traveltip: think small
I noticed an interesting thing a few days ago when I was booking some airline tickets for a rodeo in April - I was doing a lot of work to avoid having to book on American or United. I used to detest flying on Southwest. In fairness, a lot of that is really only because of Southwest's LAX terminal, which was always a mess and had outrageously long security lines. But I was also really never fond of the boarding system with no seat assignments and people camped out for space in line. Southwest no longer uses that system, and the LAX terminal has been vastly improved (the lines are still there, but they move very fast and efficiently). But what I have found is that nowadays, flying on an airline like Southwest or JetBlue or Virgin America is like flying on a luxury airline compared to flying on the 'big' airlines like American, United, and Delta. A big reason for this is the baggage fee policy that I've railed about several times here. So many people now carry bags on that the boarding and unboarding process - already a chore - has become a nightmare. It takes forever, its a hassle, and by the time you're in your seat, you're miserable - whether you check your own bags or not. Being able to check your bag for free and be free of them when boarding a flight that isn't full of people jostling for overhead space and arguing with airline employees about having to gate-check their bags has become a luxury and, for me, a better way to fly. Recently American was named America's Worst Airline by Travel + Leisure magazine, with United falling in second place right behind them. Neither were on the worst list the year before, but in 2008, both had the fewest on-time arrivals of any airline in the US. You have to wonder if this isn't a factor. So when booking, factor in whether you prefer to carry your bags on or not (for you, having to wait for your bag in baggage claim may be worse than dragging it through the airport and on and off the plane). Also remember to add an extra $30 or more to ticket prices that come up for the big airlines, in case you are forced to check your carryon bag like I was at Christmas. The big airlines have turned the fewer-frills airlines into the fewer-hassle airlines. If you have the choice, that may be an option worth searching for when booking your next ticket to make for a more pleasant trip.
an update: as of mid-March, Virgin America has begun to charge for bags as well. So while they still provide an exceptional experience, it will be somewhat diminished. Flying on Virgin America now means lugging your bags through the airports, a much longer and hassled boarding and unboarding, and waiting for bags afterward. So while I have always been a huge fan of Virgin America, I highly reccommend now using Southwest and JetBlue as your first choices for flying, followed then by Virgin America.