially if you have a couple of hours to kill, or if your flight is delayed,” Saglie said.
Check out more tips to save money while traveling:
Try this to get some compensation the next time your flight is delayed
How do I book a cheap flight this summer? Here are 5 tricks to save money.
How to have fun traveling solo—and save money, too