Our favorite Airlines for International Travel in Economy Class to East Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe and the Caribbean

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We often get asked which airline is the most comfortable to fly in economy class for an infrequent international traveler. For international coach travel here is what we value (weighted by percentage):

  1. Coach pitch – the distance between your seat and the seat in front of you – 30%
  2. Coach width – the distance between armrest to armrest – 30%
  3. Inflight entertainment – individual screens? On Demand?  – 10%
  4. Internet – does the airline have WiFi and is the speed and fee reasonable? – 10%
  5. Catering – is the food edible? – 5%
  6. Ease of transit at respective hub airports – 15%

Delta Air Lines – Boeing 767-300ER – Photo: lkarasawa via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License (By 2.0)

Here are our favorite airlines by destination:

To East and Southeast Asia:

  • Japan Airlines
    • All seats have at least 33″ pitch. To put that in perspective, some US based airline sell 33″ pitch as Economy Plus, Main Cabin Extra or Comfort+. That is Japan Airlines’ default seat pitch!
    • Japan Airlines has a humane seat configuration.
      • For their Boeing 777 international configured planes, they use a 3 x 3 x 3 or 2 x 4 or 3 (or 9 across) seating. In contrast, majority of the world is going to a 10 across.
      • For their Boeing 787 international configured planes, they use a 2 x 4 x 2 seating. In contrast, the majority of the world is going to a 9 across seating
    • All Japan Airlines planes have WiFi — they charge $18 for 24 hour of usage. So you can fly from New York to Tokyo, connect to Singapore same day and only pay $18 to be connected the entire way. It works mostly okay over the Pacific and you get decent speed — though, expect an outage for a few hours over / near the North Pole.
    • Transiting in either Tokyo – Narita (NRT) or Tokyo – Haneda (HND) is a breeze. We rarely encounter long security lines and they use normal x-ray machines versus body scanners.
    • The food onboard is edible
    • The inflight entertainment system is okay; content could be better.

While the TFD team is mostly American elite status holders because of Cathay Pacific’s premium class product, their coach service (though miles ahead of American based carriers) is declining. They are going to a configuration of 10 across seating on their 777 fleet this year.

To Europe:

  • Delta Air Lines
    • Delta has the most consistent product to Europe.
    • They have humane plane configurations:
      • All their Boeing 777s are 9 across seating
      • Their Airbus 330s are 8 across seating
      • Their Airbus 350s are 9 across seating (about the same width as the 777)
      • Their Boeing 767s have 7 across seating
    • Their seat pitch is on par with all airlines that fly to Europe at 31″
    • All their planes have WiFi and the fees are reasonable. In addition, if you don’t want to pay for WiFi, you can use messaging apps like iMessage and WhatsApp for free for the entire flight. They use Gogo for their WiFi service.
    • They have decent hubs to transit in the US – Detroit for example, is very pleasant to transit through. JFK – our home airport, not so much, but then again, you shouldn’t transit through New York unless you absolutely need to.
    • The inflight entertainment is good
    • The food? Well, we don’t usually eat it on European bound flights because 99% of the flights to Europe are overnight so we tend to just sleep instead.
    • The downside: Delta will have Basic Economy fares to Europe for travel this upcoming April. So you will probably pay a premium to have a regular economy fare. Delta International Basic Economy fares do not included advanced seat assignment or checked luggage.

We think European carriers are overrated — low cost carriers, such as WOW, Norwegian, etc — pack them in.

To Caribbean:

  • jetBlue
    • Best legroom from the United States at 32″ – 34″ inches
    • Free WiFi for portions over the United States
    • There is inflight entertainment
    • And snacks
    • Also, none of the Basic Economy non-sense.

What are your favorites?

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12 Responses to "Our favorite Airlines for International Travel in Economy Class to East Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe and the Caribbean"

  1. asfd says:

    I have not yet flown Norwegian trans Atlantic, but we flew their 737-800 product in Norway, and are trying them later this year BCN-OAK. Seat pitch is listed as 31″, same as DL, and the 3-3-3 configuration is standard for the 787. Shouldn’t they get consideration ahead of WOW?

