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Help with Packing Food for Airplane Travel!

I'm leaving this weekend, for a month-long trip to Israel with my girlfriend, and we'll be travelling in airports and planes a combined total of approx. 27hrs.

To make the exhausting and uncomfortable trip more enjoyable, we've decided to pack a picnic lunch and dinner, so as also to avoid the bland overpriced processed airport fare and the garbage they serve on flight.

I'm planning to pass by a local specialty cheese and charcuterie shop in San Francisco on Friday afternoon, to pick up enough to last us the full trip.

I would like to put together a platter of charcuteries including soppressatas, toscanos, salamettos, jamóns and prosciuttos.

I also plan to pick up a variety of cheeses, including a sharp cheddar, nutty chevre, creamy brie or camembert, smoked gouda, aged pecorino, woody fontina, buttery manchego, earthy gruyere, etc.

I'll be buying a fresh-baked country or walnut loaf from Tartine and pre-slicing it at home.

Some market fresh comice pears, purple grapes, walnuts and pistachios, roquette-arugula, water biscuits and crackers... and a bottle of Bollinger or something similar from the duty-free in SFO!

My only concern is: how to keep everything fresh?!?

This seems like a really fun and indulgent way to kick off a memorable vacation... but I don't want it to become impractical either!

I had considered freezing everything the night before, and pulling it out to defrost the next morning so that by the time we're in the sky mid-day, everything would be completely thawed and ready to dig in... but I imagine that would kill the flavors of the meats and cheeses!

I suppose I could try to pick up a freezer bag or small portable temp. controlled lunchbox of sorts, but does anyone have some easier home solutions to packing charcuteries and cheeses for flight?

I realize btw, that we will not be allowed to take any of this food into Israel, however until we land in TLV, we're flying entirely domestic (SFO-EWR-TLV).

Is it SAFE to wrap charcuteries and cheeses in brown paper and cloth and let them sit at room temperatures for many hours on end? I also don't want to be rude and stink up the plane! Luckily we're in a 2-seater aisle though.

I'd appreciate any and all advice!

Thanks so much

PS - If we were to pack a very small plastic supermarket salad dressing sized container of high quality balsamic and oil, would we get it through customs? I believe you are allowed up to a certain capacity of liquid, correct?

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  1. I like your style. I have a 4.7 liter and an 8.5 liter cooler that I routinely carry on aircraft, with neat stuff like you contemplate. I often include small frozen ice packs, and then discard them prior to TSA inspections. Your salad dressing, 3 oz. or less, should be stowed in your toiletries 1 quart Zip-Lock bag. Often there are lawful opportunities to add ice to the small coolers while in transit.
    Enjoy your trip!

    5 Replies
    1. re: Veggo

      Thanks Veggo and not a bad idea!

      I'm sure a small mini-cooler could come in handy while in the scorching oven that is the Middle East this time of year anyways!

      I guess we could request ice from the flight attendants as well while in the sky.... time to Google coolers in SF; seemed like such an obvious solution, duh! :)

      1. re: OliverB

        you can find many lunch box type coolers at Salvation army and other thrift stores. Throw them in the washing machine and let dry outside and they are good as new. Not a high investment (usually around .50) so if they get too much to carry just toss em.

      2. re: Veggo

        And re: disposable ice packs as per Veggo -- you can make your own cheaply: freeze water in a strong quart ziplock placed inside of another quart ziplock (or just fill inner bag with ice cubes). Dump before security line.

        You can ask for a cup of ice at a concession once inside airport (helpful to maybe buy a bottle of water there to grease the generosity, Then dump that ice into yet another quart ziploc (you did bring empties, no?). Makes you less susceptible to the vagaries of an irritated flight attendant.

        If you get a cooler, lean towards a lightweight soft-sider that collapses to fit into luggage when empty. Don't forget that when carried, it counts as a carry-on (sounds obvious but protests of "But that's just my lunch!" may not get you far). Line the inside with a few paper towels -- they'll control spills/leakage and become handy napkins/tissues when needed.

        1. re: DuchessNukem

          In this age when we are being gouged for baggage, any of my dive bags hold both of my small coolers, plus a weeks worth of clothes, in a carry-on. I often reserve the small, hard- wall cooler for sensitive items like cameras, electronics, and avocados.

