The airline you fly can be an afterthought, especially with the advent of sites like Kayak or Expedia (read: Log online, find the cheapest flight, book your travel). But choosing who you fly with matters.
If you look only at price, you might end up on an airline that’s notorious for losing bags or delaying passengers. If you’re a frequent flyer, you could be flying for free after you collect your points, jet-setting to a destination you otherwise may not have considered. (Christmas in Zurich!)
Don’t worry, you don’t have to do all the research the find the right airline to fit your needs. We did it for you.
Here, our picks for the best carriers to fly this season depending on what your priorities are—from cheap but reliable picks to green, do-good airlines.
There are many ways to define “best” when it comes to routes, but as a traveler airline size is often measured by something called revenue passenger-kilometers (RPKs)—a.k.a. the total distance that passengers of that airline fly in one year. American takes the cake on that, but United, with its 356 destinations across the globe, is our pick for routes worth noticing.
“It has a more expansive route map than its U.S. rivals and is part of the largest airline partnership, Star Alliance, giving you more options to fly on partner airlines,” says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. What also helps: cool new flight route additions to destinations like Palermo (Sicily’s capital and the Italian Cultural Capital in 2018) or the dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, launching in 2020.
Best for Budget (International Carrier)
Taking a “budget” flight can sometimes result in a budget experience. But for a decent ride to a more than decent destination for a steal, Norwegian—a top pick in low-cost airline rankings—stands out, especially if you’re heading toward Europe. No one can complain about flying round-trip to Paris for $300. Bonus: Most of the flights are direct and you’ll travel by way of a 787-9 Boeing Dreamliner, making for a comfortable trip.
Best for Budget (U.S. Carrier)
United flies pretty much everywhere and does so at some seriously low prices, says Keyes, who notes that with its route map and low fares, they’re the best overall pick for cheap flight aficionados. In fact, he notes that Scott’s Cheap Flights found more great deals on United Airlines (936) than any other airline in the past year. Runner(s) up: American was second with 753, followed by Delta at 711.
Best for the Environment (International Carrier)
Norwegian is by far the greenest, most fuel-efficient long-haul airline, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. “Driving the efficiency is the fact that it has a smaller and more dense premium cabin than most other airlines, allowing more passengers to fly,” explains Keyes.
Best for the Environment (U.S. Carrier)
U.S. airlines aren’t quite standouts when it comes to low-carbon emissions and a small environmental impact (go figure), but if you want to fly greener, book Alaska, which ranked No. 22 in 2018’s Atmosfair Airline Index (but No. 1 as far as U.S. carriers go), No. 1 for North American aviation on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI), and as the most fuel efficient carrier by the International Council on Clean Transportation, burning 12 to 13 percent less fuel than other U.S. carriers. The airline invests in efficient aircrafts like the Airbus 321 neo and takes stands against plastic. Still feel bad? Alaska provides an option to offset your trip (i.e. donate toward projects that work to reduce greenhouse gases).
It should come as no surprise that an airline that sponsors top-tier events like the U.S. Open and the French Open at Roland Garros—Emirates is the official airline of tennis’ ATP World Tour—and calls far-flung, luxurious Dubai its home has a fancy flight of aircrafts to match. In fact, the entire fleet is Airbus A380s—the planet’s biggest, most spacious passenger plane that’s also arguably the quietest ride in the sky—and Boeing 777s—an impressive airliner that’s the first to be 100 percent computer-designed. Inside, things are better: amenity kits—toothbrush and toothpaste, socks, ear plugs, and more for economy class and skincare products, sleep oil, a faux leather notebook, and more for business and first class—the A380s are double deckers, and Emirates flights are equipped with bars. Also: “Being able to shower in the sky—if you’re sitting in the front of the plane, of course—is a perk unmatched anywhere else,” says Keyes.
Best Customer Service
Southwest’s snarky commercials, in-flight videos, and advertisements aren’t just creative and comical—they work in creating a loyal base of highly-satisfied customers. Take an annual survey by The Points Guy that analyzed the best and worst airlines: Southwest had only 602 complaints from 160 million passengers (compared to, say, Frontier which had 778 complaints from just 19 million). The airline also topped the J.D. Power 2019 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, which takes into account costs, in-flight services (free entertainment when you download the app), the flight crew (read: a good sense of humor), reservations (a slew of different fares to choose from), and more. “As the only airline that doesn’t charge you for bags or changing flights, this is a no-brainer,” adds Keyes.
