Travel topics > Transportation > Flying > Flying in the United States
With vast distances and many "holes" in the rail network, air travel is a necessity for any traveller in the US wishing to see more than a handful of places in a manageable amount of time.
The quickest and often the most convenient way of long-distance intercity travel in the United States is by plane. Coast-to-coast travel takes about six hours from east to west, and 5 hours from west to east (varying due to winds), which would take several days by land. The longest domestic flight in the U.S., Hawaiian Airlines' flight from New York to Honolulu, takes a whopping 11 hours, and 9 hours in the opposite direction (due to winds). Most large cities in the U.S. are served by one or two airports; many smaller towns also have some passenger air service, although you may need to detour through a major hub airport to get there. Depending on where you are starting, it may be cheaper to drive or take a bus to a nearby large city and fly or, conversely, to fly to a large city near your destination and rent a car (or take another bus) to your final destination. Rail travel may be a cheaper option, either for the last leg of your journey or for the whole trip, particularly on the East Coast, in and around major hubs, or in California). In some cases coach class on Amtrak may be similarly priced to relatively long flights. But it involves sitting in coach for hours, sometimes one or two days.
Shopping around carefully is certainly a good idea, as neither distance nor travel time nor the "remoteness" of a destination is a 100% trustworthy predictor of the price you will pay getting there through different modes of transport, including bus travel. The best fares tend to be 7 to 14 days in advance of travel while the worst are less than 7 days in advance or showing up at the airport and buying a ticket on the spot. This is the most expensive way to fly as most business travellers tend to make last-minute or short-notice travel plans. If you are travelling through the Thanksgiving period (last week in November) or the Christmas/New Year holidays (Dec 15-Jan 2), the fares also tend to be the highest.
Unlike most other countries, the United States has never had a state-owned national carrier, and the aviation market is a highly competitive one that has always been served entirely by several privately-owned airlines. Major carriers compete for business on major routes, and travellers willing to book two or more weeks in advance can get bargains. However most smaller destinations are served by only one or two regional carriers, and prices there can be expensive. Prices do not always follow any discernible logic and very often longer flights can be cheaper than shorter ones.
Also note that in the US, the term “First Class” can be misleading to foreign visitors, and for domestic flights, First Class is typically more similar to domestic or short-haul business class elsewhere in the world. Unlike in most other countries, flying in a premium class or having gold status in a US airline’s frequent flyer program does not automatically grant you lounge access when flying domestically in the US. Instead, you’ll have to either purchase lounge membership, buy a single-use lounge pass or ironically, have gold status in the frequent flyer program of a foreign airline in the same alliance.
There are several types of airlines flying in the United States today:
Due to bankruptcies and mergers, there are only three major and two minor mainline (or legacy) carriers left. Each of these airlines has hubs in several U.S. cities, meaning most of the airlines' flights originate or terminate from those cities:
- Delta Air Lines: hubs in Atlanta, Detroit, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, New York City, Memphis, and Seattle. (Member of the Sky Team Alliance)
- United Airlines: hubs in Chicago, Houston, Newark, Denver, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles. (Member of the Star Alliance)
- American Airlines: hubs in Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C.. (Member of the One World Alliance)
- Alaska Airlines: hubs in Seattle, Los Angeles, Anchorage, and Portland. Their service is focused primarily in Alaska and the West Coast. They also offer flights to Hawaii, transcontinental flights to the east coast (and anywhere in between) and international services to Canada and Mexico. They are not a member of a world alliance program, but have alliances with Delta, American Airlines, and with several foreign flag carriers who are either members of the Sky Team or the One World Alliance. Virgin America is being merged into this carrier.
- Hawaiian Airlines: hubs in Honolulu and Maui. Service primarily between the Hawaiian Islands, and between the Hawaiian Islands and the West Coast.
These carriers used to be full service, though these days they have stripped most of the frills away from economy class and are virtually no different from low-cost carriers. On a domestic flight in economy class, expect to pay extra for anything beyond a seat, one or two carry-on bags, and soft drinks. Some flights to/from Hawaii or Alaska still offer a few perks, but check for your particular airline and flight. At times their fares may even undercut the "low-cost carriers" fares too!
