Best & worst airlines: Virgin makes a top debut

    Virgin America makes its debut at the top of our list

    Consumer Reports magazine: July 2013

    Virgin America, which has expanded to 21 cities, has comfy seats even in coach.

    If you're tired of airline flights that leave you too frazzled to enjoy your trip, we have a new recommendation for you. Virgin America, a newcomer to our Ratings, got a clear thumbs-up from readers in our latest survey, with some of the highest scores we've seen in years.

    At the other end of the runway was Spirit Airlines. It was at the bottom of our list, with poor scores across the board for check-in, cabin service, and more.

    In an era of airlines changing, merging, and inventing new fees, getting the best deal hasn't gotten any easier. But we'll tell you how to search for the best fares and what you'll pay in fees from the major carriers. We also have insights from more than 16,000 readers who told us about a total of 31,732 domestic flights in our survey, conducted in February by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

    Planning a trip? Check out our air travel buying guide and airline Ratings.

    One of the things they told us was that they really liked flying on Virgin America. "The leather seat cushions are so nice in coach, there's no reason to fly first class," says Janice Dunn, who answered the survey and lives in Palm Desert, Calif. The airline, which started in 2007, has recently expanded the number of cities it serves to 21. Its main hub is in San Francisco. It flies to most major American cities, as well as certain vacation destinations in Mexico. And it plans to add Anchorage, Alaska, and Austin, Texas, this spring.

    Virgin America says it emphasizes "top-notch services and a host of innovative amenities." Cabins feature mood lighting (magenta strips of lights along the sides and violet along the middle of the ceiling), Wi-Fi throughout the planes, and seatback entertainment systems that allow you to order food and beverages, watch free movies and television, play games, and listen to more than 4,000 songs. Our readers gave those cabin services and in-flight entertainment top scores.

    Although Virgin America charges $25 each for the first and second checked bags, it was the only airline to get the top score for baggage handling.

    Free baggage

    Two other highly rated airlines, JetBlue and Southwest, receive high marks for baggage handling. But even more important, they're the only carriers on our list that let you check one (JetBlue) or two (Southwest) bags free on domestic flights. The free bags help explain why they're among the top airlines we rated.

    Check-in was a breeze on Southwest, and readers enjoyed the staff's onboard service. But it was dinged on in-flight entertainment, an area where Virgin America and JetBlue (which also offers programming on seatback screens) shined. Southwest offers wireless entertainment on your device. JetBlue outscored Southwest on cabin cleanliness and seating comfort; it gives all passengers a couple of extra inches of leg room compared with most other airlines.

    Hawaiian Airlines received high marks for check-in ease, cabin service, and cleanliness. And readers liked the way it handled their bags. Not-so-hot: Hawaiian's in-flight entertainment.

    On the other end of the spectrum, bottom-­ranked Spirit Airlines received one of the lowest overall scores for any company we've ever rated. "Spirit is the only no-frills airline left with fares that can be 90 percent less than other carriers'," says George Hobica, founder and editor of Airfarewatchdog, which tracks airline deals. But it also charges a wide array of fees, including $10 to $19 to book a flight; $3 for a soda, a juice, or a bag of M&Ms; and $35 to $100 per carry-on bag.

    Readers were also sore about Spirit's seats; it has the tightest seating space in the industry. "I'm 6 feet 1 inch, and Spirit is the only airline I've flown where my knees hit the seat in front of me when it was upright, not just reclined," says survey respondent Paul Barrett, a retired airline pilot who lives in Orinda, Calif.

    Consumers told us about other airlines' strengths and weaknesses. Passengers were very happy with Alaska's check-in, and they liked its cabin staff and baggage handling. But they weren't so happy with the airline's seats and entertainment options. Delta and Frontier were awarded very good marks for check-in ease, but otherwise things were mostly middling. Low marks for seating comfort hurt Delta. Lower-­rated carriers, such as American, United, and US Airways, all received the lowest rating possible for cabin cleanliness, seating comfort, and in-flight entertainment.

    Airlines' fees are now coming in packages, whether or not you want all of the services. At American, one itinerary example put Choice Essential at $68, allowing a free flight change, one free checked bag, and early boarding. The Choice Plus bundle, for $88, would provide bonus frequent-­flyer miles, free same-day standby and flight-change options, and a "premium" beverage. Exact costs vary by itinerary. So expect more turbulence ahead given that according to our survey, unexpected fees are a leading cause of dissatisfaction with an airline.

    Track down the best fare

    You'll have to shop around a bit to get a good ticket price. As you may have noticed if you've flown in the past year, fares are up, rising seven times in 2012 according to FareCompare, a travel-planning website. Rick Seaney, co-founder and CEO of the site, predicts that the trend will continue through 2013.

    Work the Web. Almost all of the 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. To uncover the best deal, we suggest you cast that wider net.

