Air travel roared back in the wake of the pandemic and people want to know which is the best airline for their next vacation.
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.
These are the Best Airlines to Fly in 2023
- Delta - Best Airline for Reliability
- Alaska - Best Airline for Pets
- Southwest - Best Airline for Families
- American - Best Airline for Rewards
- JetBlue - Best Airline for Customer Satisfaction
- Other Airlines to Consider
Best Airline Reviews
- 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: Delta is best for reliability because it had the best on-time performance of all the airlines we reviewed and 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 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.
- 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 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.
- 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 is our best airline for families because they can 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.
- Low threshold to redeem miles for rewards
- Largest airline by flights per day and destinations
- Large network, including many international partners
- Rewards points can expire
- Poorer on-time performance compared to Delta and United
Why we chose it: American Airlines is our best airline for rewards because its 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.)
- 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 stands out as the best airline for customer satisfaction because it ranked highest on multiple measures of customer satisfaction in a study done by J.D. Power.
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.
Other Airlines to Consider
When it comes to air travel, there’s no one-size-fits-all option that’s ideal for everyone. But depending on your circumstances, the following airlines might also make sense.
Some of them charge very low fares, but travelers should expect to pay extra for just about everything else, from carry-on baggage and snacks to selecting your seat — so be sure to consider those add-ons when comparing airfare.
- National and international flights
- MileagePlus miles don't expire
- No cancellation or change fees
- Least number of hubs among the major airlines
- Extra pet charge for long layovers (more than 4 hours
The third of the “big three" domestic carriers— after Delta and American — United Airlines 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, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, Washington D.C. or Houston.
United ranked third in the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report for on-time performance in 2022.
Why we didn't choose it: United lags behind most other major airlines in customer satisfaction.
- Low fares
- Kids 14 years old or younger fly free on select flights (must be Discount Den club member)
- High number of consumer complaints
- Poor on-time performance
- Limited international destinations
Frontier Airlines flies to more than 100 destinations, mostly in the U.S., but also in Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. While it offers low fares, they have a slew of add-ons that range from carry-on baggage to priority boarding and flight flexibility for a fee – fees that can quickly add up. Another such add-on is check-in assistance which experienced travelers can forgo but represents a cost burden for those that require assistance.
Why we didn't choose them: In the latest DOT Air Travel Consumer Report, Frontier has the highest number of consumer complaints per 100,000 passengers (42.13), well above the 8.99 of the carrier next on the list.
- Offers some budget international flights to the Americas
- Joining Spirit Savers Club gives access to discounts on fares and upgrades
- Charges passenger usage fee for online booking
- Change and cancellation fees increase closer to departure date
- Poor on-time performance
Spirit Airlines offers domestic U.S. flights, along with flights to Central and South America and the Caribbean. Unlike major airlines, Spirit does not guarantee adjacent seats for children 13 or under and an accompanying adult. Travelers have to pay extra to sit together, raising the overall cost of the trip. Spirit also advises travelers to check in online or at self-service kiosks to avoid a $25 per person fee for printing boarding passes.
Why we didn't choose them: While Frontier offers more international routes than other budget airlines, their domestic routes are more limited (less than 60) than competitors.
- Low flight change fee of $25
- Good option for short flights
- No international destinations
- No in-flight entertainment offered
- No Wi-Fi available
Allegiant offers flights out of 117 airports in 13 different states. Domestic travelers should note that Allegiant ranked above big players like American and Alaska Airlines in the Economy/Basic Economy category in J.D. Power’s 2022 North America Airline Satisfaction Study. However, you’ll have to look elsewhere if you want a transfer option or to travel internationally.
Why we didn't choose them: Allegiant is the lowest-ranked carrier airline for on-time arrivals out of the top 10 domestic carriers available in the DOT's 2023 Air Travel Consumer Report.
Best Airlines Guide
Choosing an airline and booking a flight are only the first part of the logistics of taking a trip by air. When you want to visit one of the best places to travel, or anywhere else, you need to know the requirements of the destination.
