Because most of us mere minions can’t afford the price of a luxury lounge and private suite on an A380, travel means sitting down the back in coach. The good news is that, with increased competition, a number of airlines have ramped up their offerings in the coach cabin. The reign of cramped legroom, overhead TVs, and stodgy airline food is over. With a bit of careful planning, most of the globe can be covered in cost-effective, comfortable coach cabins so you don’t get to your destination feeling gross, tired, and starving. Here are the 10 best airlines for budget travelers.
JetBlue incorporates elements of low-cost carriers and full-service airlines. That translates as a comfortable, modern, and spacious coach cabin with individual seat-back screens loaded with entertainment, 32-34″ seat pitch (some of the roomiest in the industry), and — on some flights — free snacks and food (can you believe it?). Best of all, all seats can access FREE Wi-Fi — perfect for browsing Instagram, chat with friends and family, and Netflix your way around the world.
2. Air New Zealand
As well as being a world leader in cheesy safety videos (seriously, who wants Richard Simmonds giving them emergency advice?), Air New Zealand has a roomy coach cabin with 30-33″ seat pitch, tasty food options, and a huge range of onboard entertainment (including some quirky New Zealand classics like Flight of the Conchords). If you want to arrive extra energized, you can upgrade to an amazing SkyCouch sleeping platform on selected routes. Having a guaranteed three seats to yourself to spread out across, creating your own sleeping platform? Don’t mind if I do!
If you’re going to be traveling some of the longest flights in the world, you want to make sure you have a comfy seat. The coach seats on Emirates A380s are some of the best in the sky with a 32″ seat pitch and great entertainment options (make sure to check out the documentary section). You can have a small amount of Wi-Fi access for free, but don’t count on too many Instagram posts. If you’re off on an epic adventure, Emirates includes 30kg of baggage on many routes — more than enough to keep most travelers going. The flight attendants are surprisingly generous with the drinks and food, too — take advantage of the light bites menu during long-haul trips and stash yourself some snacks for when you hop off the plane.
Qantas has really upped its game in the past ten years. While I have memories of traveling in cramped coach cabins as a kid from New Zealand, a trip from Sydney to Bangkok a few years ago revealed a whole new world of travel, with 30-33″ seat pitch. If you’re on the 747, try your best to get seat 69a — the plane narrows at this row, removing one of the seats, and you’ll end up with lots of extra room. The food onboard is tasty, and you get a lot. If you’re really worried about missing out on your favorite dish, you can even select your meal via the Qantas App ahead of your flight. Like Emirates, the flight attendants certainly aren’t stingy on the beer and wine front — and I’ve never had a tastier pie in the sky. A++ for keeping it Aussie.
5. Singapore Airlines
Singapore Girl is a great way to fly. Okay, the slogan might be horribly outdated, but the product isn’t — Singapore Airlines has some of the best service in the sky. Nothing is too much trouble for the attendants, and you’re likely to end up with a spiffy pair of free socks and eyeshades, even when traveling in coach. Need a toothbrush or a comb? You might as well ask, as you’ll probably get them. The Economy Class has a very comfy headrest, which you can wrap around your head if you try hard enough, and the seat pitch is reasonable, at 31–33″. However, the seats are a bit narrow, so opt for a bulkhead row if you get a choice (and hey, there is no harm in asking!). You can take up to 30kgs of luggage, too.
The lesser-known competitor of Emirates, Abu Dhabi’s Etihad has a modern, comfortable fleet. While they lack the marketing clout of Emirates, the service on board is still pretty good. The best thing about Etihad, though, is their amazing fares, meaning your trip can be taken for a lot less moolah — and you can invest more in your adventures when you land. The seats are similar to Emirates (31″ pitch), but a bit narrower, with a slightly more limited entertainment. However, they are still miles ahead than your average American carrier. They do a mean cappuccino, and the flights are often half empty — meaning extra space for you to stretch out.
7. Cathay Pacific
I’m short. Legroom is never an issue for me. I always took this for granted, until the time I traveled in coach with a 6’6″ man next to me. That poor guy looked pretty grim by the time we landed. If you’re tall, you will enjoy the extra legroom on Cathay Pacific. On most flights, there is nothing under the coach seats to stop you from stretching out. Seat pitch is also reasonable at 31″. Cathay Pacific advertise that it focuses on providing fresh fruit and vegetable, including delicious juices, which are a welcome change from the carb-tastic meals on many airlines. In saying that, I’ve been known to help myself to a pocketful of the free Toblerones located in the galley. The 2-4-2 configurations on many flights is a welcome sight for couples traveling together (it kind of makes it feel like premium economy), but, unless you’re a big fan of Cantonese cinema, I’d recommend taking a book or your iPhone.
8. Japan Airlines
For travel in Asia, Japan Airlines is one of the top airlines. Arrive early at the airport for the best chance of getting an exit row, as it’s one of the few airlines that doesn’t charge for that privilege. The cabin is surprisingly spacious, with 8 seats per row on the 787 (usually 9) and 9 on the 777 (usually 10) — a difference you’ll notice if you travel a lot. If you need to work or blog, all seats include in-flight power, a feature that is lacking on many airlines. I only wish it was more Japanese — the grey interior is a little bland, although the in-flight bento-box style lunches are pretty cute. How many airlines have their own food stylists for the coach cabin? While the entertainment system is rather anime-heavy, the mystery snacks in the galley will provide you with hours of free entertainment.
9. Alaska Airlines
If you have to travel within America, and can’t go on JetBlue, try your best to book an Alaska Airlines flight. On the 737, you’ll get a crazy coach seat pitch of 32-35″, with leather seats, which are pretty darn comfy compared to the plastic shells on most airlines. Alaska Airlines is pretty much a low-cost carrier; so, don’t expect fancy amenities and free food. While there are no seatback TVs, you can download a handy app ahead of your flight that offers free access to movies and entertainment on your phone, laptop, or tablet. Wi-Fi is reasonably cheap at $16USD, and, given you should have saved money on your fare, you can spring for it if you need to stay connected. If you’re looking to make new friends during the flight, you can even chat with other passengers using the inflight chat function in the app. Sadly, the only action I’ve gotten from the system is an accidental “hey girl ;)” when I swapped seats with some guy’s girlfriend. Oops.
10. Norwegian Airlines
If you’re on a budget, Norwegian Airlines has got your back. It flies to some amazing destinations and has some incredibly cheap deals — particularly across Europe. Norwegian Airlines operate the Dreamliner, built to help reduce jet lag, and it has those window shades that aren’t really window shades, but instead, a magical button that darkens the view. Fancy. The coach cabin has 259 seats with 31-32″ pitch (32 premium economy). All seats have in-flight entertainment with free movies, and oddly enough, Google Maps — which is a pretty fun way to waste time on a long-haul flight. You can order cheap meals through your screen, or just bring your own food if you really want to keep it cheap. When booking, though, make sure you select a bag to add to your ticket, if you need one. Those unexpected baggage charges at the airport can really put a downer on your trip.
Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the R2D2 Dreamliner was operated by Japan Airlines. This is actually operated by ANA. The writer apologises for any confusion caused.