    Check prices on third-party sites. Expedia, Kayak, and Travelocity may list identical prices for flights, but they have different electronic reservation systems and add and remove fares at different times. Be sure to check airline sites, too, because sometimes they have sales that they don't share with third-party sites. If you don't have to book immediately, the airlines and price-comparison sites (add Airfarewatchdog, Hotwire, and Priceline to those above) might let you set price alerts; you'll get an e-mail or text when prices drop.

    Dodge the fees. Try to travel light or fly a low-fee airline, such as JetBlue or Southwest. If you need to check a bag or pay for a carry-on, see whether there's a discount for prepaying on the airline's website.

    Check your airline's weight limits. For example, United charges $100 to $200 (depending on your destination) for a checked bag weighing from more than 50 pounds to less than 100. Overweight fees kick in at more than 40 pounds on Spirit.

    You might avoid certain fees if you charge your travel to the airline's credit card. The cards often carry annual fees of $40 to $100, but the perks they usually offer—priority boarding, free checked luggage, and access to airport lounges—can more than make up for the charge.

    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, Seaney says. Check prices at 3 p.m. EST on a Tuesday, he adds; it's when the greatest number of cheap seats are available. But bargains can appear at any time, so keep searching and set up those alerts, Hobica stresses.

    Check other 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.

    Put it on hold. Thanks to regulations that went into effect last year, you can hold a reservation for 24 hours without paying for it (as long as it's at least a week from the scheduled departure date) while you check around for a lower fare.

    Airlines are feasting on fees

    Online information on airlines’ fees, if you can find it, is often vague and incomplete.

    The airlines call them ancillary revenue. You probably call them annoying. One thing is certain—it's getting harder to purchase an airline ticket without paying for extras. (See the table below for more details.)

    Since Spirit Airlines became an "Ultra Low Cost Carrier" in 2007 and most domestic carriers followed by charging for checked bags, there has been no turning back from the nickel-and-diming.

    There isn't much good news for passengers. But when it comes to fees, the most consumer-friendly airline is Southwest, the only U.S. carrier that allows your first and second bags to be checked gratis. JetBlue allows only the first bag free; most airlines charge $25. Low-cost Southwest also stands alone in not imposing ticket-change fees. (Many airlines give 24 hours to change a flight free.) And along with Frontier, it does not charge for telephoning reservations.

    But you shouldn't automatically equate low fares with a lack of fees. Some of the biggest charges are levied by two low-cost carriers, Allegiant and Spirit. Their business models are based on à la carte pricing, with a charge for carry-on bags (in Spirit's case, up to $100). Frontier starts charging for carry on bags when the flight is booked through a third party. Spirit even charges for booking online, and it imposes an "Unintended Consequences of DOT Regulations Fee."

    Do Allegiant and Spirit offer low fares? Absolutely. But obtaining a true apples-to-apples comparison among multiple airlines on your bottom-line ticket price can require a lot of time and work these days.

    Hard-to-find fee info

    Be warned: If you're searching for fees on an airline's site, it's often a cumbersome process. Southwest and Virgin America provide easy access to complete fee information, we found. Many other carriers offer detailed online guides to fees, but they include unhelpful points such as charges of "from $4 to $99" for preferred seats. United doesn't even provide a range of prices for two critical fees: checking your first and second bags. Charges are doled out on a flight-by-flight basis only after you enter your itinerary.

    We obtained United's fee information by contacting its media relations department, an option not available to the average passenger.

    For most travelers, it's difficult to avoid the fees in our chart, and we didn't even include categories such as the cost of oversized or overweight luggage, additional bags, paper tickets, and for amenities and extras such as drinks, snacks, meals, larger seats, and headsets or entertainment.

    Unaccompanied minors and pets also incur fees, as do many frequent-flyer-program transactions.

    And to think that when we reported on airfares in 1964, we said, "Unless something is done to uncomplicate the situation, the day may soon arrive when only a computer will be able to match the traveler's need to the most suitable flight and fare."

    How about a supercomputer?



    First checked bag


    Second checked bag


    In alphabetical order. (All fees are one-way economy-coach, unless otherwise noted.)





    $25 (U.S., Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Canada); free (international)

    $35 (U.S., Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Canada); free/$40/$60/$70 (international)


    $25 (U.S., Canada, Caribbean); free (intl.)

    $35 (U.S., Canada); $40/$75/$100 (intl.)


    $20 if you check in online; $25 at the airport



    $17 (inter-island); $25 (mainland U.S.); free (international) $17 (inter-island); $35 (mainland U.S.); free (international)










    United (includes Continental)

    $25 (domestic); free (international)

    $35 (domestic); $100 (international)

    US Airways1

    $25 (most of North and South America); free (transatlantic/
    $35 (most of North and South America);$100 (transatlantic); free (transpacific/Brazil)

    Virgin America

    $25 (domestic); free (international)


    Note: Baggage fees are based on standard pricing and are current as of press time. 1. American and US Airways are seeking government approval to merge operations. 2. AirTran's operations are being merged into Southwest. 3. Depending on when you pay for checked bag.

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