Remember the days when airlines wooed passengers with glamorous offerings like in-flight dining rooms and onboard pianos? Neither do we. But for every carrier that’s skimping on legroom (see American Airlines), another seems to emerge with a swanked-up bar. Of course, there’s a reason you hear less about mile-high bars than cramped economy seats: They’re hardly ubiquitous. They’re notably absent from the U.S. legacy carriers, which focus more on pay-for-play in-seat drinking. And the airlines that do have dedicated booze spots tend to offer them on only a select few plane types—largely double-deckers or other long-range aircraft.
But the in-flight bar scene is booming. Look no further than Emirates. In July the Dubai-based carrier will unveil a new concept for the Onboard Lounges on its fleet of flagship A380s, serendipitously alleviating the problem of what to do on a long-haul, Middle East-based flight in the aftermath of Trump’s electronics ban. The first of these updated bars will feature new seating areas inspired by yacht cabins and Emirates Executive private jets. From there on, they’ll be built into each newly delivered A380 rather than retrofitted onto older models.
Granted, Emirates’ bars, like nearly all airplane bars, are only available to those sitting in premium cabins. (The second-class denizens on the bottom deck can’t even sneak a peek at the cocktail dens up above.) But once you’ve got access, it’s all-you-can-drink—for no extra cost.
So what makes a good airline bar? Square footage is key—and ample seating space. (Nobody wants to topple their bloody mary when turbulence hits.) Design, service, and a full range of premium offerings can also make or break the experience. With that in mind, here’s the last word on which airline bar is best.
6. Korean Air
The whimsically named Celestial Bar on the top deck of the Asian airline’s A380s is the product of a long-standing partnership with Absolut—which means the drinks are all vodka-based. (Other spirits are kept in the galleys.) Cocktails are made-to-order and served with a rotating mix of canapés and desserts; on our most recent flight, we got tomato mozzarella bites and mini chocolate cakes. And the décor is appropriately starry, with shimmery wallpaper that’s patterned with tiny lights. Bonus: Art and travel books set near the lounge seats make it easy to settle in and pass the time.
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What to order: The Flying Champagne cocktail made with Absolut Elyx, Inniskillin icewine from Canada, and Perrier-Jouët bubbly.
5. Virgin Australia
Along with all-new seats in business class, Virgin Australia introduced a new bar aboard its flagship 777-300ERs last summer, which currently fly from Los Angeles to Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. The Bar, as it’s formally called, is set between the two business-class cabins at the entrance to the aircraft, with a dramatically backlit white counter and an eye-catching leaf-patterned ceiling. But its most distinguishing feature is a counterintuitive one: its morning programming. Sidle into a stool or banquette to take your breakfast with freshly brewed coffee, made in a Nespresso machine that’s custom-built for high-altitude brewing.
What to order: Aussie wines, like the Coriole Sangiovese from McLaren Vale, are more interesting than the relatively standard cocktails such as mimosas and Bellinis. Light bites like mushroom arancini with basil and parmesan are also worth seeking out.
4. Virgin Atlantic
On Virgin Atlantic, it’s always possible to drink at altitude; the bar is a standard feature on all planes. Yes, all.
It’s also visible to all passengers—everyone boarding a flight passes through the bar—but service is open only to fliers in the airline’s Upper Class cabin. Call it a tease, or call it a genius marketing move: The burnished chrome accents and dimmable ambient lighting make for a pretty sexy space.
On the airline’s 787 Dreamliners, you’ll want to make an early move into one of the bar’s four stools, which are more coveted than the standing-room-only perch and lean-to shelf. And heed this warning: While the bar itself is great, it’s not well-separated from the Upper Class cabin seats. So avoid sitting in the back of the cabin, where noise and spills can become a serious distraction.
What to order: The menu changes seasonally. This spring, go for a mojito—either the Mile High, made with Champagne and citrus, or the Blighty, made with Bombay Sapphire instead of rum.
3. Etihad Airways
Etihad’s Lobby is a self-service lounge for first- and business-class passengers aboard the airline’s A380s; it’s designed with typical Emirati patterns and motifs, including an electronic Qibla-finder that shows the exact direction of Mecca at prayer times. Base yourself in one of two semicircular Poltrona Frau leather banquettes, each with power outlets, fold-down armrests, and glossy marquetry tables as work surfaces.
Although you won’t find a bartender on duty, there are flight attendants on hand to provide small snack items, pour drinks from the adjacent bar area, or host an impromptu wine tasting. Guests, however, can also just help themselves directly from the bottles on display.
What to order: If your first-class, in-seat minibar isn’t stocked to your preferences, pillage the Lobby bar cart for some Billecart-Salmon brut rosé or a glass of Glenlivet single malt Master Distiller’s Reserve.
Perhaps the most iconic airplane bar, the Onboard Lounge is getting a makeover. According to Terry Daly, Emirates’ senior vice president for service delivery, it’ll share the same location and footprint as the old bar but will be “more intimate and conducive for our passengers to socialize.” Expect an airier, more relaxed ambiance thanks to new leather accents, window treatments, and reconfigured seating that accommodates a few extra bodies, but new soundproof curtains will keep noise from spilling into the cabin.
What to order: Emirates’ extensive wine collection is worth sampling extensively. But if you’re in first class, you can go off-menu with an expanded selection of premium offerings. Go ahead and ask for a bottle of Dom Pérignon on ice—it’s totally fair game.
1. Qatar Airways
What makes Qatar’s bar the best in the skies? Sure, there’s the sultry backlighting and intricate overhead lights that give the space a Jet Age meets Arabian Nights vibe. But the real differentiator is its open-flowing space: It’s equally good for networking, catching up on emails, or simply kicking back. Rather than a self-contained bar, the counter on Qatar has an open, curved silhouette, paralleled by undulating window-side banquettes with seating for up to 10. Power ports galore only add to the appeal.
What to order: People think you can only get Krug Champagne in the airline’s first-class cabin, but the attendants will pour it at the bar, too. So get your fizz on before bed—and then come back for a macchiato before landing.