What You Need To Know About Flying

Ahhh, the "joys" of flying: being crammed into a teeny, lumpy seat that we paid way too much for; delays, with no chance of making our connection; screaming children throwing food and having tantrums — and stale almonds and rocket-fuel-flavored wine as our only comforts. There has to be a better way.
So, we turned to the savviest fliers we know for their advice. We polled 10 travel-industry insiders and perpetual globetrotters who make it their business to know which airlines have the best food, the least annoying music, the most lucrative mileage programs, the greenest fleets, seats that we can actually fall asleep in, and free (yes, free!) cocktails. Ahead, find our field guide to helping you jet-set without regret.
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If you want to play with miles or points, you have to have a credit card — unfortunately, there's no way around it. However, scoring miles through spending on credit has never been easier. Opening up a new card will give you the biggest windfall, so if you're on the market, it's good to do a little shopping around. There are new deals every few months. (Right now, our favorite involves the American Airlines Advantage Card, which will give you 50,000 points if you charge $3,000 in the first three months.)
If you use the card for expenses you already have (even your rent and mortgage, if you're careful about monitoring payments), it's incredibly easy to rack up those points. Then, you can score domestic flights for as little as 12,500 points. Be careful not to overlook foreign transaction fees; on some carriers, like British Airlines, they can be hundreds of dollars making your free ticket, well, not free at all. Also, look for airlines with partnerships — United is part of StarAlliance, which includes 28 different global carriers — to hunt down the best deal on a destination that may not seem covered.
While scoring points is as easy as running your errands, cashing them in isn’t always. There is nothing more annoying than trying to actually use your hard-earned miles and finding out you can’t. Many airlines impose blackout dates, only release a few mileage seats per flight, or they only offer excruciatingly specific times. (Hello, 6 a.m. on a Sunday!) JetBlue has no blackout dates, and American and US Airways just announced they don’t, either, with the (annoying) caveat that you'll have higher mileage requirements if you're traveling on a holiday.
However, 10,000 miles could mean a free ticket to L.A. on one carrier but add up to zip on another. We decided to put the programs to the test and see how many miles you would earn flying from JFK to Heathrow. Then, we calculated how many miles you would need to redeem to fly within the continental U.S. Keep in mind that some carriers, like Delta and Jet Blue, are now offering their rewards points not based on miles flown, but on ticket price, which tallies up to fewer per trip.
It's also important to note that flying is only one small part of earning miles. On United, for example, you’d need to fly roundtrip to L.A. four times to earn a free ticket. But, if you check out your program’s website, you’ll discover all sorts of sneaky ways to accrue miles; from switching your TV provider to subscribing to your favorite magazine to buying groceries.
Miles Earned Flying JFK To Heathrow Roundtrip
United: 4,950
Delta (2015 Program): 2,690
American: 2,475
Jet Blue (booked on JetBlue.com): 2,472
Miles Needed To Fly Roundtrip In The Continental U.S.
United: 20,000 to 50,000
Delta 2015 program: 25,000 to 65,000
American: 12,500 to 30,000
Jet Blue: 10,000
So, which airlines offer the best miles package? Keep on reading.
The Breakdown:
1. United: “United makes it super easy to earn miles without even realizing it. My debit card is linked to my account, so every time I swipe, I’m earning miles through everyday things like shopping and dining,”
— Melissa Rosenfield, director of vibe, Viceroy Hotel Group
“United has become my go-to world-travel airline. I can get partner miles on most other airlines from Singapore to Air Canada. I often have very complicated routes from Vietnam through India into Europe and can get Star Alliance miles all the way.”
— Christiane Lemieux, founder, DwellStudio; executive creative director, Wayfair and Birch Lane
2. Delta: “Delta’s partnership with Starwood Hotels & Resorts means points can be cashed in at over 1,000 hotels around the world. When booking on Delta.com with my SPG credit card, I'm able to earn one Starpoint for every dollar I spend with Delta, and vice versa. When you earn 30,000 SkyMiles through Delta, you can book a one-night stay at one of Starwood’s luxury properties. Additionally, when booking a flight on Delta with my SPG credit card, I have the opportunity to enjoy complimentary benefits, including priority check-in, priority boarding, unlimited complimentary upgrades, and my first bag checked for free. On the Starwood side, my crossover benefits include priority check-in, 4 p.m. late checkout, and free in-room Internet access at any Starwood Hotels & Resorts.”
