Why do I prefer hunger than buying food in the airport terminal?

As a frequent business and leisure traveler, I’ve become pretty good at dealing with many of the frustrations people tend to have at airports.

I check in online and travel with carry-on bags only where possible to avoid queues at check-in. I always have liquids already packed in a clear bag so I can get them through security.

One thing that still surprises me, however, is the quality and cost of the food available at airports. I overcome this particular frustration by doing my best to avoid airport food outlets altogether.

There’s a scene from the popular ’90s sitcom “Seinfeld” where Jerry Seinfeld discusses the cost of food in airports during a stand-up set that still makes me chuckle to this day for its subtlety.

Do you think the people at the airport who run the shops have any idea what prices are everywhere else in the world, or do you think they just feel like they have their own little country out there and can charge anything they want? “Hungry? Tuna sandwich is $9. Tuna is very rare here.”

I think the entire airport/airline complex is a huge scam just for selling tuna sandwiches. I believe profit is what underpins the entire air travel industry. . I mean, think of that stations, the planes. It’s all just a distraction so you don’t notice the beating the tuna is taking.

Adjusted for inflation, $9 in 1990 would now be $19. Every time I think about the outrageous prices of food and drinks in airport lounges, I always smile, remembering how ridiculous the prices were in the early 1990s and how they have remained.

Related: How I got enough miles for a trip to New York just by doing my food shopping

Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG

My recollection is 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, put it back and walked off). Also, I once paid $17.50 at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) for a horrible, pre-made chicken wrap that was so “unfresh” that the edges of the wrap became soggy and mushy.

Jerry Seinfeld and I aren’t the only ones to notice. Early this year, a $27 beer led the agency that oversees the three major airports in the New York City area 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 oversees 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 passengers at these airports at “completely untenable” prices.

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The Port Authority says it has since implemented new pricing standards for concessions at the three airports in the New York area, capping food and drink prices at what they describe as local “street prices.”

The new policy allows a maximum of 10% surcharges to be added to the sale of these merchandise. Part of the problem, the agency said, was that the previous street pricing policy was not specific enough in its instructions to sellers. The revisions are supposed to address this issue.

So what’s the solution for global travelers – other than trying to keep hunger pangs at bay?

My colleague Zack Greif spends as little time at departure airports as possible by arriving just before departure and slipping right into the gate. Pre-COVID-19 that was a sensible strategy. However, with the airport meltdown that has seen Europe over the past summer, I wouldn’t recommend arriving 45 minutes before departure and assuming everything will run smoothly.

My trick has been to eat in airport lounges when possible. I try to remember to do my research before I get to the airport to make sure there is a lounge available, it will be open when I am there, and most importantly I will have access to it.

With British Airways status, American Express Platinum Card and Priority Pass membership, I can often find a lounge I can get to. The food available may not be particularly refined or nutritious, but I can usually make myself a salad or sandwich a bit like what I might have at home. And best of all, for free.

If there is no lounge available, I try to eat at home or on the way to the airport. In some cases, I wait and eat on the plane. The food on board is usually not much better than what is available inside the terminals. However, if I’m flying with a full-service airline, at least I don’t have to pay for it.

Related: The best credit cards for airport lounge access

If I find myself without entry to the lounge and can’t eat beforehand or on the flight, I’ll occasionally check out the food outlets in the terminal. However, the amazing prices and a quick scan of what the food actually looked like usually meant I’d rather sit at the gate hungry than waste good money on a lousy airport meal.

Fine dining at the Centurion Lounge at London Heathrow Airport. Nikki Kelvin/The Points Guy

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If the airport food tastes amazing at least, I might consider paying the exorbitant prices charged. However, the few times in the past that I’ve taken the plunge and parted with $17 or more for a sandwich or burger, I’ve always been disappointed with the quality I received for the price paid and kicked myself for making that mistake.

Fortunately, airport lounges have been my lifesaver and usually fill the void. Otherwise, I’d rather go hungry than pay those outrageous prices for mediocre airport food and drink.

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