Virgin America soared to the top of the latest Consumer Reports Ratings of airlines in its debut appearance on the list, receiving some of the highest satisfaction scores it has seen in years.
Consumer Reports' airline ratings are based on a survey of 16,663 subscribers conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Survey respondents flew a combined 31,732 domestic flights and were asked to rate their satisfaction with their respective airlines' check-in ease, cabin crew service, cabin cleanliness, seating comfort, baggage handling and in-flight entertainment.
Virgin America, which started in 2007, received stellar scores across the board from Consumer Reports readers. And even though it charges $25 each for the first and second checked bags, it was the only airline to get the top score for baggage handling.
Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways were also rated highly, a feat they might owe to the fact that they're the only carriers on the list that let fliers check one (JetBlue) or two (Southwest) bags for free. Both also received high marks for check-in ease and cabin crew service, but JetBlue scored higher for cabin cleanliness.
Spirit Airlines found itself at the bottom of the ratings. The no-frills airline has fares that can be as low as 90 percent less than other carriers, but it charges a wide array of fees, including $10 to $19 to book a flight and $35 to $100 per carry-on bag. Readers were also sore about Spirit's seats; it has the tightest seating space in the industry.
If price matters to you, here's what Consumer Reports recommends:
* Work the Web. Almost all of the respondents (94 percent) who booked their own flights did so online. Of those respondents, 59 percent compared fees on other websites before they chose an airline. To uncover the best deal, cast that wider net.
* Check prices on third-party sites. Expedia, Kayak and Travelocity may list identical prices for flights, but they have different electronic reservation systems and add and remove fares at different times. Be sure to check airline sites, too, because sometimes they have sales that they don't share with third-party sites. If you don't have to book immediately, the airlines and price-comparison sites (add Airfarewatchdog, Hotwire and Priceline to those above) might let you set price alerts; you'll get an email or text when prices drop.
* Dodge the fees. Travel light or fly a low-fee airline, such as JetBlue or Southwest. If you need to check a bag or pay for a carry-on, see whether there's a discount for prepaying on the airline's website.
* Check your airline's weight limits. For example, United charges $100 to $200 (depending on your destination) for a checked bag weighing from more than 50 pounds to less than 100. Overweight fees kick in at more than 40 pounds on Spirit. You might avoid certain fees if you charge your travel to the airline's credit card.
* Be flexible. Shifting your travel dates by a day or two will often allow you to nab a much lower price. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are generally the cheapest days to fly, says Rick Seaney, co-founder and CEO of FareCompare, a travel-planning website.
* Check other airports. When you use price-comparison sites, specify the city you want to depart from, not the airport. Most sites will then show you the flight options for any of that area's airports.
* Put it on hold. Thanks to regulations that went into effect last year, you can hold a reservation for 24 hours without paying for it (as long as it's at least a week from the scheduled departure date) while you check around for a lower fare.
Consumer Reports: www.consumerreports.org.