My Experience With United’s Free Food For 1Ks In Economy

Filed Under: United

A year ago January, United started offering Premier 1K and Global Services members a complimentary drink and food item if their upgrade didn’t clear. American was already offering their top-tier flyers complimentary food and drinks in Economy, so this was obviously a very positive change at the time, you might even say a change I like.

Now sure, a cynic will point out that this is literally throwing us a snack box to make us forget about the fact that our upgrades rarely clear anymore, but I’m going to choose to focus on the positive. At least for this post. 

Anyway, we’re now a year into this program, so I thought it would be worthwhile to review my experience and see how you all have fared.


First, let’s recap how the program is supposed to work.

Have a drink & snack on us

United’s policy where 1Ks get a free drink and snack is pretty straightforward:

If you’re a member with Premier 1K status, you’ll receive one free alcoholic beverage and one free Choice Menu food item when traveling in United Economy on United- or United Express®-operated flights within North America and between Guam and Honolulu. See our Inflight Beverage Selections for a list of all of our available non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages. Please note that customers can request any alcoholic beverage except half-bottles of premium wines (375 mL). All Choice Menu options, both Snack Shop and Bistro on Board items, are included.

It’s worth noting that the policy specifically includes Snack Shop and Bistro selections, which means you can order the fresh items as well. Some of those are actually pretty decent. Here are the four current options.

United Bistro options as of January 2017

I’ve had each of these on multiple occasions except the hamburger, which recently replaced the roast beef baguette.

It’s interesting to note that United doesn’t mention Global Services members as being included in the policy. It’s almost like even they don’t want to admit that these high value customers end up flying economy from time to time! That said, I’m pretty sure it includes them.

United then defines where the policy applies:

“Flights within North America” is defined as all travel within the 50 United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

The process for requesting your complimentary food and beverage is also straightforward:

Before ordering, make sure your flight attendant knows that you’re a member with Premier 1K status, and show your digital MileagePlus membership card, available in the United app, or your Premier membership card or boarding pass.

My experience with the program

Like most 1Ks, I end up in economy quite a bit these days so I’ve had numerous occasions to test out the policy. In fact, I’d say I request my complimentary food and beverage on pretty much every flight, even if I just end up bringing it home for later consumption.

Now that I think about it though, I realize that I don’t quite follow United’s guidelines.

I tend to place my order, and then when the flight attendant tells me how much it will cost, I quietly say “I’m a 1K”. At that point, they usually hand me my items and that’s that. If they pause, act confused, or seem like they don’t believe I’m a 1K, I show them my boarding pass. And then it’s all fine.

I guess the reason I don’t tell them I’m a 1K upfront is because a part of me sort of wishes they would proactively recognize my status, offer me a drink, and thank me for my business. Quaint, I know.

To be fair, a few flight attendants do this. They do have a manifest after all, and a tablet-like thingy with all this information at their fingertips. Theoretically.

I also would prefer not to share with my entire row that I’m special. Don’t get me wrong, I will if I need to, but I figure it’s not unreasonable to give the flight attendant a chance to be discreet. Sometimes it works, usually it doesn’t.

Seated in first, order from the back

On shorter flights, first class passengers are generally offered a refreshment service which is really code for the snack basket. The flight attendant comes around with the basket that has maybe a half dozen or so choices in it, ranging from chips to bananas to chocolate brittle.

There’s nothing wrong with these snacks, per se, but had your upgrade not cleared, you’d be seated in economy and could have ordered a snack box for free. Only in the wacky world of the legacy airlines do you sometimes get more or better food in the back of the bus than you do up front.

So the question then becomes, can I decline the snack basket and request a complimentary snack box from the back?

I’ve heard of folks who have done exactly this, mostly with favorable results. I haven’t tried it myself.

United Snack Boxes

What about international flights?

The webpage says that this only applies to flights within North America. I guess I didn’t remember that little detail, however, and inadvertently requested a snack box on a flight to China during the mid-flight service earlier this year. I seem to remember the flight attendant telling me that it didn’t technically include international flights, but then giving it to me anyway.

