The most flexible US airlines to book for travelers cautiously planning 2021 trips as vaccines offer hope for a return to normal

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  • Airlines are offering unprecedented flexibility for travelers in a bid to get them back in the skies. 
  • American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Alaska Airlines have all eliminated domestic and international change fees, though with some caveats. 
  • Even ultra-low-cost carriers like Allegiant Air and Frontier Airlines are doing away with some fees. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

There’s never been a better time to be a shrewd consumer when it comes to booking flights.

The coronavirus pandemic has inflicted a devastating 2020 for the industry with consistently subpar flyer numbers lingering for nearly 10 months now and airlines are desperate to get flyers back in the air. Luckily, a perfect combination of cheap flights and flexible booking policies is putting consumers in the driver’s seat when booking travel for 2021.

With multiple COVID-19 vaccines nearing emergency authorization, experts are predicting a return to normal by this time next year and perhaps by the end of summer, opening the door for travel once again. And even though there’s no set date on when the pandemic will end, the good news is that airlines are giving consumers unprecedented levels of flexibility.

The big three US airlines including American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines, as well as Alaska Airlines, have all eliminated change and cancel fees on domestic and international flights, though with some caveats. Even the notoriously fickle ultra-low-cost carriers have amended their rules to allow flyers to make some changes free of charge.

But not are airlines are jumping on the trend, with varying degrees of flexibility across the industry. 

Here’s a list of the best of the 11 major US airlines to book with for 2021 travel.  

Tied for first: American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Southwest Airlines, and Alaska Airlines

American Airlines no longer charges change and cancel fees for any domestic flights, as well as short-haul international flights to the Caribbean, Canada, or Mexico. International change fees on trips that originate in North or South America to Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and the UK have also been eliminated. 

Basic economy tickets, however, are still bound to change fees for all flights. One exception is that all tickets booked before December 31, 2020, including basic economy fares, are exempt from change fees. 

Award tickets purchased using AAdvantage miles are subject to the same rules, including those limit basic economy fares booked after December 31, 2020.  Using miles, points, or a travel credit can be an easy way to maximize flexibility. 

Delta Air Lines announced on Wednesday that change fees for all international flights on trips that originate in North America would be eliminated, an extension of a previous elimination of all domestic change fees. The rule doesn’t apply to basic economy tickets or to trips that originate outside of North America, though Delta is waiving change fees for those tickets purchased through March 30, 2021.

Award tickets purchased using Delta Sky Miles on all North America-originating flights are also eligible for free changes and cancellations up to the time of departure. Basic economy award fares are exempted, however, and will still incur fees. 

Alaska Airlines similarly did away with change fees on all of its flights. That includes domestic and international itineraries as Alaska flies to cities in Latin America, however; basic economy tickets, known as “saver” fares, are not included.

Southwest Airlines eliminated change and cancel fees for all of its flights, international and domestic, long before the pandemic and remains one of the most flexible airlines to book with for that reason.

Second place: United Airlines 

United Airlines kicked off the trend of eliminating change fees for domestic flights, including Mexico and the Caribbean, and just recently expanded its policy to international flights on trips originating in the US. It doesn’t apply to basic economy tickets, of course, and the rest of the Western Hemisphere is out of luck, unfortunately. 

Gallery: I flew on Spirit Airlines’ first ‘shuttle’ flight from Newark to Boston for $25 and still overpaid – here’s why it’s a great budget option (Business Insider)

  • Slide 1 of 46:  Spirit Airlines inaugurated service between Newark and Boston on November 18, becoming the fifth carrier on the busy route.  The two daily flights join a competitive sector dominated by American, Delta, United, and JetBlue, primarily serving business travelers and offering bonus perks for flyers.  We flew on the first flight from Newark to Boston to see if Spirit's dirt-cheap fares held up to the competition on the 200-mile route. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. Shipping up to Boston from New York just got a whole lot cheaper.Spirit Airlines just launched its newest route between Newark and Boston on November 18, one of the shortest in its network. Starting with only two daily flights, the carrier joins a highly-competitive sector that sees four other airlines flying between the two cities with countless flights. The New York-Boston route typically serves the business traveler segment and is known for the shuttle flights offered by American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and JetBlue Airways from New York's LaGuardia Airport. The elite clientele flying the route often makes the short flights back and forth quite expensive since airlines know business travelers are willing to pay.In true ultra-low-cost carrier fashion, however, Spirit is now the cheapest carrier on the route by far, offering fares as low as $18 one-way. That beats all other airlines and even most bus and rail connections between the two cities, save for the famous one-dollar bus. I flew on the first flight to Beantown to see just how Spirit would hold its own on the 200-mile route. It's not technically a shuttle flight since it doesn't depart from LaGuardia but, for the purposes of this story, that's how I'll refer to it. Here's what it's like flying on a Spirit Airlines shuttle flight from Newark to Boston.Read the original article on Business Insider

  • Slide 2 of 46: Though the first flight of any new route should be cause for celebration, it was shockingly empty at Newark airport just a week before Thanksgiving.

