How To Choose Which Airline To Fly?

If all you care about is schedule and price then choose your airline based on schedule and price. But fewer people care about just these things than is commonly imagined – it’s just that these are the only pieces of information people have historically been given.

If you’re a regular travel then loyalty (and loyalty benefits) likely matter too. And if you’re older than 20 then comfort is going to matter too – even if you’re choosing Spirit Airlines, which is why their ‘Big Front Seat’ is one of the best deals in travel.

Say you move to Kansas City, and decide to start fresh with a new airline. That’s a competitive market with lots of airlines you can reasonably fly. Southwest is biggest but several airlines are choices you can select from.

I think the first thing you want to do is divorce points-earning from status-earning. It doesn’t matter if the miles you earn flying can be redeemed for international premium cabin award tickets, even if those are the tickets you want, because most of the miles you’ll earn will come from things other than flying (especially credit cards).

You want to focus on what’s most important to you in an airline.

  • Do you care about first class upgrades? or most non-stop flights?

    • Southwest status is great, from my perspective living in Austin in the middle of the country. Most domestic flights aren’t very long, and status means I’ll get a good seat even if I make a last minute booking or change. People are reasonably friendly and there’s a little more legroom than other airlines offer.

    • If you fly longer flights then upgrades may matter, and upgrades may become more important going forward as it takes awhile for the airline industry to fully recover and for business travel to return. Once difficult upgrades may be easier so the value of elite status on legacy airlines may go up.

  • If inflight internet matters then United is mostly out, their service is too slow and too unreliable. But it’s just one consideration – if you live on Staten Island are you really going to schlep to LaGuardia or JFK for inflight internet? If you live in Houston you’ll probably sacrifice internet for non-stop flights, even if internet is important.

  • You can fly Delta for the product – marginally friendlier people and more reliable operation – and their top status is easiest to earn (thanks to credit card contributions) even though SkyMiles is a dumpster fire. Just try to earn miles for your non-flight activity elsewhere, caveating that credit card spend can be useful for earning status here.


Southwest Airlines ‘Economy’

Because mileage-earning is now largely about credit cards, not flying, your choice for airline to fly is about schedule, price, product – and elite experience if you’re a frequent flyer with enough travel to earn status.

In Austin I fly Southwest Airlines regularly – they are the largest carrier, and they have the only non-stop to Washington National airport (by law), my most frequent destination. For a short flight the experience is fine. I also fly American Airlines, the largest legacy carrier in my home city. For all their faults they have plenty of service, the staff in their lounge here is the best in their system – and those folks do an amazing job keeping people moving when American’s operation breaks down. And the airline has functional inflight internet, except on widebody aircraft which use Panasonic’s system.

How do you go about choosing an airline, and what keeps you loyal?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. You hit the high points. My biz travel is primarily west coast focused and my primary airport is SNA. I fly Alaska and will use American as alternative moving forward (one world).

    Alaska has great west coast route network, I get tons of 1st class upgrades and Alaska is prob 2nd best airline after Delta. Alaska’s hard product is dated and underwhelming, but I love first class on the E175.

  2. Whilst it’s a competitive environment and tough commercial decisions are par for the sector, you fail to mention:
    – Basic honesty in trading
    – Morality / ethics
    In the case of the once fabulous British Airways, now BA aka SpanglishQatari airlines, for me; staff and consumer hostile actions, especially in the past 6months but going back at least 4years mean they’re #BestAvoided.
    I don’t want to be charged for seat reservation in Business. When a three course meal is advertised, I’d at least like it to be loaded onboard… IFE and advertised WiFi should be available. Sure, accidents happen but when an airframe with non functional amenities is used for months, with no warning to the passenger and running out of catering after 4hours becomes routine, it’s be design, not an accident.
    Sadly almost every major player has had to downsize by 20-25% to date but BA are unique in their fire and rehire strategy, effectively forcing pay cuts on all remainers except of course the executive.
    For these and the basic fact that the service is overpriced and underdelivered, I’d argue BA are Below Average. Their approach to business & looking after their customers is #BeyondAbysmal and therefore we should all Fly AnyoneButBA

  3. Great post and shoutout to my (second) home airport in Kansas City. I choose to fly AA because they are the only one operating a morning departure to Chicago that then connects to the 9am ORD-LHR daytime flight.

  4. I’m one of those who picks on price and routes. No airline has come close to earning my loyalty.

  5. @ Gary — If I needed/wanted to fly today, it would be wherever I could get with my LifeMiles before they become worthless. Then, it would be with whomever I have vouchers or other miles to burn. The exception would be whoever offers super-cheap fares up front, then I would consider using cash.

