Business travel can be exhausting. Know what I mean? The bloodshot eyes necessary to make 9 am out-of-state meetings? Those odious 12-hour flights to foreign destinations?
Yet being comfortable while traveling for work is essential. I've done a lot of traveling in my career, and in my own experience, the best business airlines offer a combination of in-flight product, organizational flexibility and a sturdy rewards program.
In the past, air travel was a game of status -- think, George Clooney’s character in Up In The Air. Top-tier status granted you special privileges: lifetime status, access to airport lounges and, hopefully, the respect of your fellow road warriors. But, with United and Delta switching to a loyalty model where travelers can accrue status only by reaching a certain level of spending -- in addition to those traditional in-seat miles -- the game has changed.
So, United and Delta aren't on my list of "best airlines for travelers." Which airlines are? Here they are:
1. Southwest reigns supreme for domestic travel.
Hands down, my favorite airline for domestic business travelers is Southwest Airlines. Since its acquisition of AirTran, Southwest has expanded its route-map nationwide and is expanding into the Caribbean and Mexico for leisure flights as well. So, Southwest is able to get you to and from many more points on the map, but the real reason I include the airline is its flexible rescheduling policy. You can cancel any flight, for free, up to 10 minutes before departure. Have a meeting that runs late? No problem. You can even rebook for the difference in dollars or points for a later or earlier flight. Further, Southwest's “Business Select” fares offer priority boarding, priority security access, a free drink and extra Rapid Rewards points.
2. JetBlue’s Mint offers transcontinental comfort.
For the transcontinental business traveler, JetBlue, in my eyes, became the strongest competitor in 2014. With its new “Mint” first-class product, passengers can recline flat in their seats between the West and East coasts. And with prices starting at $599 for one-way travel, the airline is significantly cheaper than legacy carriers like United and Delta.
3. Emirates and Etihad have international amenities.
For some business travelers, of course, meetings aren’t in Buffalo -- they’re in Beijing. What's key for international travel is an airline that reduces stopovers and layovers, which waste time and keep you away from business or your home. The two United Arab Emirates airlines, Emirates and Etihad, are making a big competitive play at U.S.-based customers who travel worldwide to such places as China, India, Europe, and the Middle East. This means lower fares and less time traveling. Plus, both airlines have great on-board amenities: Their business class rivals many other airlines' first-class seats. Finally, they offer international wifi on board at a reasonable price -- under $30 for many flights going halfway around the world. So if you need to work on board, you are able to do so.
4. Give consideration to American and Spirit (yes, that Spirit).
With any airline, domestic or international, you want a rewards program that allows you to use your hard-earned miles to travel to an exotic beach somewhere. I would avoid United and Delta, since they're requiring that revenue spend for status in 2015. If you must fly an American carrier, fly American -- it has hundreds of destinations and lets you accrue mid-level status (and a good chance at upgrades) with 50,000 miles flown. If you’re a budget international traveler, consider Spirit Airlines. Spirit offers, hands-down, the cheapest flights domestically and can fly you all the way to Colombia, Peru and Central America. The trade-off is a no-frills experience, which still works for many business travelers on the go.
A few final words: When traveling for work, choose the airline that works best with your schedule, your family and your business. Make sure to always earn some miles on every flight taken, and if you can stick to one airline without much trade-off in costs, go for it -- you’ll earn free leisure trips more quickly, enabling you to recharge from all of your time in the sky.