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Your Complete Guide to Booking Charter Flights

By: // Updated: November 25, 2020

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You might have grown up believing that flying the friendly skies was exactly that — a dreamy scenario where you’d soar high above the clouds, sit back, and relax as flight attendants brought you delicacies and made you feel like a VIP (even if you were stuck in coach).

But then reality set in. After years of trudging through crowded airports, getting scanned and patted down by TSA, and feeling defeated as everyone else boards the plane before you do, flying isn’t quite as delightful as you may have hoped.

Until now.

The rise of the on-demand lifestyle has ushered in a new era of convenience and luxury to the masses. From high-end food delivery like Caviar to premium car services like Uber Lux, many of us today expect more from products and services — and we’re willing to pay for it.

At the apex of this growing trend is private aviation. While owning a jet is still a privilege of the ultra-wealthy (trust me, here’s how much it costs to own one), charter flights are a fantastic way to enjoy the perks of private aviation.

In this guide, we break down the basics of booking charter flights, including when and how to do it, how much they cost, and everything else you need to know about this increasingly popular mode of transportation.


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What Are Charter Flights?

A charter flight is any aircraft that is chartered (i.e., reserved or rented) for a specific trip and is not part of an airline’s regular flight schedule. While charter flights offer a more deluxe experience than commercial flying, there are some distinctions even within the realm of charter flights.

Before you start dreaming up your private excursion in the sky, here’s a quick rundown on the different types of charter flights.

Charter Flights

Also called a private flight or private charter flight, a private jet charter is when you rent an entire aircraft. It’s about as close as you can get to the experience of owning a private jet. You can choose your departure date and time, and you can fly solo or bring whoever you want along for the ride (as long as the plane has the capacity).

Naturally, renting a whole plane will be the most expensive option when it comes to charter flights, but it’s also the most luxurious and flexible. However, there are still a few ways to rent a private jet for cheap. Check out our Guide to Cheap Private Flights to learn more about those options.

Shared Charter

As the name suggests, a shared charter flight is one that you share with others. You’re still renting the entire plane, but you’ll share the seats (and presumably the cost) with your friends, colleagues, family members, or sometimes even strangers.

Here’s an example: Say you book a shared charter flight for six people but then two drop out for some reason. Well, you can either absorb the costs, see if there’s anyone else you know who wants to buy the seats, or you can let the aviation company offer those seats to the public.

If you opt for the latter, chances are you can get credit that you can apply to another flight. Whatever you decide, a shared charter can be a lot more cost-effective than booking a completely private charter.

By the Seat

Whether you call it pay-as-you-go or fly-by-the-seat, this type of flight charter is the most affordable of the bunch. In this case, you’re not the one initiating the rental of an airplane. Instead, you’re purchasing a seat on a charter flight that has already been booked for one reason or another.

Although you can’t always guarantee that your preferred airport or travel times will be available with by-the-seat flights, you can save big bucks. For instance, if you choose an empty leg flight, there’s a good chance you can book a flight for about the same price as you would on a commercial airline.

Charter Flights vs. Commercial Flights

Man approaches flight attendant on jet runway

With a clearer idea of the nuances between different types of charter flights, it’s time to see how they stack up against commercial flights.

Security

Commercial flights typically require that you arrive at least an hour early for check-in at the airline’s terminal. You then have to wait for mandatory security checks that require you to remove your shoes, empty your pockets, and place all toiletries and electronic devices in trays so that they can be scanned. Carry-on luggage is also limited, so if it’s too big you’ll have to check it and retrieve it at post-flight baggage claim.

On the other hand, charter flights have FBOs (fixed base operators) that work similarly to airport terminals with a more relaxed, lounge-like atmosphere. While the FBO personnel or flight crew might check your ID before boarding, there are no long security lines. You’re also not required to remove your shoes, limit the size of your toiletries, or unpack your electronic devices. What’s more, many charter flights allow you to arrive just 15 minutes before takeoff.

Amenities

Commercial flights have gotten notoriously stingy with amenities over the years. From snacks to earbuds to Wi-Fi and pillows, it seems there’s a new upcharge every time you book a flight. Meanwhile, most charter flights include Wi-Fi, snacks, and beverages, not to mention more convenience, comfort, and customer service.

Flexibility

When flying commercial, you’re forced to choose from already-scheduled flights. However, charter flights offer much more flexibility, particularly for completely private flights. Also, private jets can land in smaller airports that can’t accommodate larger commercial planes. As a result, you have many more options when it comes to destinations. This is especially true for remote locations that would otherwise require a connecting flight, boat, or car.

