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13 Red Flags You’re About to Book a Bad Airline

The price is right and the destination looks incredible but something just doesn't feel right about the flight you are looking to book. We've all been there. Here are 13 red flags you're about to book a bad airline.

Dark Blue Seats in a Empty Jet Airplane

Choosing a seat is going to cost you

You expect that the first row of economy and the exit aisles will cost more money. That’s fine, but when you have to pay extra to choose any seat, simply for the privilege of having a designated seat before a middle seat in the last row of the plane is assigned to you at check-in, that’s a big red flag you may be about to book a bad airline. Note: even the big airlines like United and American are starting to charge for selecting any seat in advance of check-in when booking their lowest, Basic Economy fares. Seat selection at the time of booking remains free of charge on all large carriers when choosing the Main Cabin—or higher—fare.

Closeup view of an aircraft preparing to take off
Nickolay Vinokurov/Shutterstock

Flying in or out of a secondary airport

Generally speaking, the best airlines fly into the biggest, most easily accessible airports closest to the destinations you want to visit. If you see an unfamiliar airport code pop up after searching for your destination city, you may be about to book a bad airline. One exception: Southwest is one of the great, passenger-friendly airlines that does use a few second-choice airports in Chicago, Dallas, and Houston, most notably. Here are the secrets airports don’t want you to know.

Airplane Seat Tray Open Empty Food Waiting
Hunter Bliss Images/Shutterstock

The inches of legroom aren’t advertised

A good airline should provide you with the legroom, in inches, in each cabin of service to help you decide which seat is best for you and your needs in-flight. If this simple piece of information isn’t available during the booking process, proceed with caution (especially if you are tall!). Not sure where to sit? Start with our guide to the best seat on the airplane for every type of need.

Food served on board in airplane

There’s no free meal on a long-haul flight

A good airline will feed you for free and offer you a complimentary non-alcoholic beverage or two when booking a long haul flight. A bad airline probably won’t.

Travel concept. Back view of confident businessman in suit is walking along airport lounge while carrying his suitcase. Copy space in the left side
Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

Lost luggage policy

In the rare instance you aren’t reunited with your luggage at your final destination, a good airline will reimburse your clothing and essentials so you can still enjoy your vacation or look sharp in your business meeting.

African american girl in sunglasses sitting at cafe and holding mobile phone at hand.
AS photo studio/Shutterstock

Customer service phone numbers are hidden

If it takes more than two clicks on an airline website to find a customer service contact phone number, it’s likely a sign you are dealing with an airline that isn’t consumer-friendly. And that unfriendliness may become an issue if your luggage is lost or your flight is delayed/canceled. Just be sure to avoid the least reliable airlines in America.

Pretty Young Beauty Woman Using Laptop in cafe, outdoor portrait business woman, hipster style, internet, smartphone, office, Bali Indonesia, holding, mac OS, manager, freelancer
sergey causelove/Shutterstock

You are hung up on when you call customer service

OK, so you found the phone number to speak to a real-live person to ask a question about booking a flight but when you call customer service, you are directed back to the website and disconnected unceremoniously. That’s a sure sign of a bad airline. Get the best deal on your flight by booking on the best day to buy airline tickets.

Businessman packing clothes in suitcase at his workplace
Dragon Images/Shutterstock

A carry-on bag will cost you

Nickel and diming passengers for normal things, like having the audacity to bring a backpack on a trip, is a bad habit of bad airlines. Through a new sub-class of ticket called “Basic Economy,” old stalwarts like United are now also limiting what passengers can bring on board, and charging for anything larger than a laptop bag. Delta and American’s most basic fares still, at the time of publishing, do permit a traditional carry-on bag plus a personal item to fly free of charge, but it is easy to imagine this policy becoming less consumer-friendly in the future.

passenger airliner .

The planes are old

It may take a bit of legwork during the booking process to figure this out, but a smart traveler will research the age of the plane they are considering buying a seat on. Bad airlines may hold on to planes a little longer than they should. While the overall safety rating of an airplane has more to do with quality maintenance than its age, the seats are likely not as plush on old planes as on modern ones with those expandable and bendable comfy headrests. Old planes may also have fewer and smaller bathrooms and old planes probably aren’t equipped with WiFi or TVs.


There’s no WiFi

We are far enough into the 21st century now that every plane should offer WiFi. If the flight you are looking at doesn’t offer Internet access, it may reveal the age of the plane and reflect poorly on the airline itself. Here’s what airplane pilots wish you knew but won’t tell you.

a typical white passenger jet plane/ regional airplane is waiting for boarding passengers, staying in the airport, side view
Arseniy Shemyakin Photo/Shutterstock

Too many boarding groups

If there are more than a handful of boarding groups, you are booking less a seat for a flight and more into a 30,000-foot caste system. The result of too many boarding groups may be disgruntled passengers, havoc at the gate, and an unpleasant travel experience.

Close up on clockwise.face of silver antique vintage grandfather clock.

On-time performance data isn’t provided

A reliable airline will want you to know the on-time performance data of their flights during the booking process. A bad airline, not so much. Check to see if the flight you are booking is regularly on-time. American Airlines’ on-time arrival percentage, for example, is based on arrival within 14 minutes after the scheduled arrival time and is reported monthly to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Keep in mind these 13 things even the best airlines won’t tell you.

Close up heap of one hundred dollars, selective focus. Dollars, the us money background.

Unreasonable change fees

Things happen and sometimes you will need to change your plans. Before you book your flight, check the airline’s policy and fee schedule for making changes to your departure dates and destination. American, Delta, and United, for example, each charge $200 + the difference in fare for any changes made to a domestic flight before the day of travel. Alaska Air, on the other hand, manages to push those same buttons for $125. Southwest still allows complimentary changes. If the fees for basic administrative changes are unreasonable, shop around for a more understanding airline. Airlines aren’t the only ones at fault for bad travel experiences—learn the 16 air travel mistakes you need to stop making.

Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an Iris Award–winning photographer, avid traveler and English football fanatic who regularly covers travel, culture, cars, health, business, the environment and more for Reader's Digest. He is the proud dad of teen daughters.