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:
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%.
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.
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.