Airline travel

Airline travel buying guide

Last updated: June 2015

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Getting started

Getting started

During the first successful airplane flight in 1903, Orville Wright had to lie on top of a wing, next to the motor, in the open air. He might feel right at home on many of today's airliners. Though pilots and passengers now get to ride inside the plane, comfort remains a sore point, according to a survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

More than 16,000 readers told us about their experiences on 31,732 domestic round-trip flights in the previous 12 months. Seven of the 11 airlines they rated received below average scores for seating comfort.

Other quality-of-flight measures also got low marks from readers who flew on lower-rated airlines, including cabin-crew service, cleanliness, and in-flight entertainment. The proliferation of added fees further contributes to passengers' low opinion of today's flying experience.

But some carriers have done a better job than others, as evidenced by a wide difference in overall satisfaction scores. Virgin America, which makes its first appearance on our list in the top spot, received some of the highest scores we've seen in years. Spirit, which also makes its debut on our list, occupies the unenviable bottom spot, receiving one of the lowest overall scores for any company we've ever rated.

You'll increase the odds of a happy–or at least tolerable–flying experience by choosing one of the airlines that did well in our exclusive survey.

You'll increase the odds of a happy–or at least tolerable–flying experience by choosing one of the airlines that did well in our exclusive survey. See our Travel & Vacation Guide for advice and tips on getting the best deals on airfare, hotels, and more.

How to land the best fare

Regardless of which airline you choose to fly, there's no reason to pay more than you have to. And as you may have noticed if you've bought a ticket in the last year, airfares are up.

Though cheap seats may be harder to come by, you can still save money by taking a few simple steps.

Work the Web

Almost all of our survey respondents (94 percent) who booked their own flights did so online. Of those respondents, 59 percent compared fees on other websites before they chose an airline. For the best possible deals, we suggest you cast that wider net. While the airlines sometimes post great fares on their sites, you might be able to find lower prices elsewhere.

Start with websites that allow you to compare the deals from multiple airlines, such as Airfarewatchdog, FareCompare, and Kayak. Also try travel-agency sites, such as CheapTickets, Expedia, and Travelocity.

If you're a bit more adventurous, websites such as Hotwire and Priceline are another option. Hotwire has set prices, while Priceline lets you bid on tickets. Neither indicates which airline you'll be flying or whether your flight is nonstop until you've bought your nonrefundable ticket. To bid on Priceline, first check what other sites charge for a flight you want and then bid 50 percent less, suggests George Hobica, founder and editor of Airfarewatchdog.

Finally, before you book a flight you've found online, check the airline's site. You might see more flight choices for a similar rate.

Be flexible

Shifting your travel dates by a day or two will often allow you to nab a much lower price. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday are generally the cheapest days to fly, says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare. If you're traveling with a group, consider splitting up your party when you're searching for deals. "If you have four in your group and there are only two cheap seats available, online reservation systems will give everyone higher-price seats," Seaney said. Instead, check the price for one, two, and three seats on the plane, as well as for all four, and then book accordingly.

Check multiple airports

When you use price-comparison sites, specify the city you want to depart from, not the airport. Most sites will then show you the flight options for any of that area's airports. Often leaving from one of those other airports will be significantly cheaper.

Sign up for promo codes

If you're a member of an airline's frequent-flyer program, you can often sign up for special promotion codes, which provide discounts from 10 to 50 percent. Promo alerts can be sent to you via e-mail, RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook, and other channels. But the deals expire quickly, so you'll have to act fast. The trade-off? Your e-mail inbox can get flooded with offers that don't interest you.

Time your purchase

The best time to shop? Check prices at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, suggests Seaney; that's when the greatest number of cheap seats are available. But bargains can appear at any time, so keep searching and set up alerts that will send you an email or text message when prices on your route drop, Hobica says.

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