In-Flight Entertainment: 5 Tips for Scoring Free Drinks on Domestic Flights

There’s a couple widely-known ways to earn “free” in-flight drinks on domestic flights that require logging a lot of miles or credit card points. Those are great and I definitely use them, but the tactics here are specifically for use at 36,000 feet.

When I was flying all over the West Coast 80% of the time for work work I got on a run of scoring free in-flight cocktails on my home-bound flights.  Read on for some tried, true and slightly tasteless tips from a frequent flyer.  

1. Customer service counts:
These tricks probably won’t work on carriers with crummy customer service (ahem, Spirit), but classy airlines like Southwest, Delta and Alaska give their employees the power to go above and beyond to ensure a quality customer experience.  Alaska actually offers complimentary local wine and beer on flights over 3 hours.  Southwest ininflight, Southwest, free, cocktailspen seating gives extra opportunity to score seats with prime free drink conditions.

2. Look for opportunity:
Flying Southwest? (my go-to for good fares and consistent customer service).  Look for a spot with small, rambunctious children within seat-kicking distance. If the parents look frazzled or the kid is gassy, taking the shitty seat (pun intended) is probably good for 2 drinks. Visibly intoxicated, extremely large, snoring or sick seatmates are also winners (for drinks at least).

Flying another reputable carrier? If the flight is delayed or you happen to get seated near one of the aforementioned less-than-ideal single serving friends you have a good chance of hitting the hooch jackpot.

Even if you don’t have a pitiful plane ride in store you might still score a freebie with the right timing, skip to my last tip.

karla-in-flight3. Be prepared:
Now you know the secret: your probability for free drinks is directly proportionate to the misery factor of your flight experience. I recommend headphones and/or earplugs, hand sanitizer, sunglasses, some form of entertainment and a strong stomach/will.  Treat flying like a competitive sport.  You need the right equipment.

4. Be kind but clearly inconvenienced:
It is critical that you NEVER complain about the obviously awful situation. If you have a compassionate flight attendant who is trying to comfort the families and flu-ridden passengers take note and commend them for a job well done. Rock your earplugs or headphones and appear focused on some important work, but don’t miss the opportunity to exchange a knowing glance with the flight attendant when one of the following occurs:

  • the toddler behind you begins to kick (your seat) and scream
  • your large neighbor snores loudly
  • your seatmate lunges for the sick bag
  • the cabin fills with the aroma of a freshly dirty diaper
  • the captain apologizes for the delay

Don’t overdo it, you just need to build a tiny bit of a connection with your flight crew. You are going for the perfect blend of amused and vaguely agitated.

Bonus drinks are almost guaranteed if you can reassure anxious Moms and Dads. You have to know that however off-putting their kids’ behavior, the parent’s embarrassment factor multiplies your frustration times ten. The flight attendants will be grateful to have an ally in keeping the flight as calm and comfortable as possible and even if they don’t comp your drink the parents very well may offer to pay if you order one.

Remember, you are shooting for kind but inconvenienced. Cranky-pants passengers don’t get free drinks!

5. Timing is everything:
If you have a fussy child, full-fledged snoring or influenza-ridden passenger beside you at time of cabin service you are probably a shoe-in for some benevolent boozing. However, your chances go up greatly if you time it right.

Hit some turbulence during drink service? Order now, the flight attendants need to get seated and won’t have time to swipe a card.

It is important you never ask for a drink before beverage service is offered, but if you wait to order a drink until the crew is not carrying a credit card machine they may not come back for your payment. First garbage pick up on any flight over 2.5 hours is generally a safe bet.

Capitalize on adverse situations – hitting the call button to order water for your puking neighbor and a scotch for yourself is going to earn you some sympathy and almost certainly a free drink.

Alternately, ordering your second drink when the dirty-diapered infant behind you hits fever pitch can make for a multi-drink jackpot (as well as the inspiration for this post).

6. Finally, don’t be an ass:
Never order a drink you can’t afford to pay for. I have never been a flight attendant and cannot speak to the parameters they are allowed in terms of doling out adult beverages. It is a fun sport if you are stuck on a plane a few hours, but one should never assume they deserve a free drink. That, my friends, is up to your illustrious in-flight service team!

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