As travelers start thinking about winging off to summer vacations, price and flight schedules are clearly the primary factors when booking flights, and the Web has an abundance of resources to compare airfares and flight availability, including individual airline websites as well as online flight bookers, such as Expedia, Priceline, Orbitz and Kayak. But what else is important? Here are a few factors to consider.
Airline reputation: According to well-respected SkyTrax rankings, the top North American domestic carriers are Virgin America, WestJet, Alaska Airlines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways. Southwest is the largest among top-rated domestic airlines. But, its fares do not show up in searches at online travel agencies. You must find flights on Southwest.com.
Among North American carriers that fly abroad, top ratings go to Air Canada, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.
If you want to drill down for recent data about such factors as on-time rates, lost baggage and consumer complaints among U.S. carriers, see the U.S Department of Transportation's Air Travel Consumer Report at http://tinyurl.com/dot-air. For annual rankings based on that data, assembled by academics, see the Airline Quality Rating at airlinequalityrating.com.
International carriers: Consider a foreign carrier when traveling abroad. In passenger satisfaction, foreign airlines typically thump American carriers. According to SkyTrax, the best airlines in the world are Qatar Airways, Asiana Airlines (South Korea), Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways (Hong Kong) and All Nippon Airways (Japan). No U.S. airline makes the top 20.
Legroom: You can buy more legroom on many flights, with premium economy fares offered by airlines such as United, Delta and American Airlines. But some airlines offer more personal space without additional cost. JetBlue, in particular, is known for offering significantly more legroom.
Seat choice: Check SeatGuru.com and SeatExpert.com to choose the optimal seats on a particular plane.
They might point out good seats that offer a little extra room — although that's less common now because airlines charge more for those seats — and bad seats, such as those near lavatories or rows without windows. They will allow you to compare seat widths and pitches (legroom) among airlines, which can vary a lot.
Checked bags: You'll have to pay for checked bags, each way, on many domestic flights but not on Southwest or JetBlue. That can mean a significant difference in bottom-line price if several people in your party will check bags. Meanwhile, you'll pay to carry on a bag — one that needs to fit in the overhead bin — on others, such as Spirit Airlines. Several websites offer airline bag-fee comparisons. One is FareCompare.com, at http://tinyurl.com/farecompare-bags.
Change fees: If your plans are iffy, you might consider an airline that charges a lower fee to change your flight. The best is Southwest, which charges nothing.
Internet: Wi-Fi usually carries an additional charge, often less than $10 for an average domestic flight. Wi-Fi is still relatively rare on international flights. Often a booking website will note whether your plane is likely to have Internet access.
Gadget amenities: Power ports and USB ports in seats can be helpful to recharge a computer, tablet or smartphone, which often double as personal onboard entertainment systems.
In-flight entertainment: Keeping yourself and children occupied can be key. In-seat video can help, with movies and even live television on some flights.
A site like SeatGuru.com will tell you what entertainment amenities a plane is likely to have.
Frequent-flier programs: Airline loyalty programs can be complex but lucrative, if you build enough miles or points with a single airline to get a free flight or seat upgrade. Consolidating trips onto a single airline can lead to value in later bookings.