        2. re: Veggo

          If the trip to your home airport is short enough, and the ice packs are still frozen solid with no apparent slush/liquid when you arrive at the checkpoint, they are acceptable in carry-on baggage. This is specifically mentioned on the TSA website (although as always, knowledge/application of the rules may vary from airport to airport, from agent to agent):

          It's worth a try, anyway, if you want to keep your food nice and cold for the first leg of the journey. As others have said below, I wouldn't worry about charcuterie and hard cheeses even at room temperature for 24 hours. But if the cooler would be useful during the vacation, and maybe for bringing perishable items back from Israel, go for it.

        3. The food should be safe temperature wise - charcuterie and cheese are both methods of food preservation, and are fine for quite some time at room temp. I recently brought a pound of salami home from Seattle on a 12 hour, two plane trip. I asked the guys at the salumeria what would survive the trip in my suitcase, and they said anything would go as long as I didn't mind my clothes smelling like sausage...

          Please do be aware of the smell factor. I packed a lovely picnic for my trip out to Seattle, including my favorite aged gouda. I planned to eat it on the first leg of the trip as soon as the beverage carts rolled through. I cracked open the container, and immediately closed it. The cheese smelled much stronger on the plane than on the ground, and as much as I love it, I could not subject my seatmates to that aroma for 3 hours. Most airlines offer a fruit/cheese platter for sale now, so I would look to those for guidance on low odor cheeses - cheddar, brie, harvarti... avoid smoked cheeses, and strong hard cheeses.

          Small salad dressing containers will get through screening as they meet the 3oz/1 quart rule. REI sells small nalgene brand bottles in a variety of sizes, and they are fantastic for travel condiments. They are generally sold for toiletries, but are food safe. They are easier to open/close/reuse than disposable containers.

          1 Reply
          1. re: mpjmph

            Thanks so much!

            I'll try REI for both the Coleman and plastic containers! I've got some incredible balsamic from Bi-Rite earlier this year and amazing olive oil that I'd like to fill them with. First time I've ever been excited about food on a long flight! :)

          2. Bringing cheese is annoying. Every time I have had cheese in my hand-carry as a gift, my bag gets singled out for a hand search. I think it probably has a similar density to plastic explosives. Now, when I remember, I take it out along with my laptop.

            You can probably forget the duty-free bottle of Bollinger. I believe that every international flight I have been on has had the rule that you can only drink the alcohol that served by the flight attendants. I've read that most international flights these days have free beer and wine (even in economy), though.

            1. In a non food-specific point - I would be careful about having salty food (the meats) when flying to Israel. Depending on how your flights are staggered, if you're leaving from the US to Tel Aviv (as opposed to a layover in Europe), they don't let you take any bottled water with you on the plane. None. You can sneak on a bottle that you bought/filled up in the terminal, but you have to be sneaky because they do ask/look for all bottles of liquid before you board the plane. If you buy duty free liquids in the airport, they seal those for the duration of the flight too. I'm not entirely sure why, but that's the way it is (as of July 2012).

              Now on the planes you can get unlimited cups of water, but for a 9-11 hour flight, it's never really enough and I've never met a flight attendant kind enough to give me a whole bottle of water. So I just recommend being careful about salt intake however you're eating. Arriving in Tel Aviv in August dehydrated isn't the way I'd recommend starting a vacation.

              1 Reply
              1. re: cresyd

                Quick follow-up on the garbage they serve on the plane - I've never had a good meal on the flight, but at least for the US-Tel Aviv flights it does work on a functional level. I've never left the flight starving or sick (from the food). That being said, at this point I find the flight to be fairly devoid of romance and really just want to avoid feeling ill and sleep as much as possible.

                The other thing to keep in mind is that depending on the airline and the passengers seated near you, for the flight to Tel Aviv if you're obviously eating pork products on the plane - you may end up with less than pleasant people sitting near you. If you're flying El Al, I would strongly recommend being more aware of those issues than other airlines.

              2. I echo the sentiments about pork products on a Tel Aviv-bound flight. Not everyone will find your goodies delightful.

                I also echo the cautions about soft cheeses. Not only are soft cheese considerably more susceptible to spoilage and squishage, but let's be frank - they stink. A lot. Particularly chevre. Your neighbors are very likely to not be very happy about being cooped up next to the smell of the feet of angels for 10 hours.

                the mention upthread about drinking alcohol you've purchased is correct -- it's not allowed on any flight I've ever been on.

