How Alcohol Affects Your Body When You're On A Flight

Dehydration. Lowered inhibitions. Is it worth ordering alcohol on a plane? Here’s what the experts say.
You may doze off after a glass of wine, but your sleep won't be as restful.
Jaromir Chalabala/EyeEm via Getty Images
You may doze off after a glass of wine, but your sleep won't be as restful.

Ordering beer, wine or a cocktail while flying is a common move. For some, having an alcoholic beverage on the plane is a travel day essential to relax, take the edge off, celebrate a vacation or even to fall asleep on a long flight.

But is this really the best option? Alcohol can leave you groggy and dehydrated. When consumed in excess, it may lower inhibitions and lead to unruly behavior, which we saw a lot of when people reacted negatively to mask mandates.

We reached out to some experts in medicine and nutrition, and asked if alcoholic beverages are a good idea while flying. Here’s what we found out about how alcohol affects your body while you’re up in the air.

Is it a bad idea to order alcohol on a flight?

There’s no easy answer to this question, experts say. Ordering a beer or wine while flying is a personal decision that might work for one person and not for the person sitting next to them. “If a person is on edge due to flying in general — and doesn’t become more so with alcohol — sometimes having a beverage might relax them or make the process feel a little bit more pleasant or more ordinary,” says Wendy Bazilian, a registered dietitian nutritionist.

But while some may grab a drink as a celebratory kickoff for a long-awaited trip, others may experience side effects while drinking on a plane.

You may not sleep well.

It’s tempting to order a drink in hopes that it will help you fall asleep and get some much-needed rest on an overnight flight. But this isn’t necessarily the greatest idea, according to the experts we spoke to. “Even though you think it relaxes you, your sleep will be disrupted and you likely will not get into REM sleep, the type of sleep that is restorative,” says Amy Shapiro, a registered dietitian at Real Nutrition.

Drinking on a flight doesn’t promote restorative sleep but can help some people fall asleep, Bazilian points out. “If in moderation … if she or he believes it helps a little to ease into sleep, then that can be fine.”

You may become dehydrated.

Alcohol is a diuretic, which means your body will increase its output of urine. If you don’t drink additional water to make up for this fluid loss, you may quickly become dehydrated, Shapiro said.

You may become intoxicated without even realising.

“There is usually very little food available on most flights – or it is not particularly appetising – and it would be easy to drink too much on a relatively empty stomach,” says Dr. Karen Jubanyik, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Yale University School of Medicine. It would be very easy to drink the same amount you drink at home, but without adequate food intake, this amount might be too much, she said.

There’s also the fact that most people are pretty sedentary on a flight, rarely leaving their seat. When you do get up, you may find you’re feeling the effects of alcohol more than expected.

You could become disruptive.

We all know that drinking alcohol can lower inhibitions. This could cause an individual to become loud and disrespectful to the flight crew and fellow passengers. People with lowered inhibitions may have a harder time staying calm when annoyed by small inconveniences and actions of people nearby, like a fully reclined seat back. “If someone has lowered inhibitions, they may speak their mind or start a confrontation with another passenger over relatively small things, which can also land them in trouble,” Jubanyik says.

You may have trouble moving around the plane.

“Progressive intoxication can lead to slurred speech, trouble with coordination and trouble walking,” Jubanyik says. “Just walking to and using the bathroom or exiting the plane could be difficult.”

The good news? You can drink on a flight if you keep some recommendations in mind.

Sipping a cocktail while commuting home from a work trip or while en route to a vacation doesn’t carry a ton of benefits, but you can still enjoy a drink while flying if it’s a behaviour that works for you.

“It can be helpful in relaxing you or easing anxiety in the beginning, and since many people are anxious flyers, this can help,” Shapiro says, while also pointing out that drinking too much can lead to increased anxiety and have a boomerang effect, so it is important to know your limit.

Sometimes you may just want to order a drink simply because you feel like having one (many of us regularly do so after work or on the weekends), and this is fine when done in moderation and with a few tips in mind.

Don’t drink on an empty stomach.

If you plan to drink alcohol on a flight, pack some snacks and make sure to eat a meal before boarding if you know there won’t be any in-flight food service.

“Eating food alongside alcohol can help maintain energy and steady blood sugar while your body processes the alcohol,” Bazilian says.

Stay hydrated.

The experts we spoke to recommend alternating each alcoholic drink with at least one or two glasses of water. “This will help you to remain hydrated and to feel the negative effects less,” Shapiro says. Electrolyte drinks can also help, and if you have the chance, fill up your water bottle in the airport before takeoff. Water and other nonalcoholic drinks aren’t always readily available throughout the flight, so sometimes it’s just easier to carry your own.

Don’t drink if you’re going to be renting a car upon arrival.

“It is particularly a bad idea to drink alcohol if you will be renting a car and will need to drive upon arriving at your destination,” Jubanyik says. “Even if not technically drunk, driving in an unfamiliar location will likely require additional attention and reaction time than one needs in their local environment.”

Pace yourself.

It’s easy to drink quickly on a flight or to grab another drink simply as a way to pass time. Along with staying hydrated and taking a breather between drinks, Bazilian recommends paying close attention to how much alcohol you’re consuming. Just be aware that one drink [on a flight] may be more than you count as one when you’re on the ground.”