Do Budget Airlines Really Save You Money
Do Budget Airlines Really Save You Money

By Anne Johnson

In the beginning of commercial air travel, “jetting” across the Atlantic was fashionable and prestigious. These travelers were the “jet set.” But by the 1970s, falling fares opened jet travel up to more people and undermined exclusivity.

Now, even more people are enjoying the “friendly skies.” In 2022, for example, 853 million passengers flew U.S. airlines. Low-cost carriers flew 35 percent of these passengers. But how frugal are these budget airlines? There are inconveniences that come with flying low-cost; are they worth it?

Low-Cost Airlines Differ From Full-Service

The biggest difference between a full-service or traditional airline and a low-cost airline is the fees. With a budget airline, you’re paying extra for any niceties.

In the United States, some traditional or full-service airlines include:

  • American Airlines
  • Delta Airlines
  • United Airlines
  • Alaska Airlines

Traditional airlines include basic services like carry-on bags and free in-flight soft drinks.

The budget airlines revolution started in 1973 in the United States with Southwest Airlines. The Dallas-based carrier proved the viability of low-cost flights. Since then, other budget airline companies have followed suit, including:

  • Allegiant Airlines
  • Frontier Airlines
  • Spirit Airlines
  • Sun Country Airlines
  • Breeze Airlines

There are other differences than just offering or not offering peanuts inflight. Traditional airlines tend to have a diverse fleet in order to match the plane to the route, but low-cost carriers run a standardized fleet of one aircraft type.

While not always the case, low-cost carriers usually fly to secondary airports. They skip the big, expensive airports. The big airports have higher landing and ground feeds than these secondary airports.

Traditional airlines have a full range of distribution channels for their tickets. You can talk to someone at the airline or a travel agent. This is convenient, especially if planning a complicated trip with various destinations.

Low-cost carriers usually only sell their tickets on their websites. It gives them control over fare pricing and cuts the cost of ticket sales.

Budget Airlines Base Fees Misleading

Budget airlines offer low base fares. These appear in your search results when hunting for airfares. But what doesn’t show up in your search results are the fees that the budget airline will tack on during the check-out process.

For example, based on a cost per mile, Florida-based Spirit Airlines is the lowest. They ring in at $0.209 per mile. But Spirit also has the highest fee structure. Spirit’s fees total 736 percent of the base fare. Baggage charges are the biggest factor.

Budget Airlines Baggage Fees

Baggage is not part of the base costs. And many charge for checking a bag. But some also charge for a carry-on.

For example, Spirit charges, on average, $56.99 for a carry-on and $54 for a checked bag. The incentive is to check luggage. But what if you need both? You’ve just tacked on over $100 to your ticket. And that’s just one way. You pay for baggage separately each way.

If you plan on flying budget, the best advice is to pack light. Some no-frills carriers have draconian baggage weight limits. And they charge steep fees if you go over the limit. So you’ll be paying even more for your baggage, both ways.

Other Low-Cost Airline Fees

It’s important to know exactly what you’re paying for. Baggage is one, but there are other fees. For example, some carriers charge for seat selection. That can be $30 for each flight. You don’t have to select your seat in advance, but then you risk waiting for check-in to be assigned what’s left.

Some budget airlines charge a fee for printing a boarding pass at the airport. Spirit Airlines charges $25 at its check-in windows. But this can be avoided by printing your boarding pass at home.

If you’re thirsty on that flight, expect to also pay for that soda.

Budget Tickets Priced One Way

One advantage to budget carriers is their tickets are priced one way. You could take one carrier to your destination and then a different carrier back home. Or even hopscotch your way across the country on other airlines.

Delays and Cancellations

Low-cost airlines have a history of lower on-time percentages and higher cancellations than traditional carriers. Although these aren’t everyday occurrences, when they do happen, it’s usually with a budget airline.

Limited Routes Available

The traditional airlines are large, and with that comes numerous routes. They offer more routes per day than their budget counterparts.

Because low-cost airlines fly into small airports, it limits you. You may save on the flight, but must rent a car to reach your final, big city, destination. With a traditional airline, you would have just flown to the city.

Because they are a smaller airline, a budget airline may have a limited schedule for the flight you want. They may only have one departure a day. Some may only have one departure per week. You’ll arrive on their schedule, not yours.

Flying With a Budget Carrier

Budget carriers look great on the surface, but some fees can add up. They don’t hide those fees, but you must watch what you add when purchasing a ticket. Don’t push the button until you understand just what you are paying for.

If you just have a short hop flying from point A to B and travel light, a budget airline might be for you.

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