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Mile-High Cocktails: The History of Drinking on Planes (and How to Get the Best Deals)

After the plane reaches cruising altitude and the seatbelt sign switches off, many of us sigh with relief upon seeing the beverage cart move through the aisle. The lucky business class connoisseurs usually get unlimited, free alcohol, while those in economy can swipe a credit card to get their vodka tonic.

Of course, it might not be the first drink of the day — perhaps the only time people don’t feel ashamed to be found sitting at a bar before breakfast is at an airport.

But to back up: Why are cocktails (and beer, and wine) a thing on flights?

We can thank the 1950’s and 60’s for setting the trend: Alcohol used to be free flowing on planes largely because air travel was such a luxury event. It could’ve cost you a month’s salary to take a cross-country flight from New York to San Francisco, whereas now they’re way more affordable. People dressed up in their finest attire to board the plane and dine on fresh fish and caviar, ordering scotch after scotch.

The “but why so much booze?” is a little less clear, though without in-flight movies and WiFi, there’s a good chance a fancy cocktail, aside from its association with class, simply kept people entertained. And when speaking about the “Golden Age” of flying, liquor and fancy cocktails took a front seat. Today, that’s still the norm: Liquor is the most popular drink of choice (34%) followed by wine (13%) and beer (10%).

Flying has since turned from an industry that screamed “luxury” to one that says “commercial.” Passengers are found in their pajamas instead of their best suit, and the in-flight food is not a four-course meal.

Booze is still a must-have for many travelers. There are a great number of airlines that offer free beer, wine, and liquor — especially international airlines like Air Canada, Cathay Pacific, and Air France (which also touts the fact that it provides prestigious champagne in all cabins — cheers!). Even when traveling overseas, however, complementary drinks still depend on if the flights is domestic or international.

But when flying in the U.S, there’s at least one airline people can count on. American Airlines just announced economy passengers will receive a three-course meal (how does cheese and crackers, Tuscan ravioli, and chocolate mousse sound?) with complimentary beer or wine. This holds true for passengers on transatlantic and transpacific flights, as well as ones from the U.S. to Argentina, Brazil, and Chile.

Many still pay the price and order alcohol through the flight attendant (they average at around $7). In fact, it’s a leading revenue source for airlines. Another option is to BYOB. The TSA allows people to bring alcohol on in a carry-on; as long as it is in a 3 oz. bottle, in a quart-sized clear zip-lock, it will breeze through security. Plus, there are recipes for DIY drinks people can make, even 36,000 feet in the air.

So sit back, relax, and keep the sky-high tradition alive: Have a good flight with drink in hand.

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