So you're a new first officer at a regional airline, struggling to make ends meet. You're also a young, busy person who needs to eat. Unfortunately, not only does your new job pay poorly, it also keeps you on the road four or more nights a week, often in rather expensive cities. It's a struggle to get the nourishment you need without completely starving your malnourished bank account. Take heart, my ravenous gear-throwing three-striper friend: many a pilot has been in your place, and there is a wealth of knowledge on eating cheaply in this profession. Allow me to share some of the best tips.
Learn to choke down crew meals.
I'm not sure if airline food ever was that good, even in the "Golden Age." But whatever palatability crew meals once had is gone forever. These days, you're lucky to find actual crew meals on board any airplane, and it's almost unheard of at the regionals. If your airline is like mine, the "crew meals" come out of vending machines in the crew lounges. The food is what you'd expect from any commercial vending machine, with one crucial difference: it's free! Ignore the taste. Nevermind that it's grossly unhealthy. Pay no attention to that expiration date! All you need to know is that it'll quiet your grumbling tummy and it's free.
At my airline, access to this cornucopia of saturated fats and sugary carbs is gained via a magnetic stripe card. Management keeps track of how often you swipe the card. One of my friends who saw the sheet reports that the top user so far this year, with over 100 swipes in two months, is a 22-year CRJ captain. He's making over $120/hr but he's clung to the eating habits of his youth. Bravo! This man realizes that a 14-hour duty day is a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to get breakfast, lunch, and dinner for free from the bounty of the crew room vending machine.
Savor those Snacks.
Although crew meals have gone the way of the dodo bird, the DC-8, and $200/hr captain payrates, there is still some food left on our airplanes. If you don't like peanuts, you can root around a bit to find yourself some chex mix or potato chips. If you have a long day in between crew lounges with free food, this can keep you going without resorting to (gasp) buying food.
Know Thy Discounts (at the airport).
Put your hat back on and take that Old Navy fleece pullover off, because that adorable little uniform is your ticket to savings at your local airport's eateries. When you're far from the nearest free Mr. Rib and you can't choke down one more peanut, employee discounts make overpriced airport fare a little easier on the cash. They range between 10%-30% off regular prices, so make it your personal mission to know the best deals at every airport you fly to. You can even find some freebies. When Anthony's Restaurant and Fish Bar first opened at Sea-Tac, they offered a free coffee and cup of clam chowder to any crewmember in uniform...and it drove them to the brink of bankruptcy in their very first month. I think I still have some of that chowder in storage...
Back to Basics.
Even without employee discounts, some airport restaurants offer great deals on basic a la carte items. You can get a big rice and beans plate from Maui Tacos in Boise for $1.79. It used to be a buck, but they raised the price to keep the horde of pilots from overrunning the place. It's still a good deal - you go to their salsa bar, mix in a little pico de gallo, top it off with some pineapple-chipolte sauce, and you have yourself a finger-lickin' meal for under $2. It'll also provide hours of entertainment as you and the captain lob bean-fueled stench bombs at each other across the cockpit.
Fear No Grease.
Another budget option at the airport food court is the local installment of McDonalds or other fast food joint. Sure, Morgan Spurlock was sick and fat and gross at the end of Super Size Me, but I'll bet he still coulda flown a CRJ! These options are also great for intra-cockpit fart wars.
Know thy Discounts (at the hotel.)
Hotel restaurants serve uninspired fare at price markups similar to airport restaurants, but your airline badge may be just the ticket for uninspired fare at 30% off. Hotels that have lots of airline crew running around tend to give them some decent discounts on food and sometimes even drink. This is particularly handy for the 9-hour overnights in Butte in the dead of winter. You sure as heck don't want to go scrounging for cheap food outside.
Brown Bag It.
What's that you say? You want something cheap and healthy? Pbbttth, the solar radiation will probably have you dying of cancer by age 60 anyways. But, to improve your chances of surviving into dotage, here's an option: pack your own lunch. You can pack fruits and salads and whole-grain sandwiches, fresh from your own refrigerator. You'll need a big insulated lunch bag and some industrial-sized ice packs. Even then, you may not be able to pack for an entire four day trip. Still, your first few days will be yummy and (more importantly) cheap. If you have a Canadian layover, be aware that customs officials might confiscate your food. They'd rather you take your chances with Mad Cow Disease in the local beef.
Back to College!
As an alternative to lugging around a lunch pail along with your overnight bag and flight kit and laptop bag, you can throw a few packs of ramen in your overnight bag. It got you through college, it can get you through your regional years! You just need to scrape together $10 to buy a pallet at Costco, after that it gets cheap.
Raid the Supermarket.
You don't neccessarily need to bring your dinner with you, since most layover hotels tend to be surrounded by the various trappings of american civilization, including the cavernous supermarket. Buying a whole loaf of bread with a cheese wheel and a half of ham might be going overboard, but you can usually find relatively healthy fresh sandwiches in the deli section. Save $.10 with your Ralph's card!!!
Free Food Makes Happy Hour Happy.
Don't forget, many hotel bars (and bars in general) have free or very cheap food during happy hour (generally weekdays 4pm-6pm). At our Sacramento layover, we get $1 domestic beer and $2 microbrews. I usually spring for a tasty Pyramid Hefeweizen and snack on free buffalo wings and potstickers while I visit with other crewmembers feasting for free. Half the time a Southwest guy buys my second beer. I've yet to have a United pilot do so, but I think a lot of those guys are in the same financial boat as me since management has raped and pillaged their way through UA payrates and pensions.
Suck from the public teat.
A number of our layover hotels are located in, umm, underprivledged areas. The bad news is you have to worry about being mugged. The good news is that a soup kitchen is sure to be nearby! Just make yourself look as pathetic as possible, which shouldn't be too hard after a 14 hour duty day with 8 hours of flying. I've never done this myself, but I know pilots who have. I think we can say pretty definitively that they're going to hell, but they'll go with a little more cash in their pockets!
Rumage through the nearest dumpster.
Ok, I've never done this and have never seen nor heard of a pilot who has. But it would sure make a hilarious staged photo! The first person to take a picture of themself, in uniform (hat required for pilots!), rumaging for food in a dumpster, gets a free meal on me. You can get anything you want off the dollar menu at McDonalds!
Following these tips, you should be able to survive those years flying for a regional airline. Don't worry too much about lacking the time or money to eat properly. Before you know it, you'll be a senior captain, and the only memory of these years will be your 50 extra pounds and an early heart attack!