I’m not even sure United offers a midflight snack service on flights to Asia right now — it seems to change frequently — so perhaps it’s a moot point.

Bottom Line

The introduction of a complimentary food and beverage item for 1Ks seated in economy has been a very positive change in my opinion. As long as you aren’t bashful about informing the flight attendant of your status, you should have no trouble claiming the perk.

Sure, I wish my upgrades would clear a little more often, but that’s a subject for a different day. In the meantime, I’ll just keep stockpiling Select boxes in my pantry for the neighborhood kids to enjoy when they come over. And Moscow Mules. For obvious reasons.

What has been your experience with the United complimentary food and beverage policy?

  1. I would also like americans to march in the streets for human rights for all their fellow Americans. That’s not happening. So don’t hold FAs to higher standards. Kissing passengers behind is not part of their job description.

  2. What is the point of this post?

    Some filler on the benefit, that you don’t always tell them upfront that you are 1K, and you receive the service as advertised?

    Does Ben pay you per post?

  3. This is one area where I think United could further take note from AA’s book – AA has EPs marked on the tablet the FAs use when conducting beverage service. In fact, nine times out of ten the FA looks at me and says something along the lines of “Thank you so much for your loyalty to AA, can I get you a snack or drink on us?”. There is merit to the mantra that its the little things that count, those small moments of personalization are truly a differentiator.

    Granted, on my last AA flight I was skipped over on the upgrade list because I wasn’t in the Eagles Nest at LAX “when my name was called” and the FA asked for “credentials” to prove I was eligible for each drink. So, not saying AA is all sunshine and roses.

  4. My very specific rant: As someone who really likes a good, properly made Moscow Mule, I find the bottled ones United has on their flights to be absolutely disgusting. They’re a syrupy mess! The first (and last) time I ordered one, it tasted lIke something a 15-year-old would enjoy, à la Smirnoff Ice.

  5. SFO-FF: I agree with you, and front what I understand, the UA FA’s actually have that information available to them. But like you, I’m proactively offered a drink probably <5% of the time.

    I guess proactively offering the drink / snack would cost UA some money as I have a feeling that very few 1K / GS members actually request it.

  6. This is an advertised benefit to entice big spenders to continue to fly with United. The semantics as to how to get the benefit if an FA needs to be asked to follow through on company policy isn’t asking FAs to kiss passengers behinds, but just seeking to obtain something offered. To not do so is bait and switch. If the company is making it difficult for FAs to identify who thier GS and 1K members are in coach then they should remedy the challenge or remove the benefit.

  7. Apparently it’s official protocol for FAs to thanks 1Ks. I found this out after I called customer relations to compliment an FA who did that. I’ve had that happen with the same two FAs on a route I fly frequently. But those
    Are the only ones despite the fact that it’s policy

  8. I’ll speak about AA’s equivalent free food for EXPs on the back of the plane.

    I’ve been twice in economy in the past months as an EXP.

    In one case I could tell the flight attendant “proactively” (as Lucky would say) saw my status. I said I didn’t want anything and she said “but you can have anything on the list, just let me know” and was very nice about it.

    Another time the FA didn’t see it and when I asked for snack food (that time I was hungry) I said I was EXP and she just said OK and moved on.

  9. Last week, IAH-LAS: second on upgrade list, FA recognized me in economy (by name) and gave me a free snack.
    LAS-IAH: fourth on upgrade list, no snacks, nada, nothing.

  10. I suppose if United wants to throw a bone to its top elites by offering free snacks in Y, it’s better than nothing. I guess the part that bothers me about this is that one has to ask for the benefit instead of being offered.

