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Flying and food don't often make a good combination. Travel within the United States for three hours or less in economy class, and you might not be able to find out, as the practice of serving free meals has all but disappeared since the US airline industry has had to struggle to remain profitable post 9/11.

Take a similar flight in other countries though, and you might be surprised to encounter real meals. On long haul legs, where food is served and generally feared, there are some glimmers of hope for your taste buds on the horizon.

Frequent fliers often know the secrets of getting the best meals. Pre-ordering special meals such as vegetarian, Kosher, Halal, non-dairy or low fat/low sodium can be a way to ensure that the eating experience is less painful and, dare I say, possibly enjoyable. These meals are more carefully prepared, less mass-produced and can even be deemed tastier. As an added bonus, these meals are generally served first so you will avoid the long waits, even if you are seated at the back of the plane.

Since the changes to many food service policies were introduced, passengers have sought out new and novel ways to satisfy hunger. Obviously bringing your own food has its advantages but might not always be practical. Some airports have food outlets that prepare small hampers to go, but in general the thought of eating your semi-cold Big Mac in flight is rather un-appetizing, not to mention an unpleasant experience for those seated near you.

Alternatively, if you live in the Los Angeles area there is Skymeals (tel. 866/SKYMEALS; www.skymeals.com), a catering company that markets ready-to-go gourmet meals to travelers. All items are packaged in stay-cool containers and are delivered to homes or hotels. Menu offerings range from chocolate cake at $5.95 to the four-course meal for $37. Most meals are in the $20 to $25 range, so it's definitely not for the budget traveler.

While not providing free food, some carriers have introduced a pay as you go service, which can be appealing, as long as what you're buying is actually edible. Song (www.flysong.com) might charge for its food, but at least you know that it is healthy. It has introduced a ranged of organic goodies, including organic baby food. No need to pre-book your special meals, as these gourmet delights are available on all flights.

American Airlines (www.aa.com) has recently dropped its free food service on all domestic flights, even those in excess of three hours. It now offers $3 snack boxes on most of its longer domestic flights. On transcontinental and Hawaiian flights, passengers can buy sandwiches or wraps for $5. US Airways also features $5 sandwiches. A number of other US airlines have tested or adopted the concept of selling food, including AmericaWest, Delta, Northwest, and United. JetBlue and SouthWest only offer snacks so they encourage passengers to bring their own meals on board.

Often the quality of the food is more determined by the country of origin, i.e. where it was prepared, than by the airline that serves it, which you might want to bare in mind if you are flying from a destination where you would avoid eating meat for example. From an international perspective, on both long and short haul sectors, the food you will receive on Asian airlines will almost certainly be a step above its US or European counterparts. Many Asian airlines will offer a greater selection of cuisine, including western and traditional foods. The food tends to be lighter and less starchy and although you might still experience the quintessential rubbery chicken, you might also be fortunate enough to receive stir-fry noodles or sushi. Often the presentation of the Asian meals helps make them more appetizing. Fresh tropical fruit is a mainstay of airlines like Thai, Malaysia, Singapore Airlines, Garuda and Cathay Pacific so you can't go too wrong with the breakfasts and desserts. They also tend to feed you more regularly which can be a blessing to some and an annoyance to others. If you are after the authentic and the spicy, you might be surprised that Pakistan International Airlines and Sri Lanka Airlines both serve high quality traditional meals, whereas Air India meals consistently gets negative reviews. In general, airlines like Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines will all provide high standard meals that are nutritious as well as relatively tasty.

For Halal food, Emirates and Gulf Airlines both have a reputation for excellent meals in economy class. European airlines rarely fare so well in the ratings, however there are some exceptions, including Virgin Atlantic, Air France, KLM and at times Alitalia, especially when flying out of their home-base countries (England, France, the Netherlands and Italy).

Some people are so obsessed with airline food, or should I say the negative aspects of in-flight catering, that there is actually a website dedicated to airline food: www.airlinemeals.net. It features actual photographs and reviews of meals so if you happen to be one of these people, then using this site as a resource could help you make informed decisions as to which airlines to fly if eating is a travel priority, or more importantly which airline meals to avoid.

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