How I Make My Airline Choices

business class flights
Foreign airlines seem to step it up, even in economy class.
airline choices
The 787 Dreamliner makes United a serious choice for flights to Asia – now it needs to keep up to South America.

I’m not one to tell an airline “I’ll never fly you again.” But I definitely have a pecking order for my airline choices. And I will absolutely pay more for an airline I prefer. I wonder how many other people are in the same – ahem – plane of existence (I thought “same boat” would be mixing my metaphors). So tell me about your airline packing order, and I’ll share mine with you — I’m going to break my list our by domestic and international, base on those I’ve flown before. Airline alliance membership continues to be a huge factor for me, and I’m often willing to shell out more to stick with my preferred Star Alliance. And I’d also like to here what makes you make your airline choices – what’s beyond the ticket price for you”

For Those Little Domestic Trips

airline choices
Delta could become a bigger option in my future.

United Airlines
I have the overwhelming majority of my frequent flier miles through the United Airlines OnePass, so it’s one of my top airline choices. I started flying Continental about 15 years ago, and stayed on-board during the United merger. I’ve never had a bad experience — and I’ve even had a few great flights. Booking is always easy, though I’ve sometimes had to chase down my mileage credits. Plus, United Airlines is based at my favorite terminal at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Extra bonus!

Delta Air Lines
I don’t fly Delta very often. Sky Harbor isn’t a hub, and I haven’t collected a fistful of miles or anything. Most of them have been somewhat accidental. But I also haven’t had any truly bad experiences (I was even able to endure a poopy-diaper sort of stink on a flight to Minneapolis). Since I don’t fly Delta very often, I don’t hoard SKyMiles like Smaug guarding his gold – and it’s easy to donate SkyMiles to my preferred charity — you won’t believe how important air miles are to nonprofit organizations.

airline choices
Southwest is a nonfactor because of its loyalty program.

American Airlines/US Air
The merger between these two airlines has really made them fall in my rankings. Over the past few months, I’ve tried a few times to merge my accounts. Every single time, I got “Our system is down” or “Your records do not match” messages. Blah.

American is also eager to talk about its fleet renewal, but I still see a lot of silver MD80s flying over Phoenix — though I don’t mind the US Air domestic fleet. I know this is the domestic portion of this post, but I have avoided flying these airlines on international routes: American’s fleet is still pretty old, and I really dislike the US Airways choice of the Airbus A330 (my least-favorite airliner). The combined mega-airline isn’t doing itself any favors with its continuing difficulties in merging my AAdvantage and Dividend Miles accounts.

airline choices
Asiana flights are always amazing … now, if only it went to more destinations!

Southwest Airlines
Some people love Southwest Airlines. I get it. The employees are genuinely nice and the fleet is pretty modern. But when I fly, I want air miles that I can apply to my big trips — my international, intercontinental adventures. Southwest Airlines makes itself a nonfactor as one of my airline choices with a loyalty program that does nothing to help me reach exotic destinations.

For My International Adventures Abroad
This is a tough category. My airline choices for international flights are closely linked to my destination. If I had my way, Air New Zealand and Asiana Airlines would be able to take me anywhere I want to go. But nope, that’s not the reality. So let me break it out by region.

airline choices
Norwegian Air Shuttle could also benefit from an airline alliance.

Asiana Airlines stand out among my other airline choices anywhere in Asia, even if flying through the Incheon hub costs me a bit of time. I flew All Nippon Airways on my last trip to Asia – and while its service absolutely schools US-based airlines, it still takes a backseat to Asiana.

Now, Hawaiian Airlines remains an intriguing option I haven’t yet tried. It flies directly from Phoenix to Honolulu, and then from many points to Asia and Oceania. The only not-so-great factor is the potentially awful choice of the Airbus A330; if Hawaiian Airlines was wise enough to equip them with air conditioning nozzles at every seat (which SAS and Vietnam Airlines do not do), I’d be OK with the A330.

United Airlines is a factor as one of my airline choices – the crew of its 787 flight from Shanghai to Los Angeles International Airport does credit to the airline. But it still falls short of Asiana or All Nippon Airways if all things are equal.

airline choices
I’d like to give one of the Virgin airlines a shot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a dilemma here: I want to pick Norwegian Air Shuttle – yep, a low-cost carrier. Its shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet puts it above SAS and its Airbuses. And even though there’s a British Airways flight to London directly from Phoenix, I’m more likely to start my trip in Scandinavia — and I haven’t heard many frequent travelers sing the praises of British Airways. On the other hand, I’ve experienced great service on every single Norwegian Air Shuttle flight. Granted, those were short-haul flights. But still, I think that will translate well to intercontinental flights. But a flight on Norwegian Air Shuttle would net me zero airline miles. That doesn’t sit well for one of my airline choices. If it’s part of an airline alliance, I don’t know about it. I’d be thrilled to be wrong about this.

