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Cheap Airlines Buying Guide

After we compared prices and read scores of online reviews by passengers and experts, Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways landed spots as the best cheap airlines. (Incidentally, the two are in the process of merging.) Southwest attracts legions of fans for its baggage-check policy -- it's one of few carriers that doesn't charge for the first two bags -- and AirTran wins over travelers with its customer service and comfortable aircraft.

JetBlue Airways, our pick for second best cheap airline, allows one free bag and revs up strongly positive feedback from passengers for in-flight perks. Spirit Airlines pulled up last despite fares that often undercut the competition; passenger protests against the hefty fees for carry-on and checked baggage and dispiriting customer service were impossible to overlook.

We also researched two smaller players in the budget airline industry -- Frontier Airlines and Allegiant Air. US Airways popped up often in our research even though it's not, strictly speaking, a cheap airline. We found cheap ticket prices for the routes and dates we had selected at US Airways and a large number of available flights and destinations, especially when compared to some of our top picks.

Although you get low fares with these airlines, you pay up in other ways. For example, most discount airlines fly to a limited number of destinations and sometimes fly in and out of secondary airports in or near major cities. All service domestic routes but not all can jet you to vacation spots in the Caribbean or Latin America. And of course, the price of a ticket these days is just that -- airlines (not only cheap airlines) now charge for services as basic as checked luggage and in-flight food as well as so-called frills, such as additional legroom, blankets and pillows, and the privilege of sitting with your traveling partner. All these extras affect your bottom line; cheap airlines don't offer any bargains here.

Aside from price, what makes a cheap airline worth flying? According to the airlines reviews we read, passengers want comfortable seats, responsive and courteous customer service, and reliable baggage handling. Other factors that weigh on their assessments include extra fees, seating policies, and the number of destinations and daily flights.

Consumers' appraisals of bargain airlines are often quite critical. Issues such as confusing and/or vague information on websites, unpleasant encounters with harried airline personnel, unbending policies on ticket exchanges and refunds, missing luggage, and cancellations and delays only add to generalized concerns about security and overwrought or insufficient (depending on your point of view) ways the airlines and federal government deal with real and potential threats.

And yet, there are times when you have no choice but to book a flight and walk down that jetway. Any of our picks for best cheap airlines ought to be the ticket to a good flying experience.

Review continues below

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