Mainline carriers also offer first class for a larger seat, free food and drinks and overall better service. Round trip fares can run over a thousand dollars, even for short flights, making the added cost not worth it for the vast majority of travellers. (Most travellers in first class get their seat as a free frequent flier upgrade or similar perk.) You may also be offered an upgrade at a much lower cost during check in or at the airport if there are open seats available. Depending on the cost for a last minute upgrade, the savings in checked bag fees alone may make this a worthwhile option (and you'll also get priority boarding, the bigger seat, more legroom, free beverages and food.)
Some transcontinental services by American (Flagship Service), Delta (BusinessElite Transcontinental), JetBlue (Mint), and United (BusinessFirst p.s.), offer an international-style Business Class (with lie-flat seating and upgraded dining). American's Flagship service also offers the equivalent of international first class in a very private 1-1 configuration. Upgraded transcontinental service is usually only available between New York–JFK and Los Angeles or San Francisco, although Delta also offers it on some flights to Seattle. Flights between the East Coast and Hawaii along with all flights from the mainland to U.S. Pacific territories (Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, etc.) typically feature international business class.
Regional airlines come in three varieties:
- Regional subsidiaries are operated by Skywest, Mesa Air Group, Republic Airways and Trans States Holdings for a mainline carrier under brands such as American Eagle, Delta Connection, Alaska Airlines/Horizon and/or United Express in smaller regional jet or turboprop aircraft (seating 60-70 or less) to locales where it is not economically or technically feasible to operate a larger sized Boeing or Airbus jet. These flights are booked through the parent company of the mainline carrier partner (e.g. Delta Connection through Delta.com), either by themselves or connecting to a mainline itinerary via a major airport. The regional subsidiaries also offer international services to the neighboring countries of Canada and Mexico. On-board services are very basic.
- There are also independent regional airlines which are not affiliated with a mainline carrier and operate on their own brands, these are usually found in major airports and in more out of the way places, and in near island communities (Cape Cod, Hawaii, Virgin Islands, etc.) using propeller driven aircraft. They are Air Choice One, Boutique Airlines, Cape Air, Great Lakes Aviation, Mokulelea (only over Hawaii and southern California), Pen Air and Silver Airways(mainly over Florida and to the Bahamas). They can operate solely in one area like Hawaii or they can operate in several regions (adjacent states) in different parts of the country but don't offer contiguous routes across the country between these regions. Some of the them also offer "essential air" services to rural locales (see below under Essential Air Service).
- Commuter airlines primarily serve the business travel market, with 10–30 seat turboprop planes. If you can work with their schedules and choice of airports (usually private aviation airports and municipal airfields) – their consistent fares can be a bargain compared even to low cost carriers. Additionally, since fares are the same whether you buy a month in advance or the day of, tickets are also flexible with no cancellation or change fees.
The most famous low-cost carrier in the U.S. is ubiquitous Southwest (Focus cities in Chicago Midway, Dallas Love Field, Denver, Las Vegas, Baltimore-Washington, Houston-Hobby, Orlando and Los Angeles International Airport (they also serve the other LA airports) and Phoenix Sky Harbor); with Frontier (hub in Denver Airport; focus cities in Philadelphia, Trenton/Princeton and Orlando); Spirit (Focus cities in Ft. Lauderdale, Dallas-Ft Worth, Detroit, Las Vegas, Chicago-O'Hare and Atlantic City), and others becoming formidable competitors. Amenities vary greatly by carrier. On one end, Southwest is the only airline in the United States that lets passengers check two bags free of charge, and have done away with some of the formality of air travel – with no travel agents (all reservations are through their website or call center), assigned seating or buy-on-board programs (free soft drinks and snacks for all passengers.) At the other end of the spectrum, Spirit Airlines sells seats as low as $9, but charges for everything beyond the seat: checked and hand luggage, advance seat assignments, checking in at the airport, on board refreshments, etc.
Don't assume low-cost carriers are always the cheapest. The mainline carriers offer the same level of onboard (no-frills) service on their domestic routes as the low cost carriers, and their cheapest fares are usually very close to or sometimes lower than what the low-cost carriers are offering. Even on a long-haul domestic flight with a mainline carrier across the continent (or to Alaska from the lower 48) and across the ocean (from the mainland to Hawaii or to Puerto Rico), it is still the same level of no-frills service such as no free meals in coach class. So never assume anything and always shop around as no one airline is always the "cheapest".
