Summer travel? Think beyond airfare

By Gregory Karp

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Published: Monday, May 27 2013 2:05 p.m. MDT

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.