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Published: Mar 23, 2023 16 min read

Air travel continues to roar back in the wake of its troubled slumber during the pandemic. Even after months of cancellations, delays, staffing shortages and fare hikes, a recent survey from the travel booking site Hopper found that 91% of people are planning to take at least one airplane trip this coming year. And the survey predicts that fares for this summer season will moderate a bit compared with their sky-high levels in 2022.

To help you navigate the chaos as you make your travel plans, here are Money’s picks for the five best airlines of 2023.

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  • Great on-time performance
  • Free WiFi
  • Hubs in major cities across the U.S.
  • Can be more expensive than other carriers

Why we chose it: Though it tends to be pricier than other carriers — including some of our picks — Delta had the best on-time performance of all the airlines we reviewed. It also had the fewest instances of mishandled baggage.

Slightly more than 83% of Delta flights arrived on time between December 2021 and November 2022 — that’s the best record of any airline we considered. Delta is one of the “big three” airlines in the United States, along with American and United. It served more than 120 million passengers in 2022, and it flies to more than 275 destinations worldwide.

You’ll enjoy plenty of perks while you’re en route to your destination, too. Delta introduced free WiFi on most domestic flights last month (the rest of its domestic fleet will follow later this year); the service is garnering good reviews, but you must join Delta’s free SkyMiles rewards program to connect for free. Also, Delta’s in-flight entertainment suite features more than 1,000 hours of movies, TV, music and more.

Alaska Airlines
  • Expansive and relatively inexpensive pets policy
  • Offers a Flight Pass subscription service, good for up to 24 round trips per year to certain destinations
  • Large network of international partner airlines
  • Fewer options for East Coast travelers

Why we chose it: Alaska is the best airline for pets, thanks to its broad pet policies and relatively low fees.

Alaska allows dogs, cats, rabbits and household birds in the cabin for a fee of $100 per pet, each way. Dogs and cats must be at least eight weeks old and able to eat solid food, and their carrier cannot be larger than 17" x 11" x 7.5". The airline allows travelers to carry two pets in a single carrier, and one traveler is allowed two pet carriers, as long as a second ticket is purchased for an adjacent seat.

Unlike some other airlines, Alaska also allows pets to travel in an airplane’s climate-controlled baggage and cargo compartment. The fee is also $100, and the pet and carrier together can weigh up to 150 pounds. A wider range of animals are allowed in the cargo compartment, including ferrets, guinea pigs, hamsters, household birds, non-poisonous reptiles, pot-bellied pigs, rabbits and tropical fish. Certain breeds of short-nosed dogs and cats, like bulldogs and Persian cats, cannot travel in the baggage compartment.

Southwest Airlines
  • Relatively easy for families to sit together
  • Two free checked bags
  • No cancellation or change fees
  • No seat assignments
  • No first class or business class
  • Won't switch you to another airline in case of delays

Why we chose it: Southwest makes it easy for families to sit together and change their travel plans, if necessary.

Southwest has long been beloved by a loyal customer base, and ranked first in the economy and basic economy category in J.D. Power’s 2022 North America Airline Satisfaction Study. Fans enjoy the carrier's low fares and lack of extra charges; Southwest doesn't charge to you switch or cancel flights, for example, and you can check two bags for free.

For some, the fact that Southwest also doesn't assign seats to travelers might be an inconvenience. But that practice allows families with young children to board the plane early — between groups A and B — to facilitate them sitting together.

The airline did make headlines over the holidays after disruption from a winter storm cascaded into the cancellation of more than 15,000 flights. Because Southwest does not partner with other major airlines, it was not able to rebook passengers on competitors’ flights to help ease the strain on its systems. Southwest compensated affected customers with refunds and extra rewards points, and has announced changes to its operations.

Despite the meltdown last year, we still think the airline is a good choice for families that need to stay flexible while traveling without paying an arm and a leg.

American Airlines
  • Low threshold to redeem miles for rewards
  • Can also earn miles on JetBlue
  • Large network, including many international partners
  • Rewards points can expire
  • Poorer on-time performance compared to Delta and United

Why we chose it: American’s simple rewards structure and large network make it a great choice for frequent travelers.

American’sAAdvantage rewards members earn points based on the number of miles they accrue flying with American itself or its partner airlines (including JetBlue) or by spending money with dozens of other partners including Hyatt and Marriott. Where other programs require at least 10,000 miles or points in order to redeem rewards, American's redemptions begin at 7,500 points.

