Are you sick of flying high on cookies and pop while wedged into a space so small that it would make a battery chicken cringe? Anyone who has spent 4 hours or more in the coach class of most airlines can probably sympathize.

The topic of whether airline service has gotten better or worse seems to come up whenever I dare to make conversation with my fellow passengers (on some airlines the term "inmates" seems more appropriate).

Airlines do offer many services that were not a part of flying 20 years ago. Things like onboard WiFi, phone services and interactive TV sets are new additions that we are already beginning to take for granted.

But not all of the changes have been for the better. When listening to complaints, the negatives usually include tedious security procedures, tighter legroom and luggage restrictions. But there is one complaint that I hear more than any of these: "What happened to the food?"

In times past, enjoying a free meal up in the sky was something I looked forward to when flying. But those days were over all too soon, and almost overnight we were suddenly expected to pay for overpriced snack-type meals and in some cases even drinks.

Here is the fare you can now expect in coach from major US airlines:

  • United gives you a soft drink on North American flights, and you can buy snacks if you choose. International flights to other continents usually come with complimentary meals.

  • American Airlines offers individually packaged snacks (at a price) on flights that are two hours or longer. If your flight is more than 3 hours long, you can usually buy sandwiches and salads (but be prepared to pay dearly). Although juice, soda, coffee and other nonalcoholic beverages are complimentary. On most international flights you will get complimentary beer, wine and meals.

  • Delta offers complimentary soft drinks on all flights, and even gives complimentary meals on international flights (and Alaska or Hawaii flights) longer than six hours. Snacks and cold meals are available (at a price) on domestic flights of 900 miles or more. Complimentary nonalcoholic beverages are available on all flights.

  • JetBlue offers some snacks and drinks at no extra cost, but you will pay for alcoholic drinks. You can buy boxed meals at a reasonable price on longer flights.

  • Southwest isn't particularly generous. Although you do get snacks on select flights, you will need to pay for drinks other than coffee, juices and cold drinks. Sandwiches and meals aren't available, and they don't accept cash so you'll need a credit card.

Call me a spendthrift, but I could never bring myself to start paying good money for services that I had always received at no extra charge. But don't get me wrong. I don't spend my flying time ogling the sandwich the guy next to me is tearing into.

There is a way to enjoy complimentary food and it is built into several payment cards. These higher-end cards give you airline credit every year that you can use towards spending for things like in-flight meals, upgrades and checked luggage charges. Some even let you apply this credit towards tickets.

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