There’s little to enjoy about airplane travel these days, thanks to long security lines, cramped seats, full flights, extra fees for everything from checked bags to priority boarding. Consumer Reports rates the best and worst airlines, the best and worst websites for getting airfare deals in a special report
Not surprisingly, there are plenty of complaints from more than 20,000 Consumer Reports subscribers surveyed, and plenty of room for improvement.
Best and worst airlines for stress-free flying
JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Virgin America, and Alaska Airlines topped Consumer Reports coach/economy ratings, all four carriers earned better than average marks for check-in ease and service from airline staff.
Best and worst airlines for food and entertainment
All 13 US-flag airlines included in CRs’ ratings were also rated worse or far worse than average for food and refreshments among coach/economy passengers.
JetBlue and Virgin America were the only airlines that did not get dinged for their in-flight entertainment in coach/economy class.
Virgin America also scored well among first/business class passengers, followed closely by Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines.
In fact, Virgin got top marks across the board. While first/business class passengers indicated they were at least fairly well satisfied with all seven airlines in CR’s first/business class ratings, appearing at the bottom of CR’s ratings as meaningfully worse than all other first class services are United Airlines and American Airlines.
Both United and American scored below average for cabin and restroom cleanliness, food /refreshments, and inflight entertainment.
Best and worse website prices and purchase experience
Consumer Reports spent almost two weeks looking for the cheapest nonstop airfares on five busy domestic routes using nine popular sites – CheapOair, Expedia, Google Flights, Hotwire, Kayak, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity, and TripAdvisor.
All nine sites provided multiple fares at the same time, depending on which browser was being used.
Fares can also vary for the same route at the same time over different days. Actually, all nine sites provided different fares on separate browsers at the same time at least once, most frequently on Google Flights and Kayak.
Despite its name, CheapOair delivered the highest average fares and also failed to provide a single lowest fare among the five routes researched by Consumer Reports.
Mandy Walker, Consumer Reports money content development senior editor, recommends doing multiple searches over multiple days to increase your chances of finding the lowest fare. “You will notice that persistence pays off in the quest for the best price on travel booking sites, she says.”
- Tip: ecoXplorer Evelyn Kanter says to clear your cookies before returning to a particular fare-searching site, whether that’s the airline’s own site or a conglomerate booking site. That’s because when the website’s algorithm recognizes you are interested enough to return to the site to make a purchase, it usually raises the price, and that good deal you saw the first time is no longer available.
How to navigate your next flying experience
Score the Best Seats: Start checking for available seats 72 hours before departure. That’s when airlines may start releasing those that were earlier reserved for people who have been upgraded or have canceled, which means you might be able to select a plum spot— without having to pay extra for it.
Board Early and Save on Baggage Fees: Checking just one bag could cost you $36 to $200 round-trip. Making do with a carry-on is an obvious way to avoid bag fees—unless you’re flying on Allegiant, Frontier, or Spirit, which charge for carry-on bags.
Speed Through Security: Flyers who have registered with TSA PreCheck enjoy expedited screening at more than 180 U.S. airports, saving time and stress.
Avoid the Crowds: If you’ll be in the airport for more than a few hours, consider splurging for access to a lounge. Most airlines sell day passes to their club lounges even if you’re not traveling with them, and companies such as Plaza Premium Lounge, No. 1 Lounge, and The Club Airport Lounge sell passes at their locations around the world. Don’t join the mad rush to get on the plane. The less time you spend in line, the better, says Leon James, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii who studies air, road, and pedestrian rage.
Maximize Comfort: Bring along a sweater, a small pillow and blanket for longer flights, and reading material or audio books, and games. Noise-canceling headphones and eye masks can lend an added sense of calm and help you sleep on long flights.
Move It: Remaining in a seated position for more than four hours can increase the risk of developing a dangerous blood clot known as DVT, or deep vein thrombosis. Wiggle ankles and shoulders, bend at the waist, stretch arms overhead regularly.
Keep it Clean: Fill an enclosed space with a steady stream of people (many of them coughing and sneezing) and you have the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. To ease your mind and maybe avoid picking up a bug, wash your hands frequently with soap and hot water, and use alcohol- based wipes on all of those germy surfaces before you touch them.
Make Sure You’re Covered: Travel insurance can cover the cost of your airfare plus hotels, tour costs, or cruise fare if you need to cancel or interrupt a trip because of unexpected events such as personal illness, the illness or death of a relative or travel companion, or some types of severe weather. Travel insurance will generally also cover the cost of belongings that are lost or stolen, emergency medical care, and also offer a death benefit. But travel insurance is a benefit provided by some credit cards, and you may be covered for medical treatment and theft under your own health and homeowners policies.
The flight and fare comparison is published in the October 2016 issue of Consumer Reports and available free online at ConsumerReports.org.