Airlines are often ranked by industry organizations such as Skytrax, but rankings change all the time. We asked travel experts and frequent fliers which carriers deserve a spot at the top of your list.
What is the best airline in the world? If you follow the rankings, it differs from year to year. In 2018, Skytrax named Singapore Airlines, Qatar, and ANA All Nippon as the top three airlines of the year.
Skytrax is a U.K.-based consultancy that ranks every airline in the world, both overall and by region, based on surveys of more than 20 million travelers. The rankings change annually and are announced with the fanfare of the Academy Awards; the airline industry follows these rankings closely. Many airlines trumpet their rankings in their marketing materials.
However, in a decidedly unscientific approach, I asked industry insiders, influencers, and frequent travelers for their own opinions and anecdotes in specific categories of “best”—from best low-cost carrier to best onboard amenity kit.
What makes an airline the best in the world?
“An airline should strive to be best in service innovation and change,” says Shashank Nigam, an airline industry expert and author of Soar, a book about the relationship between airline brands and their passengers.
“Service sets an airline apart. Most competitors can copy a product, but genuine service is hard to match,” he says, citing the authenticity of Southwest Airlines and Singapore Airlines. “Southwest offers authentic experiences because each staff’s individuality is on display,” he adds. “A flight attendant once sang a lullaby during landing on my late-night flight. Each flight is unique.”
The best domestic airline
U.S. passengers are spoiled when it comes to airline options. There are 10 major carriers ranging from ultra-low-cost operators such as Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines, to airlines focused on leisure travelers such as Allegiant, to full-service, hub-and-spoke airlines such as Delta, United Airlines, and American Airlines.
So what is the best airline in the United States?
According to Benjamin Grant, founder of travel-inspired Instagram account Daily Overview, it’s JetBlue, hands down: It’s “simple, thoughtful, and reliable,” he says. “What more could you ask for?”
JetBlue is a comfortable opinion at a good price. I personally also like to fly United and Air Canada to collect points that you can deploy on the Star Alliance network. And I appreciate American Airlines for its frequent service between New York and the West Coast.
The best low-cost airline
Low-cost airlines often have a bad reputation when it comes to service. When flying with a low-cost carrier, it helps to know what you’re getting yourself into. If you follow the rules for baggage, ticket changes, and seating established by the airlines, low-cost carriers will open the world to you.
“AirAsia and EasyJet would tie for the best place in my opinion,” says Nigam. “Both are efficient, treat people well, and have happy crew.”
The best long-haul carrier
Zach Honig is a frequent first-class flier and editor-at-large of The Points Guy. He’s sampled business and first-class cabins across most of the top international carriers. When it comes to long-haul carriers, Honig votes for Emirates. “I'd say Emirates takes first place, while the runners-up include Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Lufthansa, and Singapore,” he says.
“From a pilot’s view, I’d say Qantas is at the very top of my list of the best long-haul carrier,” says European commercial pilot and social media influencer Maria Fagerström (aka Maria the Pilot).“They are one of the oldest airlines in the world, with a great reputation and excellent safety record.”
“I’m just waiting for the day they open up their doors for foreigners from Sweden to join their team of qualified pilots,” she adds.
The best airline amenity kit
Beauty entrepreneur and newly minted hotelier Bobbi Brown is well qualified to speak to amenity kits, those small makeup bags or shaving kit bags full of beauty products, eye masks, and socks for business and first-class passengers.
“The best amenity kit I’ve received is on United Airlines,” she says. “The kits come with the Cowshed brand.” Cowshed products are all-natural, and the brand now runs spas at Soho Houses worldwide.
The best airline food
“I really like the vegetarian choices that Scandinavian Airlines offers their non-meat-eating-passengers,” says Fagerström, the pilot.
“Singapore Airlines has the best food,” says Abbamonte. “It has several options, and I happen to love Asian food and usually think my meals are great on Singapore. Most of the Asian airlines have good food in my view,” he said.
Bobbi Brown’s top pick for food is Air France, but she says she also loves the food on Virgin Atlantic and British Airways.
The best airline for families
Flying with children is never really perfect. I’ve traveled with my children coast-to-coast and on flights with multiple connections. It’s not easy schlepping around so much gear, let alone keeping the little ones entertained.
“The best airline for families is the one that can get you where you want to go at a good price, at a good time, and with as few connections as possible—preferably none,” says Summer Hull, a family travel expert and the founder of Mommy Points. While Hull’s advice is true for any flight, it’s doubly important with a two-year-old in tow.
“I love those with solid and reliable in-flight entertainment, complimentary seat assignments, kid-friendly in-flight snacks or meals—and early boarding for [families with] young children doesn’t hurt, either.”
“In the U.S., the best of the best for families are JetBlue and Southwest, followed by Delta, Hawaiian, and Alaska,” she says, citing extensive reviews and an analysis detailed on her site.
The best airline Instagram account
“I really like what Etihad Airways has done with their Instagram account,” says Fagerström. “The posts are very pleasing to the eye, and they are keeping it real and interesting with a lot of videos, which gives their followers a great insight of how life in Abu Dhabi can be.”
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My personal favorite is Turkish Airlines. The account is visual artistry, with images that always connect: three sunset posts in a row or three images where blue is the common theme. Turkish Airlines has the most consistent, visually appealing, and elegant Instagram of them all. Similarly, Qantas and Air Canada each feature beautiful and aspirational travel content.
The best airline for views
The lucky window-seat passengers will get the nice views, but some airlines have taken pity on those in the middle and aisle seats. “I’ve been fortunate enough to fly the Emirates A380 a couple times,” says Grant of Daily Overview. “They have cameras facing forward and a camera pointing directly down on the underside of the aircraft.” In fact, Daily Overview was created to showcase this top-down look. “We certainly believe in the power of this ‘bird’s-eye’ perspective, and the fact that everyone on the plane can have it in their seat—regardless of whether they are by the window—is incredible,” he says.
In my opinion, the best views come on a long-haul flight from New York to Japan. Midway through the flight, when everyone else is sleeping, you might fly over the Northwest Territories or the Yukon. Look outside and gaze at mountains, snow, ice, winding rivers ,and unusual terrain—it’s spectacular.
Another view that’s great? The one upon arrival at your home airport. And for that, any airline getting you home safely will do just fine.
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