How You Can Drink On Planes Even If You’re Under 21

The law of the country whose airline you’re flying applies.

  • If you fly United Airlines to Australia, you need to be 21 to drink. If you fly Qantas, you can drink at 18.

  • If you fly American Airlines to Mexico, you need to be 21 to drink. If you fly Aeromexico, you can drink at 18.

  • If you fly Delta to Europe, you nee to be 21 to drink. If you fly Swiss, you can drink at 18.

The minimum age to drink alcohol in the United States is 21 years old. You can vote at 18, serve in the military, but not have a beer or glass of wine.

In much of the world the drinking age is lower. For instance, it’s 18 in Mexico and Australia. It’s 19 in Canada and 20 in Japan. While the legal drinking age is 18 in much of Europe, it’s 16 in Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Spain.

The drinking age is even lower than 16, or there’s no drinking age at all, in Mali; the Central African Republican; Angola (outside Luanda); Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, and Togo. You will not find non-stop flights from the U.S. to most of these countries, however.

And the law of the country where an airline is based applies on board, even when flying in the airspace of another country. This is based on the Tokyo Convention, formally The Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft, has been ratified by 187 jurisdictions, but does not include Doninca; East Timor; Eritrea; Kiribati; Micronesia; Somalia; South Suden; Tuvalu; or the Holy See (which signed but did not ratify).

That’s how, for instance, Cathay Pacific can lift mask mandates on its flights based on Hong Kong law, even to and from destinations that require masks. Interestingly that’s not the position that airlines and governments took throughout much of the pandemic, with many airlines still requiring masks when flying to destinations that required masks.

Indeed masks are often still required for travel to or from several countries on some airlines: South Korea; mainland China; Cambodia; Indonesia, Myanmar; Nepal; Philippines; or Vietnam, as well as Brazil; Colombia, Ecuador, Grenada; Morocco; and Seychelles.

However an airline can set a higher drinking age than the legal minimum of their home country. For instance Lufthansa’s minimum age is 18, even though 16 year olds can drink beer in Germany.

So if you’re underage in the U.S., especially if you’re redeeming miles for travel in a premium cabin and want to enjoy the beer, wine and spirits on offer, consider doing so on a foreign airline that permits under-21s to drink on board.

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. Just what I need, a long flight with drinking 16 year olds. Interesting facts though, and thanks for sharing. This is really much simpler than how a child born in the air may or may not have the nationality of the plane’s registration or may or may not have it from the airspace of the country they are over. One would think that would have been worked out long ago, but I guess alcohol and crimes are easier to deal with!

  2. Drinking age is not the problem. When I was a kid in Taiwan, I bought beer for my father from local convenience store often. It was never a problem. At least then there was no drinking age restriction. I lived next to a Normal University in Taipei then. I never saw people college students puking on the side of the street or teenagers getting wasted. I could never understand the kids in US after living in for more than 40 years. I happened to attended college in US where I had to go home on weekends to study because I can’t even use the bathroom in the dorm or sleep because vomit would be on the floor and music boom would last all weekend. I’ve been to Bavaria Germany, birth place of beer. Bieber saw what drunks like here in the states that want to argue or start a fight. Bottom line is that Americans are lousy drunks. I don’t see others as much.

  3. You are right about Colombia and masks. If you fly within Colombia you must wear a mask. If you fly to or from Colombia on a non-Colombian airline (in my recent case, Iberia and Copa), there’s no mask requirement, except when deplaning and, not enforced, when boarding.

  4. @ Gary — Alcohol should be treated like cigarettes — taxed like crazy, plastered with health warnings, banned from advertising and and consumption in many public spaces (including ariplanes). Alcohol is attributed to roughly 13% of deaths of Americans aged 20-64. Please don’t encourage this destructive behavior.

  5. Gene, you can stop your kids from drinking until they inevitably run away from you and your weird obsession.

    Don’t use the government to make decisions for everyone else. Your inability to control basic behavior around your house is not a government problem.

    Fortunately, I’m European.