So where does this leave me” With Air New Zealand. I can take a short flight to Los Angeles International Airport and grab an Air New Zealand flight to London. The quick stopover nets me an excellent airline, a shiny new Boeing 777 and a fistful of air miles on a Star Alliance member airline.

South America
It’s hard to get to South America from Phoenix on anything but American Airlines or United Airlines. I’ll give the nod to United Airlines – as I have twice – since it’s a Star Alliance member and is generally decent.

But I haven’t been able to try a South American carrier like TAM or LAN. That’s pretty disappointing.

One Airline I’d Love to Try

I already mentioned the Norwegian Air Shuttle intercontinental flights. But I’d also be eager to try any Virgin airline – America, Atlantic or Australia. I’m trying to parse its codeshare agreements, which seem all over the board.

There are no Virgin America flights from Sky Harbor, though. If that ever changes, I’d be up for some Virgin America flights. The praise-complaint ratio for Virgin airlines remains far into the positive, so I’d consider this great news.

This post just might contain affiliate links. Fear not, they’re non-spammy and benign. Hey, I have to keep this thing running somehow!

By Wandering Justin

Writer. Traveler. Gastronomic daredevil. Fitness fan. Homebrewer. Metal dude \m/. Cat and dog lover.


  1. Justin, this is an interesting post and as a frequent business traveler I am adding my two cents fwiw on a couple of points.

    I mostly fly United because I’m based in Colorado and Denver is a main United hub. A key advantage to building miles and status is how well you get treated when needing help due to flight cancellations, weather, flights I miss due to my own carelessness, etc. When flights are similar I will choose United because I know if I need help I will get it.

    I also fly US Air and American and recently went through the same merging that you described, but had a totally different experience. It worked smoothly for me. I’m sure it’s just random and have no idea why it would work for one of us and not both.

    Also even though I fly United far more that US Air or American among the things I value highly is in-flight wifi, and United is among the worst. US Air is far better, and SW is as well. I don’t fly SW much for the reasons you mention, but worth noting is that SW is the only airline I know of that doesn’t charge a fee just to change a flight. When I am unsure of my travel plans I will try to book on SW.

    I’ve flown LAN several times and found it to be nothing special, at least on flights within south america. Asian airlines were consistently far better.

  2. Yup, I’m one of those people that like Southwest. Of course, I’m usually not going anywhere internationally. Also, the blog subscription is working great now. It came right to my gmail inbox. Justin, great post as usual.

  3. Hey, John … thanks for pitching in with your first comment. I really, really like Denver International Airport. And you’re right, being at a hub is a huge factor. I’m really worried Sky Harbor will lose its hub status with the New American.

    Good point on the wifi. I don’t use wifi when I fly, so it’s good to hear a few thoughts on that from someone who relies on it.

    Some of those Asian airlines are just unbelievable, aren’t they?

  4. Great article,

    I now try to stick with fewer airlines and rather pay a bit more. When I was based in Houston I was almost soley flying Continental, because it was a hub of them.
    After that I moved to San Francisco and I didn’t really fly a lot anymore, except a couple times home to germany and for that I used mostly Lufthansa. They had a great non-stop service from SFO to MUC.
    Now based in the Seattle area Alaska Air is a must. They are actually in no airline alliance, but I can earn and redeem miles on a lot of partner airlines like Emirates, Delta, American, BA and Cathay, which is quiete amazing and gives me a great variety to use my miles in every direction of the world.

    And so far I love Alaska, especially for their inflight entertainment, which is free until end of the month and you can watch all premium content. More in my blog. I dont use WiFi aboard, because first of all, I think its to expensive and I like to be “offline” for a bit where I can just relax and no-emails, messages or any other disturbing notice gets in.

    I flew Hawaiian Airlines a couple years ago and I was quiet happy with their service. But it was round-trip flight only.

    The last couple years I used Delta a lot for flights between europe and central america. Didnt had a lot of problems and the one time they got me a hotel for my overnight stay in Atlanta because of a cancelation and i had a bigger issue form germany to the US, but thanks to the great european law, the trip was for free, thanks to the compensation you earn for delayed or cancelled flights. And what I was reading recently about Delta was not so positive.

    The best is probably going with that airline, which has an hub close by to where you live.

  5. Lufthansa! I haven’t flown them since I first went to Germany to meet my aunt, uncle and cousins when I was about 5 years old. Maybe I’ll fly them again next time I visit. D

    And you’re right – I hear a lot of kvetching about Delta, but they’ve been pretty good for me so far. But I haven’t flown them on an international route yet.

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