Over the last year, American has revamped its rewards program to simplify the path to elite status. A user-friendly rewards map makes figuring out how to spend your points on a flight easy, and you can also use those points to purchase access to more than 100 airport lounges around the world. (One wrinkle, though: unlike some other programs, American's rewards miles eventually expire, so you need to carefully manage their age.)

For more, check out our list of the Best Airline Rewards Programs.

  • The top carrier in multiple customer satisfaction surveys
  • Free WiFi
  • Screens on every seat
  • Fewer flight options compared to larger carriers
  • Poor on-time performance compared to other airlines

Why we chose it: JetBlue ranked highest on multiple measures of customer satisfaction.

Much like Southwest, JetBlue has a loyal customer following thanks to its new, stylish planes, ample legroom and friendly service. The airline took the top ranking for first and business class and premium economy class in J.D. Power’s 2022 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, and ranked second (behind Southwest) in the economy and basic economy category. It also ranks first among all major U.S. carriers on the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

Travelers also love the free WiFi on every flight and entertainment screens on every seat (on almost all planes), which allow access to such services as streaming Amazon Prime and satellite TV and radio.

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Other Airlines to Consider

When it comes to air travel, there’s no one-size-fits-all option that’s ideal for everyone. The following carriers did not qualify as one of our top five picks, but merit consideration for the reasons we cite below.

United Airlines

The third of the “big three" domestic carriers— after Delta and American — offers a large network and robust rewards program that could make it the right choice for many people. That’s especially true for those who live near a United hub city like Chicago, Denver or Houston.
Why we didn't choose it: United lags behind most other major airlines in customer satisfaction.

Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant

Depending on your circumstances, these budget airlines might also make sense. All tend to charge very low fares, but travelers should expect to pay extra for just about everything else, from carry-on baggage to snacks to selecting your seat — so be sure to consider those add-ons when comparing costs with the carriers we picked.
Why we didn't choose them: These airlines also didn’t perform as well on measures of reliability, like timely arrivals, compared to the airlines we picked.

Best Airlines Guide

Choosing an airline and booking a flight are only the first part of the logistics of taking a trip by air. You need to know the requirements for your baggage (and your pets, if you’re taking any along), the circumstances under which you can cancel or change your ticket and the rewards you’ll earn on the flights. Here’s a guide to those topics, as well as whether you need to be vaccinated and masked in order to fly.

Baggage policies

What is the size of a carry-on bag?

As a rule, domestic airlines allow carry-on luggage that is up to 22" high x 14" wide x 9" deep; these measures include the handle and the wheels. A few airlines – including Southwest and American – stretch some or all of the allowable dimensions by an inch or two. Weight restrictions are rare for carry-on baggage, especially on domestic flights.

Checked luggage

It’s rare that you can check a bag on a domestic flight without paying a fee, with the notable exception of Southwest, which imposes no fee for bags of up to 50 pounds. On airlines that impose fees, $30 is a typical charge for checked luggage of up to 50 pounds, after which the fee jumps to $75 to $150 — meaning you are usually financially better off to check two sub-50-pound bags than one heavyweight.

Airlines' cancellation policies

The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to refund travelers when their flights incur significant delays or cancellations. The refund process varies by airline, but in general you’ll need to submit an application to the airline in order to be refunded for your ticket. Airlines will often offer to rebook you or offer a voucher for a future flight instead of a refund. You’re not required to accept those offers, but they could make sense depending on your travel circumstances.

Outside of the above, airline change and cancellation policies were relaxed during the COVID pandemic, and many carriers have kept the more lenient policies since. In general, you can now cancel or make changes to most tickets (excepting the cheapest economy class) without incurring a fee, although you'll need to pay any fare difference if your new flight is more expensive.

Here are links to the cancellation policies of the airlines that made our list:


Airlines that fly dogs

Pet policies vary significantly between airlines, so you should be sure to confirm the rules before you plan to travel with your dog. Here's what to expect.

Which airlines allow dogs in the cabin?

Most major airlines in the United States allow small dogs to travel in a carrier in the cabin. In general, flying with a dog in the cabin will cost you between $100 and $125 each way, depending on the airline — in addition to the cost of your own ticket, of course. Airlines have limits on the number of pets that can travel in the cabin on each flight, so it’s important to contact the airline in advance to reserve a space.

Which airlines allow dogs in the cargo hold?

Some carriers — including Alaska and American — allow larger dogs to travel in the cargo hold. Airlines generally do not allow certain types of short-nosed dogs, like bulldogs and pugs, to travel in the cargo hold because of risks related to their breathing.

