When it comes time to book an international flight, you probably go to the major carriers. But it turns out that there are other options—if you know where to look. From Asia to South America, flying one of these secret airlines could save you time, aggravation, and maybe even a little money.
Why are these airlines secret? They are listed in the flight schedules, but not everybody knows about them. Plus, they often don’t come up on Internet searches.
If you’re flying to Asia from North America, try an airline you probably haven’t heard: Hainan Airlines. It flys nonstop to Beijing and once you get there, you can travel to anywhere else in the world. One added bonus: on the way back, if you take the nonstop flight from Beijing to Seattle, you clear U.S. Customs in Seattle. Guess what? Very little wait times, and that’s worth everything.
Hainan Airlines started in 1993 as a domestic and then regional carrier. But when it saw opportunities in the U.S. market, it expanded its reach. The first American city it connected to was Seattle. At the time, that was as far as its A330 airplanes could reach.
Today, Hainan flies to six North American cities. In addition to Seattle, there’s now Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Toronto.
But Seattle remains its North American hub. With cheaper tickets than a lot of other carriers, there’s high demand in both directions.
“We will depend on Chinese outbound traffic first, but we also enjoy the strong traffic demand from Seattle to China as well, especially those corporate travelers, because there are a lot of companies in Seattle which have a very strong link to China,” said Liu Jichun, General Manager of Sales & Marketing at Hainan Airlines.
Now, what if you’re flying in the other direction to Europe? There’s a secret airline that can take you there as well.
Another airline you may not have heard about or seen is the one behind me: La Compagnie. It started flying in July of 2014 with just one 757 between Charles De Gaulle and Newark.
La Compagnie has positioned itself squarely in the business traveler market as a lower-cost alternative to major carriers. Its service begins with access to premium airport lounges at Charles De Gaulle and Newark.
Inside the plane there’s nothing but business class seats—and just 74 of them. But what the airline doesn’t have in frequency—it only flys in one direction, once a day—it more than makes up for in airfares.
Consider this: the normal business class fare on a New York to Paris round trip flight can be as much as $8,000…sometimes even more. But on La Compagnie, it’s as low as $1,400.
For the Caribbean and South America, the super secret hub is Panama. Who knew? Think about this: You need to go from Chicago to Nassau in the Bahamas, and they tell you every flight is full, especially through Miami. Guess what? You can get there if you come through Panama. Take Copa Airlines. It has 95 planes, and it goes to 69 cities in 30 countries.
Copa Airlines got its start in 1947 with some help from the iconic airline Pan Am. Originally a domestic carrier, Copa now has a flight network that spans two continents, with a central hub in Panama.
“Actually, we have the most complete network in Latin America,” said Pedro Heilbron, CEO of Copa Airlines. “We fly from here as far south as Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Uruguay, and as far north as LA and Toronto, and we pretty much cover everything in between, and it all hubs through Panama.”
What that means is that Copa can often find the flight you need—even when all other carriers are fully booked. That also means traveling to Cuba. The airline has at least six flights per day from Panama City to Havana. On top of that, its service includes actual service.
“When we inaugurated Chicago-Panama nonstop flights a few years ago,” said Heilbron, “our flight attendants came out and started serving. They had to go back to the PA system and announce that on Copa, drinks and meals were included, were free. Because passengers, mostly Americans, were saying no thanks because they thought they were gonna be charged.”
In the end it’s not just about meals and drinks. It’s about common sense, connectivity, and thinking outside the box—through different hubs. You can fly through Paris, Beijing, and Panama City on three very different but very efficient airlines.
For more insider tips on air travel from The Travel Detective, check out:
- How More Travelers are Flying on Private Jets
- The Truth About Airline Ticket Fee
- How Airline Mergers Changed Travel Within the U.S.