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Domestic Discount Airlines

southwest airlines plane maryland flag in flight cloudsDiscount airlines are here to stay. Also known as low-cost carriers, discount airlines have changed the face of the travel industry forever, are driving fare structure overhauls and have forced the majors to offer more direct flights. So much ink is spilled and pixels lit up that you would think every person in America could name a dozen discount airlines.

It turns out this isn't the case. Most travelers know about JetBlue and Southwest -- but where are the rest of them? And can you find all these revolutionaries when you do a simple search on airfares? Our guide to the domestic discounters answers these questions and more, and includes a comprehensive list of all the major players.

But before we get into the list, here are a few important tips on finding and booking fares on these airlines.

1. Just because your flight is on a discount airline, it doesn't mean you'll be slumming in the skies. JetBlue's so-called "no-frills" setup includes leather seats, heaps of legroom, an in-seat satellite TV entertainment system and all the snacks you want.

2. Similarly, major airlines can often match and undercut discounter prices. Rather than there being two classes of airlines, the truth is more likely that there is increasingly little difference between the prices and service levels of the minors and majors. This is good -- your choices have multiplied. (In the future, there will be two types of airlines: not major and discount, but rather those that run with business plans that work for the company and traveler alike, and those that don't.)

3. Think discount airline when traveling to sunny locations. Most of the discount airlines have focused on flights to warm-weather vacation destinations. These include various cities in Florida; Caribbean destinations like Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Aruba; California, particularly the Los Angeles area; and Southwestern locations such as Arizona and Las Vegas.

airplane seats seatback tv movie screen interior virgin america mood lighting cabin 4. Think discount airlines when flying cross-country. Several discounters have made a specialty of offering low-hassle direct flights from major coastal cities such as New York, Boston and Washington D.C. in the East, and L.A., San Diego, Oakland and Seattle in the West. As a result, the major airlines are matching in these markets as well; it has never been more affordable, or so downright cheap, to fly across the U.S.

5. For the best deals and most information, go directly to the airline Web site (linked below) if you know that a certain discounter flies your route. If you do book a flight, you'll usually save a few bucks on the booking site service fee.

6. If you are flying to or from a location served by Southwest, check its Web site first -- this airline appears on none of the Big Three booking sites (Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz). You may see a flight you'll want to purchase right away, but if not, you'll get a good sense of "market price" along the route.

7. Perhaps even better, search aggregators for a very broad look at fares. The big aggregators now include most discounters.

8. When searching, select the "nearby airport" check box. Many of the discounters fly into so-called alternate airports, such as Long Beach instead of LAX or Oakland instead of SFO (JetBlue and others), or Atlantic City instead of Philadelphia and Hollywood International instead of Miami (Spirit). This can be the best way to figure out which alternate airports are served by discounters, and you may miss a discounter's best offers if you stick only to the biggest airports.

9. Additionally, when considering alternate airports, check route maps for flights that may get you very close to your final destination. Discount airlines serve smaller airports like Atlantic City and Providence (Spirit), or Moline and Akron (AirTran). This can be the most labor-intensive component of finding these fares, but flying in and out of these airports can be almost a breeze. Parking is often right out front, more like a shopping mall than an airport, and lines are often non-existent.

Click over to page two for our list of the most popular domestic discounters.


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