Let’s just say last year was not a good year for airlines. If this article were published in spring of that 2017, we might not be discussing the best airlines, but the least bad.
What do we mean? Well, there was the United Express Flight 3411 incident, in which United security staff forcibly removed Kentucky pulmonologist David Dao when he refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. (Dao later settled with United for an unspecified sum.
This couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the airline. United was already reeling from a PR debacle the month prior. A gate agent prevented two teenage girls, flying on United employee passes, from boarding their flight because they were wearing leggings, which the agent saw as a violation of the airline’s dress code. Social media users protested the policy as sexist and arbitrary.
United wasn’t the only offender during that fateful year. Delta landed in hot water in April 2017 when they kicked a family off a flight for using their teenage son’s ticket (after they sent him home early) for their 2-year-old toddler to have a seat. The same month, a video of a flight crew member angrily confronting a weeping mother holding her baby tarnished American Airlines’ reputation.
The good news is that this storm of bad press has led to real change. Delta boosted its incentive for passengers to voluntarily give up their seats on overbooked flights to up to $9,950. United one-upped Delta by capping the payment at $10,000. Southwest outdid both competitors by announcing it would end the practice of overbooking outright.
In the wake of all this upheaval, which airline should you choose? That depends on what you value in a flight. Major U.S. airlines differ in price, comfort, baggage policies, and more—and every passenger weighs these considerations differently. So here are the best airlines for whatever you’re looking for in a flight, according to seasoned flyers and travel bloggers.
The Best Airlines for Cheap Flights
Many travelers are willing to sacrifice perks like onboard snacks and multiple free carry-ons to find the cheapest fare for their trip. For these folks, budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier are the obvious choices.
Airfare is a complex subject, and prices change based on a staggering number of variables. That said, airlines are required to report fees and revenue per passenger mile to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).
Travel site The Points Guy recently crunched those numbers into the average price a traveler pays per mile in the air. The researchers looked at the top 10 U.S. airlines by number of domestic passengers and found that Spirit and Frontier are the two most affordable options.
Spirit just edges out Frontier on affordability. Flying these budget airlines is a bare-bones experience, but if price is your No. 1 concern, give them a try.
The Best Airlines for Comfort
When you’ve been wedged into a tight airline seat for three hours with two more to go, however, you might be willing to pay anything for a more comfortable trip.
The Points Guy ranks Alaska Airlines top in cabin comfort, with United coming in second. Alaska Airlines is comfy across the continent, too—despite the name, Alaska Airlines travels to 115 destinations in more than 30 U.S. states, Canada, Mexico, and Costa Rica.
“When we know a flight is going to take all day, like a [San Francisco to New York] route, we always book with Alaska because the quality of the plane is far superior to Southwest,” says Kara Harms of Whimsy Soul, a travel and lifestyle blog. “For starters, you pick your seat upon purchase, so you don’t have to worry about online check-in 24 hours before your return flight home. You can instead focus on having fun. Most aircraft are also equipped with outlets, which means we can spend a flight working without landing with a dead laptop.”
The airline scores high marks for emotional comfort as well, says Airto Zamorano, CEO of Numana SEO, who travels more than 30 weeks per year for business and pleasure.
“[Alaska] Air seems to do very well with customer service at all times,” Zamorano tells Urbo. “Whether it’s on the phone, at the gate, or on the plane, their people just seem friendlier.”
The Best Airline Policies for Baggage, Change, and Cancellation Fees
If complaining about airline abuses is a national sport, zeroing in on hidden fees is the winning move. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the companies with the lowest airfares charge more for checking bags, toting carry-ons, and changing flights after buying a ticket. Steer clear of Frontier and Spirit if a la carte service fees jack up your blood pressure.
According to The Points Guy’s reading of BTS data, Southwest is the clear winner for baggage and change fees. Experienced travelers have certainly noticed the Southwest difference.
“Working as a consultant, I frequently travel on short notice to meet with clients, commonly five or more times in a month,” says Michael Roub, managing partner of business consulting firm Inflection 360. “Equally common is that meetings are rescheduled or run longer or shorter than anticipated. …Whenever I book with Southwest, I know that I will not be assessed a ticket cancellation/reissuance fee like I would with other carriers. It also makes rescheduling on same day or at a future date easy with a few clicks on the app.”
From Roub’s home in Los Angeles, he can choose from several daily Southwest flights to his common destinations of Phoenix, Oakland, and Las Vegas. He recalls a recent trip during which Southwest’s relaxed approach to rescheduling paid off in a big way.
“Last week, I had to travel to Phoenix, and the night before, my meeting got pushed back an hour. That allowed me to take a slightly later flight with no hassle or additional expense,” Roub says. “In addition, I had booked the last flight back to Los Angeles, but when I got to the airport, I had time to make the earlier flight. Again, I just headed to the earlier flight, changed my ticket on my app, and got home two hours earlier.”
— Jerry Dugan (@JerryDugan) April 19, 2018
Of course, this flexibility comes at a price, Roub points out. Southwest is hardly a luxury carrier.
“If you want more entertainment and food options, Southwest is not the choice,” he says. “However, if you want flexibility, no penalties for changes, and ease of use for business travel, it’s a no-brainer.”
The Best Airlines for Frequent Flyers
Frequent flyer programs are common across most major airlines these days, and the perks can absolutely add up. If you spend about as much time in the air as you do on the ground, you might be just the sort of customer who can actually benefit from elite-traveler programs. So who offers their best customers the best deal?
According to The Points Guy’s mile-by-mile tally of frequent flyer reward value, Alaska Airlines comes out on top, with United on their heels. Yes, that’s the same United that launched the great airline debacles of 2017. Given their robust reward programs, many airline regulars are willing to forgive, forget, and fly United. In fact, that run of bad publicity may have United bending over backward to please its highest-value passengers.
“I know it’s not popular to say … but I actually like United,” says frequent traveler Alicia Butler of the tour service NYC in a Day. “Since they’re in the doghouse for so much, they’re constantly throwing in added benefits for loyalty members to keep your business. I have a United Mileage Plus card, and one of the new perks is that they’ll reimburse you for TSA Precheck application fees.”
There’s no such thing as a single best airline.
As you can see, it’s hard to boil down all the leading airlines into best and worst. Best at what? Each provider struggles to carve out a unique space in the industry, and over time, that’s led to a sort of minimizing/maximizing trend in airline specialties. Spirit is your low-cost option. Alaska is the soft, cuddly airline. United is really sorry about everything.
Anyway, as bad as it can be to fly—the security lines, the long layovers, the cramped seating—at least air travel is better now than it was in 2017. You’re probably less likely to dragged away by the airline staff. So…you win?
Flying is still the fastest, and often cheapest, way to get around the country and the world beyond. If you travel frequently, you will fly, and that’s not going to change. As with any purchase, you increase your odds of satisfaction with every moment you spend doing your research. Decide what you want out of a flight, read articles like this one, and make an informed decision before you buy a ticket.
After all, even the least bad flight will still get you there. For now, we’ll have to settle for that.