Airline Travel Buying Guide
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High fares. Hidden fees. Long security lines. Shrinking seats. Crowded cabins. There's not much to enjoy about airline travel these days, especially if you're sitting in coach, according to readers in our airline survey, conducted this summer by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

What We Found – The Plane Truth

More than 14,000 coach passengers and some 6,000 first-class passengers who took a domestic nonstop flight told us their opinions about their airline's seat width and comfort, legroom, room for carry-on bags, cabin and restroom cleanliness, check-in ease, service from the airline staff, in-flight entertainment, and transparency about fees.

You'll have a more comfortable trip without springing for an upgrade if you fly with the airline at the top of our coach Ratings: JetBlue. It earned a higher score than any other airline for its coach cabin's seat comfort and legroom.

JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America received favorable Ratings for their check-in, their staff service, and upfront disclosure about their fees. Passengers dinged Southwest and Virgin America, however, for their cramped and uncomfortable seats. Yet apart from JetBlue, all coach services rate poorly in these areas.

When it comes to first-class travel, Virgin America, Hawaiian Airlines, and Alaska Airlines earned an exceptional overall score. Virgin was the real stand out, however, with top marks across the board. Hawaiian and Alaska (with the exception of its average in-flight entertainment) also received high marks in the rated areas.

See our Travel & Vacation Guide for advice and tips on getting the best deals on airfare, hotels, and more.

Can you Find Comfort in Coach?

Overall, people in our survey had a pretty dim view of the U.S. airline industry's domestic coach service. Amenities rated as particularly poor include seating, food and refreshments, and in-flight entertainment. In fact, apart from Southwest's especially high score on fee transparency, no airline received a top mark on any of the attributes we measured.

Even the highly rated coach carriers received a few below-average marks. JetBlue passengers were unenthusiastic about its food and refreshments. People flying on Southwest gave its seat comfort, legroom, food and refreshments, and in-flight entertainment a big thumbs-down. Passengers had a mixed range of views about hidden fees, but they gave the airlines in the top half of our Ratings much better scores than the carriers that landed below.

The three U.S. airlines that control about 65 percent of the domestic market—American, Delta, and United—placed from the middle to the back of the pack for their coach service.

Two airlines made their debut in our Ratings this year: Sun Country and Allegiant. Sun Country was formed in 1982 by a group of pilots and flight attendants from the defunct Braniff International. The airline now travels to 34 destinations in the U.S., Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean. Allegiant, which took off in 1997, travels to 112 destinations in the U.S., including Laredo, Texas; Grand Island, Nebraska; Ogden, Utah; Missoula, Montana; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Peoria, Illinois, and other smaller cities.

The lowest-rated coach carrier in our survey was Spirit. It received low marks on all the aspects we measured, and was significantly worse than every other airline in terms of overall satisfaction. In fact, its overall satisfaction score is among the lowest for any service we've ever rated.

Disparities in First Class

Three airlines stood out for first class: Virgin America, Hawaiian Airlines, and Alaska Airlines. Virgin America earned top marks across the board. Last year the airline added free hors d'oeuvres in first class to its traditional after-takeoff cocktail service, as well as hot towels, table linens, and a custom ice cream flavor developed in collaboration with San Francisco's Humphry Slocombe.

Hawaiian Airlines received favorable scores in every category, as does Alaska Airlines with the exception of its in-flight entertainment.

Much like coach class, however, passengers who flew with our lower-rated first class carriers were a lot less happy. Not only were United and US Airways first-class travelers significantly less satisfied overall than the travelers on every other airline that qualified for our first-class Ratings, but they were also significantly less satisfied than the coach travelers on the top six carriers in our coach Ratings.

Both were viewed as especially bad for cabin and restroom cleanliness, food and refreshments, and in-flight entertainment. (Note: US Airways took its last flight under its name this year on October 17, and is now fully merged with American.)

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 who booked their own flights did so on airline websites. 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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