Best Cheap Airlines
Legacy airlines such as United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and American Airlines are long-established and offer the benefits of scale -- more daily flights and destinations serviced, robust rewards programs and partnerships, airport lounges, etc. Budget airlines, also called low-cost carriers, or LCCs, cater to travelers willing to give up some of those added perks in order to take advantage of sometimes deeply discounted fares. But there's more to choosing a low-cost airline than the ticket price. To determine the best cheap airlines, we consulted assessments from the Department of Transportation, as well as industry experts, and hundreds of consumer reviews. This comparison of six carriers looks at costs, convenience, amenities, and overall flight experience.
Our Top Pick
Southwest Airlines Review
Southwest Airlines is the busiest of the low-cost carriers we compared. With a fleet of more than 700 planes, it operates more than 3,800 daily flights -- more than the rest of the budget airlines combined -- to nearly 100 destinations.
The airline also sets itself apart when it comes to many of the fees commonly charged by its competitors, legacy or budget. Travelers on Southwest are allowed free carry-ons and can even check up to two bags without incurring fees. Likewise, tickets can be changed at no added price aside from the difference in fare.
Southwest is not completely devoid of fees. There are the usual overweight and oversize bag fees, as well as charges for a third checked bag, early check-in, and alcoholic beverages. Wi-Fi and in-flight movies also require payment ($8 and $5, respectively), but at least they are available on many flights and offered alongside free TV options. The same cannot be said for many other low-cost carriers. Travelers on Southwest can also pay $2 to use iMessage, WhatsApp, or Viber while in the air.
The seat pitch is 31 to 33 inches, depending on aircraft. But the seats are among the narrowest, at 17 inches (they may be wider on new planes).
Southwest performs well in consumer surveys and industry reports. It placed second among the six low-cost carriers included in the J.D. Power 2016 Airline Satisfaction Study. The Department of Transportation reports that Southwest had the lowest number of complaints among the airlines we compared during the first quarter of 2016. According to the same government study, however, Southwest does have more than its fair share of mishandled baggage.
On AirlineQuality.com, reviewers give Southwest an average 3 out of 5 stars for value, service, comfort, entertainment, and food and beverages. Some critics gripe about lack of assigned seats and being separated from family, or encounters with rude crew members, and there are comments that suggest the Department of Transportation's luggage-handling figures are not in error.
Nevertheless, Southwest does have some loyal followers, as suggested by its status as one of the top five domestic airlines chosen by readers for Travel & Leisure's 2015 World's Best Awards. Overall, Southwest is a top pick because it's low on fees and high on flight volume.
JetBlue Airways Review
JetBlue averages more than 900 daily flights to nearly 100 destinations, including routes to Latin America as well as the Caribbean.
JetBlue breaks the bare-bones budget-airline model with many complimentary onboard amenities outshining the options available on other low-cost and even legacy carriers. Passengers can expect free snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, Sirius XM radio, and power outlets near their seats. Depending on the plane, there are either 36 or more than 100 free DirecTV channels on entertainment systems in each seatback, with movies available for a $5 fee. Complimentary Wi-Fi is also standard on most planes, and passengers can pay for faster connections. On red-eye flights, JetBlue provides Snooze Kits with earplugs and an eye mask, although a blanket or pillow costs $5 or $6.
JetBlue's seats are quite spacious. The coach seats have a pitch of 32 to 33 inches and a width of 17.8 to 18.25 inches. For an extra cost, travelers can upgrade to Even More Space seats with a 38-inch pitch, and Mint seats (similar to business class) are offered on certain coast-to-coast routes and on select flights to the Caribbean. The airline has even arranged access to two airport lounges in Jamaica -- especially uncommon among budget airlines.
Travelers can choose among different fare types -- Blue, Plue Plus, and Blue Flex -- when booking a flight. With the most basic Blue fares, there is a $20 or $25 fee for the first checked bag and a $35 fee for the second (JetBlue waives the fee for the first bag on some international flights). Blue fares have a change fee of $70 to $135 depending on the price of the ticket, although it's only $50 for same-day changes.
Of the airlines we compared, JetBlue scored second for fewest incidents of mishandled baggage and fewest general complaints during the first quarter of 2016, and it has been at the very top among low-cost carriers in J.D. Power's Airline Satisfaction Study for the past 11 years. On AirlineQuality.com, JetBlue reviewers give the airline an overall score of 6 out of 10 (relatively high compared to the other low-cost carriers), with 4 out of 5 stars for seat comfort and staff service.
The low fees, decent number of travel options, luxury amenities, and praise from travelers and industry professionals make JetBlue one of the best budget airlines.
Virgin America Review
Virgin America is a relatively small airline with just over two dozen destinations, 60 aircraft, and two hubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles. However, it flies the routes often and has an average of 210 daily flights. The airline flies primarily to major U.S. cities, as well as Maui, Honolulu, and several destinations in Mexico.
Like JetBlue, Virgin America is a low-cost carrier that promises luxury. It has four lounges, power outlets by the seats, and free live Dish Network channels. Wi-Fi is available for a fee, as are additional TV options and movies. Passengers can also use the entertainment system to chat with other travelers and order themselves -- or someone else! -- a drink, meal, or snack.
With a 32-inch pitch and 17.7-inch width, Virgin America’s standard coach seats are relatively spacious compared with the other low-cost carriers. There are also more expensive Main Cabin Select and first-class seats available, which come with additional space and perks.
