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Cheap Airlines Buying Guide
The average cost of one-way airfare in 2011 was $364, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That's hardly chump change.
In our research we looked for cheap airlines that offer significantly lower fares than $364 for a one-way ticket and preferably less than $400 for a round trip. We priced out travel between New York City and Las Vegas, New York and Miami, and Los Angeles and Chicago with departure and return dates in October 2012. After comparing prices and reading 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.
Best Cheap Airlines
Sending more than 3,400 flights aloft each day -- more than any other discount airline -- to 74 destinations, Southwest is a favorite among frugal travelers who say customer service is unsurpassable and the two free checked bags are a welcome perk. Complimentary snacks and beverages are passed out during flights.Read Full Review and Compare Prices »
AirTran earns high marks for excellent customer service, with many passengers saying the staff is courteous and helpful and the planes are comfortable. AirTran charges for all checked luggage and priority boarding but offers complimentary beverages and snacks. There are 700-odd daily flights to more than 60 destinations.Read Full Review and Compare Prices »
Good Discount Airlines
Travelers are big fans of JetBlue for its customer service and in-flight comfort (personal televisions, complimentary Direct TV and XM satellite radio on some flights, and free snack and beverage on all flights). Travelers appreciate being allowed to check one bag free on any of 600 daily flights to more than 70 destinations. Seats on JetBlue are 17 to 18 inches wide, with 32 to 34 inches of pitch.Read Full Review and Compare Prices »
Spirit is the target of mostly angry reviews from travelers who report poor customer service and rude personnel, difficulty checking luggage, and really uncomfortable planes with tiny seats. The airline was among the first to charge for checked luggage and is now charging for carry-ons, as well; you'll also pay for snacks, beverages, extra seat space, and advance seat selection. Seats are 17 to 18 inches wide with a 28- to 36-inch pitch. Spirit flies to more than 40 destinations and operates 150-plus daily flights.Read more »
Frontier Airlines Review
US Airways Review
Spirit Airlines Review
JetBlue Airways Review
Southwest Airlines Review
AirTran Airways Review
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