  11. I flew EWR-SXM last weekend and was seated in Economy as a Global Services traveler. I had booked just a day before after jumping off an AA flight worried about a connection time via stormy CLT. When they offered items from the snack cart, I asked for an item and held up my boarding pass. The FA then asked for my credit card. I said that I thought that GS received a free item. He said, ‘That’s just 1K. Credit card, please?’ His face didn’t show any recognition for the term Global Services at all. As I was opening my mouth to protest, the other FA looked at a list and said “11C gets a free item.” He said fine and moved on. So they do have a list they refer to which lists which seats are eligible for this benefit, but at least on this flight, they weren’t proactive about the offer.

    I have only that one reference point on United. On AA, where I am EXP, I am usually proactively offered an item when seated in Economy.

  12. The information being available to FAs/proactiveness notwithstanding, it seems this could easily be cleared up by simply printing a food/beverage coupon with the boarding pass, or generating a digital one if using a mobile pass. Just hand it over or show it to the FA when they come to ask for payment, and you’re done, just like with Southwest’s drink coupons.

  13. I have friends who are FAs at United. They have been instructed to check and offer food and drinks to 1Ks. However service training seems to be different between to two different FA groups – former Continental and former United. Not to say one is better but service procedures between the two differ. It also depends on the FAs on board. Plus, FAs in general are very unaware of the frequent flier programs and the efforts it takes to achieve the various levels. When checking in a couple weeks ago (Global Services), the agent and I were talking about Polaris and even she noted how 1Ks and GS fliers often know more about what is going on at United than they do. So, imho, united could use better, more consistent training so that FAs and others appreciate the their most frequent fliers and how best to offer appropriate services to them.

  14. Not a big deal to me. I have no problem asking for my food and drink. Well, I guess my only problem is I am having problems getting rid of my drink chits…..

  15. @Greenfish is right. I haven’t found many flight attendants at Delta understand just how much flying it takes to maintain top-level diamond status. A couple of flight attendants that I’ve chatted up while waiting in the galley for a lavatory were surprised to learn that it’s 125,000 miles. They remarked that most of us fly more than they do.

    I also think this is true in hotels. I like Peninsula hotels because each of their employees is given an all-expenses-paid free night at one of its properties as part of the job training. The theory is that the employees should understand what the sort of people who stay at a Peninsula-branded hotel expect.

    Maybe if flight attendants knew some of those business-class airfares were $5,000-$10,000 they would be a little less rude when a passenger up front asks for more champagne or wine.

  16. I’ve been Alaska MVP Gold for five years. I’ve never had a flight where my status wasn’t proactively recognized for my free drink (and now food too!).

  17. Ummm…its united culture…. apathy and disdain. All the FAs know the rules etc…. They just choose to do what their pea brained heads dictate to them at their emotional moment…. Which is usually rudeness.

  18. I have received snack boxes many times in first as a choice if not wanting what they have offered and also got one on International flight from IAH to Narita on United!

  19. The way I found out about this benefit was because a FA proactively offered it to me and it was a pleasant surprise. I fly rarely in the back on domestic flights but the few times I have I seem to recall that the food and beverages were offered proactively each time (i.e., I have not had to request it)…

    As for the “cynics”, well, it is no mystery that they are almost always wrong 😉

  20. really? what a bunch of spoiled, self-absorbed, entitled children you sound like….yes, you fly with a particular airline (whether delta, american or united) a lot and, yes, your business is very much appreciated…. but to expect the flight attendants to stop what they are doing & look you up on their electronic device just so they can stroke your ego, know who you are and acknowledge your status every time — when they are understaffed and are trying to serve 150-200+ passengers and treat each and every one of them with a smile and as though they, too, are special — is a bit unrealistic, don’t you think?! as a frequent flyer, one would expect you to understand the realities of today’s flying environment. people –including premium passengers — often change seats. why is it so difficult for you to identify yourself? the policy quoted above says you should do so… remember: ALL passengers are “special”…

  21. Yes, the flight attendants have this information available to them. And, on a good day I’d like to say they use it to enhance their service and be the best at their job that they can be. However, it could also be the last leg of a 16 hour day full of delays and passengers who are bullies on previous flights that you don’t even know about. By hour 15 how willing are you to continue going above and beyond the requirements for your job. This happens more often than you think.

