You know the saying: bigger isn’t always better. Often it seems like the larger the airline, the longer the check-in line, call-center queue, and baggage-claim lines — thanks to those massive marketing budgets. As you may have found throughout your travels, a bigger airline does not always mean better service — or a better product.
If you’re looking to mix things up on your next trip, why not consider flying some of these smaller, lesser-known airlines? With a bit of luck, you’ll either save some money on the fare or experience much better service than on a standard American or European flag carrier.
1. Azul Airlines
The founder of JetBlue, David Neeleman, knows a thing or two about running a good airline. He started Azul Airlines in Brazil in 2008, and though it’s one of the larger airlines on our list, it remains relatively unknown in the US. Offering flights throughout Brazil from Fort Lauderdale or Orlando — as well as from Brazil to Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Lisbon — this airline is a fantastic alternative to some of the dusty flag carriers operating in South America.
2. WOW Air
Okay, this one comes with a bit of a caveat: it’s a low-cost, budget airline. It’s known for having some pretty lax customer-service offerings, and everything is an “extra”. But, for a lot of people, WOW Air has made Iceland an accessible destination. It flies its low-cost flights from the US to Iceland and many cities across Europe at eye-popping prices. You get what you pay for, but it’s the destination at the other end of the flight that really counts!
3. Wizz Air
Not to be confused with WOW Air, Wizz Air is based in Hungary and offers low-cost flights around Europe. One thing it does have in common with WOW Air is charging for every amenity, but its basic fares are so cheap, you can’t really blame the airline. It flies to a huge number of destinations throughout Europe and shouldn’t be overlooked for your European short hops.
4. Porter Airlines
From controversial beginnings, Porter Airlines has become a solid alternative for travelers between Toronto and US cities, including Boston, Chicago, Newark, and Washington DC. Passengers praise the airline for its no-frills, efficient service, as well as its cost-effective flight offerings compared to major airlines. The only slight downer is the occasional delayed flight — but what airline doesn’t struggle with timeliness?
5. Air New Zealand
This airline certainly punches above its weight in terms of size. Despite being a comparatively small international airline, Air New Zealand consistently wins awards, including 2017 Airline of the Year, for its overall performance, service, and reliability. With connections through LAX, the airline can take you all the way to London in style, and with connections from various Asian cities to New Zealand, it can really add to your visit to the Antipodes.
6. Air Transat
Ever heard of Air Transat? No? You’re not the only one. This Canadian carrier, based in Montreal, has a fleet of around 35 planes and flies to destinations in 30 countries. It’s a charter airline, so you might find schedules erratic (or non-existent) at certain times, but it offers great holiday deals to airports like Acapulco, Lyon, Madrid, and Montego Bay. If you’re not fussy about where to go, it has some great last minute deals, too.
7. Nok Air
If you’re looking to make your way across Asia, Nok Air is your ticket to ride. You may have seen the airline’s interesting-looking planes if you’ve been to Thailand, where the airline is based. The planes are colorfully painted with a bird’s beak on the tail, a nod to their name, meaning “bird” in Thai. While Nok Air mainly operates domestic flights, it also offers connections within Thailand and China, as well as Vietnam, Singapore, and Myanmar.
8. SATA Airlines/Azores Airlines
I flew this airline last week and was pleasantly surprised by the excellent customer service both on-board and at the Lisbon and Ponta Delgada airports. Based in the Azores, SATA offers flights to San Francisco, Boston, and London, among other cities. While the planes are a bit old, the seats are comfier — and larger — than they are on most of your modern carriers. Plus, with an awesome geometric whale or bird pattern on the fuselage, the planes are hard to miss!
9. Alaska Airlines
While it’s one of the best-known airlines on this list, Alaska is still a small fry compared to the major American players. However, the friendly customer service, range of destinations throughout the US and beyond, and high rating from passengers help it remain a competitive travel option. While the product might be a little older, Alaska Airlines has picked up planes from a former Virgin America fleet, which offer slightly more space and modernity. As an added bonus, most of the planes in the combined fleet will be refreshed with a new interior from fall 2018.