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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.

Airline Reviews

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.

Airline Reviews

Passengers' assessments of discount airlines are scattered all over. So much about the experience of air travel is circumstantial, as both a reading of airlines reviews and our own encounters attest. Flights get cancelled or delayed for many reasons and rerouting is often more difficult when flying a smaller airline than one with a larger fleet and pricier tickets. Bags go missing, but are usually found, and ticket agents can be helpful, but aren't always. All these factors can, and do, influence what consumers say in reviews.

The issues that take up the most space in travelers' comments concern customer service, baggage handling, and seating comfort. Of the airlines reviews that we read, Southwest Airlines, AirTran Airways, and JetBlue Airways garner mostly upbeat reviews for these criteria while other low-cost airlines receive poor or mixed grades.

Airlines Customer Service.

Possibly the hottest topic broached in cheap airlines reviews concerns customer service, which travelers say can make or break a flight experience. Reviews for both Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways trend strongly positive for this performance attribute even though each airline engenders a small share of ill will for the usual array of issues -- reservation errors, flight delays and cancellations, and indifferent employees. On Viewpoints, for example, passengers rate AirTran and Southwest among the best. Massive praise is heaped on AirTran in reviews at this site, where one flyer says the ground and on-board team deserves a standing ovation for making flights relaxing and stress-free and another comments on the staff's helpfulness and compassion as he and two siblings made their way from various cities to a family funeral. Southwest likewise receives compliments in reviews; frequent travelers commend the in-flight service, friendly and polite employees, and free drinks and snacks, with several asserting that they refuse to fly other carriers. Yahoo Travel notes that for several years Southwest has been named consumers' favorite airline.

JetBlue Airways, another of our top picks, ranked third (behind AirTran and Southwest) for the fewest complaints per 100,000 passenger boardings in the Department of Transportation's May 2012 report. It also earned the highest marks among low-cost carriers for overall customer satisfaction in a 2012 study by J.D. Power and Associates that specifically lauded JetBlue's in-flight services and the quality and condition of the aircraft. (Southwest came in a close second in the J.D. Power study.) Passengers who posted airlines reviews at Airline Quality say the JetBlue staff is friendly and helpful, professional and informative.

Spirit Airlines struggles to stay aloft in consumers' estimation. An article posted at Newsweek's Budget Travel site notes that Spirit has a long history of annoying customers and a short pilots' strike in June 2010 made matters worse. Travelers' follow-up comments on the site indicate that most are fed up with the airline's fee-happy policies and what they say is poor treatment of passengers; many assert they wouldn't fly Spirit even if the tickets were free. Travelers similarly vent their anger in airlines reviews on Viewpoints, where they rank Spirit very low and complain about rude staff, absurd extra charges, difficulty switching flights, and more. One reviewer even says he would rather pedal hundreds of miles on a tricycle than fly with this budget carrier again and cites irritants such as spam email messages and failure to alert passengers to a schedule change.

Other airlines that offer discount tickets, at least on some routes, don't fare as well with passengers as do our top picks. US Airways snags mixed reviews on Epinions where many passengers gripe about the overall experience but remark that customer service is decent despite delays and cancellations. Similarly pro and con views are expressed in reviews of Frontier Airlines. At Review Centre, for example, some travelers complain about unprofessional personnel and cancellation/rebooking confusion but others like the new planes, friendly service, and easy check-in.

Allegiant Air, a budget carrier that doesn't fly to our chosen destinations, likewise claims fans and critics. Airlines reviews at Airline Quality praise the helpful service representatives and efficient baggage handling. At Epinions, however, travelers gripe about a host of issues. One reports that the check-in counter at a small airport was closed more than an hour before a scheduled flight, which meant everyone who arrived with an hour to spare missed the flight, and another grouses about the difficulty of reaching an agent when needing to change a reservation (can't be done online, the review explains).

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Airlines Baggage Handling.

Experts at Galt Tech report that consumers' biggest complaint about airlines concerns baggage handling. Our picks for best discount airline dodge the bullet on this one. In fact, we found only one baggage-related grievance in airlines reviews of Southwest at Airline Quality, and most praise the quick and efficient unloading. Reviews of JetBlue on Viewpoints are likewise silent on the baggage-handling front. AirTran attracts only a handful of comments about luggage in reviews, and those we found simply say luggage handling is trouble-free and the airline seems to care about getting bags to the appointed destination in pristine condition.

Spirit earns a number of luggage-related dings in airlines reviews on Airline Quality. Most posts negatively refer to the fees associated with checking luggage and carry-ons and one tells of a family that missed a flight (and thus the first three days of a cruise) because baggage check-in was so slow.

US Airways' reputation for lost baggage has turned around in recent years. A post on Cranky Flier.com attributes the improvement to changes implemented in 2009 that involve scanning luggage as it goes on and comes off the aircraft at each stop. US Airways now ranks sixth (behind AirTran and JetBlue) for the fewest complaints per 1,000 passengers in DOT's monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. Airlines reviews of Frontier on Epinions contain some grumbling about lost luggage and the baggage-check fee, but most passengers say baggage handling is fast and efficient.