  • Slide 3 of 46: Spirit Airlines uses Terminal B here and while typically reserved for international carriers, it's also used by Allegiant, Frontier, and Delta, so it should've been busier.

  • Slide 4 of 46: Read More: I flew on the infamous Spirit Airlines for the first time and saw how well no-frills can actually co-exist with safety – here's what it was like

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  • Slide 5 of 46: I also knew I could skip check-in and go to a kiosk to save money on printing a boarding pass, so I headed straight there.

  • Slide 6 of 46: The seating map for the flight showed full, which I figured par for the course as Spirit had canceled the flight later in the day to Boston and presumably bumped all those passengers onto this flight. I was assigned an aisle seat, though, so I wasn't too worried.

  • Slide 7 of 46: Boarding pass in hand, I headed straight to the gate as there wasn't anything worth sticking around pre-security to enjoy. Some of the shops were open but the Priority Pass lounge was not.

  • Slide 8 of 46: Spirit participates in TSA PreCheck but, as is my typical experience when flying on an ultra-low-cost airline, it wasn't printed on my boarding pass despite uploading my known traveler number.

  • Slide 9 of 46: While it may seem like a superficial perk to a leisure traveler, it can mean saving valuable minutes for a business traveler. In this case, the difference between PreCheck and regular security was 25 minutes.

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  • Slide 10 of 46: Arriving at the gate a few minutes before boarding, I was sure that the flight would be full as the gate area was jam-packed. As I waited for boarding, I went to go have a look at the plane.

  • Slide 11 of 46: Our aircraft for the day would be one of Spirit's newest, an Airbus A320neo.

  • Slide 12 of 46: Source: Planespotters.net

  • Slide 13 of 46: Despite the scores of people sitting near the gate, it became increasingly clear that this wouldn't be a crowded flight when boarding began.

  • Slide 14 of 46: Spirit boards its aircraft in zones, with zone assignments based on the type of ticket that you have and the seat you're assigned. If you have a Spirit credit card or purchased a special seat, you'll likely board in the first few zones.

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  • Slide 15 of 46: After the crew boarded, only a small handful of passengers boarded with each zone. Numerous boarding calls for each zone yielded fewer passengers than expected.

  • Slide 16 of 46: The jetway was devoid of any Spirit Airlines-branded social distancing signage but Delta Air Lines was kind enough to place a few of its own.

  • Slide 17 of 46: Just before stepping on the plane, however, this Spirit Airlines-branded hand sanitizer dispenser awaited.

  • Slide 18 of 46: After a quick sanitization, it was time to board the bright yellow Airbus A320neo that would be home only for around an hour.

  • Slide 19 of 46: As hoped, it was mostly empty, making this short flight all the more enjoyable.

  • Slide 20 of 46: Row after row was deserted, a true paradise when flying during the pandemic; though, still a sad sign for the industry.

  • Slide 21 of 46: And even with the low passenger count, I was still assigned a seat in row 23. eight rows from the back.

  • Slide 22 of 46: Here I am in my aisle seat, in which I didn't stay long.

  • Slide 23 of 46: The plane was only a month old and it showed. The seats were impressively new, albeit slim.

  • Slide 24 of 46: Though covered in faux leather material, I could feel just how bare the seats were as soon as I sat down and wondered if I'd last on a cross-country flight in them.

  • Slide 25 of 46: Source: SeatGuru

  • Slide 26 of 46: Source: SeatGuru

  • Slide 27 of 46: The tray table was also tiny and I reckoned I wouldn't comfortably be getting any work done on a laptop by using it.

  • Slide 28 of 46: Put simply, the seats were bare with no adjustable headrests, in-flight entertainment, or even in-seat power. Then again, I couldn't complain at $25 per seat.

  • Slide 29 of 46: For comfort, the "big front seat" offers a recliner seat similar to that in a domestic business class cabin. It doesn't come with any extra amenities; though, a flight attendant told me that Spirit is working on changing that.

  • Slide 30 of 46: I couldn't really stretch out but it was bearable for the 41-minute time up to Boston.