                Much as I agree with the sentiment, the reality is that the ice game is a major pain in the butt, and the cultural issues of this particular flight are going to just increase it. I don't like airplane food, either, but it might be easier to just take the path of least resistance here.

                2 Replies
                1. re: sunshine842

                  I once bought a soft cheese in duty free for a flight from Brussels to Tel Aviv - a product completely sealed in plastic (both the packaging and the extra duty free "do not open until you land" bag) - and the smell was strong. Sitting in the overhead compartment strong. The cheese was great and arrived unspoiled, but I'm not sure if I'd ever do it again due to the embarrassment.

                  1. re: cresyd

                    I did it at Christmas -- took a wedge of Brie and a round of Camembert that I bought at the airport, because my regular cheese guy was closed (so it wasn't vacuum packed)

                    I opened the overhead bin in Miami and three of us staggered a little - -it was *rank*. No problem eating it, but p.u. (Soft cheese just gets more 'fragrant' at room temperature, even if it hasn't been out of refrigeration long enough to be harmed)

                    Made a note to myself to bring a couple of ziplocs the next trip.

                2. Be careful with the cheese. I recently was in Oregon at the Tillamook Cheese factory and they recommended checking the cheddar we purchased in our checked luggage as some people have had it confiscated at security when trying to carry it on. I was surprised because it is not a soft cheese but we checked it just in case. If you're buying nice cheese it would be a shame to have it confiscated.

                  1. While I think it's a nice idea, I think your choose of foods leave a lot to be desired. I'd be pretty POed if I had to sit on a plane for 10 hours and smell garlicky meats and sweaty feet cheese. Those are, like you said, picnic items... A plane is not the place to have a picnic.

                    You'd be better off getting some gourmet sandwiches which don't contain stinky cheese or onions. Your fellow seat mates will be very happy. You don't want to stink up the whole plane for hours on end.

                    1. I agree with those that are warning about the smell. I would recommend that you stay well-hydrated, and have a couple of non-stinky sandwiches, and some snack items. Nut loaf, spread with cream cheese would be nice, having some dried fruit would be a good side. Having oil and vinegar to douse whatever while you are in the air, can be messy.
                      I'd save the picnic idea for another time and place, and go with comfort and ease (as well as consideration of fellow-travelers) on the plane.

                      1. Thanks everyone for the advice and suggestions!

                        Luckily we're flying United for both legs, and will have at least a 7-hour trip to Newark with a 3-hour layover between 7pm and 10pm; so regardless of what happens with the food on our second leg of the trip, it will at least serve us well for the better half of a full day's travel. We'll probably (hopefully) sleep the majority of the length of our second leg of the trip, between Newark and TLV.

                        That's a real bummer about the duty-free alcohol regulations. I suppose it makes sense as I could understand why the airlines would want to regulate alcohol consumption on long flights, however it's disappointing nonetheless! I think I'll give United a ring this aft and just double check with them on their policies. So much for our in flight celebration...

                        As for the soft cheese, I'll inquire at the shop as to which is the least odorous, and of course if it proves too much or potentially overbearing to fellow passengers on board, we'll simply save it for the flight lounge during our airport layover in EWR.

                        The ice should not be a problem as I plan to fill several ziplock bags prior to arrival, dump them at security check, and then request a few refills for the bags from an attendant. I'm sure it won't be an issue as there's always plenty of ice on board. I could easily bring extra bottles on the flight to EWR but as I'd have no way of freezing them on the plane, it'd seem useless other than for consumption.

                        How's the wine selection of most intercoastal domestic flights these days?

                        14 Replies
                        1. re: OliverB

                          The regulations regarding alcool sold at Duty Free is not only for the airlines to force you to drink their beverages, but also due to the fact that you bought a duty free item, while still being in home soil for a certain part of the trip. By sealing the bag this assures them that you did brought the item out of the country

                          (Swiss in First Class serves a really good Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle as the pre departure drink, unless you depart from the USA, since they aren't allowed to open those bottles because they didn't pay the US duties on them)

                          1. re: westaust

                            I wonder what sort of selection we can expect from economy class SFO to Newark, haha.

                            I tried to upgrade our seats to business last week and was quoted over 10k (the entire round trip) for the both of us!

                            Do airlines usually stock decent wine at least? You'd think they'd have some decent large California producers if nothing else, flying out from San Francisco.