- Southwest, Frontier and Spirit serve destinations nationwide and internationally (Mexico, Caribbean, Central America, Colombia and Peru), although they sometimes use smaller or alternative airports such as Chicago Midway instead of the larger O'Hare International Airport; Houston Hobby instead of the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston; or Ft Lauderdale instead of Miami-Dade International in South Florida. In other places, such as the Los Angeles metropolitan area they can be at all airports.
- Other low-cost carriers such as Allegiant and Sun Country (Hub in Minneapolis) focus on "vacation destinations" (Florida, Mexico, the Virgin Islands, etc.) In some places, Allegiant may only serve an alternative airport but not the principal airport such as to Bellingham WA but provide no service to the busier Seattle Tacoma International Airport (80mi/128km south) or only to Mesa Phoenix Gateway Airport located 32.5mi/52km southeast of the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport where they don't fly to for travel to the Phoenix metropolitan area. Check their schedules.
Hybrid carriers offer more amenities than low cost airlines but with fares lower than the legacies. The most famous of these is JetBlue Airways (hubs in New York–JFK and Long Beach; focus cities in Fort Lauderdale, Boston, and Orlando) which has an extensive network covering primarily major airports, one free checked bag, 34 inches between seats (very generous for an American airline) and free satellite TV in every seat. Virgin America (hubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles) offers a lower priced First Class option. It is being merged into Alaska Airlines. These airlines are the highest-rated U.S. airlines according to Skytrax, and in general receive more favourable reviews than the mainline carriers.
Services to remote regions are provided by various small, local or regional carriers:
- Bush planes are named for their ability to reach otherwise difficult-to-access points, such as remote settlements in the Alaska Bush. While some are small general aviation or charter flights, others are scheduled; many mixed passenger/cargo runs carry U.S. Postal Service bags (scheduled a few times weekly) to rather inaccessible points along with a few paying passengers.
- Essential Air Service, a subsidised intercity service, reaches more than a hundred small cities and towns which would have otherwise lost all service to airline deregulation. Small (9-35 passenger) scheduled aircraft run two or three times daily to a single major domestic city. These flights are typically operated by small, privately-owned regional carriers such as Pen Air, Cape Air, Via Air and Boutique Air to serve communities more than 70 miles from a major airline hub. Alaska Airlines operates as a sole major airline for many remote cities and towns throughout Alaska in Boeing 737 aircraft, some of which are a combination type of aircraft with a cargo hold in the front half and a passenger cabin in the rear half.
Quoted prices, from airlines themselves and from consolidators, generally include all taxes and other mandatory fees, and there is no fuel surcharge. However, extra services tend to incur extra fees. The main ones are listed here, along with strategies for avoiding them. Even baggage fees can be avoided with careful planning:
- Checking in with an agent — In today's age of online and kiosk check-in, most air travellers have no need to see a counter agent, apart from bag drop. Hence some airlines charge $3–10 to check in with a human being, although this fee will be waived if there is a legitimate reason preventing you from using other options (for example, a passport check is required or if you are physically disabled and require assistance). Spirit Airlines also charges for using a kiosk at the airport rather than checking in online. Some airlines accept emailed boarding passes displayed on smart phones, obviating the need to print them, although many smaller and regional airports do not support mobile boarding passes yet.
- Checked baggage — Expect to pay $25–35 to check a single bag, an additional $50 for a second bag, and up to $100 or more for a third bag. Particularly large or heavy bags can easily double or triple these fees. Shop around, as some discount carriers give a free baggage allowance; e.g. JetBlue (one bag) and Southwest (two bags).
- Each passenger's cost-free cabin baggage allowance is generally one small suitcase or garment bag and one item such as a briefcase, backpack, or purse. If you can get all your belongings into your cabin baggage, this is the best way to avoid baggage fees. Spirit Airlines charges $20–35 per carry-on bag, making it often cheaper to check in these bags. Don't forget the standard security restrictions regarding cabin baggage: liquids and gels must be in containers under 3.4 ounces (100 mL) and be presented to security inside a transparent zip-lock bag. Razor blades, electric shavers, scissors, or anything else with a blade or sharp edge can not be carried in cabin baggage.
- Pre-paying baggage charges online may give you a slight discount.
- Frequent flier rewards programs may give a limited free baggage allowance and additional weight allowances. Some airlines have a branded credit card that offers similar perks.
- Shipping luggage via UPS, FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service can work out cheaper than checking in bags.