Airline Ticket Prices.

Occasionally you'll see references in advertisements and media reports to average airline ticket prices. But knowing the average fare for an airline doesn't mean much when you're buying an actual ticket. Airline ticket prices depend on a variety of factors, including which airport you're leaving from and flying to, travel dates, time of day, how far in advance you're buying the ticket, whether you're flying coach or business class, etc.

Still, knowing how prices compare is useful. To help you out, we priced several round-trip tickets for one adult flying economy/coach on several discount airlines and on US Airways, which offered cheap airline ticket prices for our sample airline destinations. The round trips we looked at included New York/Las Vegas, New York/Miami, and Los Angeles/Chicago for the travel period October 13-October 20, 2012. At the New York end, the airlines fly out of LaGuardia with the exception of JetBlue, which uses JFK International Airport as a base. Las Vegas has only one airport. The flights to Miami that we checked fly into the Fort Lauderdale airport. Flights from Los Angeles go in and out of LAX and in Chicago half the flights use O'Hare and half use Midway Airport. All the flights we researched include one stop unless otherwise noted.

The airline ticket prices noted here include taxes but may differ if you check now. For our chosen airline destinations on the day we researched prices, the results are as follows: US Airways was the cheapest at $340 For the New York/Las Vegas round trip, followed closely by AirTran at $342. Southwest was next at $360, and then came Spirit at $399. The most expensive round trip between New York and Las Vegas was JetBlue at $409. For the New York/Miami voyage, airline ticket prices totaled $148 on Spirit (a non-stop flight), $239 on JetBlue, $242 on AirTran, $315 on US Airways, and $347 on Southwest. Finally, when traveling between Los Angeles and Chicago on our specific dates, airline ticket prices came to $265 on US Airways, $274 on Spirit, and $282 on AirTran and Southwest. AirTran does not fly between these two destinations so we were routed to its partner site Southwest -- no surprise, airfare posted for both airlines was identical. JetBlue does not fly between Chicago and Los Angeles.

Airline Destinations.

The number of airline destinations says a lot about an airline. If its reach is far and wide, it's surely one of the major carriers and controls landing slots at most larger and some secondary airports. The number of daily flights is another clue to its status as a major or minor carrier. The budget airlines tend to be the smaller carriers (fewer airline destinations, fewer daily flights), and while you get the benefit of lower ticket prices, you sometimes bear other types of costs.

Chief among them is limited options. For example, Allegiant Air doesn't fly between New York City and Las Vegas; its nearest berth to NYC is Grand Rapids, Mich. Nor does it fly between Los Angeles and Chicago. Frontier is also a limited-service airline and did not offer flights between New York and Miami on the day we wanted to depart; we would have had to cut our trip short by two days and book flights for October 15 and October 20 at a cost of $656. JetBlue, as noted above, doesn't service the Los Angeles-Chicago route.

In other words, it's possible you won't find the desired airline destination or a convenient flight on a discount airline. Moreover, you may have trouble making alternate arrangements if your flight is cancelled or delayed. You may also find yourself at an airport that's closer or farther away than you expected. Flying out of smaller or secondary airports sometimes means a cheaper flight, as the U.S. Department of Transportation notes, but driving time and the cost of gas add real and intangible costs to airline ticket prices.

Southwest, AirTran, JetBlue, and US Airways boast not-insignificant route systems. These three carriers service about 70 airline destinations. Spirit claims landing rights at only about 50 airline destinations. All the discount airlines on our list, but for Southwest, offer international flights to spots such as Cancun, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Bermuda, and Colombia.

In terms of daily flights, Southwest and US Airways far exceed the others with more than 3,400 and 3,100, respectively. AirTran ranks a distant third with about 700 daily flights, trailed by JetBlue with about 600, Frontier with about 550, and Spirit bringing up the rear with about 150 daily flights.

Additional Airline Fees.

When it comes to airline fees, you have to wonder: What will they think of next? From luggage to carry-ons, snacks to preferred seating, the ever-expanding variety of airline fees may be the salvation of a beleaguered industry but is surely the bane of every traveler's budget.

Airline Seating.

Seating order is a hot-button issue for travelers. Every airline, budget or not, has its own policies regarding seating; if you care where you sit, read the fine print and be prepared to pay. Although experts advise travelers to book as early as possible for the best seat selection, many discount airlines don't let you choose a seat when buying your ticket or assess a fee for the privilege. Some offer online check-in that lets you select a seat, but plan to arrive at the airport early, regardless.

Among the discount airlines we researched, seat selection can be confusing. Some seat selections on AirTran are complimentary and some come at a price of $6 to $20 (undisclosed until you've bought your ticket), and you can also buy priority boarding for $10. With Spirit you can pick a seat when ordering your ticket, but this privilege incurs an airline fee of up to $50. If you don't choose this option, Spirit assigns your seat.

