Image: Virgin America Airbus A320
All Virgin America planes have special "mood lighting" as well as interactive seat-back TV's; touch the screen to choose a movie, listen to music or even chat with other passengers onboard.
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updated 5/21/2009 9:51:08 AM ET 2009-05-21T13:51:08

Discount airlines are here to stay. Also known as low-cost carriers, discount airlines have changed the face of the travel industry forever, are driving fare structure overhauls and have forced the majors to offer more direct flights. So much ink is spilled and pixels lit up that you would think every person in America could name a dozen discount airlines.

It turns out this isn't the case. Most travelers know about JetBlue and Southwest — but where are the rest of them? And can you find all these revolutionaries when you do a simple search on airfares? Our guide to the domestic discounters answers these questions and more, and includes a comprehensive list of all the major players.

But before we get into the list, here are a few important tips on finding and booking fares on these airlines.

1. Just because your flight is on a discount airline, it doesn't mean you'll be slumming in the skies. JetBlue's so-called "no-frills" setup includes leather seats, heaps of legroom, an in-seat satellite TV entertainment system and all the snacks you want.

2. Similarly, major airlines can often match and undercut discounter prices. Rather than there being two classes of airlines, the truth is more likely that there is increasingly little difference between the prices and service levels of the minors and majors. This is good — your choices have multiplied. (In the future, there will be two types of airlines: not major and discount, but rather those that run with business plans that work for the company and traveler alike, and those that don't.)

3. Think discount airline when traveling to sunny locations. Most of the discount airlines have focused on flights to warm-weather vacation destinations. These include various cities in Florida; Caribbean destinations like Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Aruba; California, particularly the Los Angeles area; and Southwestern locations such as Arizona and Las Vegas.

4. Think discount airlines when flying cross-country. Several discounters have made a specialty of offering low-hassle direct flights from major coastal cities such as New York, Boston and Washington D.C. in the East, and L.A., San Diego, Oakland and Seattle in the West. As a result, the major airlines are matching in these markets as well; it has never been more affordable, or so downright cheap, to fly across the U.S.

5. For the best deals and most information, go directly to the airline Web site (linked below) if you know that a certain discounter flies your route. If you do book a flight, you'll usually save a few bucks on the booking site service fee.

6. If you are flying to or from a location served by Southwest, check its Web site first — this airline appears on none of the Big Three booking sites (Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz). You may see a flight you'll want to purchase right away, but if not, you'll get a good sense of "market price" along the route.

7. Perhaps even better, search aggregators for a very broad look at fares. The big aggregators now include most discounters.

8. When searching, select the "nearby airport" check box. Many of the discounters fly into so-called alternate airports, such as Long Beach instead of LAX or Oakland instead of SFO (JetBlue and others), or Atlantic City instead of Philadelphia and Hollywood International instead of Miami (Spirit). This can be the best way to figure out which alternate airports are served by discounters, and you may miss a discounter's best offers if you stick only to the biggest airports.

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9. Additionally, when considering alternate airports, check route maps for flights that may get you very close to your final destination. Discount airlines serve smaller airports like Atlantic City and Providence (Spirit), or Moline and Akron (AirTran). This can be the most labor-intensive component of finding these fares, but flying in and out of these airports can be almost a breeze. Parking is often right out front, more like a shopping mall than an airport, and lines are often non-existent.

AirTran Airways

Phone: (800) 247-8726

Route Map

Hub: Atlanta

Where to find them: The major booking sites, aggregator sites

Tip: Most flights route through the Atlanta hub; check for very affordable upgrades on the day of travel. Serves many alternate airports; check the route map for a comprehensive list.

Allegiant Air

Phone: (702) 505–8888

Route map

Hubs: Las Vegas, Orlando

Where to find them: AllegiantAir.com

Tip: Based in Las Vegas, Allegiant Air flies to many smaller airports such as Bellingham, WA and Hagerstown, MD.

Frontier Airlines

Phone: (800) 432-1359

Route map

Hub: Denver

Where to find them: The major booking sites, aggregator sites

Tip: Almost everything routes through Denver; check the weather. Frontier offers a number of flights to Mexico's most popular vacation destinations.

Gulfstream International Air

Phone: (800) 523-3273

Route map

Hubs: Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Tampa

Where to find them: Not bookable on its Web site; available on the major booking and aggregator sites through codeshares with Continental.com.

JetBlue Airways

Phone: (800) 538-2583

Route map

Hubs: New York (JFK), Los Angeles/Long Beach

Where to find them: JetBlue fares are now available on major booking sites and aggregator sites.

Tip: Rows 12 and back have more legroom on many planes in the fleet.

Southwest Airlines

Phone: (800) 435-9792

Route map

Hub: None

Where to find them: Southwest.com

Tip: Seats are not assigned, so check in as early as possible on the Southwest Web site before leaving for the airport to ensure that you get a priority A boarding pass.

Spirit Airlines

Phone: (800) 772-7117

Route map

Hubs: Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood, Detroit

Where to find them: The major booking sites, aggregator sites

Tip: Spirit flies from some unexpected airports — like Atlantic City, Providence and Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International.

Sun Country Airlines

Phone: (800) 359-6786)

Route map

Hub: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Where to find them: The major booking sites, aggregator sites

Tip: Sun Country offers service to additional Mexico and Caribbean destinations in the winter and early spring.

USA3000

Phone: (877) 872-3000

Route map

Hub: None

Where to find them: The major booking sites, aggregator sites

Tip: USA3000 serves warm-weather destinations in Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Virgin America

Phone: (877) 359-8474

Route map

Where to find them: On its Web site, aggregator sites

Tip: All planes have special "mood lighting" as well as interactive seat-back TV's; touch the screen to choose a movie, listen to music or even chat with other passengers onboard.

Looking for discount airlines outside the U.S.? See our list of International Discount Airlines.

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