Business Class vs. First Class

Business class

This is a very expensive tier of seating, available only on longer international flights. The class typically brings upgraded seating (lie-flat or tiered) and amenities such as plated meals. Other perks may include an additional baggage allowance and complimentary access to airport lounges.

First class

This is the top-of-the-line option for both domestic and international flights. Domestically, it offers spacious and more comfortable seating and additional perks such as complimentary alcoholic drinks and first-class upgrades to those who hold elite status in the airline's loyalty programs, subject to availability. International first class is fancier still, and may provide lie-flat beds and fine dining. There are no complimentary upgrades for first class, even for elite flyers, and the additional fees are very high — in the thousands of dollars per ticket.

Airline loyalty programs

Every major airline has a rewards program that allows travelers to earn points based on the number of miles they fly or amount of money they spend. Those points can be exchanged for perks like seat upgrades, lounge access or even free flights. The best airline rewards programs allow frequent travelers to earn points not only with the airline but also with partner hotels and travel credit cards, too.

Which airlines require a COVID vaccine to fly?

Although many carriers imposed a requirement that flyers be vaccinated early in pandemic, no such mandates are still in effect (mask mandates have also been dropped). Keep in mind, however, that some international destinations may still require travelers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to enter their country. Best, then, to confirm well in advance what if any regulations may be in effect for your international destination.

Best Airlines FAQ

Which airlines have dropped the mask mandate?

All airlines have dropped the requirement to wear masks on their aircraft, following an April 2022 court order that overturned the Center for Disease Control order mandating their use due to COVID concerns. Almost all airports have also dropped any mask mandate within their walls. However, the CDC continues to recommend the wearing of a high-quality mask or respirator on airlines and other public transportation, including in transportation hubs such as airports.

Why do airlines overbook?

Airlines overbook on the expectation that a certain proportion of passengers with confirmed seats will fail to actually make the flight for certain reasons. If their prediction overestimates the actual number of passengers who actually check in, the carrier faces a shortfall in space. Typically, airline staff will then seek volunteers willing to take a later flight in exchange for compensation, which may be dispensed either in cash or a voucher for use on another trip. If those efforts fall short, the carrier may be forced to involuntarily bump certain passengers, whom they may select on the basis of their check-in time, frequent flyer status or other factors. As a rule, confirmed passengers who are denied boarding are entitled by law to compensation, unless the bumping resulted from factors beyond the airline's control, such as weight restrictions for the aircraft that were imposed due to the temperature and humidity as takeoff time approached.

How to get upgraded to a First Class seat

Upgrades at no cost to a First Class seat do happen. However, the recipients are almost always passengers who have elite status in the airline's rewards programs. Such upgrades are awarded on the basis of the elite level the travelers has achieved, based on the points they've accumulated through past travel. It's unlikely, then, that any but those who have the highest status levels with the carrier will receive a free upgrade to a First Class seat.

How We Evaluated the Best Airlines of 2023

To compile our list of the best airlines, Money used a wide range of criteria to assess 10 major carriers. We made our picks with the understanding that no single airline is the best choice for every traveler on every trip. Each carrier has strengths and weaknesses, and our aim is to highlight the strengths that differentiate the winners. Money only evaluated airlines that are based in the United States.

Delayed and canceled flights, customer complaints and incidents of mishandled baggage. We used data from the Department of Transportation to compare the airlines on these attributes.

Customer satisfaction. To assess this key attribute we analyzed data from multiple sources, including J.D. Power’s 2022 North America Airline Satisfaction Study.

Other factors. We also considered the size of each airline’s route network, the features of their rewards programs and other policies, including those related to pets, as well as any agreements they have with other carriers — such as those by which airlines pledge to accommodate one another’s passengers due to flight delays.

Summary of Money's Best Airlines of 2023

Money found the best airlines in the U.S. stood out from their competitors in some key ways that affect how satisfying and suitable a flight is likely to be for you.

Our analysis of 10 leading carriers found Delta Air Lines to be the carrier most likely to reliably get you to your destination on time — and with your baggage. For those who like to travel with pets, Alaska Airlines has among the lowest fees and most liberal policies for carrying animals on their flights. For family travel, Southwest Airlines stands out for policies that facilitate parties sitting together and being able to flexibly change their plans, if need be. Finally, if you travel a lot and value a good loyalty program, American Airlines is our pick for its relatively simple and generous rewards.