— Meg Connolly, principal, Meg Connolly Communications
3. American: “With American, it's so easy to build points without even getting on a plane. Last year, I signed up for AAdvantage dining and earned a 1,000-mile bonus, plus four miles for every dollar I spent at affiliated bars and restaurants. A few months ago, I bought a $400 camera through a high-points-yielding vendor on AAdvantage eShopping mall, and I earned 2,700 miles — it didn't cost me a dime extra. And, just this week, I earned over 1,000 miles playing some silly games on its new Facebook AAdvantage Passport Challenge app!”
Alexandra Baackes, writer, photographer, and globetrotter, AlexinWanderland.com
Honorable Mention: JetBlue
“What good are awards points if you can’t use them? JetBlue has, by far, the best availability for purchasing flights, with some TrueBlue flights available for as little as 5,000 points.”
— Cheri Forzani, luxury travel advisor, Cruise & World Travel 
Flying isn’t the glamorous experience it once was. Wouldn’t it be nice to be on a flight where everyone isn’t in their sweatpants and you weren’t so close to your seatmate that you could smell their breath? However, there are still some key factors that can make your flight way better (that is, so you can pass out as soon as the engines turn on). Free cocktails are reason enough for some of us to book Turkish Air. JetBlue has Sirius radio (100 channels), live TV (36 channels), and recently released movies you actually want to watch. For comfort, the international carriers get all the buzz (British Airways, Cathay Pacific, and Qatar), while the roomiest domestic seats are on JetBlue and Virgin America.
If you’re flying first class, Emirates is unbeatable with its private bar and beds, spa showers, and free-flowing Dom Pérignon. But, for those of us traveling with the masses, here are the best picks.
The Breakdown:
1. Virgin: “I feel like Virgin has every detail down, from the extra-large, flat beds in first class to the kids pack in economy. Because of its amazing flight attendants and the best entertainment system in the air, I always feel like I'm a guest at one of Richard Branson’s parties.”
— Christiane Lemieux, founder, DwellStudio; executive creative director, Wayfair and Birch Lane
2. JetBlue: “It’s all about the extra legroom; and the fact that I can watch live TV on their planes is amazing.”
— Melissa Rosenfield, director of vibe, Viceroy Hotel Group
3. Cathay Pacific: “Among the most comfortable seats for long-haul flights with great service. This airline also serves Krug [Champagne] in first class”
— Meg Connolly, principal, Meg Connolly Communications
Honorable Mentions: Air New Zealand and Qantas
“For wine, you can’t beat carriers like Air New Zealand and Qantas, which take special pride in purveying their native winemakers.”
— Brian Kelly, founder, ThePointsGuy.com
There’s nothing like unexpectedly getting upgraded to business or first class. The key is to build up loyalty points on one airline. Once you're a platinum frequent flier, things like upgrades and free bag checks become easier to come by. But, perks like free food, cocktails, and free Wi-Fi have yet to become standard. Airline perks just aren’t what they used to be.
The Breakdown:
1. Delta: “It's among the lowest fares for domestic carriers, especially for its new routes out of LaGuardia. I always check out its last-minute deals to Florida and the Caribbean.”
— George Fleck, vice president of global brand management, Le Méridien and Westin Hotels
2. American: “I stick with American Airlines based on its amazing miles-redemption options on partner airlines. I just flew from New York to Lima one way for 15,000 miles and $20 in fees, and I just booked a Bangkok-to-New-York leg for 35,000 points and $65 in fees. And, even when I fly domestic, I don't pay baggage fees thanks to my Elite Gold Status.”