  6. In Canada my flights are in two buckets. Transcons YYZ-YVR and paid premium tickets to to AMS.

    For me the transcons are mostly on WS as the cash upgrade is cheaper (the bit I pay) and I don’t do it enough to get high enough status to get upgrades on AC.

    AMS is usually TAP as they consistently have the cheapest fares, but occasionally KL has good fares ex-AMS which make it worth nesting things with TAP flights as bookends.

    In both cases it is about a decent enough seat at a decent enough price point

  7. Requiring masks, and having empty middle seats are super-important right now! (May be flying Southwest soon; it will be my first flight since March 13.)

  8. Fellow Austin traveller who has switched to almost all SWA after all the devaluations with AA and UA. I fly 130-150K per year (for the last 20+ years). All international trips are booked in biz directly with a foreign carrier. The decline in UA and AA is unfortunate, especially given that I have lifetime million miler status with both, but actively choose to give my business elsewhere. A few times per year, I’ll buy a nonstop domestic first on Delta, but their miles are worthless, so I don’t even bother with sky pesos / have an account. What good are miles if you can’t use them. SWA has figured this out a long time ago and has had my loyalty for some time now.

  9. I live in St Louis and I have two branded credit cards, DL Amex, WN Visa. And decent amounts of points in both. Those are my go-to airlines when looking for flights. Schedule priority One, price priority Two. Between DL and WN they take me pretty much wherever I need to go with reasonable service. I’m a four day, North America/Caribbean traveler so they cover it. That being said if AA or UA or F9 have a better schedule/price I will book them as well. On another airline’s branded card. Still win/win. Not a status/points whore by any means, just whatever works best for me.

  10. We’re hub captive UA flyers out of SFO because we value direct flights over most anything and AS has cut too many VX routes. One silver lining is seeing Kirby humbled with PQP requirement cut in half and a G and K fare bonanza on sale.

  11. I’m pretty much tied to UA, flying out of IAD for government work. Most of my travel is to Africa. I don’t mind Delta, but flying to Africa on them means codeshare on Air France and they are flat out lousy. So I try do the UA/Ethiopian thing. Brussels Airlines is a nice option too. I find Ethiopian to be exceptionally good!

    The only direct carrier back home to visit mom and dad is Southwest. They offer a a good product but sometimes the schedule sucks. And I LOATHE Southwest’s baggage claim at DCA. It’s too small and an absolute zoo.

    I find the older I get the more I value comfort and minimal hassle, and care less about being loyal to anyone carrier. Plus I have more disposable income now, so I don’t mind paying for extra perks if I want them.

  12. @FF78: you’re crazy to fly DL without a loyalty account. You’re giving up a 5% rebate because awards are almost always available at the 1 cpp level or better. You’ll accrue enough for a free flight every few years if you’re flying a couple revenue F fares per year

  13. What do you think about a post comparing different airlines travel cancellation penalties for right now.

    Southwest will give a travel fund expiration of 24 months for flights prior to 9/8.
    Jet Blue only gives 12 months. Seems like that’s true of Delta too.

    This might influence my choice right now, at least for my Amex Incidental credit airline choice.

  14. If I live in a hub, I usually fly on that airline, strictly because of the convenience. I no longer have loyalty to any airline. I am a former elite on United, American, and US Airways, but those days of frequent business travel ended seven years ago, and so did the elite status. I used up most of my high frequent flyer mile balances about two years ago.

    I live in Washington DC, and I fly United from its IAD hub to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, and twice a year to Europe. I fear that United may be walking away from its IAD European gateway, and if that happens I will fly Lufthansa from IAD to Europe rather than connect through another US city such as EWR, JFK, PHL, or ATL.

    I fly American from its DCA hub for many domestic destinations, and via MIA to Latin America. I am increasingly frustrated with American, so I fly Delta from DCA to ATL and DTW, I fly United from DCA to ORD and DEN, and I fly Jet Blue from DCA to BOS.

  15. @Esquiar I respect your point, but there’s also the opportunity cost of time to track the loose ends. For my few flights on DL, and the amount of hunting that’s required to find whatever saver award for my family….it’s not worth the time to me. That’s why I love SWA. Easy.
    Once upon a time, this whole loyalty thing was alot more straightforward. I would spend $50K+ per year with AA of UA, and I could cash in my loyalty points for whatever saver award that would get me and the family to Europe in Biz. I was flexible on the dates, and that helped me get the award. Just this past December, Lufthansa had a business class sale and I just bought the tickets outright. The irony is that the cash value of the tickets was less than anything that United could have offered on points (with the BS devaluations). With AA, I stopped trying 7 years ago. Anyway….happy flying.

  16. Unless you have the money to pay for first or have someone else paying for first in the US, why are you not on Southwest?

