In evaluating candidates for our Best Value Airline award, we asked the following question: Which carrier consistently offers low fares, always makes a significant percentage of seats available at its lowest promotional prices, and benefits all travelers by spurring competitors to match its sale prices?
This year, the winner is AirTran.
Surprised? AirTran may not benefit from the same marketing glitz as Southwest or JetBlue, but as a true-value airline, it's no slouch. The low-cost carrier serves dozens of domestic airports, including many major cities. It also flies to several popular Caribbean and Mexican destinations, such as Cancun, the Bahamas, and Aruba. And, time and again, its prices are among the best on every route it flies.
AirTran has delivered a steady stream of value-oriented promotions in 2010, quietly becoming a pace-setter whose prices force other air providers to match or risk being passed over by budget-conscious consumers. Also worth noting is the travel window—or period of time during which a traveler can fly on a given airline's lowest prices—that AirTran makes available in its frequent sales. The window is consistently longer with AirTran than with virtually all of its competitors. In early spring this year, AirTran was already discounting flights into November.
Many airline promotions show off just a few "sample fares," or attractively priced routes, and force customers to guess whether or not their departure city and destination are included in the sale. American Airlines recently began the even more questionable practice of simply listing a destination and a price—with no indication of which city travelers need to fly from to get that price. AirTran's promotions, however, list every sale route—each departure city, each destination city, and each individual price—leaving the guesswork out of it.
Among low-cost carriers, Southwest leads the way on baggage fees (first two bags are free) and JetBlue comes in a close second (first bag is free). Here we dinged AirTran for charging $15 for the first checked bag and $25 for the second bag. But, we credit the airline for remaining less expensive in this area than many of its direct competitors; and taken on a whole—low fares, available seats at the lowest prices, and spurring competition to match its sale rates—AirTran wins this year's award by a hair.
Honorable mention goes, of course, to Southwest. For "pack everything but the kitchen sink" travelers, Southwest's much-publicized "Bags Fly Free" policy alone can reduce the cost of a flight by $120 round-trip. This year, however, Southwest appears to be getting by at least a little on its (well-earned) low-cost reputation. Gone are the days when no other airline could compete with Southwest's lowest rates. The erstwhile "low-cost king" still offers the lowest prices on many of its short-haul flights, but it is not as competitive on longer routes.
Do you agree or disagree with our winner in this category? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!
Most Customer-Friendly Airline | Best Free Airline Perk | Best Coach-Class Experience | Best Value Airline | Best Value Destination | Best Hotel Loyalty Program | Best Rental Car Loyalty Program | Best Travel Rewards Card for Domestic Use | Best Travel Rewards Card for Overseas Use | Best Travel Rewards Card for ATM Use | Best Airline Website | Best Use of Social Media | Most Pet-Friendly Airline for Checked Pets | Most Pet-Friendly Airline for Carry-On Pets | Most Eco-Friendly Airline | Best Airport for Layovers | Best Airport for Connections