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Picking the right airline

Consumers' complaints about airlines have surged in recent years. But you might just be flying the wrong carrier. Kelli Grant, Senior Consumer Reporter for SmartMoney.com tells which carriers come out on top in five categories and what to look for.


Airlines have gotten better about taking off and arriving on time, largely because they have fewer planes in the skies these days. Hawaiian Airlines came out on top by the numbers, with 92.5% of flights on time. There's a lot of variation by route, and you can check a particular flight or airline's track record at the Department of Transportation.

Obviously, you want to look for a cheap fare, but rising fees can add up to 20% to your cost. Make sure you're comparing those, too, to figure out what's cheapest. Frontier came out ahead in the numbers we looked at - by their disclosed fee revenue, consumers pay an average $4. Of course, which fees you pay vary by your needs, so use a site like SmarterTravel.com that has a good comparison chart.

Satisfaction surveys have found that fliers like their airlines a lot less if they have paid to check a bag. But although we hate the fees, a side effect is that airlines are losing or mishandling fewer bags as a result. Southwest is the only carrier that offers two bags free for each flight, and AirTran has the best record for baggage handling. Carry-on bags are still free on most flights, so take advantage to avoid fees and other problems.

Economy seats have a lot of variation these days, so if you're planning a long flight, it's worth it to check sites like SeatGuru.com to see what you're getting for your cash. JetBlue came out ahead with the biggest seats and the best entertainment, plus plenty of good, free snacks. Also look into how much more room or amenities you get if you pay for extra legroom.

Earning reward miles doesn't mean anything if you can only redeem them for that elusive free seat. That's pretty tough, depending on the airline. Southwest came out ahead here by one recent study, with more than 99% of booking attempts going through. Flights are still the most valuable reward, but if you can't get them, cash out for other travel perks like free hotel nights instead.

For more information on choosing the right airline and other consumer tips click here.