- Seat selection - Unless you're flying on a full fare ticket or have elite status in an airline's frequent flyer program, there may be a fee to select seats toward the front of the economy cabin. Airlines have different names for this: on American it's called "Main Cabin ExtrAA", Delta advertises it "Economy Comfort", JetBlue's "Even More Legroom", and United's "EconomyPlus" - you'll typically get 3-4" of additional legroom and a slightly better position in the boarding queue for earlier access to the overhead bins but usually no other benefits (although Delta offers free alcoholic beverages and on-demand movies to transcontinental and international Economy Comfort passengers). If there are no free economy seats remaining, you may be assigned a premium seat at check-in for free, although this is not guaranteed. If you are flying more than 2 hours or so, seat comfort and location may be especially important. Consider the Wikivoyage section of "Flying" Planning_your_flight#Choosing_your_seat, and such web sites as SeatGuru, SeatMaestro and others for specifics about seats in aircraft of any airline(s) you're considering.
- Curbside check in — $2–10 on top of any baggage or check-in fees, plus a gratuity is usually expected.
- Food — Small snacks (e.g., peanuts, potato chips, cookies) are generally free on all flights. On domestic and North American flights longer than 1½–2 hours, packaged sandwiches and snacks boxes may be available to buy at inflated prices. Hot food for purchase is available on some cross country flights. Some airlines allow you to preorder for your meals and pay online when flying economy, guaranteeing that there will be a meal available for you and that it's your first choice. International flights outside of North/Central America and the Caribbean feature complimentary meals, and oddly enough there are international flights with meal service are actually shorter than the longest domestic or regional flights without it. New York to London is a 6 hours and still features complimentary meal service in coach, New York to Hawaii on the other hand is a 10 hour domestic flight and does not feature complimentary meals! Even if food and soft drinks are complimentary, there is always a charge for alcoholic beverages in economy, even on long-haul international flights.
- All airlines allow you to bring your own food and non-alcoholic beverages on board. All except the smallest airports have an array of fast food and quick serve options in the terminal – but you can't bring liquids through the security checkpoint (and some airports do not allow food either). Airside food will inevitably be more expensive than that before security but will be far cheaper and better than what's available on board. Some cities, such as Philadelphia, regulate airport food vendors and limit how much air-side restaurants can markup.
- Drinks — Free coffee, tea, water, juice and soda remain standard on all flights. Spirit Airlines, however, is an exception and charges for anything other than water. Alcoholic drinks cost $5–7.
- In-flight entertainment — Most U.S. carriers offer entertainment of one kind or another on longer domestic routes. JetBlue and Delta (on mainline medium and long-haul flights only) offer free seatback satellite TV to all passengers, United charges $6 in coach to watch TV. Delta, JetBlue, and United also offer on-demand movies on flights with satellite TV, typically at a cost of $4-$8 each unless the flight leaves US airspace (where satellite reception is unavailable), then they're free. Some airlines (American, Southwest, and select Delta and United aircraft without personal screens) offer streaming entertainment to your laptop, smartphone or tablet via the aircraft's wifi system. Expect a selection of older movies (mid-2000s and earlier) and TV shows (primarily sitcoms from the 1990s); newer content generally can't be shown on streaming services due to higher licensing costs. American is charging for streaming, other carriers are not at this time.
- In-flight Wi-Fi — Delta, JetBlue and Southwest offer in-flight Wi-Fi on nearly all their domestic fleets – American and United offer it on select flights. Prices range from $5–20, depending on the airline, length of flight, and device (tablets and smartphones get a discount as they use less data) but the Internet connection is good for almost the entire flight (at least until told by crew to switch-off your devices). Daily and monthly passes are also available for less than $50/month. Most airlines do not offer power ports in economy, so be sure you're charged up or have extra batteries for your device. Mobile phones are usually permitted to be operated in-flight as long as they have been set to flight mode (which effectively shuts-off the mobile phone signal from your provider) before being airborne.
- Pillows and blankets are disappearing rapidly. Some airlines don't have them at all; some will charge you for them (but you get to keep after you pay); and one or two offer them for free (but you have to ask for them). Red-eye and long (> 5 hour) flights are more likely to have free pillows and blankets. As always, check with your airline, and bring your own from home if you think you'll need them.
