Flying Budget Airlines: Snag the Cheap Ticket, Then Duck to Avoid the Fees
After a year of barely leaving the driveway, the desire to fly the friendly skies is high. Bank account balances, however, are still low for a lot of folks so budget airlines can be a great way to travel.
For example, the newest low-cost airline, Avelo Airlines, which launched in April, is charging $19 for one-way trips from Los Angeles to numerous western destinations such as Bend, Ore., and Bozeman, Mont. Frontier Airlines is touting $39 flights to Orlando from most domestic cities it serves, and $39 for a return ticket.
“Budget airlines are one of my favorite ways to find cheap travel. I have been able to get really great deals. That’s how I got my $99 flight to Iceland,” said Jen Ruiz, author and blogger for Jen on aJetPlane.com. “People want to spend more money on the destination than how they get there.”
Budget airlines offer cheap flights, for sure. But you need to be aware of all the additional fees and other costs that come with flying in and out of the secondary airports they serve.
“Things like checking your bags, buying your seat, getting your boarding pass — that shoots up the price,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, which hunts airline deals for more than 2 million free and paid subscribers.
Flying on low-cost carriers “can be a very good deal for someone traveling light and if you don’t care what seat you have,” he said.
Defining Budget Airlines
The difference between budget airlines like Allegiant Airlines and legacy carriers such American Airlines has become harder to define in the past 15 years, Keyes said. Since around 2015, legacy airlines have been offering more and more discounted airline tickets and some are charging for preferable seats or checked bags in order to compete with the low-cost airlines.
Here are three key differences:
While discount airlines consistently offer lower fares, they may charge for selecting a seat, extra legroom, food, checked bags, carry-on bags and printing boarding passes on your departure date.
Low-cost carriers tend to fly in and out of smaller, less busy airports where they pay less money for using the gates and save on other airport fees. For example, a low-cost airline is more likely to use the Hollywood Burbank Airport instead of Los Angeles International Airport in California, or Concord-Padgett Regional Airport, which is 17 miles from Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina.
Most discount airlines fly the same size jets used by legacy airlines. In fact, when the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically slashed flights, some traditional airlines sold their planes to discount airlines. But low-cost airlines do fly more smaller planes than major airlines. Their planes are safe, though, according to Keyes.
“Flying has gotten remarkably safe. It’s not something I’m personally concerned about with budget airlines,” he said. “I would say the budget airlines’ planes might be a bit older, maybe a little bit dingier and just a little bit more cramped.
“For an hour or two there’s not a huge difference. If you are flying 10 hours it can start to become pretty noticeable,” he added.
Again, these distinctions are not hard rules. There are exceptions. Southwest Airlines is considered a discount airline and serves many major airports. It also allows passengers to check two bags for free and there is no charge for carry-on bags.
The Hidden Costs of Budget Airlines
Cancelled Flights Burn Time and Money
Low-cost airlines have fewer planes and fly fewer routes compared to major commercial airlines. So when a flight is cancelled for weather, mechanical or scheduling reasons, it’s less likely you can be booked on the next flight in an hour or two.
Some budget airlines only fly specific routes certain days of the week. So if your flight home from your vacation is cancelled, the airline may not have another one for four days. This disruption can add hundreds or thousands of dollars to your trip if it means more days in hotel rooms and extending rental cars. And, if you absolutely have to get home and book a flight on another airline on short notice that can cost hundreds as well..
Legacy airlines offer more options. “A cancellation isn’t nearly as likely to upend your trip. (Major airlines) have partners…. and agreements. If your trip gets disrupted they can put you on another airline,” Keyes said. “ I might be less inclined to book a (discount airline) flight to Chicago in February when weather constantly disrupts flights. But I might be more likely to get on a (discount airline) flight to Las Vegas or Hawaii in June.”