This includes any 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 and restrictions
Every major domestic airline has its own baggage policies and restrictions. However, these tend to be nearly similar.
Carry on luggage
Airlines generally allow fliers to bring a personal item and carry-on luggage on board. The personal item can be the size of a purse, briefcase or laptop bag. Not all airlines provide specifics on the size restriction of personal items, but a general rule is that the item fits below the seat in front of you.
As for carry-on bags, most airlines require a maximum dimension of 22” x 14” x 9” (including wheels and handles) so the bag fits in the overhead compartment. While most luggage sets may include a small suitcase, we suggest you double check the measurements to make sure yours complies with airline regulations.
Most airlines charge for checked baggage, with the notable exception of Southwest, which does not charge for your first two bags of up to 50 pounds. Similar to bag sizing policies, fees for checked luggage fall under an average. These are:
|Under 50 lbs||$30 on average|
|2nd bag under 50 lbs||$40 on average|
|3rd+ bag under 50 lbs||$40 - $200|
|50-150 lbs |
|$75 - $150 on average|
As a side note, you are usually financially better off checking two sub-50-pound bags than one overweight.
Airlines' cancellation policies
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) 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.
Airlines will often offer to rebook you or offer a flight voucher instead of a refund. You’re not required to accept those offers, but they could make sense depending on your travel circumstances.
In cases where travelers cancel or make changes, many carriers have kept the more lenient change and cancellation policies in place during the COVID pandemic. This means you can cancel or make changes to most tickets (except 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
If you’re considering opting for a more premium travel experience, there’s a few things you should know before paying or using your miles for an upgrade.
All premium cabin seats include priority check-in and boarding, but there are notable differences particularly in seating options and complimentary amenities. Here’s how each option compares:
|Business Class||Domestic First Class||International First Class|
|Seating||Usually lie-flat or angled seats||Bigger, comfortable seats (no lie-flat seat available)||Lie-flat seats or private suites|
|Meal||Multi-course plated meal||Plated meals||Fine dining, specialty wine|
|Baggage allowance||Additional baggage allowance||Additional baggage allowance||Additional baggage allowance|
|Lounge access||Complimentary lounge access||Depends on airline||First class-only lounge access at some airports; Regular lounge access|
|Upgrades||No complimentary upgrades||Complimentary upgrades for travelers with elite status||Complimentary upgrades depend on elite status and flight distance|
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.
Frequent flier miles
Frequent flier miles or points programs are designed to reward travelers and encourage them to become return customers of the airline.
Customers earn miles by booking eligible flights operated by the airline or its partners. In this case, miles are awarded per dollar spent or per mile flown. Another way of earning miles is by using credit cards that grant points equivalent to a small percentage of every purchase.
As travelers accumulate miles, they gain access to a variety of rewards, including booking award flights, upgrading their seating or redeeming them for hotel stays, among other benefits.
Airport lounges are exclusive, generally calm spaces that airlines or other operators such as credit card companies offer. These spaces offer a retreat from the regular waiting areas in airport terminals. There, customers have a series of benefits such as comfortable seating, charging ports and complimentary refreshments.
Entry to these lounges comes complimentary with premium cabin tickets, but travelers can also access them if they have frequent flier status or through lounge membership programs. Some travelers also get access if they have a credit card that offers entry as a perk.
First class upgrades
A first-class upgrade doesn’t just mean getting a better seat. With a first-class ticket, you get priority boarding, premium meals and sometimes even beverage service. With this upgrade, passengers also get access to lounges.
With enough points, passengers can upgrade their tickets to experience a more comfortable and enjoyable journey. However, keep in mind that these upgrades are subject to seat availability and specific airline policies.
Best Airlines FAQ
Do you have to be vaccinated to fly?
What is the size of a carry-on bag?
Why do airlines overbook?
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 first class
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.
The following is data from the Department of Transportation’s 2023 Air Travel Consumer Report we used to compare the airlines.
|On-time percentage||Cancellation percentage||Customer complaints per 100,000 enplanements||Mishandled baggage (number of bags per 100 enplaned)|
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.