    Cheaper on average than the legacies
    Fee Bags $130 each way
    No Cancellation/Change Fee
    Best customer service
    No Basic Economy
    No CRJ-200’s

  17. I always prefer to fly full service carriers. As 99% of my travel is for leisure I look for flights that depart post 12 noon. Within that I always book refundable / changeable without fee tickets as who needs the hassle of paying extra in case plans change.

  18. I don’t agree. I think business travelers earn a lot of points each year by flying and may not be able to collect the credit card points associated with those flights. Status x high fare accrues points. I think UA made an interesting gamble with their FF revamp but obviously covid upended that strategy.

  19. Flying out of CVG, Delta is my go-to for most flights, but Allegiant is the ONLY airline that flies into Punta Gorda FL, 10 miles from my vacation house in Port Charlotte, so they get the nod for CHEAP sub-2 hour direct flights. It’s not worth spending more money to fly DL into Sarasota or Ft Myers, then spending more time and money for the uber to the house, when PGD is so close.

  20. Good points in this post. By chance I do live in KC but in middle of moving to STL. Both good AA and WN non hub markets. In the Midwest and non-hub I tend to fly more short flights and am usually connecting somewhere like ORD or DFW so my elite status comes from segments not EQMs so that is a factor for me. I like Southwest OK but my wife flys, well used to fly, a lot and she concentrates on Southwest status and the companion pass. I usually earn low grade AA status but it can be enough on off peak non-hub flights to get upgrades part of the time. I also get low level status on Flying blue because of my AF flying paired with a few odd flights per year on Delta, credited to AF. It’s a free agent market though so I shift my loyalty as fast as the airlines do.

  21. Status earning is a non factor for me… I don’t fly enough to gain status anywhere.
    For domestic flights, Jetblue seems to give me the most bang for the buck flying out of Boston to my usual destinations, although options on the major carriers are available when needed. Their points also don’t expire.
    International flights are always to Japan, JAL has been my go to for having a direct flight, comfortable seats, and a good Japanese style meal available.

  22. “How do you go about choosing an airline, and what keeps you loyal?”

    Work says

    “Here is your UA ticket”

    Figured I’d be a loyal lowly silver/gold to them and direct my personal business there but them increasing necessary spend on MP going full dollar based hurts that.

    Oh and scrapping award charts/dynamic point values means I am not interested in the credit cards; I’d considered ua club lounge membership till they made it UA flight only.

    For now I’ll keep checking UA first for personal flights; but if another airline that I am not boycotting (Delta for being antigun) has a better deal I’ll hop onboard.

    ______________

    As for what drives loyalty WRT non work flights still?

    Free E+ access, Free Checked bag.

    Now give me an award chart so I know what I can get if I save my miles and maybe I’d care about the offers again!

  23. I’m in DEN and fly mostly domestic so it’s either UA or WN. Because I fly enough to get top United status I go all-in on United. Guaranteed Economy plus is better than standard Southwest economy. There’s also something less stressful I’ve noticed about sitting in the front of the plane, even the front of economy, not First. Quieter, you don’t see an endless row of heads…it is somehow much more relaxing.

    One minor point that is missing in this analysis is IRROPS or same-day changes. I have so much flexibility in my flight schedule that I take full advantage of leaving early/late if necessary. And whenever there is weather or other issues, I really do feel like I get my “money’s worth” on having UA status, since I am accomodated quickly and with the best available option. I even switch to earlier flights that take off in 45 minutes and I’ll still get a CPU.

  24. Delta is anti-gun? I didn’t know that. But what does that even mean — that they don’t allow guns on their planes? Who does?

  25. Writing this from United’s wifi with zero issues – I fly United and fully depend on their in flight internet for work. I also work in IT, so I shy away from Jetblue – despite the wifi being free, they block access to specific ports that prevent me from being able to do my job.

    Curious why you think United’s wifi is so bad?

  26. Non stop almost always rules in my book. I’m still loyal to AA and almost always choose MIA over FLL, which brings me to another point – the airport. I’m lucky that I have three airports to choose from in South Florida, but almost always choose MIA. Being able to go into the Admirals Club in MIA when AA’s operation breaks down is unbelievably valuable (as you noted). Things happen with the best of airlines and having a nice airport terminal or a nice club to be in makes the world of difference. Having had major delays at FLL with no club available and no decent dining choices or any decent amenities (along with gate agents shouting through the terminal-wide PA every 2.5 minutes with speakers mere inches from your eardrums), I now almost always choose MIA.

    So yeah, non stop is always first option, but if at all possible, I choose the better airport with better amenities.

  27. @Charlie

    I seem to recall them making a big stink about being anti NRA because gunz R bad or something.

    Now if they opposed the NRA due to Wayne LaPew being dumb that’d be another thing.

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