Where are you dreaming of going this year? AFAR readers cast more than 150,000 votes in our annual AFAR Travelers’ Awards to honor their favorite hotels, cruises, airlines, trips, and destinations. But in a year when going anywhere felt like a pipe dream, how do we rank something like an airline?
The best in class continue to offer premium products—airplane food you’ll remember fondly, wider seats, better customer service—but in 2020 they also took the lead in adapting to a new pandemic normal. Mask mandates, forward-thinking COVID testing policies, and enhanced safety measures were top of mind for this year’s best airlines, say AFAR readers.
We hope this comprehensive list of winners helps spark your wanderlust and inspire your next trip.
Best International Airline
For the second year in a row, Dubai-based Emirates tops the list of best international airlines, in part because of its commitment to product and amenities (it also won first-class and business-class experiences) but also because of its desire to innovate. In a move that could mark the dawn of a new era for air travel, Emirates in April became the first airline to begin testing passengers on-site for COVID-19 prior to departure.
Best U.S. Airline
Winner: Delta Air Lines
Beloved by loyalists who swear by the SkyMiles program, Delta Air Lines has since turned agnostics into believers as well, thanks largely to its response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Atlanta-based carrier was a leader on blocking middle seats on flights (into January 2021), had one of the more explicit mask policies for fliers, and recently announced quarantine-free travel to Italy.
Best First-Class Experience
The onboard shower. The caviar. The stationery. The self-proclaimed “private hotel room in the sky” on a Boeing 777 with floor-to-ceiling doors. Emirates’ first-class category outdoes every other line, say our readers.
Best Business-Class Experience
Emirates completes the luxury trifecta with the best in business class. We don’t know what impresses us more: the pop-up minibar at your seat or the lie-flat leather seats and 23-inch TV for long-haul movie viewing.
Best Economy Experience
Germany’s flagship carrier wins back-to-back economy experience awards. Seat design—more legroom on short and midrange flights, and wide seat cushions and adjustable headrests for the long haul—make journeys more comfy, while it stays ahead of its peers in terms of mask requirements and COVID testing.
Best Domestic Rewards Program
Winner: Southwest Airlines
Southwest’s Rapid Rewards Loyalty Program is the stuff of legend, especially the coveted Companion Pass, which allows members to have a designated person travel with them for an entire year (or more) free of charge, save for taxes and fee. The three tiers of elite status mean more people can feel “A-List” and earn serious bonus points on qualifying flights.
Best Food and Beverage Program
Winner: Singapore Airlines
Our readers would fly Singapore Airlines just to eat its food—no joke. A panel of eight world-renowned chefs, including James Beard award and Michelin star recipients, create in-flight recipes featuring locally inspired cuisine. Savor Charolais beef Rossini while en route to Paris or try the popular Peranakan ayam buah keluak⎯a traditional chicken stew⎯on Singapore flights.
Best International Airport
Winner: Singapore Changi Airport
How many airports would you elect to spend time at—even if you’re not flying? Singapore’s Changi might be one of the few, topping our list of best international airports with its new crown Jewel complex, complete with an IMAX theater and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall.
Best U.S. Airport
Winner: San Francisco International Airport
SFO proves that waiting to fly can be fun (and stress free) for the second year in a row. Terminal upgrades are impressive and ongoing. The Berman Reflection Room provides space for meditation. Dining options live up to the Bay Area’s foodie reputation, with burgers from Napa Valley stalwart Gott’s Roadside or morning buns from San Francisco−born Tartine Bakery.