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 InsideFlyer.com, 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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Comments

  1. In terms of simple, no-flair coffee, to me Japan Airlines by far has the best cup. They invest heavily in good beans and ensure it is made to high quality standards.

  2. Finger on the traveler pulse – I’m not kidding here. Good post.

    I’ve had espresso from the Nespresso pod machines at a Kimpton in Sacramento and at the GH Kauai, within the past few months, and I think those are now the best in-room coffee makers available.

    Alaska now uses Starbucks – makes sense given the Seattle connection – and they do a pretty good job. Even the inflight safety briefing card has a guy drinking Starbucks on it.

    I thought the UA Illy was not bad the last time I flew UA.

  3. Excellent overview.

    We Americans could learn a lot from the Australians about what a real coffee culture could (and should) be.

  4. I happen to be a tea person & have my favorite tea that I bring with me to hotels. I pack a travel water heater (immersion boiler), a travel coffee cup (collapsible) to drink out of, one paper cup to boil the water w/the heater, and another paper cup to cool-down the heater after it’s done it’s job.
    I do this because I’ve been to many OUS hotels where there isn’t any kind of water boiler nor coffee maker in the room, if they do have any coffee or tea cups they are too small vs. what I am used to, and with the crazy schedule I sometimes have, knowing that I can make a cup of my fave morning drink helps keep my sanity.

  5. Agree with Asdf — Nespresso is good. Also pleased that some Westin’s offer in room Starbucks drip. I was excited to find a website called hotelcoffeeguru but then saw it is not operational. So my go-to is to carry Via French or Italian and “doctor” my in-room coffee with a richer flavor.

  6. Coffee is one of my favourite things and I drink it by the gallon but I only drink decaff which makes it harder to get a good cup but not impossible.

    I like starbucks as the decaf is fresh ground and not from a sachet or a bag. Although a good specialist roaster (I recommend the Monmouth Coffee Company in London) is best you can reliably get a decent cup anywhere.

    On planes it’s a sachet if you are lucky but, in Europe at least, you regularly have to have a hot choc or herbal tea.

    Generally I don’t know why airlines don’t have special roasts designed to taste good in the air but it must be difficult as so many people like their coffee different to everyone else.

    Finally the nespresso in the hotel bedroom is a godsend

  7. I find the comments by Gary and Michael F about Australia’s coffee culture to be inaccurate. Yes, a tiny percentage of the Australian elites have access to good (and expensive) coffee. But, unlike in the USA, most coffee in Australia is swill. Unless you stay at a very high-end hotel in Australia (quite rare outside the few larger cities) you will not even find a coffee pot in your room. You will find a kettle and a few sticks of instant coffee. Heck, I was just at a breakfast buffet at a mid-priced Australian hotel and I couldn’t find a coffee machine or urn. I asked where the coffee was on the buffet. I was pointed to a pot of water and some instant coffee packets. This would be unimaginable in the USA, even at an Econolodge. Out and about in Australia, you can find places where the elite gather and you can get a relatively expensive (about AUD $4) machine-brewed espresso. I rarely bother, as the price point usually exceeds the quality. One of the great pleasures of returning to America is brewing a pot of strong coffee in the morning.

  8. I had blue mountain coffee on a SQ flight when I was in suites and it was the best cup of coffee I have ever had.

  9. You mention that one of the problems with coffee on United is that the coffee is made at altitude. What other practical options are there? Make it on the ground and let it sit on a hot plate for hours? Have a giant thermos? It just seems that there are not a lot of good choices.

  10. I’m always amazed to see people line up to buy Starbucks coffee as it is difficult to find a worse tasting coffee. Even McDonalds coffee is twice as good, and at half the price.

  11. I’m with Juan. While I might stop by Starbucks when it’s the only convenient option and there’s no line, I can’t see the value in the product to command a premium price and a wait. Personal tastes vary, of course, but this seems to be a case of masterful branding, rather than masterful product.

  12. As a coffee achiever, I love your observation, “when United Airlines dropped Starbucks after the Continental merger in favor of Fresh Poo, Delta picked up Starbucks.” This Thanksgiving, we should all be thankful that United Airlines in their tradition of customer service excellence continues to serve “fresh poo” instead of “stale poo.”

  13. Austrian’s coffee menu is fantastic, probably the best coffee in the air. But when I flew it on a westbound transatlantic flight, it wasn’t available for the last couple of hours of the flight – right when I needed coffee the most (since it was very late in Europe but I wanted to stay up to adjust to U.S. time). If they do the same thing eastbound that means no coffee menu (just the regular coffee) with breakfast!

  14. Coffee is definitely the nectar of life in my world. Finding a good cup flying can be tough, especially with the frequent warnings about poor-quality water on the plane. At home I order my beans from Porto Rico out of New York. Great prices and fresh.

  15. Friends don’t let friends drink *$…..

    The most *I* hope for in the airport is a non-“Charbux” kiosk where the employees at least have a REAL espresso machine, and not a super-automatic push-one-button-and-voila! (I can push the button my self, thank you very much.). Super-autos are mediocre at best, but it still beats Dunkin’ or MickeyD’s. But a local roaster (e.g.: Stumptown @PDX, or Equator @SFO) with a real espresso machine makes drinks soooooooo much better than any super-auto! If that sort of option is available, I’ll try to grab one right before I board…doesn’t work with long-haul, of course, but….

  16. I’m finding more and more of my frequented hotels have Nespresso’ machines and coffee. I hope this trend continues. Also, Omni Hotels delivers fresh coffee & juice to your door in the morning at no charge for members. This is the reason I make that hotel my number two choice after only Hyatt.

  17. @Gary, I really enjoy reading most of your articles. However, Lucky over at OneMileAtATime wrote on a fairly similar topic…on Nov 10th.

  18. @SullyofDoha – I linked to Lucky’s post above. [And I’ve written on coffee in the past, dating back years, some of which is linked to in this post.]

  19. Old Bisbee Roasters! Wow! I love the small town of Bisbee, Arizona. If you haven’t been there in person, you must visit. Stay at the Copper Queen Hotel and catch a ghost tour.

    🙂

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