The Definitive Guide to Drinking in Airports

iStock (Edited by Jennifer Bui)

According to highly scientific polling, every day, hundreds of people pass through the world’s airports without drinking. Possibly thousands. These people are doing it wrong. 

While the destination is something to be cherished and lusted after, the airport itself is a scourge. It is lonely, it is somber, it charges you seven dollars an ounce for water, it has delayed your flight for the fourth time, and it doesn’t have enough available outlets, meaning you’ll only be able to watch maybe one-third of Spy Kids: All the Time in the World on your Android smartphone. Everything goes wrong, always. Misery is the default. 

This is why you drink. 

The airport, however, is not the real world (either the one outside the airport, or the one in which people stop being nice, and start getting paid to emcee Bar Mitzvahs after their season is over), and therefore presents many unique paradoxes and questions. It confuses even the most established of drinkers. 

To help, we rounded up 12 of the most common questions curious souls ask themselves (or their priest) about airport drinking, and will now answer them one by one, in as much or little detail as they deserve.

Flickr/Stian Olsen

Do you have to order a Bloody Mary or other breakfast cocktail before 10am? Are beers, liquor, and standard cocktails fine?

Airports are time vortexes. You will sit next to people who, hours previously, were literally halfway around the world. You can fly 3,000mi from NY to SF with only two hours coming off the clock. Time barely exists in airports, unless you’re sprinting, bags bouncing off your desperate body, because your flight is about to take off. And if you are, you probably shouldn’t stop to get a drink, so this question will not apply to you. 

For the rest of you: You are never going to see any of these people ever again. Except, possibly, for immediately again, when they end up in the seat next to you for a 16-hour flight to Mumbai. 

The point is: screw it. This is your show. If what you want is a giant beer at 8am, get that giant beer. If what you want is a pint glass of Lagavulin, get that pint glass of Lagavulin. If what you want is a Mojito, get something else, because that Mojito will be more poorly constructed than a Millennium Falcon Lego set built by that guy who just drank a pint glass of Lagavulin during a 15-minute layover. 

Do you get the double? 

Most airport bars will offer a double version of your spirit or cocktail, or a beer that’s close to twice as large as their standard beer, for a nominal additional cost -- let’s say $2. Of course you get the double. You always get the double. Only a complete asshat does not get the double. It’s simple economics. 

Airport Drinks, just like Airport Sbarro Supreme Stuffed Deep Dish Slices, are notoriously overpriced, except in progressive cities full of marginally employed people, like any and all cities named “Portland.” Make your peace with this now; it’s fine. You’re captive. The laws of The Market will never apply. This, of course, means any opportunity to hack into said gouging must be exercised.

If a rail gin on the rocks costs $8, and the double you so wisely purchase clocks in at $10, you just knocked down your per-drink cost to around or below that of a normal, non-airport bar. You have defeated an undefeatable system. And as a reward for your noble fighting of the power, you now get twice as much rail gin on the rocks. You are a financial and imbibing success. You won. Also, why are you drinking rail gin on the rocks?

Flickr/Eldan Goldenberg

Should you talk to other people at the bar more/less than you would in a regular bar? 

In the non-airport world, people go to bars for manifold reasons. Maybe they’re celebrating a big promotion or birthday. Maybe they’re depressed because there isn’t another episode of Castle for an entire week. Maybe they’re on an incredibly sexy date with Ed Begley Jr. Chances are none of these people are dying to talk to you, a total stranger who is significantly less handsome than Ed Begley Jr. 

In the airport, none of these things are the case. Every single person is either traveling, or just got off work ringing up $4 Snickers bars and Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazines at Hudson News. Most of them are alone. They are all explicitly focused on mitigating a bit of the horror of airports via drinking. 

With this in mind, you can feel free to make an idle, non-aggressive comment about the sports contest on TV, or how your flight has been delayed again, or how Auntie Anne’s pretzel dogs are tasting really good this month. If the person responds well, you may have just acquired a new friend for the next 23 minutes. If the person turns away and doesn’t want to talk about Auntie Anne’s pretzel dogs, they are probably French, or a nihilist, or both. Don’t push them. 

If you do find a willing friend, should you tell crazy goddamn stories to said stranger because you'll definitely never see them again? 

You sure should. Make them all about doing molly with Gloria Steinem.


How early is too early to take shots? 