— Alexandra Baackes, writer, photographer, and globetrotter, AlexinWanderland.com
3. Virgin: “You can call six hours before the flight and buy upgrades for good prices. I will set my alarm in the middle of the night to get the upgrade. I recently flew to Los Angeles in upper class, and the midnight wake-up was so worth it.”
  — Christiane Lemieux, founder, DwellStudio; executive creative director, Wayfair and Birch Lane
“I love Virgin America for the perks and general atmosphere (like cabin mood lighting). Its Main Cabin Select seats offer more legroom, free drinks, and movies for a reasonable upgrade price, which makes coast-to-coast travel so much better (especially when first class is not in your budget).”
— Catherine Carmichael, client services associate, PowerAdvocate
Honorable Mention: JetBlue
“It's got attractive rates across the board, is always cheap and cheerful, and you always know what you are going to get! Plus, many flights offer a Wi-Fi connection, which is massively important when you are on the road and need to stay in touch.”
  — Meg Connolly, principal, Meg Connolly Communications
Bento boxes on Japan Airlines, French fare on AirFrance, and soups from Ippudo, NYC’s best ramen shop, on All Nippon Airways — certain airlines make a point of celebrating their culture’s cuisine while flying the friendly skies. But, domestic airlines still have a long way to go with their processed cheese and stale everything (if they serve anything at all).
The Breakdown:
1. Cathay Pacific: “Its Chinese menu is varied and always delicious.” 
— Christiane Lemieux, founder, DwellStudio; executive creative director, Wayfair and Birch Lane
2. Virgin: “Virgin is one of the most sensitive airlines to food needs, and its menus are among the most appealing.”
  — Meg Connolly, principal, Meg Connolly Communications
3. Turkish Airlines: “It offers complimentary alcoholic beverages (say what?), tasty food, and menus so you can choose from a three-course meal that tastes like, well, real food.” 
— Cheri Forzani, luxury travel adviser, Cruise & World Travel 
Honorable Mention: Air Canada
“I love that Air Canada adds the calorie count to its menus…knowing the nutritional value of what I take in, especially on 10-plus-hour flights, is a great way to keep a healthy and light diet while in flight. Add to that a fantastic selection of wines.” 
— George Fleck, vice president of global brand management, Le Méridien and Westin Hotels
According to Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, Virgin America is routinely cited as one of the most environmentally friendly carriers thanks to a fleet that is younger and 25% more sustainable than other U.S. carriers. Its headquarters is even LEED certified. Next up from our pollsters is KLM Air France, with United and Delta getting credit for recycling and biofuel initiatives.
The Breakdown:
1. Virgin America: “You can donate money to help offset your carbon footprint right from your seat! And, as a former environmental researcher, that’s something that is important to me.” 
— Catherine Carmichael, client services associate at PowerAdvocate
2. Air France: "Thanks to biofuels development and carbon-offsetting initiatives, Air France is a leading contender in this category.”
— Brian Kelly, founder, ThePointsGuy.com
3. United: “United Airlines’ Eco-Skies program has a range of eco-friendly initiatives, including recycling its onboard waste."
  — Melissa Rosenfield, director of vibe, Viceroy Hotel Group
Honorable Mention: Delta
“The flight attendants are meticulous about separating magazines from aluminum, plastics, and bottles. And, any rebates the airline gets are donated to Habitat for Humanity. What a great way to give back to the communities that need it the most.”
— George Fleck, vice president of global brand management, Le Méridien and Westin Hotels
If the flight attendants treat passengers like cattle, all those great things about how comfy your seat is or what a great deal your ticket was won't matter — you’ll still feel ripped off. A staff that's friendly and ready to help with any request, from grabbing an extra blanket to making sure you catch a tight connection, is what every passenger desires. International carriers, like Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Emirates, and British Airlines, are all known for their world-class service. Domestic carriers still have a long way to go to match their international competitors, but Delta and Virgin America scored high points with our pollsters. 
