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I’m a travel writer, but it’s not always as glamorous as it sounds. When I fly, I often book commercial in coach for the best price to get my family of four where we need to go.
However, there are posher options that are affordable on a case-by-case and route-by-route basis, and I’m not talking about first class.
Rather, it’s entirely possible to fly private or semi-private. In some cases, it can even be cheaper than flying economy and removes the long waits and crowded lines associated with busy airports. And with boarding taking place in private hangars and planes allowing a much lower passenger count, private jets lend more naturally to social distancing.
Considering that June had more private flights in the U.S. than any month since October 2007, and after my own positive experiences flying semi-private, I rounded up some of the best carriers, from chartering your own flight to booking a publicly available seat on a semi-private jet flight. The best part? They offer prices that the average person can afford.
Starting price: $99. For example, a recent search identified many $99 options between Phoenix and Burbank, or $149 between Oakland and Orange County at off-peak times. Those same flights might range into the $400s during high-peak dates.
Notable inclusions: Checked bags, pets, snacks, drinks including alcohol
Cities served: Year round: Reno-Tahoe, East Bay-Napa, Oakland, Monterey, Burbank, LAX, Orange County, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston. Seasonally: Lajitas, Horseshoe Bay, Destin
Pros: JSX is hassle-free (arrive just 20 minutes before your flight), crowd-free (30 seats max per plane and no commercial airport terminals), and an excellent value starting at $99. On ordinary or off-peak dates, the airfare is quite competitive, even lower than some budget carriers’ for certain legs with a far superior experience.
Cons: Routes are limited to cities in the West and Texas for now, without the option for connections to other places. Also, peak date prices can spike to pricey levels.
JSX is a private regional airline that feels like a posh private-flying experience, except the public can purchase tickets. JSX caps flights at just 30 people and operates out of private terminals and hangars (technically known as “fixed-base operators,” or FBOs), which are adjacent to many major airports.
JSX saw a 55% increase in new leisure-market customers from February 2020 to February 2021, according to a statistic provided by the brand’s internal analytics team. I’ve flown it multiple times and always choose it when rates are cheaper or equivalent to flying commercial, which they often are.
With JSX, you’ll bypass the traditional airport altogether and travel through a private jet terminal. You also won’t encounter crowds and TSA lines, but can still feel secure since JSX uses TSA Secure Flight, the same TSA-provided background-check processes that major airlines use.
On ordinary or off-peak dates, the airfare is quite competitive (even lower than some budget carriers’ for certain legs) and the experience is far superior, including snacks, drinks (alcoholic and non), checked bags, and pet fees.
Starting price: $1,000 each way
Notable inclusions: Dedicated concierge service including pre and post-flight travels.
Cities served: Flight service to Jackson Hole, WY, Napa, Sun Valley, ID, and Aspen from a private airport lounge in Los Angeles. Flight service in Europe to Ibiza (Spain), Mykonos (Greece), Nice (France), and London (UK).
Pros: Quite unlike a typical commercial flying experience, Aero offers white-glove service from booking to takeoff, and even after the flight. Every flyer receives a dedicated concierge, luggage service, curbside greeting, and car service booking. The design is top-notch and pets are also welcome on board.
Cons: Aero serves limited locations in the U.S. and Europe for now. It’s also a brand new service which, while exciting for some travelers, may make others nervous.
Aero is among the country’s newest airlines, launching in February 2021. It offers premium seating on direct flights between private terminals, using custom-designed 16-seat jets; no flight will have more than 16 passengers.
This shared-charter model offers the benefits of private aviation — like bypassing commercial airport terminals and packed airliners — for a fraction of the cost with access to a curated list of coveted destinations.
Aero offers a seamless experience through its personalized concierge service available to all guests, which includes hosts giving personalized attention, from booking on-the-ground transportation and localized experiences to curating in-flight amenities and sourcing special beverages and artisan snacks — basically any preflight and post flight logistics that the passenger wants to be handled.
Interiors are designed by Aero’s in-house design team (not common among startup airlines, where design is typically outsourced). Interiors include dynamic lighting, a custom Bongiovi Acoustic Lab sound system built into the panels of the walls for 360-degree sound, hand French-stitched Italian leather seat covers, custom suede sidewalls, and signature ultra-leather piping on the ceiling.
Starting price: Membership fee of $99.95 per month (month to month); flights beginning at $449.95 each way
Notable inclusions: Checked bags, snacks and drinks, pets with advanced written notice
Cities served: Year-round: Scottsdale, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Orange County, San Diego, San Francisco, New York. Seasonally: Cabo San Lucas, Aspen
Pros: If you’re first to book a flight on a route, you set the time. And Set Jet vows to fly even if only one member books. That’s solid VIP service.
Cons: To fly Set Jet you must be a member, which is great for committed flyers, but less so for casual travelers. Members are subject to membership fees of $99.95 monthly and a one-time cost of $99.95 for a security screening.
Headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, Set Jet is a membership-based private jet charter, available for security pre-screened and pre-approved members. While there is a monthly membership fee, if you fly often, the value can be quite strong.
Only members may fly and to be eligible, you must be a U.S. resident with a valid driver’s license or passport issued domestically.
Set Jet facilitates private jet charters to six of the most frequently traveled destinations on the West Coast, as well as nonstop private jet charter flights between Los Angeles and New York City, and seasonal flights to Cabo San Lucas and Aspen. The service operates through private terminals without the traditional inconveniences related to commercial air travel.
