3 Best (and 3 Worst) Budget U.S. Airlines You Should Know About

SAVING & SPENDING - TRAVEL
Here is how budget airlines rank on price, perks, and reliability.
Updated April 11, 2024
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Budget airlines are known for enticing customers with cheap flights and then packing on the extra fees for services. 

Usually, if you see a shockingly low airfare that seems too good to be true, it probably is. However, some budget airlines offer genuine deals that can save you money

We recently scoured internet reviews and determined that these are the three best and three worst budget airlines in the U.S. for pricing, perks, and general customer satisfaction.

Southwest (Best)

vladim_ka/Adobe smartphone with southwest airline application

In the 50-plus years since Southwest’s modest beginnings in 1971, the airline has grown to serve more than 120 airports across the U.S. and 10 other countries. While still a budget airline, Southwest offers some unique perks — the most notable being the free-bag policy.

Southwest customers can bring two checked bags free of charge, an incredible perk for budget travel today. Travelers using this airline also avoid change or cancellation fees, although it’s important to note that customers get travel credits rather than cash back.

At Southwest, travel credits never expire, and you can access in-flight entertainment on your own device.

Southwest also has an “open seating” policy, which means customers are assigned a section and simply board with their section to sit in whatever available seat they find. You can also pay an extra fee to board early and get a better selection of seats.

Avelo Airlines (Best)

petrovalexey/Adobe pilots sitting in  the cockpit at high altitude

Newcomer Avelo Airlines is a relatively small airline that launched in 2021. It doesn't travel from the East to West Coast but offers budget trips up and down each coast as well as some destinations in the central U.S., including Chicago and Dubuque, Iowa.

In total, Avelo flies to more than 30 destinations and focuses on smaller airports that are closer to vacation hot spots. 

Like many other budget carriers, Avelo charges for baggage. The airline charges more for carry-ons than checked baggage, likely as a way to encourage customers to check their bags and leave more room in the overhead bins.

The airline’s extra charges are, however, significantly cheaper than those many other airlines charge.

Pro tip: Flying on a great budget airline can save you money that you can then use to crush your debts. It’s a great way to improve your finances in the new year.

JetBlue (Best)

Roman Tiraspolsky/Adobe two jet blue airplane standing at airport

Since its launch in 2000, JetBlue has expanded to fly to more than 100 destinations across the U.S., Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean, and London.

The airline has grown a loyal customer base by offering perks not often seen in budget travel, including free Wi-Fi, complimentary snacks and drinks on board, and seat-back entertainment.

However, like many budget airlines, JetBlue often charges for other extras. Travelers who book Blue Basic — similar to a basic economy ticket — pay extra for a carry-on bag, for example. The fee for the first carry-on bag is $65.

Even though JetBlue and its perks made our “best of” budget airlines list, the carrier has its cons. 

For example, around 33% of JetBlue flights in the first four months of 2022 were delayed and 7% were canceled, according to a NerdWallet analysis of data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Sun Country Airlines (Worst)

hanohiki/Adobe airplane flying in sky above empty meadows

Sun Country Airlines launched in the 1980s and is based in Minneapolis. While the airline flies to many destinations across the U.S. — as well as several in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and Canada — many flights have to be routed through Minneapolis.

Like other budget options, Sun Country travelers can expect to pay extra for carry-ons, checked bags, advance seat selection, and all snacks. There is no seat-back entertainment, but travelers can connect their own devices to the airline’s library while aboard.

Sun Country’s biggest downside is that there may be many days during a given week when you cannot fly to or from a destination. However, the airline recently announced an expansion that will have it flying to more than 90 airports in 2023.

Spirit Airlines (Worst)

eqroy/Adobe spirit airplane standing at chicago airport

Spirit Airlines flies to more than 60 destinations across the U.S., but it has a less-than-stellar reputation. According to the NerdWallet analysis, just 68% of Spirit flights reached their destination on time and 5% were canceled altogether during the first four months of 2022.

Spirit also is known for adding a lot of fees for extras, and you won’t find seat-back entertainment. The seating doesn't leave you with a lot of room, and the airline has gotten poor marks for customer service in the past.

Learn more about Spirit baggage fees.

Frontier Airlines (Worst)

Kyo46/Adobe frontier airplane standing at las vegas airport during day time

Based in Denver, Frontier Airlines flies to about 120 destinations across the U.S., the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America.

While travelers can score super cheap fares, Frontier is another airline that has a reputation for disrupted travel. NerdWallet says that during the first four months of 2022, 32% of Frontier flights were delayed and 4% were canceled.

Travelers on Frontier can also expect to pay extra for carry-on bags, checked bags, in-flight snacks, and seat selection.

Learn more about Frontier baggage fees.

As with Sun Country, flight availability can be limited. And like Spirit, seating can be cramped. If you want to call a customer service representative, you're out of luck. The airline recently eliminated phone-based customer service.

Bottom line

ARTENS/Adobe passengers in airport lounge

If you’re looking to travel for cheap, budget airlines certainly have their allure, especially if you are taking a short trip and won’t need carry-on or checked luggage.

However, it’s wise to crunch the numbers with a legacy airline first to see if the budget option is actually a better bargain. And remember, using a top-rated travel credit card can also save you money in the form of cash back or rewards.

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Author Details

Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore is a seasoned freelance writer who also teaches writing courses at Rutgers University. She's based in Jersey City and enjoys travel, live music and, of course, spending quality time with her pup.

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