As travelers start thinking about winging off to summer vacations, many could learn a few things from expert fliers to ensure they get the best value for their money when booking flights.
Price and flight schedules are clearly the primary factors for fliers when booking flights, and the Internet has an abundance of resources to compare airfares and flight availability. Individual airline websites as well as online flight bookers, such as Expedia, Priceline, Orbitz and Kayak, can give you a good idea of what's available and at what price.
One secret is to remember to try to enjoy the traveling portion of your trip, not only the destination, said Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot and author of "Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel."
"I try to encourage people to look at the airplane trip as a part of the journey and not just an inconvenient means to an end," he said. "Air travel still can be exciting."
Here are a few other considerations.
• Airline reputation. Customer satisfaction surveys show some discount airlines score highest. That might seem counterintuitive, but rankings are fairly consistent year to year. 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.
• Legroom. Nowadays, you can buy more legroom on many flights, with premium economy fares offered by the big airlines, such as United, Delta and American Airlines. Upgrading can be worthwhile, depending on the price and how important it is to you, experts say. But some airlines offer more personal space without additional cost.
• 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. "Looking at the total cost and not just the fare is important," Snyder said.
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, while the big network carriers recently raised their change fees to $200.
• Internet. Onboard wireless Internet is becoming more prevalent among U.S. carriers. If email, Facebook and Twitter are essential, it could be a factor in which flight you choose. 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 - sometimes distracted from an uncomfortable seat - 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 in-flight 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.
• Book early flights. Flight delays typically increase through the day. It's often no more costly to choose earlier flights, which can reduce stress - bettering your chances for on-time takeoff and to land in time for connecting flights.
• Connections. Nonstop flights are ideal, but if you book a flight with a connection, do yourself a favor and allow sufficient time, generally an hour or more, to make the connection. Leaving extra connection time often won't cost any more and can reduce stress. Be aware that flights with tight connections might appear at the top of booking search results.
• Airports. Research your connecting airport to determine how easy it will be to make your connection, especially looking for whether you will need to navigate to a different terminal. Terminal maps are available at airport websites. "If you're connecting through LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) and you have to change airlines, that can really suck," Snyder said. "There are definitely differences in airports." Atlanta is an example of a good U.S. airport for smooth connections, Smith said.