The Best Airlines for Cheap Flights

Cheap tickets are rarely what they seem. Say you find an ultra-low fare. Will you also be required to pay baggage fees? Other convenience charges? Or, think of your family. Will your kids really be able to sit still for hours in a decades-old aircraft with an equally ancient, one-size-fits-all entertainment system? You may want to pay a bit more for a better ride on a quality carrier.

Which one, you ask? In 2013, rating specialist Skytrax ranked these three as the best airlines among North America's low-cost carriers:

Skytrax ranks Virgin America as the best low-cost North American carrier. Source: Virgin America.

1. Virgin America
Skytrax rating: four stars.

Offering First Class, Main Cabin-Select, and everyday Main Cabin service, Virgin America has been operating consistently in the U.S. since 2007. Today, the airline serves 23 destinations with 53 aircraft. Skytrax gives the airline particularly high marks (4.5 stars) for inflight entertainment, which includes movies, satellite TV, premium TV, music videos, and more. Wi-Fi is also available thanks to the company's partnership with Gogo (NASDAQ: GOGO  ) .

Financially, Virgin's emphasis on affordable luxury is paying off. Operating margin improved to 11.5% in the third quarter of 2013. Load factor (i.e., a measure of seats filled on flights) improved slightly to 80.5%, while the average fare rose 4.6%.

WestJet needs more fans to improve its financial performance. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

2. WestJet Airlines (TSX: WJA  )
Skytrax rating: three stars.

A well-liked discount carrier that competes with Air Canada in its home territory, WestJet has been flying since 1996. Today, the airline serves 85 total destinations with 114 aircraft. That includes the company's regional operations flown under the WestJet Encore banner. Skytrax gives the carrier high marks (four stars) for its choice of snacks and food, and the cabin staff's enthusiasm and attitude in serving travelers.

Financially, WestJet hasn't been doing as well as it might. The carrier reduced its first-quarter forecast earlier this month because of weaker-than-expected domestic demand and a greater than projected impact from the Easter and Passover holidays moving into the second quarter. Yet the news isn't all bad: Revenue passenger miles rose 7.3% in February and are up 7.9% year to date.

Southwest Airlines soared in Q4.

3. Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV  )
Skytrax rating: three stars.

The original discount airline, Southwest has been flying since 1971. Today, the carrier and subsidiary AirTran cover 89 destinations with a fleet of 583 Boeing 737 aircraft. Skytrax gives Southwest above-average marks (3.5 stars) for the interior condition of its planes, its onboard Wi-Fi, and the enthusiasm and attentiveness of its cabin crew.

Financially, Southwest reported impressive fourth-quarter results in January. Adjusted earnings per share more than tripled from $0.09 to $0.33. Passenger revenue per available seat mile also improved, up 4.2% year-over-year.  Giving flyers a good deal is paying off.

Now it's your turn to weigh in. Which do you believe are the best airlines for booking cheap flights? Leave a comment below to let us know your favorites. We'd also love to know if you would buy, sell, or short any of the stocks mentioned here.

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Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (7)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 15, 2014, at 4:38 PM, jurgis49 wrote:

    Southwest continues to have no baggage , or booking change fees. They may not always have the very lowest fare, but no fees for carry-ons and suitcases oftentimes makes the difference. Southwest has the friendliest and helpful staff - on flights, at the airport, and on the phone. Their Rapid Rewards program with no blackout dates and no miles/points expiration dates is the best.

  • Report this Comment On March 15, 2014, at 10:59 PM, 24copper wrote:

    ...and if you shop the "major airlines", where you have more planes and more options, you can get a good deal.

    Note to writer: SW is no longer a "discount" carrier. When my brother paid 600.00 O/W to fly from ISP to PBI, that is not a discount carrier.

  • Report this Comment On March 15, 2014, at 11:00 PM, 24copper wrote:

    ...PS...Southwest is in the process of soon charging for checked bags. Know you facts!

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 3:53 AM, spigyour wrote:

    As far as which airline stock has the most upside potential: I am going with LUV because AirTran gave 'em more ports (including Atlanta), more planes, and opened up International travel. Also great expansion recently with gates at NY and DC, plus Dallas is going to be much larger come October because a restricting law comes off the books. As our economy slowly comes back, more domestic travel should continue to develop. All this, and the stock has only this week just broken new highs by a mere 70 cents. Though I am long the stock, I have no current intention of selling.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 12:09 PM, mobycat wrote:

    @24Cooper... "in the process of soon charging" ?

    The "fact" is that they do not charge right now. Nobody said or even implied that they won't charge forever.

    (Though I do agree that they aren't really a discount airline anymore... almost every flight I've taken in the last two years has been cheaper on a legacy airline - baggage or not.)

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