There are a few potential fees when flying with Virgin America. The first checked bag costs $25, but up to 10 bags can be checked at the same price (most other airlines up the price starting with the second bag). The cost to make ticket changes is $100 to $150 depending on the route -- relatively high compared to the other budget airlines. The fee is waived for passengers who pay an additional $25 upfront for a Plans Change Pass.
Virgin America wins big in industry studies, expert comparisons, and traveler reviews. It was named the best domestic airline by Travel & Leisure readers and also placed first in the annual Airline Quality Rating study. According to the Department of Transportation, Virgin America had the lowest number of baggage-related complaints for the first quarter of 2016 among all the airlines assessed. And more than 250 Virgin America reviews on AirlineQuality.com give the airline an overall rating of 7 out of 10, the highest score earned by any of the low-cost carriers we compared.
With its many amenities, large seats, and positive customer feedback, Virgin America would be among our top picks. However, it misses the cut due to the limited number of destinations served. A merger planned with Alaska Airlines, which bought Virgin America in April 2016 (pending approval by the Justice Department), is projected to dramatically increase flight options.
Spirit Airlines Review
Spirit Airlines reviews posted at Viewpoints are hostile. Passengers contend that customer service is disrespectful and condescending, the planes are cramped and dirty, and the a la carte pricing (for drinks, bags, checking in with a live person, etc.) eats up any savings on the fare itself. Numerous travelers insist in reviews that they would not choose this no-frills carrier again. Complaints also surfaced in reviews at Airline Quality where passengers bemoan all the extra fees, long lines, irritable staff members, flights missed due to uncooperative personnel, and inconsistent application of policies. One review at this site relates how a couple was pulled aside on the jetway and made to pay for a small carry-on that fell within guidelines while other passengers with small bags sailed through.
Few reviews for Spirit Airlines mention the $9 Fare Club, which entitles members to dirt-cheap prices when the airline makes them available and savings on bag-check fees when booking online; annual membership fee is $59.95.
Spirit charges a lot for a lot. It allows each passenger one personal item at no charge and demands $30 for a carry-on bag. The first checked bag costs $28, the second costs $35, and bags three through five are $85 each. There's also an extra fee for bags weighing more than 40 pounds (other airlines typically set the weight limit at 50 pounds before a fee kicks in). Passengers should expect to pay for each beverage and snack, extra leg room, and seat selection. Seats are 17 to 18 inches wide with pitch of 28 to 36 inches. Spirit services 50 destinations and runs 150 flights each day.
What with all the extra add-on fees, Spirit gets you coming and going. That, plus the proliferation of passenger complaints, suggests that Spirit falls short of the budget airlines spirit.
Allegiant Air Review
Allegiant Air wins decent ratings at Airline Quality, where Allegiant Air reviews commend the staff's friendliness and professionalism, clean aircraft, and fast and efficient baggage handling. Other reviews are less complimentary, however. At Viewpoints, passengers assert that it's often difficult to get help at the airport when you need it because staffing and on-the-ground services are limited, getting a boarding pass is not guaranteed if you don't arrive at the airport far enough in advance, an opt-out approach to avoiding automatic charges for certain items when booking online is a rip-off, and extra fees mount up fast. Similar gripes are shared in reviews at Epinions.
Allegiant Air offers an incentive to check bags when purchasing a ticket online. If you take the bait, the fee ranges between $14 and $35 for each bag for each leg of the trip (depending on all the airports involved) compared to a flat $35 rate for the first two bags ($50 for bags three and four) when checking luggage at the airport. The weight limit at Allegiant is 40 pounds, with a $50 surcharge for each overweight bag for each leg of the trip ($75 if the bag weighs between 71 and 100 pounds). Oversized bags also incur an extra fee. Nothing is free once you board, with payment required for snacks and beverages, as well as seat selection and pre-boarding privileges; if you choose not to pay to select a seat, seating is first come, first served based on check-in time. Seats are 17 inches wide with 30 inches of pitch. Allegiant Air flies to 71 destinations and focuses on vacation hot spots.
There's little that makes Allegiant Air stand out, although its checked-baggage fees seem excessive. If you're on a route that requires a stop-over and you've got more than one bag, you could wind up paying almost as much for your luggage as for your seat. Some travelers like the service and value the no-frills approach, but the fees and limited route system might make you wary.
Frontier Airlines Review
Like others in its class, this discount airline is the object of both praise and scorn in Frontier Airlines reviews. At Viewpoints, for example, passengers generally commend the responsive, friendly customer service and low ticket prices although some gripe about confusing check-in, rigid reservation-change policies (e.g., for an active-duty soldier), and arbitrary responses to problems caused by delayed and cancelled flights. Likewise at Review Centre some reviews report easy check-in, comfortable seating, acceptable in-flight meals (for a fee), and value for the money while others find fault with the carrier's online reservation system, tendency to overbook, indifferent customer service, and misleading information conveyed by ticket agents.
Frontier assesses a $20 fee for each of the first two checked bags and $50 for a third. There's a 50-pound weight limit unless you're willing to pay up. You'll also be charged for in-flight entertainment (movies and DirecTV start at $3.99) and for snacks; non-alcoholic beverages are complimentary. Extra leg room costs $15-$25, depending on the type of seat; seats are 18 inches wide with a pitch that ranges between 30 and 35 inches. Frontier flies to 80 destinations and operates 350 daily flights.
We like the relatively low checked-baggage fees, budget ticket prices, and the absence of loud complaining about uncomfortable seats. Although Frontier Airlines reviews are lackluster, this is an acceptable choice if the route system meets your needs.
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