    Unfortunately, in this day and age, we live in a world full of 1ks and global service members. We live in a world where there’s hardly a middle class anymore and those below middle class aren’t flying often. So when I have 40+ 1ks on board I think I’ll stick to letting you follow the requirements of the program.

    Note: if you’re in first class and would like a snack box for your hour and 15 minute flight, just ask. Sometimes they are not even on the plane for that short of a flight.

    Lastly, may I suggest that for your next post, you spend some time actually speaking with a flight attendant and getting all of your facts together. Or, perhaps, it was the end of a long day for you too.

  22. After my many travels on United, I have noticed just how rude many 1K and Global Service passengers are to the Flight Attendants as well as the agents. I do believe that United has given these “special passengers” too much power in order to to treat these employees as their own personal slaves. Allow me to explain that I have heard in the conversations while visiting the President club for these special million miles travelers that they seem to enjoy announcing their status loud and clear so that the United employees will cower down in fearful submission in order to meet their unrealistic demands. Remember the old cliche? If not, here it goes ” It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice”. SO WITH All THIS BEING SAID ,SHAME ON YOU UNITED FOR ALLOWING THIS RIDICULOUS BEHAVIOR AND SHAME ON ALL OF YOU NOOBS THAT CALL YOURSELF 1K AND GS. Do all of us regular travelers a favor, Get a life in and off the airport property.

  23. As a FA for one of the airlines you have all been talking about. We are trained to ask ALL GS and 1K customers if they would like a drink or food item. We do have it on our electronic device and the lead FA does have a list. This plan was designed to acknowledge our elite fliers for their loyalty to us. I do this on EVERY flight but I know FA sometimes don’t. I do appreciate all my passengers. So Thank You and keep coming back! We are trying and getting back to being a quality airline.

  24. Look at a route like SFO-BOS/EWR or ORD-BOS/EWR and you’ll see on occasion 30+ GS/1K in Y. And you still expect the FA to shine your shoes and shake you up a martini?

  25. If you are a passenger seated in the First cabin, and instead of the snack basket, you’d like a snackbox, you ask and they’ll get it for you. No hassle. Try it next time.

  26. They need to learn from Alaska Airlines: each time the cart moves, the FA checks their provided iPhone to see which elites are in the rows they are serving, they address each by name, and ask what they would like for their complimentary drink. See? That’s easy… United has the same device and info in front of them.
    I miss the old days at UA when the purser would sometimes give me her card with note on the back and ask if I wanted a free drink (when it wasn’t policy).

  27. 1Ks/GS are not rude, we have high expectations; of ourselves and of others. When we don’t get our deserved elevated service, we feel slighted and upset…. and at United the lack of elevated service for their best customers is the norm and has been for a looooonnnggg time. We 1Ks/GS people experience many types of customer service scenarios, and we see the high potential of others at other carriers and at other establishments…..and we wonder why o who cannot United people too exhibit a high level of service as we see and receive from other providers around the world. United has a deep deep rooted culture of mediocricy and aloofness towards its customers, especially amongst its legacy FAs. I have two family member United FAs and believe you me….. United FAs do NOT give a rats arse about ANY customers satisfaction level. United instills zero, zilch, nada work ethic, and sence of pride in delivering elevated customer service. In fact United actively, from the top, and from their training staff….. Instill into FAs a sense of superiority and particularly a sense of disdain for having to perform any type of customer service at all. United FAs are trained hard that their job is to provide safety and react to emergency situations, and that that is their sole role, and not to make to customer happy. Handing out drinks and food is a very very distant secondary activity required of United FAs that each and every one of them resents having to do. In their mind, they are Safety providers…. not customer service agents. I could go on and on…..

  28. Keep in mind that FA’s, especially legacy United FA’s have it INSTILLED from day 1 that our first priority is SAFETY, not a “customer service agent” … Also keep in mind that many of us based in Newark/Boston in 2001 lost many great colleagues on 9/11, so if we seem more adamantly geared towards safety, it is because we lived through that.

