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Airlines want your money, but not your cash

If you want to buy a snack, headset or a glass of wine on your upcoming holiday flight, be sure you have plastic handy.
Image: flight attendant
Now that flight attendants are equipped with card readers, cash is no longer accepted for onboard purchases by most U.S. carriers.44675.000000 / Getty Images stock

If you want to buy a snack, headset or a glass of wine on your upcoming holiday flight, be sure you have plastic handy. Nearly every major U.S. airline has gone cashless in the cabin. And those that haven’t surely will.

Last week, Continental, Delta and Northwest (Delta’s new partner) joined United, AirTran, Virgin America, Alaska, Frontier and Midwest in the movement. Now that flight attendants are equipped with card readers, cash is no longer accepted for onboard purchases.

In a news release, Continental said the cashless policy means passengers will not have to deal with “the hassle of fumbling for money.”

Paul Skrbec, a spokesperson for Delta, said cashless cabins mean “increased convenience and speed of transactions for customers.”

And there are plenty of benefits for flight attendants. “Personally, I love working a cashless cabin, said Heather Poole, a flight attendant who blogs frequently about flying. “Passengers don't spend the entire flight asking me if I have their change yet. And there was always that one passenger who would hand you a $100 in an effort to score a free drink or meal.”

Why not cash?
While cashless cabins may lighten the load for flight attendants and help airlines improve tracking and accounting, TripAdvisor's Jami Counter pointed out that “cashless cabins are reliant on the hand-held equipment working properly. The move could also potentially alienate an airline’s ‘cash only’ customers.”

Andy Johnson, of LeRoy, Ill., is one of those cash-only customers who’d like airlines to continue accepting cash on board. “Cash is king,” she said, “but people also need to carry appropriate bills. Whenever I travel, I always check out the costs and prepare in advance so that if I want to purchase something, I'm ready.”

Ready or not, if plastic is the only form of payment accepted on your next flight, you may have to play by the airline’s rules. And be warned: you may end up spending more than you planned.

Using credit cards make it easy to lose track of spending, whether on a plane or in a mall — in some ways even easier, said Martin Lindstrom, author of “BUYOLOGY: The Truth and Lies About Why We Buy.” “Most of the money spent on planes is in the form of micro-payments,” he said. “A blanket, a movie, a sandwich. It all adds up on the credit-card bill but not in our brains. We can quickly forget the money we spent on this-and-that, yet realize the full consequences only when the bill arrives.”

There’s another force at work, said Matt Wallaert, a behavioral psychologist for “anchoring and adjustment.” We determine price (and many other things) by using an approximate number that seems reasonable, and then adjusting from there, Wallaert said. Often, airport prices are set higher than those in the “real” world. “So when you've just come from this high-wallet environment, suddenly spending $6 for a [on board] ‘snack pack’ doesn’t seem unreasonable.”

What about kids?
Some parents are concerned. “I don't like it,” said Colorado mom and family travel writer Amber Johnson. “I understand the convenience of not having to deal with counting out change. But what happens when my kids fly alone to see their grandparents? I really don’t want to have to go through the hassle of sending a credit card with them.”

She may not have to. Snacks are complimentary for kids and adults on JetBlue Airways. Complimentary meals are still served on some Continental and Hawaiian Airlines flights. Some carriers, including Delta, Northwest, Frontier, Midwest and United, officially include the cost of a snack or meal in the unaccompanied minor fee. (On Frontier, the fee also includes use of the TV.)

On Virgin America, which has been cashless since the airline’s 2007 launch, in-flight teams will provide an unaccompanied minor with complimentary snacks or meals “if they are hungry onboard and didn’t plan ahead,” said spokesperson Abby Lunardini. Alaska Airlines spokesperson Bobbie Egan noted it has been the airline’s unofficial practice to provide a free meal to unaccompanied minors who don't have food with them. The carrier is “in the process of officially adopting this as a policy in early 2010,” she said.

And US Airways, which plans to go cashless in the first half of 2010, is “looking into things like vouchers, so unaccompanied minors without cards can purchase snacks or food,” said spokesperson Valerie Wunder.

Non-cash options
If you’re unnerved by, or simply against, the idea of giving your 10-year-old a credit card for a sandwich on an unaccompanied cross-country plane ride to grandma’s house, then consider these options:

  • Pack food and snacks for your child, even if the flight is short and there’s a meal waiting at the other end. As we know, delays happen.
  • Buy vouchers. Some airlines, including Alaska and Continental, sell vouchers that serve as airline currency and can be used to buy onboard meals, headsets, blankets and other items.
  • Don’t forget cash. Giampiero Ambrosi of suggests giving a child American Express or Visa gift cards loaded with enough money to cover snacks, meals and any emergencies. Keep in mind, though, that even if your child is scheduled to fly on an airline with a cashless cabin, some connecting flights may be on regional carriers that are still cash only. It’s a good idea to make sure your child has a stash of cash as well.
  • Don’t stop there. Jennifer Miner, one of the Vacation Gals, says a smart parent will do some extra pre-flight planning: “Get to the airport early and ask at the counter if your children's flight is in a cashless cabin. If they don’t know, or if the flight crew isn’t going to make special accommodations for your unaccompanied minor, then it's time to go food shopping!”

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, and a columnist for can follow her on Twitter.