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Summer travel? Think beyond airfare

Gregory Karp

Spending Smart

May 17, 2013

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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 Web 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.

But what else is important?

"More and more people are going to look at this because the airlines are realizing that they can market more than price and schedule," said Brett Snyder, an air travel blogger and travel concierge service operator. "For a really long time, it was, 'Here's the price and here are the flights, take your pick.' Now, the airlines are trying to differentiate their products, and I think you'll see more of that over time."

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."

Assuming several flights have similar prices and departure times — or that a flier is flexible on those issues — what other factors should fliers consider when booking a flight? What else provides more value for the same airfare dollars?

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 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 even makes the top 20. Smith said he thinks domestic airline service is improving, "but I think it's taken for granted still that carriers outside the U.S. tend to have better standards of onboard service."

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. JetBlue, in particular, is known for offering significantly more legroom. "It's definitely a better value," said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com.

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 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 hiked their change fees to $200.

Internet. Onboard wireless Internet is becoming more prevalent among U.S. carriers. If email, Facebook and Twitter are essential parts of your life, it could be a factor in which flight you choose. "That's huge for people who need to be connected," Snyder said. "Eventually, everyone will have it, but for now it's a differentiator." WiFi usually carries an additional charge, often less than $10 for an average domestic flight. WiFi 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. Once your device power is drained, it's decidedly less entertaining.

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 inflight 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. That's especially true in the summer, which is more prone to thunderstorms in many areas, Smith said. 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.

If it's winter, opt for connections in warm-weather climates rather than cold, where snowstorms can be a factor. For example, choose a connection in Dallas or Phoenix instead of Chicago.

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 to connect at, Smith said.

Model of plane. As a general rule, newer planes are somewhat more comfortable and better equipped. Some have bigger, deeper overhead bins than older models. For example, among workhorse Boeing 737s, newer models are called 737-800 and 737-900. Among U.S. carriers, American has new Boeing 777-300ERs and United has several Boeing 787 Dreamliners, both of which get rave reviews from passengers.

Safety. Domestic air travel is extremely safe and generally isn't a differentiating factor, though that's not true for all foreign carriers, experts say.

If you want the most experienced flight crew, they generally are found on the bigger planes, not the regional jets, which despite having a big-airline paint job are actually operated by contractors.

gkarp@tribune.com