Southwest follows a first-come, first-served seating policy but offers priority boarding for a fee, which can reduce some anxiety. Passengers are assigned a seating order based on check-in time (either online or at the airport), which determines where you stand in line to board; you choose a seat once you're on the plane.

With Frontier you can choose your seat when checking in online. JetBlue also offers online check-in but doesn't always let you select a seat before arriving at the airport. On US Airways you can pay a fee for ChoiceSeats on any flight, which means you can choose a preferred seat and board early. This airline fee isn't disclosed until you buy your ticket and the cost varies by flight from $5 to $99. If you don't pay up you'll be assigned a seat and then board by zone.

Seat size on airlines is measured two ways: by width and by pitch. (Pitch is the distance between point X on the seat in front of you and point X on your seat; i.e., from a spot on the seatback in front of you to the same spot on your seatback. It's also a proxy for legroom.) As Seat Guru explains, an inch or two of seat space (width and/or pitch) can make a huge difference in the comfort of your flight.

Among the budget airlines on our list, all provide seats that are 17 to 18 inches wide. Pitch varies by airline and aircraft and on some carriers by your willingness to pay an extra airline fee for extra legroom. On Spirit, the pitch ranges from 28 to 36 inches, on Frontier from 30 to 35 inches, and on JetBlue from 32 to 38 inches (extra legroom goes for $10-$70, depending on the flight). The pitch on AirTran seats is 30 to 31 inches, on US Airways it's 30 to 32 inches, and on Southwest it's 31 to 33 inches.

Passengers' online comments indicate that they evaluate airlines on seat comfort as well as seating policy. The first-come, first-served rule at Southwest is a frequent topic of discussion on Epinions. Many passengers either like it or don't object, the reviews indicate, because they take advantage of the online check-in, which generally gets them a good seat. Critics of Southwest's seating policy seem to be travelers who don't check in online and therefore earn a low-priority seating status. JetBlue gets the nod from Galt Tech for comfortable seating. Postings on Epinions concur, with many passengers applauding the personal televisions on the seatbacks and one remarking that the seats provide good back support, plenty of legroom, and are covered in nice leather. The occasional opportunity to choose a seat at no charge with 24-hour advance check-in on AirTran attracts positive notice in airlines reviews on Viewpoints, as do the comfortable, good-sized planes.

Comments on Airfare Watchdog about US Airways indicate that the planes are comfortable, with plenty of overhead storage and seating room. Spirit takes a few hits in posts at Skytrax, where passengers gripe about paying an airline fee to select a seat and inadequate leg room for taller travelers; one asserts that the planes seem to be made for elves. We found few negative reviews about seating on Frontier, and some even award points for comfort.

Baggage Fees.

Remember the days when you didn't pay an airline fee to check your luggage if the bags weighed less than a certain maximum? Well, paying to check your bags is the new normal and the fees can significantly boost the cost of your flight. Southwest is the only budget airline that doesn't charge a fee for the first two checked bags, as long as they weigh less than 50 pounds (a heavier bag is assessed $75). The third through ninth checked bags cost $75 each. On JetBlue, the first checked bag is free, the second costs $40, and the third costs $75. Any bag weighing between 50 and 70 pounds is another $50 and heavier bags are assessed an extra $100.

Other low-cost carriers impose luggage fees from the get-go. On AirTran, the first checked bag goes for $25, the second for $35, and the third for $75; any piece weighing more than 50 pounds costs another $75. US Airways charges a fee of $25 for the first checked bag (less than 50 pounds) and $35 for the second. For a third bag, be prepared for a whopping $125 fee. If you fly economy on Frontier, even carry-on bags will come with a cost (starting summer 2013), unless you book your flight on the Frontier website. The fee for the first checked bag is $20 online and $25 at the airport; the second is set to go up to $30. The third will set you back $75, as will baggage weighing more than 50 pounds. Spirit levies what may be the most onerous charges: A carry-on costs $30 to $100, depending on how far in advance you pay. The first checked bag costs $30-$45, the second $40-$55, and the third through fifth a hefty $85-$100 each; heavy bags also incur extra airline fees, rising along with the weight.

Miscellaneous Airline Fees.

The budget airlines we researched stick to their own policies when it comes to additional airline fees for things like snacks, blankets, and entertainment. For example, Southwest and AirTran don't charge for a snack and beverage but do charge for in-flight Wi-Fi. Spirit gets you at almost every turn, from carry-on luggage to snacks and beverages. Frontier has likewise put in place a $2 charge even for nonalcoholic beverages. JetBlue charges a fee for a pillow and blanket and a full boxed meal, but flight attendants hand out free snacks and beverages during every flight and DirecTV and XM satellite radio are complimentary on some flights. US Airways provides complimentary drinks on all flights and TV and movies on longer flights, but food costs around $3 to $5 for snacks and around $8 for a boxed meal.

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