Nomads and long term travelers have unique needs when it comes to airlines.
First of all, we are usually bringing with us our entire life every time we travel.
Second, we tend to fly quite a bit—often long-haul.
Third, we often prefer buying one-way tickets, having little idea when or if we’re coming back the same way.
In other words, we like airlines with reasonable fares (including for one-way long-haul flights) and luggage policies, a comfortable product and high level of service.
That’s quite an elusive mix of features.
Through my own personal experience and lots of research, I’ve narrowed it down from the approximately 5000 airlines in the world to just a handful.
So here goes, the world’s best airlines for nomads, backpackers, and long term travelers (in no particular order):
Qatar Airways (One World)
My favorite airline, and winner of “Best Airline” in the Skytrax awards four out of the last five years. Plenty of connections between Asia, Europe and North America, at surprisingly reasonable prices.
The quality of service is great, even in Economy. In Business it’s amazing, even offering on-demand meal ordering, which is usually only found in the First Class cabins of other airlines. And they do on occasion offer reasonable upgrades, making Business Class a great deal.
The cabins on their newer planes, such as on the A350 and 787 Dreamliner, are amazing. They feature a 1-2-1 configuration in business class, and 3-3-3 in economy—which is quite typical. I haven’t tried the business class on any of their older planes, but they typically feature a 2-2-2 configuration instead.
The only negative is that one-way tickets are a bit less competitively priced than returns. But luckily they have fairly reasonable change fees, even for cheap economy tickets.
This rapidly growing airline from my native Norway is probably the best low-cost airline in the world. It is especially attractive for one-way flights across the Atlantic and between Europe and Asia (and soon South America). San Francisco to Europe for less than $200? Yes, please!
On intercontinental flights, Norwegian exclusively fly the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which is one of the most comfortable planes to travel on—although the interior of Norwegian’s planes feels markedly cheaper than e.g. Qatar’s.
They don’t offer a business class cabin, but the “Premium” cabin (2-3-2 configuration, vs 3-3-3 in Economy) can be well worth the price tag—often being around the same price as regular economy on other carriers. It’s probably one of the best Premium Economy products on the market.
And did you know that booking your ticket on the Norwegian version of their website can actually save you money compared to the international one? If your Norwegian skills are lacking (I don’t blame you), just compare step by step to the English language version or use Google Translate.
I even know a few tricks to get even cheaper tickets with them and occasionally some added perks. I can’t post that in public, so contact me if you’re interested.
The de facto backpacker airline in South East Asia. Sure, it has more of an LCC feel than Norwegian, but it’s usually the cheapest way of skipping around Asia.
They even offer an ASEAN pass for multiple flights within 30 or 60 days, starting at around $120. From their main hubs in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, together with satellite hubs a few other places in Asia, they cover both Asia and Oceania really well.
AirAsia X, their long haul version, will get you as far as New Zealand, Hawaii via Japan, and the Middle East.
In terms of comfort on-board, it’s not the best airline for taller people. Most of their seats only offer 28” pitch—which isn’t uncommon on low cost airlines in Asia, but still noticeably less than the 30-32” pitch common in Europe and North America. They do offer a few rows with extra legroom, like the emergency exit rows featuring 33” pitch, but these come at an extra charge.
AirAsia X defaults to a more comfortable 31” pitch, with angled lie-flat seats in their Premium cabin.
Scandinavian Airlines (Star Alliance)
This airline, also known as SAS, is offering cheap one-way long-haul youth tickets for anyone younger than 26. Perhaps not the sexiest airline in the world, I’d say they are quite similar to Lufthansa, KLM, and other European flag carriers, although with a more limited route map on long-haul.
They do generally have nice cabins on their long-haul fleet of Airbus A330s and A340s. Economy is decent enough (2-4-2 configuration) with very good premium economy (2-3-2 configuration) and business class seats (1-2-1 configuration).
They are currently in the process of refreshing the cabins on their short and medium haul aircrafts, and will be among the first airlines offering decent wifi on intra-Europe flights.
If you’re based in Scandinavia and qualify for their premium credit card, you only need to collect an additional 33,000 miles per year to get Star Alliance Gold. That’s about 2-3 return trips on long-haul, so absolutely doable.
For travel between North and Latin America, JetBlue is often the best option. Especially for one-way flights. Sure, Spirit or Frontier might sometimes be cheaper. At least before you add up all their fees. But do you really want to subject yourself to that level of torture?
JetBlue is also the only carrier offering a fully lie-flat seat on their transcontinental US domestic routes. It’s not the cheapest upgrade from Economy, but has other domestic Business and First Class offerings beat by a mile. The Mint product, as it is called, is also offered on some routes from the East Coast to the Caribbean.
TAP (Star Alliance)
Another airline not ripping you off on one-way flights across the Atlantic, both to the East Coast (US and Canada) and Latin America (especially Brazil). They also offer flights to some destinations in Africa, particular to former Portuguese colonies.
I’ve only flown them intra-Europe, so I can’t comment on their long haul fleet. Their cabins in Europe were starting to show their age a bit, but a cabin refresh is under way and some of their planes have already been modernized.
Some of their long haul planes are quite new, and the rest are in the process of being modernized as I write this. Their Economy Class is as standard as they come, with a 2-4-2 configuration on their A330s and A340s. The retrofitted A330s and A340s both have a 2-2-2 configuration in Business Class, while their new A330s offer 1-2-1. They don’t offer Premium Economy.
Turkish Airlines (Star Alliance)
Although I haven’t yet flown them, Turkish has a reputation for being one of the worlds better airlines. The fact that they offer both well priced return and one way tickets between continents makes them even more attractive for us nomads.
And Istanbul isn’t a bad city to spend a layover either. Turkish even offer complementary hotel stays and city tours for certain longer layovers. And if you’re flying Business or have Star Alliance Gold, their Istanbul lounge is really first rate.
A few more options
I don’t have any personal experience with the following airlines, but for various reasons they might be decent options for nomads, long-term travelers and backpackers on a budget.
- Aeroflot (Sky Team)—This Russian airline has a solid reputation for providing a good product at a reasonable price. Even for long-haul one-way flights.
- Scoot—A subsidiary of the excellent Singapore Airlines. But don’t be fooled, this is definitely a budget airline with a budget product. Rumor has it their Premium Economy product is quite good, though.
- Wow Air—If you are looking to cross the Atlantic on an absolute minimal budget, you might give Wow Air a look. In some cases they might be marginally cheaper than Norwegian, but offer a significantly worse product. Not even a standard carry-on bag for the overhead bin is included in their advertised fares.
Know any good airlines suitable for the nomadic crowd that I missed? Let me know in the comments below!