You see a lot of "best airline" stories, but many look suspiciously like they were based on business- and first-class. For most travelers, however, what happens at the front of the plane stays at the front of the plane—it's something to fantasize about, but prohibitively expensive and not even remotely achievable in this lifetime.
As to real-world flying for real-world travelers, everyone knows that the coach or economy airline product in the back of the plane runs from miserable to unacceptable. The "best" options are really the "least worst." So with that in mind, here are the best coach-class airlines in the world.
Best Overall Coach-Class Airlines in North America: JetBlue
Even after the current downgrading, JetBlue's extra legroom still beats any other airline. The de facto charge for a checked bag, at $15 over the minimum fare, is less than on most other airlines. The satellite-based Wi-Fi is free, at slow speeds, and $9 an hour for enough bandwidth to stream movies. And seats in JetBlue's Airbus planes are an inch wider than on any competitors' 737s.
Most Consumer-Friendly Coach-Class Airlines in North America: Southwest
Its "two checked bags at no extra charge" and "no ticket-change penalty" policies make Southwest a clear winner for being nice to customers. Fortunately, at least so far, Southwest seems to have convinced Wall Street that those passenger-friendly policies gain more revenue in total customers than it would gain by imposing fees and losing customers. With other giant carriers charging checked bag fees of $25 a pop, even one checked bag gives Southwest a $50 round-trip fare advantage.
Southwest has even managed to tame the chaos of its unique no-advance-assignment boarding process: You get your boarding group and number when you check in, which you can do online starting 24 hours before departure; at the airport, you line up according to number, and get on the plane with a minimum of pushing and shoving.
Best Frequent-Flyer Program for Occasional Travelers, North America: Alaska Mileage Plan
At least for now, Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan seems more generous than the big-line programs that are moving toward dollar-based earnings and rewards. You still get one mile for every mile flown, and the award chart mileage requirements are less than the effective requirements on the giant airlines. Alaska still has useful partnerships with Air France/KLM, American, British Airways, Delta, Korean, Qantas, and a few others. We don't know how long Alaska will retain its current system, but it's a winner as long as today's rules remain.
If you accumulate miles or points through a credit card that allows transfers, such as American Express, the award chart for Air Canada's Aeroplan is more generous than current big lines' plans. But you get only partial mileage credit when you fly on Air Canada's lowest fares.
Coolest Coach-Class Airline in North America: Virgin America
Yes, JetBlue beats it by the measurements, but Virgin America keeps earning great survey ratings for its flashy decor, well-trained flight attendants, top inflight technology, and general flair. Obviously, lots of travelers like what it has to offer. You might like it, too. The "Branson cool factor" also applies to Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia.
Best Ultra-Low-Fare Coach-Class Airline in North America: Allegiant
The nod for best ultra-low-fare carrier for coach-class service goes to Allegiant, not because of its base product—which is down there with Spirit in terms of sheer torture—but because it alone brings the only low-fare mainline service to dozens of communities where travelers would otherwise have to rely on regional flights to nearby hubs, with the usual hassle, wasted time, and high fares of hub connections.
Allegiant's "nowhere to somewhere" business model gives travelers to/from communities as small as Hagerstown, Missoula, Owensboro, Provo, South Bend, and Stockton access to nonstop flights to 16 of the country's primary leisure travel destinations, including Honolulu, Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach, Orlando, and Phoenix. If you live in or near a big city, you'd never even think about Allegiant. But it's a no-brainer if you live in the sticks.
Best Coach-Class Airline for Seniors in North America: Southwest
Southwest is the only airline to offer useful senior fares for travelers 65 or over. Senior fares aren't as low as Southwest's initial lowest "Wanna Get Away" fares for travelers of any age, but when those lowest-fare buckets sell out or when they're no longer available less than a week in advance, Southwest's unrestricted senior fares are usually a lot less than any remaining any-age fares.
Best Extra-Legroom Airlin in North America: JetBlue
JetBlue, which starts out with a 1- to 3-inch advantage for regular coach, retains a similar advantage for its extra-legroom cabin. And the price, capped at $90 for a transcontinental flight, is likely to be lower than the variable prices other airlines charge.
This is a big advantage JetBlue has over Virgin America, the one airline that surveys usually place in the same class as JetBlue. On Virgin America, the extra-legroom seats, limited to bulkhead and exit rows, cost more than three times the regular-coach fare: more than $900 on a transcon, for example, compared with a base coach fare of $300. Yes, you get extras along with the legroom, but that huge fare premium is a deal breaker for someone who just wants enough space to use an e-reader or tablet comfortably.
Best Coach-Class Airline for Intercontinental Flights: Japan Airlines
Japan Airlines' new-design Sky Wider economy seats provide the roomiest international economy class you can currently find. Contrary to what most other airlines are doing, JAL is sticking with eight-across seats in its 787s and nine-across in its 777s. That's one fewer seat in each row than the current standard among most other lines, and the remaining seats are almost two inches wider than competitors' seats.
The new cabins also offer an industry-leading 34-inch pitch, compared with the 30- to 32-inch pitch you find on most other intercontinental airlines. The onboard catering generally earns high marks, as well; economy travelers enjoy individual 10-inch screens, and the new 777s and 787s provide satellite-based Wi-Fi.
Best Coach-Class Airline for Transatlantic Flights: Turkish
Best Low-Fare Coach-Class Airline for Transatlantic Flights: Norwegian
Norwegian flies 787s from a handful of U.S. cities to Scandinavia and from Los Angeles or New York to London/Gatwick. It recently started flying from Baltimore, Boston, and New York to Guadeloupe and Martinique. Fares are usually—although not always—lower than on the giant airlines, and its 787 product is on par with what the big competitors offer.
Best Business-Class Airline with Coach-Class Prices: La Compagnie
The giant airlines will charge you around $1,200 for a nonstop summer round-trip flight between New York and Paris in a cattle-car economy cabin. But two people paying $1,495 each can move up to an angle-flat business-class seat, with business-class cabin service, on La Compagnie, the niche French airline offering low-cost business-class service from Newark to London/Luton and Paris/DeGaulle. La Compagnie's current fare is almost $1,000 less than the premium economy fares on Open Skies or Air France.
The price gap between regular economy and La Compagnie isn't always this small. But whenever it is, you sure feel better when you arrive in London or Paris after an overnight in business class than in economy. It's worth considering.
Best Coach-Class Airplane for Short Flights: Embraer
The Embraer 170/175/190/195 series might seem a surprise call, but seats are at least as wide as on A320 series, and they're all two-by-two, with no middles. You never feel bottled up the way those 737s and A320s make you feel. And while it's not technically an airline, this aircraft makes the list because you should look for it when searching for any short-haul coach-class flight.
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