                            I wouldn't risk it, but I wonder if anyone ever attempts to sneak their own duty-free liquors out while on board. I suppose a flask of high grade bourbon would come in handy! :)

                            1. re: OliverB

                              I don't fly for the wine. I usually am full of dramamine.

                              1. re: OliverB

                                If you purchase duty-free alcohol before an outbound US flight, the TSA recommends buying it on the last leg of the flight because you will not be able to clear security with it. You should buy it after you've cleared the security checkpoint. If you had a direct flight outbound from the US, they seal the bottle in a tamper evident plastic bag. If the bag is open at your destination, customs will seize it.

                                1. re: boogiebaby

                                  Uh, really? So why not just toss the bag on the airplane? Customs in the arrival country generally doesn't care where you bought the goods (in a duty-free shop or in a normal shop). What they care about is whether you owe any additional duty to bring them into their country.

                                  The airline doesn't want you opening your duty-free booze on the plane because they don't want passengers drinking one liter of whisky during the flight.

                                  1. re: DeppityDawg

                                    You need scissors to open the tamper safe bag. Unless something has changed since April (when I last flew internationally) scissors are not allowed in your carryon. So you have no way to open it. If you buy duty free liquor on the flight itself, they will not give it to you until after you land. You can't buy duty free on a domestic flight. When you buy duty free anything, you have to show your boarding pass so they can confirm you are flying internationally.

                                    I fly occasionally to Asia and my husband travels both domestic and internationally for business often. We always take liquor as gifts from duty free and bring back liquor that is harder to find in the US. If we fly LA to Narita to Singapore, we have to buy the liquor at Narita because when you disembark and reboard there, you have to clear security, and the 3-1-1 rule is in play.

                                    1. re: boogiebaby

                                      It's just a plastic bag. You can rip it open with your hands, or teeth, or with a pen or keys or nail clippers. It's not designed to be super difficult to open, it's designed to make opening obvious and irreversible. And it only needs to stay sealed until you get on the plane, if you really want to drink that booze in the lavatory and enjoy feeling like a 15-year old again...

                                      1. re: DeppityDawg

                                        and only if you figure it's worth the risk of being thrown off of a flight and forfeiting the rest of your trip.

                                2. re: OliverB

                                  Here is what United is currently offering:


                                  Wine choices in economy are likely to be a red or white, from a large producer, mass quantity type wines, California or otherwise, in 187ml bottles at about $6 each.

                                  If you are flying United out of SFO in Terminal 3, stop at Emporio Rulli for a nice selection of wine by the glass before you board.

                                  1. re: OliverB

                                    The Tel Aviv duty free store is big on serving bunches of single serving (hotel/airplane size) booze. I have definitely snuck that into beverages on flights leaving Tel Aviv. Clearly the tiny size and the twist tops makes that pretty easy.

                                3. re: OliverB

                                  I'd suggest saving the good food for the layover and eating as little on the plane as possible. The altitude, cabin pressure, and dry air are some factors that diminish our ability to taste on an aircraft, which is one reason why airplane food has a reputation of tasting bland.

                                  I honestly try to eat very little before and during long airplane trips because I want to minimize the probability I will need to use the restrooms on the plane. I stick with unadventurous foods that do not have a history of upsetting my stomach.

                                  In economy, your wine selection is going to be cheap stuff that a winery can produce in large enough quantities to supply a lot of flights. You''ll have a basic red and a basic white. I think I've read that fruity wines that some people find too sweet at ground level are the kind of wines that do best in taste tests done on actual flights.

                                  1. re: FoodPopulist

                                    I'm going to dry to keep this as delicate and graceful as possible, but things like cheese ad garlicky charcuterie and bubbly wine.....if you've ever watched what happens to a closed plastic bottle as you change altitude, you know where I'm going with this.

                                    As you descend, the air is compressed -- so not problem, right?....but a few hours later when you ascend and stay at 39,000 feet for an extended period of time? Yeah, it's not all that great for anyone sitting next to you.

                                    1. re: sunshine842

                                      Most fuselages are pressurized to the equivalent of about 7000 feet of altitude while in flight at much higher altitudes. If you are suggesting that the pressurization changes may induce flatulence, I can say without equivocation that it.....can. Most divers know that a human digestive system contains about a quart of gas by volume.