  6. @Gary, two things: 1) I find this an odd post from you for, although you yourself consume (at least) wine and sake, you frequently write about the “evils” of onboard alcohol consumption and the effect it has on some passengers…seeming those on Spirit are more susceptible to its effects, though that may be connected with the carrier’s name. (Perhaps it might be good to let jetBlue “erase” the name from our skies.)

    2) Not only do the laws governing the serving of alcohol depend upon the “law of the country where an airline is based applies on board, even when flying in the airspace of another country,” but it can depend — within the US — upon the laws of the State which the plane is currently flying over. Or so the Attorney General of Kansas thought when he showed up at JFK with several Kansas State Troopers and attempted to arrest the flight attendants of a TWA transcon flight for serving alcohol over the state of Kansas which still has (or at least had at that time, back in the early 1970s) several dry counties.

  7. @Gene
    You are the textbook example of why the US is so retarded when it comes to Alcohol, Sex, and drugs.
    Being a strong repressed society doesn’t work, it has NEVER worked and it WILL NEVER work, so stop it!! Those problems are mostly caused by a lack of proper parenting.
    The US spent over the decades almost a Trillion $ (yes Trillion, you read it correctly) on the war on drug with the fantastic results of an absolute 100% failure, there is more drugs than ever in US! The drug lords are more powerful and richer than ever. Do you think it may be time to spend money on something useful instead?
    Same on Sex, the abstinence policy is a total failure, the US has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the western world by a wide margin. But Schools are still ordered to teach abstinence as the sole policy or lose federal funding, how pathetic!
    Same with alcohol, prohibition has never been fully abolished in the US. People believe if you can’t buy it you will not be able to consume it! How pathetic!

    Instead of demanding the government to become fascist and prohibit everything, just start to educate your kids properly about social behavior, respect, and responsibility for all those subjects, and then those problems will disappear.

  8. @ Mike — You make excellent points. My real concern is that young people are not made aware of the dangers of alcohol. Everyone seems to think it is harmless, but it is not. The government can help with education in schools (or advertising) and by discouraging conusumption (taxes and health warnings). You will note that I did not suggest banning alcohol.

    @ Loretta and @ Mike — I got the sex ed part. No way in hell would I have children. 🙂

  9. @Gene, Good points, but I am pretty sure that the danger of guns, ammunition, and mortar fire are a wee bit more dangerous than alcohol.

    If you are old enough to fight for your country, you should be able to drink and toast to your country.

  10. Simple fact – if you are old enough to die for your country, get married, and a 30-year mortgage – you should be old enough to have a beer. I turned 18 right when the federal government forced states to raise the age to 21. Guess what – we were all out drinking anyway. Now as a 50-something-year-old who travels to Europe a few times a year and sees young adults drinking, legally, and not hiding, binge drinking, and puking everywhere, I understand even more why it is a stupid law but I understood that even when they were forcing it on us.

  11. @Gene, I am reminded of the old expression, “The Government is not your mother,” and your comment (“No way in hell would I have children”) explains a good deal. I was born and raised in the US. But I began tasting and learning about wine when I was ten. I entered the wine trade at age 18 (i.e.: I started getting paid), and have continued in the trade for over half a century.

    FWIW, I can count the number of times I have been drunk on one hand, and none of those took place prior to my mid-20s — *never* in high school or college. It is the “forbidden fruit” aspect and the lack of a) education and b) cultural & societal awareness that causes problems like binge drinking and bad behavior, be that in a restaurant, at a party, or on an airplane.

    We tried Prohibition once. It didn’t work..

  12. @ Jason Lewis — Again, I never suggested prohibition. I know plenty of 30-60 year olds that drink a couple/few every day and don’t realize that puts them at high risk for serious liver disease. Those are the ones I am concerned about.

  13. “Just what I need, a long flight with drinking 16 year olds. ”

    Betcha 0% of them are Karens. Even when sober, Karens are gonna Karen!

  14. It’s actually 18 or 19 in Canada depending on the province. Also, it’s typically lower if a parent is present, even on a plane based on first-hand experience flying with my kid.

  15. Gotta have Bacardi and OJ when I fly. So, what do I do?
    I choose my airlines based on whether they serve Bacardi or not.

  16. If you want a drink so bad that you’re willing to switch airlines just to get one, you’ve got a real problem. Have a Coke and relax.

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