Nobody enjoys sitting through other people's airline horror stories, so I'll just give a précis: I'm on a trip in Europe, and in the course of three days, Air France managed to strand me in both Paris and Tunis. I was thousands of miles from home with no way to get back. First it negated my reservation in the middle of a layover and next it completely lost a second set of reservations. The only way to solve both disasters was to throw money at the problem.
The extraordinary incompetence of Air France could fill a book, but I'm sure you have your own miserable story about your own airline of shame (United could fill a second book, if I thought its executives cared about reading it).
I actually wanted to remind Americans who travel abroad that, despite the extreme suckitude of Air France's human employees, its in-flight service is actually miles ahead of the American airlines. In fact, when it comes time for you to fly abroad, you should make every effort to avoid the American-owned flyers and pick a European one. I'm not the only one to notice it; the Wall Street Journal recently devoted a story to the prevailing wisdom that the U.S. carriers offer paltry goodies. The WSJ was taking a business traveler's perspective. But foreign airlines' economy ticket experiences are simply better in most cases, too.
Many foreign-flagged airlines still offer complimentary wine or spirits on board. Even on short hops, carriers such as Lufthansa and, yes, Air France will still serve you wine on request. Air France even gives you a miniature bottle of your own. Not every airline is like this -- Scandinavia's SAS, for example, is no better than Ryanair, charging passengers €3 ($4) for a drink of water. But in general, the major foreign carriers don't nickel and dime you at mealtimes.
Yesterday, I took a Lufthansa flight from Florence, Italy, to Munich, Germany, and the first thing all coach passengers received was a moist towelette -- it was real cloth, too. American carriers don't even give those to business-class passengers most of the time, let alone the pot o' noodles that Cathay Pacific will give you if you fly it to Asia.
Foreign carriers are also pretty likely to accept credit cards on board for times when they do charge for something. Flight attendants whip out a nifty little hand-held radio device that swipes your card and prints an instant receipt. That's the benefit of serving places with many currencies -- long ago, they started taking plastic to grease the marketplace, and they're ahead of the game. Meanwhile, some U.S. carriers are still living in the Cash Age. This is changing, but even as it does, many U.S. carriers still can't give you a receipt for the stuff they make you buy.
Foreign carriers are also likely to have seatback entertainment at every seat (which, by the way, typically recline less than our economy seats). I flew on United last year from New York to Tokyo, and for the whole flight, we had to watch the movie on screens at the front of the cabin. What is this? 1981? Virgin Atlantic, a British line, was one of the first carriers to kick off the in-seat entertainment systems way back in the mid-'90s, when some U.S. fleets still used planes that delivered audio programs through tubes.
One area in which foreign and national carriers are more or less even: Outlets for laptops. Air France had none on a recent flight to Paris, but American Airlines had them on a recent flight to London, provided I called up ahead of time to ask for a seat that was near one (the website SeatGuru.com can help you with that, too). Having my laptop was a real boon, particularly because I wasn't about to pay $8 for a glass of wine.
On balance, you just get a lot more for your money with the foreign-flagged carriers. Just as you should never assume that a known quantity like Hilton or Sheraton will give you the best hotel room in town, the air carrier whose name you know may not always be the best for your dollar.
Uncle Sam is a rotten co-pilot