  • Slide 31 of 46: Once it became clear that there wasn't going to be anybody else joining me in my row, I moved over to the window as the views on this route are not to be missed.

  • Slide 32 of 46: I was greeted by a friendly "howdy" on the sharklet.

  • Slide 33 of 46: There were less than 30 passengers on the 182-seat plane, and that's after Spirit consolidated the two Boston flights into one.

  • Slide 34 of 46: Having so few passengers, we departed early and were in the air just 10 minutes after pushing back. Route I-95, the road that connects New York and Boston, was directly adjacent but its travelers wouldn't get to Boston as quickly as we would.

  • Slide 35 of 46: The plane was so light that we were able to get airborne in just a few seconds after advancing to full power.

  • Slide 36 of 46: My eyes were glued to the window for the first five minutes of the flight as the sights were incredible. First up, Lower Manhattan and the Freedom Tower...

  • Slide 37 of 46: Midtown...

  • Slide 38 of 46: And finally, the George Washington Bridge.

  • Slide 39 of 46: It was only a few minutes until we were parallel to the Connecticut coast, soaring high over the I-95 and Amtrak travelers that would arrive in Boston hours later.

  • Slide 40 of 46: To my surprise, the seatbelt sign was actually turned off for around 10 minutes and flight attendants started an in-flight service. As there were so few people, however, it was done without a trolley.

  • Slide 41 of 46: Unlike the shuttle flights, there'd be no free offering of any kind as there's even a price for water on Spirit. The only perks we'd get from the flight were the views.

  • Slide 42 of 46: New England in the fall is truly a sight to see, especially from a plane flying overhead.

  • Slide 43 of 46: We were preparing to land than a half-hour into the flight and Boston was luckily landing on its northwest-facing runway, which kept the flight time down.

  • Slide 44 of 46: Exactly 41 minutes from takeoff, we'd touched down in Boston.

  • Slide 45 of 46: It was just a quick taxi to the gate, past the JetBlue terminal, and then we were off.

  • Slide 46 of 46: While devoid of any frills or perks, Spirit provides an incredible value for money here and I even overpaid for my ticket as the flight normally costs $18 one-way. Spirit, of course, isn't perfect but a lot can be overlooked for that price on a flight that's less than an hour in duration.The plane was new, the service was great, and I got to Boston earlier than scheduled. For a simple shuttle flight, it was actually quite enjoyable and I would undoubtedly choose Spirit again when traveling on the short hop to Boston, especially when on a budget. For a business traveler, however, the shuttle service from LaGuardia still has unbeatable perks like near-hourly service, an enhanced service offering, and dedicated gates. If in a pinch, the Spirit service will do just fine but don't expect any frills unless you pay up. 

I flew on Spirit Airlines’ first ‘shuttle’ flight from Newark to Boston for $25 and still overpaid – here’s why it’s a great budget option

  • Spirit Airlines inaugurated service between Newark and Boston on November 18, becoming the fifth carrier on the busy route. 
  • The two daily flights join a competitive sector dominated by American, Delta, United, and JetBlue, primarily serving business travelers and offering bonus perks for flyers. 
  • We flew on the first flight from Newark to Boston to see if Spirit’s dirt-cheap fares held up to the competition on the 200-mile route.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Shipping up to Boston from New York just got a whole lot cheaper.

Spirit Airlines just launched its newest route between Newark and Boston on November 18, one of the shortest in its network. Starting with only two daily flights, the carrier joins a highly-competitive sector that sees four other airlines flying between the two cities with countless flights. 

The New York-Boston route typically serves the business traveler segment and is known for the shuttle flights offered by American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and JetBlue Airways from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The elite clientele flying the route often makes the short flights back and forth quite expensive since airlines know business travelers are willing to pay.

In true ultra-low-cost carrier fashion, however, Spirit is now the cheapest carrier on the route by far, offering fares as low as $18 one-way. That beats all other airlines and even most bus and rail connections between the two cities, save for the famous one-dollar bus. 

I flew on the first flight to Beantown to see just how Spirit would hold its own on the 200-mile route. It’s not technically a shuttle flight since it doesn’t depart from LaGuardia but, for the purposes of this story, that’s how I’ll refer to it. 

Here’s what it’s like flying on a Spirit Airlines shuttle flight from Newark to Boston.

Though the first flight of any new route should be cause for celebration, it was shockingly empty at Newark airport just a week before Thanksgiving.

Spirit Airlines uses Terminal B here and while typically reserved for international carriers, it’s also used by Allegiant, Frontier, and Delta, so it should’ve been busier.

