How to Think About Coffee Inflight, in Hotels, and Around the World

My morning routine is simple. It starts with coffee, and eases into work. That’s true whether I’m at home or on the road.

I’m drinking a little less than I used to. For years I joked that you could run my blood through a still once a week to filter out caffeine byproducts, and use that to run a local taxi fleet’s alternative fuels experiment.

For years I’ve ordered freshly roasted beans online at Old Bisbee Roasters. I grind the beans fresh for each cup. And I generally make my coffee strong, too often people water it down.

Things are a little more complicated on the road, whether it’s inflight or in hotels.

My Morning Airport Routine

At the Austin airport we have an app-based coffee robot. When I turn up at the TSA checkpoint I hit the order button on my phone. By the time I’m through security and walking by the machine my drink is ready. I enter a three digit code and it’s released to me. I stop for a matter of seconds and I continue on my way.

austin airport briggo coffee robot
Some Foolish People Stand in Line to Order From the Machine Instead of Downloading the App

The Problem With Airline Coffee

One Mile at a Time recently shared his thoughts on coffee and much of our thinking is similar, though he’s more positive on coffee inflight than I am, and we have some nuanced differences in approach.

There are really three things that go into airline coffee, and explain why it’s usually bad. There’s the beans, the (tank) water, and the cabin pressure.

Frankly in the air about the best thing you can do with the grounds is use them to mask smells in the lavatory.

coffee grounds in airplane lavatory

Investing in better coffee just makes good business sense.

  • A major legacy airline likely spends $5 – $10 million a year on coffee.
  • Improving it might double the price.

However the value created for an airline far outstrips that price.

  • Improved operational efficiency and reduced delays, by eliminating pilots stopping at Starbucks in the terminal on the way to the aircraft.

  • Improved employee morale, which in turn affects customer service. Better coffee is a product flight attendants can be proud of and reduces complaints they receive from customers.

  • This is especially important on high yield business routes, the ‘first flight Monday morning’ consultant specials.

When United Airlines dropped Starbucks after the Continental merger in favor of Fresh Poo, Delta picked up Starbucks. Then when Oscar Munoz replaced CEO Jeff Smisek in a corruption scandal one of the first attempts at a rapprochement with customers was to introduce stroopwafels and Illy coffee. United is probably using the best beans of any U.S. carrier now, but it still suffers from the water they use and that they’re making it at altitude.

Meanwhile the idea that Starbucks somehow signals quality is strange. And the brand alone doesn’t matter most, when United served Starbucks it was a special light brew because too many passengers were overwhelmed by deeper flavors. They worked to serve the lowest common denominator taste.

Nonetheless I’ve certainly had some good coffee on board. ANA in particular, perhaps a dozen years ago, served an amazing variety of quality choices. I used to eschew alcohol, too excited to try the different coffees, despite wanting to get plenty of sleep on board.

I love Etihad’s coffee service – and not just for the silver trays and baklava – but because they’ve usually been willing to customize the strength of what they serve. To be sure it’s really just adjusting how strong the espresso they use is, and there’s a difference between coffee and espresso, but I get the deep rich flavor as well as caffeine I need after a long Etihad flight.

etihad first class coffee service

Here’s something else that drives me nuts about airline coffee, though – carriers that won’t serve hot drinks when the seat belt sign is on. A little turbulence on approach to Hong Kong after a long overnight Cathay Pacific flight and having no access to coffee is another form of fail.

The Challenge of Hotel Coffee

On the road I’ll often drink Starbucks but the truth is that’s effectively ‘giving up’. Nonetheless I’ll even choose a hotel based on its proximity to a nearby coffee shop that opens early, if not one in the hotel itself.

costa coffee
Costa Coffee, Premier Inn, Abu Dhabi International Airport

The problem with hotel coffee shops or carts is that they frequently don’t open early enough. People are coming in from all time zones. If you’re on the East Coast you may have guests from Europe, perhaps just getting in the night before, there’s a good chance they’ll be up before 6 a.m. Similarly a hotel on the West Coast hosting guests from the East Coast.

Years ago I stayed at a W Hotel on the West Coast. I woke up at 5 a.m. and wanted coffee. There was nothing in the room to make it. I called the “Whatever Whenever” line. I wanted coffee (whatever) at 5 a.m. (whenever) but told it was not possible before 6.

And don’t get me started on hotel shops that say they open at 6, but you go downstairs to find that the employees who are supposed to run it haven’t shown up yet.

hilton jfk lobby coffee shop
Hilton JFK

At least the coffee is likely to be better than what you can make yourself in the room, and hopefully made from equipment that gets cleaned every now and then (or at least every six months).

