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How to Drink (Somewhat Responsibly) on an Airplane

Drink water before anything else and take all the snacks

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Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

The world of dining and drinking is an obstacle course wrapped in a labyrinth wrapped in a logic puzzle — it’s full of pitfalls, gray areas, and bewildering questions that really shouldn’t even be questions (How do I find the bathroom?) and yet, somehow, are. Fortunately, your friends at Eater are here to help: Life Coach is a series of simple guides to the arcane rituals of modern dining. Have a question or a quandary you’d like us to tackle? Drop Life Coach a line.

There are few things in this world less pleasant that flying. Sure, the airplane is a marvelous invention; humans get to hurl through space and time at 38,000 feet and traverse whole continents and oceans in less than a day (!!!). But somehow that gets overshadowed by everything else that’s inconvenient and uncomfortable about air travel, and often, the only thing to look forward to besides free movies and HGTV reruns is waiting for the flight attendant’s sharp-cornered metal cart.

Contrary to popular belief, there’s no evidence that drinking at higher altitudes — particularly planes — gets you drunk faster. However, there are a few factors that can leave you feeling worse after drinking an alcoholic beverage on a plane. Airlines typically pressurize their cabins to ensure that passengers are receiving enough oxygen, with pressure falling within the range of 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. While most bodies easily adjust to the change, at least one study suggests that the pressurized plane can result in some mild hypoxia (lower oxygen levels in the blood), which contributes to flyers feeling dried out and jet lagged. The environment also changes the way people experience flavors, meaning your favorite mixed drink on the ground may taste a little “off” in the sky.

But if you have a long flight ahead and complimentary alcohol accessible (hello, international flights), here are some tips to make having an in-flight drink a little more tolerable.

1) Drink water before anything else

It’s really easy to get dehydrated when flying. Humidity inside a typical house falls between 30 and 60 percent, but the air inside a typical plane cabin is often compared to the Sahara Desert, with levels around 10 to 20 percent. (Some newer planes boost the humidity to a balmy 25 percent.) That low humidity helps prevent metal components from rusting, but it also wicks away moisture from your body. Some studies show that dehydration can alter people’s mood. It can also make people more prone to getting sick in a germ-filled cabin , because it dries out mucus membranes in the nose and mouth. And not surprisingly, already-dehydrated people who consume alcoholic beverages may feel the effects of their drink more strongly — and feel worse afterwards.

For all these reasons, it’s important to drink water before and during your flight. Order a glass of water in addition to your preferred beverage. If you’re worried about the quality of the water on the airplane, bring your own refillable container (fill it after security) or purchase a water bottle prior to boarding. While there’s no need to consume more water than you normally would, balance diuretic drinks like cocktails (plus tea and coffee) with relatively equal amounts of H20. This is particularly important on long flights and can help stave off lethargy and jet lag when you arrive at your destination.

2) Plan to limit your drinking — and take the snacks

Again, you won’t get drunk more quickly on a plane. But lack of food and the aforementioned dehydration can make the effects of altitude stronger, thus making a single in-flight drink feel a lot boozier. If you’re willing to pay the premiums for alcohol on a flight, extend that to the food they’re serving, too: It might not be great, but you can avert any cringy reenactments of Bridesmaids by eating and pacing yourself with the wine. (And some free snacks offered by the airline, usually the pre-packaged cookies or crackers, are actually not terrible — take the snacks.) If airplane food doesn’t sound appealing, consider purchasing something to eat on the way to the airport or inside the terminal.

3) Skip fizzy beverages

Fizzy alcoholic beverages like sparkling wine and beer tend to be popular among travelers. Beer in particular often seems like a good choice, because it’s generally more affordable than hard alcohol and is also slightly less dehydrating when sipped slowly. However, there’s some evidence to show that carbonated beverages, like that celebratory brut, will hit your system more quickly and, consequently, make you feel drunk faster.

Other factors also work against that bubbly rum and Coke. Some people report feeling more bloated and gassy at high altitudes, such as during steep ascents during hikes or, in some cases, while flying on an airplane. This experience is known as high altitude flatus expulsion (HAFE) (or colloquially, “jet bloat”), and in theory results from the gases expanding in your gut as you move from a higher pressure to a lower pressure area. While some people recommend digestive aids, the simplest way to combat that bloated feeling is through your diet. At the very least, if you’re going to drink on the flight, try to avoid carbonated drinks like soda and beer beforehand.

4) Drink fruity wines

Because of changes to your palate and the nature of alcohol at 40,000 feet, your preferred style of wine may not hold up at cruising altitude. The rule of thumb, according to most wine experts, is to seek out something low in tannins and acids. That means avoiding options like champagne and chablis in favor of fruitier varieties. Some experts also recommend drinking the wine as early as possible in the flight before your mouth dries out from the low humidity.

5) When in doubt, drink a bloody mary

The unnatural environment inside an airplane alters how people perceive certain flavors, making what would otherwise be an adequate meal and and drink on the ground completely inedible in the air. However, some beverages have a loyal in-flight following. United Airlines customers were outraged in 2018 when the carrier briefly discontinued tomato juice on some flights, observing that it’s one of the few drinks that actually tastes good on a plane.

In one famous case, German airline Lufthansa observed that travelers on its flights consumed nearly as much tomato juice as beer. Researchers for the airline used a specialized lab to recreate the conditions inside an airplane and found that sweet and salty flavors were toned down onboard an aircraft, making food and drink taste bland. In contrast, tomato juice resisted those effects. While the sweetness and saltiness of the tomatoes were indeed more muted, the drink still tasted delicious because tomatoes are rich in umami flavors. This observation led some airlines to incorporate more ingredients associated with umami into food such as seaweed, mushrooms, and soy sauce, as well as spicier ingredients.

Amp up the flavors of your drink in flight by choosing tomato juice or its cousin, spicy bloody mary mix (with or without the booze). And no matter what you do, just try to avoid throwing the drink directly into your face.

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