When and How to Book Charter Flights

Couple deboards from charter flight

You could book a charter flight for just about any reason. Maybe it’s your birthday and you and your friends are planning a whirlwind weekend trip out of town. Perhaps you have a business meeting and there aren’t any commercial flights for the time frame you need. Or maybe there’s a natural disaster or family emergency and you need to fly somewhere ASAP.

Whatever the reason, booking a charter flight can save the day when you need it. Here are the main methods for getting up in the air without going commercial.

Charter Operators

Certified and regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), charter operators manage and hire a crew for a specific fleet of planes that are available for chartering. Among the main reasons you might want to book directly with a charter operator are safety and expertise — you know they have to comply with all federal regulations — as well as saving on fees that would go to a broker (see next section).

Another bonus is that you get to communicate directly with the operator and build rapport. However, it’s worth noting that booking with just one charter operation means you are limited to its fleet, routes, and availability.

Charter Brokers

As the name suggests, an air charter flight broker is a middleman or liaison who arranges flights on your behalf. Much like a travel agent has a network of resources and can save you time researching options, a charter broker can access various charter operators to find the flight you want.

The downside to brokers — as with brokers in any industry — is the price markup. When a broker gives you a charter quote, it includes their commission fee, which can increase your costs. Be sure that you book through a reputable brokerage. Unlike charter operators, brokers aren’t regulated so you need to do your due diligence.

On-Demand Charter Flights

If you don’t want to go directly to a broker, you can simply go online and book a private jet charter through various on-demand platforms. Some of the more popular air charter services include JSX, Wheels Up, XO, and Blade.

While some might let you book flights without any commitment, others require that you pay for a membership that lets you fly at fixed hourly rates. For instance, XO offers different tiers of membership as well as a pay-as-you-go option. On the other hand, JSX is a self-described “hop-on jet service” that requires no membership and lets you book a seat on existing private flights.

How Much Are Charter Flights?

Plane interior

In general, booking an entire private jet charter can cost anywhere from $1,200-$10,000 per flight hour. There are many different types of private jets available to fliers.

It’s quite a wide price range because the cost of booking charter flights depends on a number of factors, including:

  • Departure date
  • Departure location
  • Arrival location
  • Type of flight (one-way or round-trip)
  • Booking an entire aircraft vs. a seat
  • Type of aircraft

Aircraft size is a major consideration when it comes to how much it costs to book a charter flight. For example, if you book a short-distance flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, you could easily use a smaller plane, which will keep costs down.

But if you’re planning to book a long-haul flight from New York to Hawaii, then that will require a larger aircraft and therefore more money. The size of the plane also determines how many passengers are allowed on the flight.

Some charter aircraft options you’ll come across include:

  • Turboprops such as the Pilatus PC-12 (seats 4-9 people)
  • Light jets like the Phenom 300 (seats 6-8 people)
  • Midsize jets such as the Learjet 60 (seats 7-9 people)
  • Super-midsize jets including the Cessna Citation X (seats 8-10 people)
  • Heavy jets like the Bombardier Global 5000 (seats 10-16 people)
  • Ultra long-range jets including the Gulfstream V (seats 12-18 people)

Frequently Asked Questions

​1. Are charter flights safe?

Yes, charter flights are generally safe as long as the operator is in compliance with all FAA regulations. If you’re concerned about charter flight safety, you can use a third-party resource such as TripCHEQ by ARGUS. For about $150, you’ll get an extensive analysis of an operator’s credentials, including details on the operator, aircraft, and flight crew.

2. Are charter flights cheaper than commercial flights?

If you’re booking a private jet charter, it’s certainly not cheaper than a commercial flight. However, if you’re reserving an empty-leg flight or a discount seat on an existing charter flight, it could be cheaper than flying commercial. On a recent search, we found a round-trip flight from Burbank, California, to Phoenix, Arizona, for $199 while the same flight on United Airlines was $257.

3. Can you fly a private plane internationally?

Yes, you can. Just bear in the mind you still need to have the necessary documentation, such as passports or visas, when entering a new country. That said, the customs process is usually much smoother when flying private.

Fly Away In Style

Whether booking an entire plane or sharing it with others, today’s charter flights let you fly as though you’re a private jet owner — without the cost and commitment. While commercial airliners seem to get less comfortable and convenient by the day, flying private has brought back friendlier skies. For more ways to enjoy the high life on a budget, be sure to check out our guide on the best way to find cheap private flights.

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