And this is why you check the hotel coffeemaker before you use it…. from r/trashy

If you’re going to use the in-room machine though I want to leave as little as possible to chance. I’ll take a K-cup machine, but the truth is those don’t make very good coffee. Mark Bittman suggests how to hack a Keurig,

Insert one coffee pod into the Keurig and fill the machine’s reservoir with half the required amount of water. When the machine is finished brewing, insert another pod into the Keurig and put another half-requirement of water in the reservoir. When it’s finished brewing, you will have a full cup with twice the coffee, Bittman says.

“I’m not saying it’s any good,” Bittman says, “but at least it’s got a little body and a little flavor to it, and it probably has the amount of caffeine you’re looking for.”

keurig machine w hotel austin
W Austin

That still leaves the problem with in-room coffee that (1) since it’s bad, (2) you probably need to cut the flavor with some sort of creamer, however (3) stuff most hotels stock in rooms that doesn’t need refrigeration isn’t going to get you what you need.

That’s one reason why I’ll sometimes order from room service, first hoping that it’ll be better than what I can make in the room, but mostly just to get fresh creamer for bad coffee. Although I was once accused of stealing coffee from room service at a Sheraton.

Where to Find the Best Coffee

One of the great things about traveling is experiencing the world as other people experience it, and realizing that while your own home town may be great in many ways there’s a whole variety of perspectives and innovations that you can bring back with you and improve your own life in ways you’d never have thought of.

On the whole coffee in the U.S. is much better than it was 20 years ago. There was once a fear that Starbucks would put small independent coffee shops out of business, and the opposite has happened. Starbucks turned out to be a ‘gateway’ to better coffee, introducing a mass consumer market to $4 cups rather than Folgers or Sanka. And many of those consumers graduated to more nuanced takes on coffee offered by smaller purveyors. Independent shops have prospered in many ways because of Starbucks.

However much of the world has been far ahead of the U.S. in coffee. While some people swear by Italian coffee culture – you won’t sit down in a coffee shop so much as stand and drink your espresso, and certainly not get it to go – I’ve found the very best coffee to be in Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia.

oriole cafe singapore
Oriole Cafe & Bar at the Pan Pacific off Orchard Road

I’ll take even OldTown White Coffee kopitiam in Malaysia over Starbucks, and independent shops seem to do a better job than most places in most cities here in the States. It may just be – as especially in Singapore and Melbourne – that the competition is so abundant and the consumer tastes developed over long periods.

To be sure there are myriad coffee shops in Austin, and the coffee in my home town is above average for the U.S., but we don’t compare – expectations are so high in other parts of the world that you’re far less likely to get bad coffee just about anywhere you go, without searching out for ‘best’.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @ Gary — Airplane and hotel room are potentially dangerous to your health. I never drink airplane coffee and try to avoid hotel room coffee.

  2. @Gene, I agree 100%. I always grab a coffee before boarding if I think I want coffee. I will never believe that tank water on a plane is uncontaminated. Just look at the cabins.

  3. I could not believe how many coffee shops there were in Seoul, South Korea, and a lot independently owned.

  4. For 10ish years now, I have been traveling with beans, a high end hand grinder, an Aeropress, and a collapsable water kettle. I have amazing coffee, often the best that may be available in the city I’m in. Yeah it’s a few more things to pack, but when I take that first sip of a wonderful Kenyan or Central American Geisha while in some second rate city, it’s pure luxury.

  5. Coffee is life! on the road or in the air. I’m old enough to remember how good airplane coffee used to be. The aroma brewing wafted throughout the cabin. Now, airplane coffee is yukky and the bathroom runs it creates with lines to the closet toilet–no thanks. I’m done with Starbucks, I’ll take Dunkin Donuts. I dont have an exclusive lock on coffee nut but I hate having to leave home where my espresso beans and awesome machine with grinder reside! I start to get withdrawal shakes just thinking about leaving. Gotta really want to get on a plane to leave my home set up.

  6. For international destinations, I’d add: Kyoto and Tokyo in Japan; Wroclaw, Krakow, and Warsaw in Poland; Berlin in Germany; and Brno and Prague in Czech Republic. In the US, the coffee scene is mostly pretty sad, even in the so-called specialty coffee capital of San Francisco.

    Happy travels!