The Breakdown:
1. Singapore Airlines: “The cabin crew has always been known for its world-class service, but, in this case, I'm going to give credit to the reservations agents, airport ground staff, and airport valets. When I ran late for a flight from Singapore to Heathrow, I called reservations to change to a later flight, but instead the agent offered to alert the airport and instructed me to go to a specific entrance door. As I exited the cab, there was an airline representative with a boarding pass in hand and a luggage valet. They both whisked me through security, and I made it to my flight with 10 minutes left."
— George Fleck, vice president of global brand management, Le Méridien and Westin Hotels
“Wonderful lounges and the widest first- and business-class seats.”
— Ramsey Qubein, travel writer
2. Cathay Pacific: “There’s no better way to cross the Pacific thanks to beautiful planes and perfectly trained staff who always seem to be on-hand with exactly what you need.”
— Brian Kelly, founder, ThePointsGuy.com
3. Delta: “Best American carrier today for its unbelievable transformation in how it provides costumer service. You can tell there is a real training and associate service culture...from ground staff to cabin crew to call centers, name usage and elite-status recognition is so simple and so effective to make you feel welcome and taken care of.”
— George Fleck, vice president of global brand management, Le Méridien and Westin Hotels
Honorable Mention: American
“American's customer service via Twitter is next to none! They always answer.”
— Melissa Rosenfield, director of vibe, Viceroy Hotel Group
A total oasis from the craziness of the airport, lounges offer a little slice of nirvana with free snacks and cocktails, comfortable chairs, free Wi-Fi, endless magazines, and actual quiet. But, getting inside takes a little know-how. While international business- and first-class passengers usually get into their airline’s lounge, there are ways to score access without having to spend thousands on a ticket.
One option is to buy a Priority Pass membership which gets you inside 600 lounges in over 300 cities. A standard membership costs $99 annually plus a $27 lounge fee. Frequent travelers should opt for the unlimited package which costs $399 a year. At JFK, Priority Pass will get you inside the KAL Business Lounge, United Club, or Wingtips lounges. American Express Platinum members get Priority Pass benefits with their cards along with access to all of Delta’s lounges, so that’s another option. While AmEx Platinum used to get you into American and USAirways as well, that’s been nixed. If you have an airline card, it’s worth checking if it comes with lounge privileges as this varies by carrier.
Another way to revel in the lounge experience is to buy a day pass in advance (it will costs more if you buy the day of). A day pass to the swanky, new Delta SkyClub at JFK, which has an outdoor deck, six showers, and free cocktails, costs $50.
The Breakdown:
1. Cathay Pacific: “The best in the world is Cathay’s Lounge in Hong Kong! Between the amazing showers and the dim sum and noodles, you almost want to fly there, shower, eat, and fly home. It's that good.”
— Christiane Lemieux founder, DwellStudio; executive creative director, Wayfair and Birch Lane
2. Lufthansa: "Lufthansa First Class terminal in Frankfurt is incredible; with Champagne and water bars, a full-service restaurant, private Mercedes transfers to the aircraft, private immigration, and personal assistants."
— Ramsey Qubein, travel writer
"Lufthansa Senator Lounge at the Munich Franz Josef Strauss Airport is wonderful. You can access this lounge directly after security through a separate entrance without having to enter the terminal. A private door opens with the scan of your boarding pass. Once inside, you can sample classic Bavarian dishes, like fresh and warm pretzels.”
— George Fleck, vice president of global brand management, Le Méridien and Westin Hotels
3. Delta: "Delta’s new SkyClub lounge at JFK has an outdoor terrace overlooking the runways and tarmac, gorgeous sunset views, and a beautiful, light, airy design — with bar service. When was the last time you wanted to get to an airport early?! Now, you really do have a reason. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the views."
— George Fleck, vice president of global brand management, Le Méridien and Westin Hotels
Honorable Mention: Turkish Airlines
“Turkish Airlines has an amazing, two-floor lounge in Istanbul with numerous food and drink stations, video games, golf simulators, sleeping and praying rooms, and roaming masseurs.”
— Ramsey Qubein, Travel Writer

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