I’d flown Spirit over the summer so knew what to expect from the airline: plexiglass partitions at check-in, masks required onboard, hand sanitizer stations during boarding, etc.

Read More: I flew on the infamous Spirit Airlines for the first time and saw how well no-frills can actually co-exist with safety – here’s what it was like

I also knew I could skip check-in and go to a kiosk to save money on printing a boarding pass, so I headed straight there.

The seating map for the flight showed full, which I figured par for the course as Spirit had canceled the flight later in the day to Boston and presumably bumped all those passengers onto this flight. I was assigned an aisle seat, though, so I wasn’t too worried.

Boarding pass in hand, I headed straight to the gate as there wasn’t anything worth sticking around pre-security to enjoy. Some of the shops were open but the Priority Pass lounge was not.

Spirit participates in TSA PreCheck but, as is my typical experience when flying on an ultra-low-cost airline, it wasn’t printed on my boarding pass despite uploading my known traveler number.

While it may seem like a superficial perk to a leisure traveler, it can mean saving valuable minutes for a business traveler. In this case, the difference between PreCheck and regular security was 25 minutes.

Arriving at the gate a few minutes before boarding, I was sure that the flight would be full as the gate area was jam-packed. As I waited for boarding, I went to go have a look at the plane.

Our aircraft for the day would be one of Spirit’s newest, an Airbus A320neo.

Still rare in the US, the fuel-efficient jet is a favorite among ultra-low-cost airlines due to its cost savings and this one had just been delivered in October.

Source: Planespotters.net

Despite the scores of people sitting near the gate, it became increasingly clear that this wouldn’t be a crowded flight when boarding began.

Spirit boards its aircraft in zones, with zone assignments based on the type of ticket that you have and the seat you’re assigned. If you have a Spirit credit card or purchased a special seat, you’ll likely board in the first few zones.

After the crew boarded, only a small handful of passengers boarded with each zone. Numerous boarding calls for each zone yielded fewer passengers than expected.

The jetway was devoid of any Spirit Airlines-branded social distancing signage but Delta Air Lines was kind enough to place a few of its own.

Just before stepping on the plane, however, this Spirit Airlines-branded hand sanitizer dispenser awaited.

After a quick sanitization, it was time to board the bright yellow Airbus A320neo that would be home only for around an hour.

As hoped, it was mostly empty, making this short flight all the more enjoyable.

Row after row was deserted, a true paradise when flying during the pandemic; though, still a sad sign for the industry.

And even with the low passenger count, I was still assigned a seat in row 23. eight rows from the back.

Here I am in my aisle seat, in which I didn’t stay long.

The plane was only a month old and it showed. The seats were impressively new, albeit slim.

Though covered in faux leather material, I could feel just how bare the seats were as soon as I sat down and wondered if I’d last on a cross-country flight in them.

Seats are 17.75 inches wide with small armrests and no additional recline.

Source: SeatGuru

Legroom was similarly meager with 28 inches of pitch, well below the industry average.

Source: SeatGuru

The tray table was also tiny and I reckoned I wouldn’t comfortably be getting any work done on a laptop by using it.

Put simply, the seats were bare with no adjustable headrests, in-flight entertainment, or even in-seat power. Then again, I couldn’t complain at $25 per seat.

For comfort, the “big front seat” offers a recliner seat similar to that in a domestic business class cabin. It doesn’t come with any extra amenities; though, a flight attendant told me that Spirit is working on changing that.

I couldn’t really stretch out but it was bearable for the 41-minute time up to Boston.

Once it became clear that there wasn’t going to be anybody else joining me in my row, I moved over to the window as the views on this route are not to be missed.

I was greeted by a friendly “howdy” on the sharklet.

There were less than 30 passengers on the 182-seat plane, and that’s after Spirit consolidated the two Boston flights into one.

Having so few passengers, we departed early and were in the air just 10 minutes after pushing back. Route I-95, the road that connects New York and Boston, was directly adjacent but its travelers wouldn’t get to Boston as quickly as we would.

The plane was so light that we were able to get airborne in just a few seconds after advancing to full power.

My eyes were glued to the window for the first five minutes of the flight as the sights were incredible. First up, Lower Manhattan and the Freedom Tower…

Midtown…

And finally, the George Washington Bridge.

It was only a few minutes until we were parallel to the Connecticut coast, soaring high over the I-95 and Amtrak travelers that would arrive in Boston hours later.

To my surprise, the seatbelt sign was actually turned off for around 10 minutes and flight attendants started an in-flight service. As there were so few people, however, it was done without a trolley.

