Airline Travel Buying Guide

    Airline Travel Buying Guide

    High fares. Hidden fees. Long security lines. Shrinking seats. Crowded cabins. There’s room for improvement, especially if you’re sitting in coach, according to Consumer Reports members who responded to our airline survey, conducted last summer.

    What We Found: The Plane Truth

    More than 55,000 members told us about their experiences on 97,765 coach flights and some 8,700 first-class or business-class domestic nonstop flights between the summers of 2016 and 2017.  They told us their opinions about many factors, including their airline’s seat comfort, legroom, cabin cleanliness, check-in ease, service from airline staff, in-flight entertainment, and pricing transparency during the booking process.

    This year, we had enough data to rate economy flights on 11 airlines and first-class/business-class flights on five airlines.

    Only one airline received top marks for pricing transparency among economy passengers, although three others also rated favorably in this area (for more, see our ratings—available to members).

    When it comes to comfort in the air, all the airlines we rated for economy flights received below-average scores for legroom, seat comfort, and selection of paid and complimentary food and beverages.

    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, our members who took the survey had a better experience than one might expect. However, a quarter of passengers on economy flights found seat comfort to be poor or very poor.

    Also, selection of free and paid food and beverages rated particularly poorly across the board. The three U.S. airlines that control about 65 percent of the domestic market rated from the middle to the back of the pack for overall satisfaction among coach passengers.

    Disparities in First Class

    Two airlines stood out for first class:  Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines. Check the full ratings to see details on how these two airlines scored in every category.

    Much like coach class, however, passengers who flew with our lower-rated first-class carriers were a lot less happy. First-class travelers on United and American Airlines were significantly less satisfied overall than the travelers on the other airlines that qualified for our first-class ratings. See our ratings for details on why.

    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 past 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
    More than three-quarters 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; 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. When bidding on Priceline, check what other sites are offering first and then lowball them. You may snag a fare that’s 50 percent below the advertised rate.

    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.

    If you’re traveling with a group, consider splitting up your party when you’re searching for deals. 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 email, RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook, and other channels. Bargains can appear at any time and deals expire quickly, so you’ll have to act fast. The trade-off? Your email inbox can get flooded with offers that don’t interest you.