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The Drinkers’ Guide to Getting Loaded in the Sky

People drink for countless reasons: They’re celebrating. They’re commiserating. They’re happy. They’re sad. They’re happy and sad. Stress and boredom, however, are hands down the most universal motivations for hitting the bottle, and few things are more stressful and boring than air travel. Even if you don’t have a fear of flying or undergo a strip-search by the TSA, your food and entertainment options are limited to what you had the foresight to cram in your carry-on. Not to mention, many of us are traveling alone, limiting conversation to the famously boring and invasive kind that takes place between strangers on public transportation.

Those are a lot of reasons to order a drink.

But how does one appropriately get buzzed while travelling?

Well, I’m glad you asked…

First things first, a bar is a bar is a bar — no matter where it’s located

Yes, the drinks are outrageously expensive ($14 gin-and-soda, I’m lookin’ at you) and I’ve given up trying to order anything more complicated than a martini, but airport bars are still bars. That means you still need to pay attention to your surroundings, and you still need to act as though you’ve ordered a drink from another human being before. “It’s definitely amateur hour regularly and often,” says Kobie Ali, former bar manager of the Legal Sea Foods at Boston’s Logan International Airport. “The hand-waving, the money in your face. Everybody has somewhere to be, like, right now.”

If you are in a rush, order a shot and pay with cash. It is, without a doubt, the quickest way to a pre-board buzz — and the best way to do so without missing your flight.

You’ll want to tip heavy, though. If for no other reason than to keep up with all the other thirsty travelers around you. “Money-wise, I’ve always said airport bars are the best kept secret,” Ali says. “Half of the people are on vacation, the other are on business, and either way, people are open to spending more money, especially for a drink before flying.”

But there’s no tipping in the air

Flight attendants at nearly every major airline are discouraged from taking tips, making it awkward for everyone if you do try to hand over a few bucks. Plus, in a post-9/11 world, flight crews don’t even handle cash — all transactions must be made with a debit or credit card — and there’s no tip line on the receipts.

Don’t get hammered

Airport personnel are well within their rights to deny you from boarding a plane if you’re noticeably fucked up. In fact, much like bartenders are legally obligated to refuse to serve visibly intoxicated guests, airport staff are forbidden from allowing anyone who is visibly intoxicated onto an airplane. As for specifics, the same things that will get you kicked out of a bar (slurring, having difficulty walking or standing, being aggressive, looking like you’re about to puke), will prevent you from boarding a plane.

“We really don’t want people to get too drunk,” explains Scott, a flight attendant on a trip I took a few weeks ago (and who would prefer to be referred to as just Scott, so as to avoid any complications with his employer). “If you start throwing up on a plane, that’s just bad for everybody.”

I can relate. I once had a guy absolutely annihilate the men’s room at work. We’re talking every surface splashed with regurgitated Scotch. He then went back and fell asleep at his table. His friends, after being told, “Hey, dudes, your boy’s gotta go. He’s way too drunk and just puked all over the bathroom,” took their sweet ass time closing the check and making their way out. And so, as they were getting up to leave, the drunk guy sits up and starts making that fish-out-of-water, gasping-for-air face and throws up all over the table.

It really couldn’t have been any worse — unless, of course, it happened on a plane.

That said, don’t feel guilty about have a couple of drinks during the flight

One of the great things about drinking in bars is that, for the most part, everyone around you is drinking, too. That’s not always the case on an airplane. But you know what? That’s okay.

Planes carry and serve alcohol because a lot of people like to drink in their spare time, and spare time is pretty much all you have when you’re flying. Also, people who serve alcohol really don’t care about what you drink, or even, to a point, how much you drink. It’s how you behave when you drink that we care about.

Do you want to be nice and buzzed on your cross-country trek?

Awesome. I support you.

Do you want to order two bourbon shooters every time the beverage cart comes down the aisle?

Okay, friend, cheers.

Just please, for everyone’s sake, keep your shit together.

Because you can be cut off

“It’s about three drinks in an hour,” Scott says. “Any more than that, and I’d rather not continue to serve someone.”

This, however, is more personal preference than legal requirement. Or better put, flight attendants don’t have state regulations to follow when it comes to how many drinks a person can be served at one time. In Massachusetts, for example, I can’t give you two drinks at a time. Like, a shot and a beer is fine, but if you want two Manhattans, I need to know who that other drink is going to so I can be sure you’re not going to pound six ounces of alcohol the minute I walk away.

For Scott, the rules are a little different — and again, more of a judgment call. “I can serve you three at a time,” Scott says, “but I’m going to hand you a bottle of water as well and hope you take your time with it.”

Don’t drink in an exit row

Why? The same reason why on-call doctors shouldn’t be spending their day getting tanked: In an exit row, you’re the backup personnel to assist in the event of an emergency. “I’d love it if nobody in an exit row drank,” Scott says. “Exit row people are our helpers. And yes, it’s an extreme circumstance, and yes, it’s very infrequent, but it’d be nice to know the people who have agreed to help in an emergency aren’t getting hammered.”

It’s not mandated by the TSA or airlines that you can’t imbibe while seated in an exit row, but it really is the right thing to do.

Sure, BYOB…

TSA regulations limit the size and quantity of liquids that can be carried onto a plane to what can fit into a quart-sized plastic bag (or about 3.4 ounces). But as long as it doesn’t exceed that amount — and isn’t filled with combustible or hazardous substances — security can’t say shit. So, for the record: A 3.4-ounce container of liquid holds about eight to ten nips, or roughly the amount of two shooters.

…but don’t (noticeably) serve yourself

Much like how pot laws allow you to purchase weed legally even though it’s still against the law to smoke in public places, you can bring as many nips on board a plane as that quart-sized bag will hold, but you can’t legally drink them in the airport or on a plane. That is, according to FAA regulations, all alcohol consumed on board must be served by a flight attendant, and having an open container is just as big a no-no in the airport as it is (almost) everywhere else.

But if you’ve gone to the trouble of packing a baggie of booze for your flight, you’re going to drink it in the air, right?

So what to do?

This is pretty simple: Order a soda and pour yourself a drink when the flight staff is in the back of the plane, or busy getting drinks for rows ahead of you (not behind you — remember, you don’t want to get caught).

Be sure, too, to take your empty bottles with you. As someone who regularly finds empty nip bottles in the bathroom and empty cans of beers my bar doesn’t carry on the patio, I can tell you few things are more infuriating than people bending the rules without even trying to hide the evidence.

Finally, never forget that the airport is a one-stop liquor shop

The duty-free liquor stores in airports have some of the best selections of spirits — particularly if you’re flying internationally. And TSA regulations allow full-sized bottles of booze to be brought on-board in your carry-on luggage so long as:

  • The bottle is clear and you can see the liquid inside.
  • The booze is in a “secure, tamper-evident bag” that cannot be opened prior to security screening.

These restrictions are somewhat cumbersome, but the new regulations (as of 2014) are much more reasonable than the original ones. Under the original TSA regulations, you couldn’t buy tax-free alcohol after checking a bag without having your bottles confiscated by the TSA at security—or customs—if you needed to catch a connecting flight in the U.S. after re-entering the country from abroad.

Fortunately, enough complaints were received that the rules were amended.


Told you plenty of people drink when they fly.