Additional Fees Add Up
Here’s a look at the add-on fees for an $81 round-trip Allegiant Airlines flight from Boston to Sarasota, Fla. It costs $20 for carry-on bags and $30 to check a piece of luggage if you pay in advance. (It’s $50 if you pay at the airport.) A seat with the most legroom costs $26, while the cheapest middle seat is $11. If you don’t check in with the Allegiant app and need a boarding pass printed, that’s $5.
So, if you pay all the highest fees, that’s an additional $101 each way, or $202, more than double the price of your ticket. If you get by with just a carry-on bag, don’t need boarding passes and take the cheapest seat, you’ll pay $31 each way or $62 in round-trip fees and $143 total for the trip. So read the fine print before you book.
While most major airlines have recently followed the lead of Southwest Airlines and quit charging for flight changes or cancellations, discount airlines have more restrictions. JetBlue Airways, however, is discontinuing all change fees. Allegiant Airlines is allowing one free change while others like Frontier Airlines base fees on how far in advance of the departure date the flight is altered.
Getting To and From Remote Airports for Those Cheap Flights
If you aren’t relying on friends or rental cars, the cost of an Uber or a Lyft from a remote airport to where you are staying can cut into your savings on the airline tickets.
In Arizona, for example, Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, which more discount airlines serve, is 32 miles from the main Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. An Uber from Phoenix-Mesa to downtown Phoenix will cost around $38, while a ride from Sky Harbor is about $7. Consider the $21 difference each way plus any surge pricing if you are taking Uber during a busy time of day.
One perk of remote airports, however, is parking costs less. They are also less crowded, so cheap flights can save time if not always money.
Tips for Flying Budget Airlines
Sign Up for Deal Alerts
“Allegiant, Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit, all those domestic budget airlines have different fare sales that happen every four to six weeks,” Ruiz said. “Allegiant has a lot of $19 one-way fares and Southwest has $50 flights. That happens all the time when they are trying to sell unsold seats.”
Travelers can sign up with each low-cost airline and get email alerts about cheap flights, with the option to tailor them only to places they want to travel.
Scott’s Cheap Flights regularly searches for deals to your favorite destinations. Free subscribers get searches to a limited number of destinations, while those who pay $49 a year get unlimited destination searches.
Try Budget Airlines in International Destinations
“There are many (European) budget airlines, so once you get to your general vicinity you can easily access other areas. If I find a good deal anywhere in the vicinity of where I want to go, I take it,” Ruiz said.
For example, Instead of paying $700 to $1,400 to fly round-trip from New York to Paris, snag a $300 round-trip fare to Barcelona instead for half the price. “There’s easy access from Barcelona to Paris and other major cities,” she said.
Try flying budget airlines within the same country, too. “I once flew from Athens, Greece to Santorini for $9,” Ruiz said.
Snag Deals Quickly to Save Money
When Ruiz sees a great deal to international destinations, she doesn’t take the time to map out the rest of her trip. She buys the flight that gets her across the ocean before it’s sold out, then books the shorter flights to transport her throughout the region.
Expect More Direct Flights to Fun Places
Because bigger airlines offer more flights, they tend to operate on a hub-and-spoke model with multiple legs and connections to get from point A to B to C to D. Discount airlines with fewer planes focus more on just getting from point A to point B, said Keyes.
“They can be more direct and take less time, depending on where you are going,” he said. “If I’m going to fly to Vegas for the weekend I would spend twice as long on a flight on American,” he said.
Also, since leisure travelers are more sensitive to price than people flying for business, budget airlines cater mostly to that audience, he said. “You’re going to see more budget airlines flying to travel destinations like Las Vegas, Hawaii or Fort Lauderdale,” he added.
What to Bring on Low-Cost Carriers
Some low-cost carriers charge for blankets, earphones and food. So bring your own snacks and earphones for in flight entertainment, Ruiz advised.
It’s also smart to wear an extra coat or sweater to use as a blanket. Don’t pack it in your carry-on, though, because you need every ounce of space there for clothes to avoid checked baggage fees.
Katherine Snow Smith is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.