Please refer to question 1. 

Do you have to buy members of the military a drink to thank them for their service? 

This becomes a decision based on situational awareness and proximity. If the military individual is sitting next to you, and has no drink or less than half a drink in front of them, you should embrace your inner gratitude-filled citizen, and ask them if they would enjoy a drink as appreciation for their service. 

Basically all other situations do not require you to perform this benevolent act -- namely, military individuals sitting across the bar, or military individuals with full drinks. If the serviceperson in question is Channing Tatum from G.I. Joe, you do not have to make an offer no matter the circumstances, because that movie was terrible. But whatever route presents itself, be sure to say “thank you for your service.” They seem to love that. 

Of course, if you’re trying to hit on them, ignore these rules, send them a Buttery Nipple, and wink really hard. 

Flickr/Herry Lawford

How much drinking do you need to do to make it worth paying for a day pass to an airport lounge? 

Well, the cost of the pass, obviously. So normally about $50, which nets out to five to six beers, or maybe three Scotches if you’re drinking good Scotch, which you should absolutely do in airport lounges. That said, they’ll 100% know you’re not a rich businessman, since rich businessmen are too busy arbitraging like mad to drink five to six beers in a short period of time.

Does tipping differ due to inflated prices?

OK, there are a few ways to look at this one.

1) For one-off cash transactions, the standard dollar a drink remains fine. If your beer is $9 and you pay with a $10, just drop that remaining buck and be done with it. The bartender isn’t doing any more work than one at a normal, non-airport bar. That said, aside from the actual pouring of your drink, he/she does have to do horrible things like slog through security just like fliers, and, you know, WORK IN AN AIRPORT EVERY DAY. With this in mind, displays of humanity, and the extra dollar or two, are certainly not discouraged by this guide; it’s just also not mandated. 

2) 15% to 20% should persist as the rule if you pay with a card and order more than one drink -- and certainly if mozzarella sticks or other lesser foodstuffs are involved. 

3) To the properly shrewd and uncaring soul, none of these things matter, mainly because they’re likely never see this particular bartender again, and therefore hold no reasons to cultivate their future favor. 

4) That last guy is a dick.

Flickr/Roland Tanglao

Is it okay to take up a four-top at a restaurant that serves food, and just order drinks?

Yes, if there are no other seats available. Tables in airport bars turn over much faster than tables in non-airport bars, which reduces your sitting footprint significantly. That said, if someone comes up to your giant, mostly empty table and is all, “do you mind if I also sit at this giant, mostly empty table?”, you are legally not allowed to mind.

When should you stop drinking?

This question has everything to do with gate proximity and your personal boarding awareness. If the bar is close enough to your gate that you can hear your boarding announcements, or see people wearing the same cutting-edge North Face Denali Fleece fashions as yourself boarding that flight to Boston, you can just drink and drink and eventually make a run for it right before they close the door, which, trust me, they are not going to open, even if you politely threaten their physical well-being.

If you are separated from your gate by extreme distance or visual impediments, you should order your last drink 10 to 15 minutes before your flight is scheduled to board, finish it right as boarding “begins”, and wander on over nice and slowly, because you know you’re not in Zone A.

The point is: push it. Push it real good. That is a lyric from a popular Salt-N-Peppa song.

Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker

Should you break the seal before the flight?

Which seat do you have on the flight? Is it an aisle seat? Yes? Then seal-break away!! You will have unfettered access to aisles, which will eventually lead to lavatories that people hotter than yourself will attempt to have sex in.

Is it a window seat? Yes? Well, now you’re in a tight spot. You’ve gone from asking nobody for permission to go to the bathroom, to asking two people for permission to go to the bathroom. You have reverted to being five years old, and the people in seats 16 B and C are your parents. And the worst part is, parents always fall asleep when you have to pee the worst. Consider holding it. Forever.

Is it a middle seat? Are you an elite-level athlete capable of broad-jumping sleeping fat people who have a very old and bulky Dell Inspiron laptop, a Savory Tapas Snack Box, and three Diet Fantas on their tray table? If so, break that seal. If not, settle in, brother. Or sister! Although people are generally nicer to girls who want to get out to pee.

Can you demand your check NOW because you have a flight to catch? Or is it your responsibility to keep track of boarding/drinking times?

I have no idea. I’m also usually one of the last people on the plane.