  29. Safety is instilled in all FAs globally. United FAs are missing the added customer service, that most other, especially Asian and Middle East carriers excell at. Don’t make excuses for a lack of service.

  30. You know I just worked a flight on Christmas eve and this 1k didn’t even bring us anything. He was the only 1k who didn’t bring us chocolates, candies, etc… Can you believe that? I mean doesn’t he know that we are the best of United? Even the captain said so on the PA.

  31. I am a proud United Flight Attendant and here is my take…

    I will tell you from experience that I always check both 1K’s and GS customers on my company device on every flight. My experience is my other colleagues do as well.

    While there is no procedure on how to offer the free meal or cocktail to these priceless customers, I will tell you how I do it.

    Each of us have a map on a iPhone that shows the seat map… we know who you are if you take the time.

    Before the flight, I write down their status and start from front to back thanking them for their loyalty. I say because you are the most loyal, I want to give you first choice, I’ll admit, many 1K’s and GS’s are taken back because they have not seen this before. But you follow the money and that is the least I can do.

    When other flight attendants ask what I’m doing, I say, “it’s just my thing”.

    I take the orders from my company device and deliver it to each elite member before the service starts.

    I will tell you they are thankful. The questions about GS’s not in the policy or 1K’s only getting one thing, nonsense, if they want it, they get it. They can be in First class and they will get it.

    United Flight Attendants know how precious these customers are and it is my experience most recognize this.

    I have even given Birthday cards to these important customers and some are thrilled and others could care less. My job is not to look for compliments, it’s to make you feel recognized and privileged.

    If you want two snack boxes and a half bottle of wine, it’s yours, if you want a snack in first instead of the meal, its yours. United is VERY proactive about not placing ANY restrictions on this… they don’t care and want to make you happy.

    I worked for American for many years, I will tell you, they are no better than United at recognizing loyalty.

    My goal is to make you feel recognized for all the hard earned money you have spent on our airline.

    GS’s and 1K’s… Thank You for the privilege to serve you.

    BTW- I am not the exception.

  32. Why doesn’t United just supply the 1K with a coupon to hand to the crew member? I have seen 103 people on an upgrade list, which implies there are 103 1k’s on a flight. How can the flight attendants recognize all of them?

  33. Sue — The upgrade list you saw with 103 pax on it would include Silvers, Golds, Platinums, 1K’s, and GS’s — and probably even some non-revs. We don’t know how many were 1K/GS, but certainly nowhere near all of them.

  34. The bottom line is if you want a consistent excellent customer service experience each time, fly SA member airlines Thai or Asiana for example. Otherwise receiving above and beyond customer service is the exception not the norm. I have been treated with a better customer service experience with no status on Asian and Middle Eastern based airlines than on UA flights (with very limited exceptions). The 800 pound elephant that no one wants to discuss is that FA’s are collectively much older in age and are instilled with a sense of simply doing the minimum to perform their assigned duties. My dad once told me it doesn’t matter your job, it’s your attitude that should shine. If you have to clean toilets for a living then you be the best toilet cleaner out there by taking pride in your work. This is actually more so not a knock on UA per say but our American culture as a whole. The few great FAs out there are truly awesome and it’s why no one on this forum should label every experience on UA as bad (unless they are not a frequent flier) as if you have been a 1K for several years you will have to have encountered one good FA out there (I hope!!?). Long story short, we can complain about not having what we are “entitled” to all day until blue in the face but the reality is we choose to fly UA (even if it’s because it’s your organzistion’s policy to fly an American based carrier aka Fly America Act). To close and recap, if you want a consistent wonderful flight experience fly the Asian or Middle Eastern carriers and if flying domestic; take Virgin America, Jet Blue or even no frills SouthWest as they shine by American standards for good customer service almost each time!

  35. I guess the better way to help improve the United service is to call the service hotline and report the “bad” experience, in addition to share your experience on this board.

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