    Reply
    • The Flight Deal says:

      @asdf – 3x3x3 configuration on a 787 is tight. regardless of airline. so your experience on AA vs Norwegian will be:
      1/ aa will give you a meal, drink
      2/ norwegian won’t give you anything unless you pay
      3/ seat pitch / width for aa and norwegian will be the same

      Reply
  2. asfd says:

    We are on AA’s 787 heading over to Spain, so we’ll get a side-by-side comparison.

    Reply
  3. SJ says:

    Hi! Can anyone share some airlines to avoid when flying to Asia/Southwest Asia. Specifically Hong Kong and/or Bangkok. Thanks!

    Reply
  4. Stacking Points says:

    I agree on JAL, but you left out Singapore Airlines, which is well known for providing one of the finest economy transpacific products available. Some of Singapore Airlines’s flights stop in Hong Kong first (instead of Singapore), which puts you right in the center of Asia and in a good position for onward flights to China, Korea, Japan, India, and Southeast Asia.

    Reply
    • The Flight Deal says:

      @Stacking Points – Singapore Airlines might be a good airline to fly, but it is not convenient for most travelers.

      1/ It flies from 4 cities in the US. The routes are
      1a/ NY – Frankfurt.
      1b/ Houston – Manchester
      1c/ San Francisco – Singapore or Hong Kong
      1d/ Los Angeles – Tokyo, Seoul or Singapore

      Basically to get to anywhere in Asia from the United States via Singapore Air will involve at least a double connection unless you live in San Francisco and Los Angeles. And if you connect to another airline in Tokyo, Seoul or Hong Kong, you are on another airlines potentially sub-par offering compared to Singapore Air. No coach product is that good that you want to travel longer for.

      In contrast, Japan Airlines flies from Boston, New York, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego to Tokyo and have a good optimized connections to rest of Asia.

      Reply
  5. RB says:

    Not sure how JAL could beat out ANA here if you’re talking Japanese carriers. 3x3x3 planes connecting in the worst NRT terminal with probably the worst airline food out there.

    As for Europe, I can’t speak for Delta, but I disagree with the euro carriers being overrated. Swiss is by far and away the best airline flying in the Western Hemisphere in terms of food, seats, service, and connection points (awesome lounges in ZRH/GVA). TAP and Lufthansa are also pretty decent.

    Reply
    • The Flight Deal says:

      @RB – JAL won over ANA because of product consistency for international fleet.

      787: 2x4x2 (8 across) seating on JAL versus ANA at 3x3x3 (9 across) seatings
      777: 3x3x3 (9 across) seating on JAL versus ANA with 3x4x3 (10 across) or 3x3x3 (9 across) or 2x4x3 (9 across) seating.

      So JAL from a product standpoint for int’l flying is more comfortable because the seats are wider consistently, whereas on ANA, you need to luck out on a 9 across 777 to be as equally comfortable.

      JAL consistently has faster WiFi because it use T-Mobile across its int’l fleet where ANA uses a mix of OnAir and another vendor. OnAir is slow and you won’t be able to do anything.

      Swiss – if you are on their Airbus plane, its fine at 2x4x2 across. But if you are on their 777, they pack them in with a 3x4x3 seating (10 across). Where as Delta on their 777 is 3x3x3.

      Lufthansa – the planes are fine in coach because of their mostly Airbus fleet and they haven’t packed them in their Boeing 747 and are consistent. But we would fly DL over LH.

      As for TAP – transiting in Lisbon is no fun.

      Reply
  6. Joe-SC1 says:

    Good post! Thank you for putting this together. Any chance you could list out the data you used to come up with #1 to each destination? You listed the criteria, but not the rankings for each candidate airline. For example, in your first case, JAL to Asia – it received 100% on seat pitch, 95% on seat width, etc. all the way down the line. The second place to Asia (name?) received 90% on seat pitch, 90% on seat width, etc. It would be interesting to see how close #2 was (nearly dead heat or far behind), which airlines were rated (to see if one I’m on is “good” compared to the rest), and other such comparisons. I’m imagining something like a Google Doc spreadsheet. As an added bonus, each reader could adjust the criteria’s weighted value as he or she wants. So, to me, when flying to Asia, for example, catering might be 15% instead of 5%, while hub transit is only worth 5%, not 15%. Just a thought. Thank you.

    Reply
  7. ma'am says:

    Excellent post!
    Lots of ppl here in Atlanta, DMV, and Houston are of west African origin–flying back to see relatives. Any recommendations there?

    Reply

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