Members fly on the Bombardier Challenger 850/CRJ 200 and CRJ900 aircraft, specifically customized with 15- to 19- seat cabin configurations. Top-end amenities and finishes make these planes resemble luxury hotel suites with high-gloss wood, marble accents, buttery leather, and plush carpeting. Pilots are typically military-trained jet fighter pilots with significant experience and pristine records.
Starting price: One-time initiation fee of $2,995 for the Connect Membership, with $2,495 annual dues starting in year two. Members get discounted pricing and other perks, but non-members can now book on a per-leg basis, too. Book a whole plane from Burbank to Las Vegas for about $7,000.
Notable inclusions: Snacks, drinks, pets, checked bags, access to partnerships like Wine Access services and special pricing on resorts
Cities served: Wheels Up can serve travelers at all point-to-point trips within North America and Europe, as well as around the world if it starts or ends in the U.S.
Pros: Wheels Up allows travelers to share flight legs with other passengers going the same route through a community messaging feature, making your private flight more feasible. The airline bills the other party; no need to coordinate a Venmo payment. Members can also book seats on empty-leg trips (when an aircraft is repositioned to another location) starting at just $320 per leg.
Cons: Unlike, say, JSX, you won’t find $99 fares here. The initiation fee nears $3,000 for the entry-level Core membership, so Wheels Up is best for a frequent traveler who plans to commit.
Wheels Up allows travelers to book private charter flights at an all-inclusive hourly rate. Founded in 2013 and a publicly traded company as of July 2021, Wheels Up is one of the major players in private aviation, having acquired many others along the way.
Originally a membership-only model, the company now allows anyone to book available flights on-demand using the app. There are 1,500 planes in the fleet, including the King Air 350i (an eight-seater propeller jet), the Cessna Citation Excel/XLS in the middle category (with a four-hour range), and the ultra-fast and high-flying Cessna Citation X, with a large, posh cabin. It can fly over six hours nonstop.
I got to try out two of these on a company-sponsored trip between Los Angeles and Napa. With seven to 10 seats in each aircraft (compared with, say, 30 for JSX or up to 19 on Set Jet), Wheels Up offers a truly elite private jet experience. When I flew the Citation X, the cabin had eight luxurious leather seats and even a posh leather-covered loo. Snacks and beverages were available on-demand in a small lounge area, and the ride was smooth, quiet, and peaceful.
Wheels Up members also receive benefits at Wine Access, Waldorf Astoria hotels; pay-by-the-seat shuttle service from Westchester to Nantucket through Nantucket Shuttle Service; AmEx membership discounts; and many other perks and benefits.
Starting price: Membership starts at $199 per month. You can also book per seat beginning at $99. Unlimited flying memberships start at $999/month — yes, with this membership tier, the flights are included.
Notable inclusions: With some membership tiers, unlimited flights are included in the monthly fee.
Cities served: Surf Air offers on-demand flights (which travelers can book as to their specs) to more than 5,000 regional and international airports across the U.S., and scheduled flights (according to an existing, non-customizable schedule) along the West Coast and Texas.
Pros: SurfAir costs as little as $99 per flight or $199 per month. That makes it much more accessible than many other subscription-based models.
Cons: There is a member initiation fee of $500.
Los Angeles-based Surf Air offers members access to private charter flights for a fixed monthly fee.
The service focuses on scheduled short-haul flights across California and Texas, with frequent flight options similar to commercial airlines but with the posh feel and perks of private air travel. Members can book trips via an easy-to-use mobile app, and then arrive at the airport just 15 minutes before takeoff without lines or crowds.
Memberships start at an accessible $199 per month, which allows access to all flights on a per-seat basis. For $999 per month, travelers get unlimited off-peak flights and access to buy everything else. Prices go up from there: for $2,999 per month, you can fly without limits across the entire network.
Starting price: In NYC, Blade allows travelers to fly between Manhattan and JFK for $195, six days a week. Prices for charter flights and longer distances go up from there. For example, figure $795 to get from Manhattan to the Hamptons.
Notable inclusions: Lounge access, food, drinks
Cities served: Charter a flight anywhere in the world through Blade Anywhere.
Pros: App-based booking allows scheduled, crowdsourced, and private flights as needed. The Blade fleet includes helicopters, seaplanes, and jets, offering many kinds of travel options.
Cons: If you don’t find an available scheduled flight, expect charter flights to be very expensive.
Blade allows travelers to book by the seat on scheduled flights throughout the Northeast and West Coast, or charter or crowdsource a flight anywhere in the world. The fleet includes not just jets but also helicopters, turboprops, and seaplanes for mega flexibility. In doing so, they offer many options at multiple price points for a range of travelers, and the diversity of the Blade fleet is unique in the field.
No membership is required to fly Blade. Users simply download the app or book online for scheduled flights. Travelers may also use the app to book their own private charter, crowdsourced charter, or individual seats on a scheduled flight.
In New York, it’s become quite a popular way to reach JFK to connect to major flights as opposed to the slog of traffic.
It depends on the airline you choose. The ones on this list that are only semi-private start as low as $99 per flight with no membership fees.
If you charter a totally private flight, however, expect to pay thousands of dollars in most cases.
We’ve seen strong value on a per flight basis from JSX as their fares are pretty low so long as you don’t book during peak times.
Subscription model private airlines, however, such as Set Jet or SurfAir come out as affordable in the long run if you’re someone who flies frequently.
Start with our list here. Many of these companies allow you to book cheap private flights either on their website or via their mobile app.
Disclosure: Written and researched by the Insider Reviews team. We highlight products and services you might find interesting. If you buy them, we may get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our partners. We may receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product is featured or recommended. We operate independently from our advertising team. We welcome your feedback. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.