  7. Great article.

    Here are my go-to travel hacks

    + pack own kettle + 1 – 2 24oz Hydroflask bottles + individual servings of first-pick wild organic tea in little plastic bags + sanitizing wipes + small spray bottle of hydrogen peroxide (1 Hydroflask for water, 1 Hydroflask for hot beverages)
    + on flying days, EITHER have loose-leaf organic tea (which means buying spring water + heating it up with portable immersion heater) OR buy coffee
    + note: buying spring water to avoid fluoride / toxins in municipal water
    + (optional) each day fill one water bottle with lemons, mint whatever (flavours water during day)
    + on plane, wipe down high-touch surfaces (e.g. TRAY TABLE, arm rests etc) with sanitizing wipes
    + NEVER EVER EVER EVER get any hot liquids / tap water from airplane (I’m told water tanks are never cleaned & outside the plane, the input for water is right next to the outlet for the poopoos! do the maths!)
    + in room, wipe down high touch surfaces &/or spray with hydrogen peroxide (e.g. door handles, remote, telephone, bathroom surfaces, toilet, shower etc)
    + in city, avoid big coffee chains (STARBUCKS etc)
    + look for & support small cafés that carry organic coffee (usually found on “healthy” food app HAPPY COWS) (in addition to supporting small business, “proper” baristas are serious about coffee and tend to have water filters to enhance the flavour profile of their beverages)
    + buy or have someone delivery a few 5-gallon jugs of spring water & make tea in room with own kettle
    + avoid the in-room coffee machine like the plague!

  8. The best coffee I have had in a hotel was Busan Park Hyatt. A genuine Nespresso machine in every room! ☕☕☕

  9. Starbucks Via instant coffee is our alternative to hotel room coffee. Plus a small kettle to not have to even go near the in room brewer for hot water. (Late night noodle too)

    It’s not extravagant like some of you coffee warriors above, but it’s the best instant coffee available and several times a year it’s 1/3 off at Costco.

    Measure your water carefully; if you make it too weak there’s no way back.

  10. First BBQ, now coffee? Someone trying to start a knife fight?

    (FWIW, Austin just got ranked 7th in Best BBQ Cities, so there.)

    For the record, the best coffee experience, that’s coffee plus location plus the price you pay, is at Tazza D’Oro across from the Pantheon in Rome. For 1.10 euro for a cappuccino, you can’t beat it. I won’t claim it’s the best coffee you’ve ever had, but it’s up there. And the guys who serve it are so good looking, you’ll consider switching side.

  11. There are now instant coffee packets from boutique craft coffee roasters that are fabulous. Coava Coffee in Portland sells many of its single-origin coffees in instant coffee form, and they’re not cheap! They are, however, far superior to Starbucks and Keurig. In a hotel room, I use a little tool from REI to bring a cup of water close to a boil and mix in the instant coffee. Voila! A fabulous cup of coffee at any hour of the day.

  12. @Gene, good idea. And, actually enjoy the ritual and pleasure of drinking tea. Or good coffee.

    @Phil, must check out Coava Coffee

  13. Anybody who writes a article praising Starbucks shouldn’t be writing about coffee. I recommend Britt coffee found in many hotel rooms in Costa Rica in an espresso format. Best hotel coffee I have ever had anywhere

  14. Don’t care about the water or altitude. The Illy on United is actually f’n good most of the time. Heck maybe that backwater they use actually HELPS the flavor! Damn was it tasty just yesterday! Compared with the DD swill they had on JB? United wins hands down.

  15. I don’t drink coffee and really don’t want to subsidize the habit of a coffee snob.

    Am glad that airlines and hotels are not spending much money on this.

    Removing the expectation of good coffee on airplane is actually like removing mandatory masks: you’re better off bringing your own, and you should focus on doing so instead of repeating every 6 months like a drug addict!

  16. Compact setup I use: Snowpeak Field Barista Coffee Drip + plug in immersion heater + collapsible silicone cup. The Snowpeak device is 3 metal pieces that when assembled make a cone, held together with 3 metal legs; weighs 150 grams. Disassembled it folds almost flat. Only once has airport security looked at it. The immersion heater is simple, cheap, light and dual voltage. The Snowpeak device is marketed for camping, but I’ve used it in hotels all over the world. I bring a small amount of ground coffee with me for the first day or two, and then find a local coffee roaster and buy 250 grams.

  17. The obvious need for good coffee while traveling led me to imagine a Wiki-type website, possibly like the forums at “betterbidding dot com,” where participants could look up a city or state and list/find a hotel by hotel description of the in-room coffee offered. I never developed it (too complicated for my pay grade) but I would love to see someone create it.

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