- Lounge passes: Each mainline carrier operates a network of lounges, such as Alaska Airline's "Board Rooms", American's "Admirals Clubs", Delta's "Sky Clubs" and United's "United Clubs" – offering a quieter space to relax or work in, business amenities such as free wi-fi, fax services, conference rooms, free finger foods, soft drinks, beer and wine. Frequent flyers buy annual memberships to these lounges, but any passenger can buy a day pass during check in or at the club itself, usually around $50, although sometimes less if you buy online. Only you can decide if the fee is worthwhile, but if you're in the upper elite tiers of a foreign airline in an airline alliance (One World Sapphire or Emerald, Star Alliance Gold or SkyTeam Elite Plus) you may have access to these lounges for free with your frequent flyer card. For members in the highest tiers, this privilege may be extended to a traveling companion. Additionally international Business and First Class passengers can also access these lounges for free. Unlike in other countries, lounge access is typically not provided for travellers in domestic first class, or for upper elite tier members of U.S. frequent flyer programs on domestic flights.
- First-class upgrades: Delta, United, and American sell upgrades on a first come-first served basis at check-in if first class has open seats. This is one to actually consider, especially if you're checking bags – "day of" upgrades can sometimes be as low as $50 each way, less than the cost of two bag fees. You'd may be paying less to check your bags and additionally getting priority security screening, boarding and baggage handling, along with a larger seat and free refreshments on board.
Most mainline carriers feature "cashless cabins" meaning any on-board purchases must be paid with either Visa or MasterCard (Delta also accepts American Express). Regional subsidiaries generally do still accept cash on board, although flight attendants may not be able to break large bills – hence the traditional request "exact change is appreciated." If you paid in advance for first class, checked baggage, meals, and alcoholic beverages are all included with the price of your ticket, as well as priority access to check-in agents and boarding.
- See also: At the airport#Security check
Security at U.S. airports is onerous, especially during busy holiday periods. Allow plenty of time and pack as lightly as possible. Adults must show approved picture ID. Ensure that any liquids are held in containers no bigger than 3.4 ounces (100 mL). The containers must all be placed within a single zippered plastic bag that is 1 quart (946 mL) or less in size. Only one such bag, with however much liquid, is allowed per passenger. If arriving from international destinations all passengers must go through security screening to continue on the onward flight, after clearing immigration and customs inspections. That means all liquids and prohibited items (per TSA rules) that were purchased in a Duty Free shop or allowed through as carry on from a foreign airport must re-packed into checked luggage after coming out of the customs area and before re-checking luggage. In most airports there is a check-in desk outside or conveyor belt outside of customs for transiting passengers to re-check their luggage. Items cannot be re-packed or re-arranged before customs inspections in the luggage reclaim area.
By private plane
The cost of chartering the smallest private jet begins at around $4000 per flight hour, with the cost substantially higher for larger, longer-range aircraft, and cheaper for smaller propeller planes. While private flying is by no means inexpensive, a family of four or more can often fly together at a cost similar to or even favorable to buying first-class (or even economy class) commercial airline tickets, especially to smaller airports where scheduled commercial flights are at their most expensive or unavailable, and private flying is at its cheapest. Though you may find it cheaper than flying a family of four first-class internationally, it is rarely the case, except when traveling from Western Europe.
Air Charter refers to hiring a private plane for a one-time journey. Jet Cards are pre-paid cards entitling the owner to a specific number of flight hours on a specified aircraft. As all expenses are pre-paid on the card, you need not concern yourself with deadhead time, return flights, landing fees, etc.
In some large cities, general aviation and private planes are served from a secondary airport where the main airport is crowded with frequent scheduled airline flights. These facilities occasionally bill themselves as executive airports to market themselves to large corporations who acquire their own small aircraft for business travel or resource exploration. General aviation facilities also serve flight schools, parachute clubs, aerial photographers, mapmakers or agricultural "crop dusters" and the lucky few individuals who can afford ownership and operation of one small plane as a very expensive hobby.
Many small-town airports on America's borders welcome individually-owned small aircraft; points like Ogdensburg, Watertown and Massena with just a few scheduled domestic Essential Air Service flights daily fill the rest of their time with general aviation. Give them an hour or two advance notice so that they can fetch border officials to meet the tiny private plane from exotic and foreign Brockville, and you've provided just the excuse they needed to add "International Airport" to their names.