Many travellers may wonder what would happen if you don’t book in-flight Vegetarian meal in advance? It might be a reason for worry, but not that much. The experience would vary depending on the airlines, route and the way flight attendants may deal with the situation. I must state that there is a formalised mechanism in place to deal with all the select meal options. The details related to special meal options are usually collected 24-48 hours in advance and forwarded to the concerned In-flight meal service agency. During the journey, attendants generally have printed [nostalgic] dot-matrix sheets with all the necessary details! I have had a feeling that the sheets are taken out at the last minute, as it does have the ‘most recent’ seating information entered during the airport check-in ——— implying after the check-in process is complete. Depending on the scenario, there might be various reasons why you did not or could not pre-book a special meal. I am discussing two of my personal experiences. I must also state that it only relates to Vegetarian/Vegan meal. There are various options classified as under special meals which might be challenging to get on a flight if not requested in advance.
Leaving in the next six hours on an international journey
It happened to me in May 2016 that being stuck at two equally important works in Delhi, and New York the following day, I had to book the cheapest available Lufthansa flight leaving within the next six hours. I was to go on a Delhi-Munich-New York segment. Although I could check in immediately after booking my ticket, I could not book a Veg meal on my onward sector. I was apprehensive with thoughts of having to spend my journey without a meal. That too, on a paid air ticket! Such a condition would please if the ticket was free or dirt cheap, but that was not the case. I tried whatever I could, including calling their customer care in Delhi. They did put a note in my reservation and informed me that flight leaving from Delhi won’t be a problem; the challenge, however, was seemingly awaiting me on the next segment. The first segment went as expected had the best in-flight meal ever. At Munich Airport, I turned at the Customer Service desk, to make them familiar with my case. I was assured that the flight attendants would undoubtedly do something for you combining options available on the flight. As soon as I boarded the flight, I peeped into the meal corner: I was told that they had the specific information regarding my case. Further, to my surprise, they informed me that they always have two options on the said route, and one of which is Vegetarian/ Vegan. The best Pasta ever I had in my life was served by Lufthansa.
If upgraded to an upper class
There might be another situation as well; if there is a change in the class of travel. While returning from New York on Ukraine International Airlines through Kyiv in 2019, I was upgraded to premium economy on Kyiv-Delhi segment. First time experienced the upgrade; however, I was awaiting the meal options. Since it was an upgrade at the boarding gate, I did not have the opportunity to book a Veg meal at that point. While in the flight, I explained my case and asked them to offer me the meal I reserved in the economy class. I did get it; however, I regretted having missed the meal of Premium economy, which was relatively better. The second time, I chose to receive the Premium economy meal planning to skip some items. I did that, and I perhaps liked it with a lesser magnitude of regrets. Hence, people may experience a similar situation when not letting go of a meal in the Premium and Business class seems tempting. You may decide what you would like to do. You may choose to have both if you have the guts to ask.
I have already explained two instances when you may not be able to book a special meal and still be able to have it. Flight attendants would surely mix and match the options based on availability. Depending on airlines, sometimes it may not be even necessary to pre-book a Veg meal. Like the international routes of Air India has plenty of Veg meals stocked up. Further, KLM on Delhi-Amsterdam is entirely vegetarian (Western and Indian Vegetarian).
In most cases, options do appear, but always have the Plan B. Hence, travel without worry.