Best On-Time Airline
As far as travel inconveniences go, flight delays are up there. A climate free of snow storms might have something to do with why Hawaiian Airlines is consistently noted as a punctual carrier with on-time takeoffs—the airline topped the list as the No. 1 performer with an 89.6 on-time percentage. And with international destinations like Sydney, Seoul, Osaka, and Auckland, the islands aren’t the only place you can expect to arrive on-time to.
Best for Add-On & Baggage Fees
This one’s pretty simple: How can you beat no fees for checked bags, carry-on bags, seat selection, changing flights, or canceling flights? “Southwest is unmatched industry-wide in how generous their approach to fees is,” says Keyes.
Best Frequent-Flyer Program
Widely seen as the most valuable—particularly if you’re hoping to fly business class or taking advantage of their free stopover allowance on one-way award flights—Alaska takes the cake for frequent flyers, says Keyes. If you fly a mile, you earn a mile and if your flight is shorter than 500 miles, the airline rounds up, giving you 500. And don’t think this is only for West Coasters. Alaska has partnerships with 18 other airlines, including top international picks like Emirates and Singapore.
There’s a reason Singapore is a perennial winner in prestigious round-ups like Condé Nast Traveler’s reader’s choice awards and AirlineRatings 'Airline of the Year' award. It’s got what’s arguably the world’s best first class suite complete with sliding doors, stand-alone beds, turndown service, and access to Bose noise-canceling headphones. There’s also an option to reserve meals 24 hours in advance and more than 1,000 entertainment options. Even economy—with in-seat power and USB plugs and full meal service—is fancy.
Best for In-Flight Comfort
Some airlines offer up shiny on-board spas and bars, but no matter where you’re going, you can always count on JetBlue to provide the most important of all in-flight comforts: extra leg room. The airline ties Southwest for the roomiest seat pitch—32.9 inches on average, a nearly 5-inch upgrade over sardine-like quarters on Spirit—plus free high-speed Wi-Fi and live DirecTV. “Most economy cabins on most airlines are about the same, but JetBlue has an edge given the slightly roomier seats and DirecTV onboard,” confirms Keyes. Free snacks and drinks? Check. Better yet, you can head for the self-serve snack area.
Best Holiday Deals
United takes the top slot yet again, in part, thanks to their massive route map. Need to visit grandma in Cincinnati? Check. Want to fly to New Delhi and skip Thanksgiving? You can do that, too.
“United has had by far the most cheap flights of any U.S.-based airline in the past year,” says Keyes. And that includes sick steals (read: $500 total on roundtrip tickets to Zurich, Munich, or Dublin over Christmas). Holiday travel keeping you somewhat local? If you’re 18 to 22 and book your flight in the States or to Canada or Mexico before New Year’s Eve, you’ll save 10 percent.
In travel lingo, good layovers are actually called stopovers—a chance to see a place that might otherwise simply be a flyover spot—enroute to your final destination. IcelandAir was the first airline to really ace the idea, allowing transatlantic travelers enroute to Europe to break up their journey. Seriously, there’s a whole program dedicated to it, and it’s worth doing. For one to seven days, flying from one of 15 cities in the U.S. and Canada to one of 24 spots in Europe for no added cost, you can experience Reykjavik, hot springs, the country’s waterfalls, and more.
Most Reliable Airline
As a Fortune top 50 Most Admired Company—the most admired airline on the list—Delta is true blue, doing a damn good job servicing its 300 destinations in 50-plus countries. It’s part of the reason why The Points Guy ranked them at the top of its annual best and worst airlines report, noting that on top of timeliness—86.09 percent of flights arrived on time in 2018—pricing—a best fare guarantee—and comfort. While 136 million people flew Delta in a year, the airline only bumped 32 of them. Delta also topped out the 29th annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR)—an industry study of performance and quality among U.S. carriers. Delta’s consistently ranked No. 1 for overall operations, too, says Keyes. “They tend to do a better job than their competitors at getting passengers to their final destination on time or close to it.”
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