Unlike the shuttle flights, there’d be no free offering of any kind as there’s even a price for water on Spirit. The only perks we’d get from the flight were the views.

New England in the fall is truly a sight to see, especially from a plane flying overhead.

We were preparing to land than a half-hour into the flight and Boston was luckily landing on its northwest-facing runway, which kept the flight time down.

Exactly 41 minutes from takeoff, we’d touched down in Boston.

It was just a quick taxi to the gate, past the JetBlue terminal, and then we were off.

In true shuttle-like fashion, I was on board the aircraft no more than an hour and a half from boarding to deplaning. Off to Boston!

While devoid of any frills or perks, Spirit provides an incredible value for money here and I even overpaid for my ticket as the flight normally costs $18 one-way. Spirit, of course, isn’t perfect but a lot can be overlooked for that price on a flight that’s less than an hour in duration.

The plane was new, the service was great, and I got to Boston earlier than scheduled. For a simple shuttle flight, it was actually quite enjoyable and I would undoubtedly choose Spirit again when traveling on the short hop to Boston, especially when on a budget. 

For a business traveler, however, the shuttle service from LaGuardia still has unbeatable perks like near-hourly service, an enhanced service offering, and dedicated gates. If in a pinch, the Spirit service will do just fine but don’t expect any frills unless you pay up. 

Basic economy tickets and non-US originating tickets booked until March 31, 2021, however, will still be exempt from change fees as long as travel is rebooked to a date within 12 months from the ticket’s original issue. 

While this seems identical to the policies offered by American and Delta, there are two important differentiators that knock United down a peg into second place. 

Award tickets booked on the airline still must be canceled more than 30 days in advance in order for the “award redeposit fee” to be waived, as it’s a $125 fee otherwise. United will also not issue a credit when changing a flight if the new itinerary is less expensive while American and Delta will issue travel credits that can be used for future travel. 

United is still a great option in terms of flexibility but the airlines providing the most flexibility for international flights and award tickets are American, Delta, Alaska, and Southwest.

Third place: Frontier Airlines

Frontier Airlines has not eliminated change fees completely but has new flexible booking policies to give flyers more control of their travel travels. The first is a 2019-era policy that eliminated change and cancel fees for flights as long as the change or cancellation is made greater than 60 days ahead of the departure. 

Flights changed between 59 and seven days before departure will be subject to a $39 change or cancel fee and those changed within a week of departure will be charged $59. 

Some Frontier flights are so cheap, however, that buying a new ticket might be more cost-effective than paying the change or cancellation fee, in some cases. 

Frontier is also eliminating change fees for current flights as long as the travel is rebooked for a date through January 7, 2021, which unfortunately doesn’t help travelers looking to book spring or summer travel.

Fourth place: Sun Country Airlines

Sun Country does not charge change fees when the change is made more than 60 days from departure, much like Frontier Airlines. Changes made between 59 and 14 days from departure will incur a $50 fee per segment while changes made within two weeks from departure will see a $100 fee per segment.

It’s not the most flexible policy but it does give a greater modicum of flexibility into 2021 and is a permanent policy instead of a temporary fee waiver. 

Fifth place: JetBlue Airways 

JetBlue has not yet joined its colleagues in eliminating change and cancel fees but has extended its travel waiver that temporarily waives fees for new and existing bookings made until February 28, 2021. The policy covers all flights, international and domestic, and can be used to rebook flights until the end of JetBlue’s schedule, currently September 7, 2021.

But, unless JetBlue extends this policy past February, flyers will have to book their spring and summer before March to take advantage of it. With experts still debating when the vaccine will bring life in the US fully back to normal, it might not be enough flexibility for summer travel but a great policy for those who are able to book before the cutoff.   

A permanent policy, like those implemented by the carriers above, will always beat out a temporary policy and that’s why JetBlue is so far down on this list despite offering an albeit generous temporary policy. 

Fifth place: Allegiant Air

While a great gesture for travelers, especially coming from an ultra-low-cost carrier, the one-change policy does limit how many times a traveler can make a change and the February cut-off hinders flexibility for spring and summer travel.

Last place: Spirit Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines

Hawaiian Airlines and Spirit Airlines are both waiving change fees for bookings made before December 31, 2020. It’s a great gesture from the unlikely bedfellows but requires travelers to make their 2021 travel plans before the end of the year when there’s still so much uncertainty about how long it will take to get the virus under control, even with a vaccine.

And while some travelers may be alright with booking on the airline by year’s end, those looking to wait a bit to book spring and summer travel may find more flexibility elsewhere. 

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