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Originally published Saturday, May 25, 2013 at 8:04 PM

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Summer travel? Think beyond airfare

Assuming several flights have similar prices and departure times — or that a flier is flexible on those issues — what factors should fliers consider when booking a flight? Here are some considerations.

Chicago Tribune

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As travelers start thinking about winging off to summer vacations, many could learn a few things from expert fliers to ensure they get the best value for their money when booking flights.

Price and flight schedules are clearly the primary factors for fliers when booking flights, and the Web has an abundance of resources to compare airfares and flight availability.

Individual airline websites as well as online flight bookers, such as Expedia, Priceline, Orbitz and Kayak, can give you a good idea of what’s available and at what price.

But what else is important?

“More and more people are going to look at this because the airlines are realizing that they can market more than price and schedule,” said Brett Snyder, an air-travel blogger and travel concierge service operator.

“For a really long time, it was, ‘Here’s the price and here are the flights; take your pick.’ Now, the airlines are trying to differentiate their products, and I think you’ll see more of that over time.”

Assuming several flights have similar prices and departure times — or that a flier is flexible on those issues — what other factors should fliers consider when booking a flight? What else provides more value for the same airfare dollars?

Here are a few other considerations.

Airline reputation. Customer-satisfaction surveys show some discount airlines score highest.

That might seem counterintuitive, but rankings are fairly consistent year to year. According to well-respected SkyTrax rankings, the top North American domestic carriers are Virgin America, WestJet, Alaska Airlines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways. Southwest is the largest among top-rated domestic airlines. But, its fares do not show up in searches at online travel agencies. You must find flights on Southwest.com.

Among North American carriers that fly abroad, top ratings go to Air Canada, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.

If you want to drill down for recent data about such factors as on-time rates, lost baggage and consumer complaints among U.S. carriers, see the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report at http://tinyurl.com/dot-air. For annual rankings based on that data, assembled by academics, see the Airline Quality Rating at airlinequalityrating.com.

International carriers. Consider a foreign carrier when traveling abroad. In passenger satisfaction, foreign airlines typically thump American carriers.

According to SkyTrax, the best airlines in the world are Qatar Airways, Asiana Airlines (South Korea), Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways (Hong Kong) and All Nippon Airways (Japan). No U.S. airline even makes the top 20.

Legroom. Nowadays, you can buy more legroom on many flights, with premium economy fares offered by the big airlines, such as United, Delta and American Airlines. Upgrading can be worthwhile, depending on the price and how important it is to you, experts say. But some airlines offer more personal space without additional cost. JetBlue, in particular, is known for offering significantly more legroom.

Checked bags. You’ll have to pay for checked bags, each way, on many domestic flights, but not on Southwest or JetBlue. That can mean a significant difference in bottom-line price if several people in your party will check bags. Meanwhile, you’ll pay to carry on a bag — one that needs to fit in the overhead bin — on others, such as Spirit Airlines. “Looking at the total cost and not just the fare is important,” Snyder said.

Change fees. If your plans are iffy, you might consider an airline that charges a lower fee to change your flight. The best is Southwest, which charges nothing, while the big network carriers recently raised their change fees to $200.

Frequent-flier programs. Airline loyalty programs can be complex but lucrative, if you build enough miles or points with a single airline to get a free flight or seat upgrade. Consolidating trips onto a single airline can lead to value in later bookings.

Book early flights. Flight delays typically increase through the day. It’s often no more costly to choose earlier flights, which can reduce stress — bettering your chances for on-time takeoff and to land in time for connecting flights.

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