It’s not always the case that you’ll save the most money by booking with a low-cost carrier. Low-cost airlines have a sinister side. They entice you with low ticket prices, but then hit you with a slew of hidden charges.
Finding the best airline deals requires some familiarity with the industry. If you don’t, you can pay extra for a subpar service.
How Low-Cost Airlines Can Destroy Your Budget
Low-cost airlines often have very reasonable starting ticket pricing. However, the cost of additional surcharges may exceed the price of a ticket on a better airline if you aren’t content with a no-frills flight.
A recent search I conducted revealed that whereas American Airlines charged $455 for a round-trip ticket from New York to Medellin, Colombia, Spirit Airlines only charged $337.
Isn’t it a bargain deal?
Wait a minute! I would be subjected to Spirit Airlines’ nickel-and-diming if I weren’t prepared to travel economy class:
- One carry-on bag is $97 round-trip.
- Upgrade to an Emergency Exit Seat with Extra Legroom: $112 round-trip
- Because Spirit does not have a direct route, you must upgrade your seat on four different flights.
- Check-in fee at the airport: $20 round-trip
- Snacks and drinks on flight (or airport food during layovers): $22
Compared to the American Airlines flight, which offers the same comforts at no extra cost, your total will be $613.
Since Spirit departs from LaGuardia rather than John F. Kennedy, transportation costs will increase if you live further away from the airport. If you’re flying out of JFK and reside in Lawrence, New York, for instance, taking an UberX to and from the airport would cost you $39.34, while taking an UberX to and from LaGuardia will cost you $39.60. There may be additional expenses if your low-cost flight arrives in a smaller, out-of-the-way airport at your final destination.
The American Airlines trip is nonstop, saving you three hours of travel time compared to the Spirit Airlines option that requires a connection. What’s more, if your Spirit flight is delayed or canceled, you may have to wait until the next available flight or purchase a ticket with a different airline, both of which might cost you extra money.
Even though you may be able to save money by purchasing many upgrades at once from some low-cost airlines, you may find yourself paying more for less overall.
13 Ways to Save Money When Flying on Low-Cost Airlines
Low-cost airlines, sometimes known as “budget” airlines, are an alternative to the full-service airlines like Delta, American Airlines, and United Airlines by providing lower ticket pricing due to lower operating expenses. Low-cost airlines, in contrast to legacy airlines, emerged following the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which freed the industry from heavy federal oversight.
However, low-cost airlines aren’t always your best financial option. If you want to travel light and cheap, they are your best bet.
On legacy airlines, the ticket price already includes a variety of extras. Low-cost airlines have a reduced starting price but add on fees for anything beyond the basics. It’s easy to underestimate the cumulative impact of these surcharges because each one seems little on its own. You can spare some cash by doing without the extras.
Many budget airlines avoid long-haul flights because of the poor profits they generate and because they require more expensive maintenance on older planes.
However, not every low-cost airline is the same. While Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways both began as classic low-cost carriers, they have now evolved into hybrids that offer some of the luxuries traditionally associated with “legacy” airlines, such as free checked baggage and free food.
Contrarily, low-cost airlines like Ryanair, Allegiant Air, Allegiant Spirit, Frontier Airlines, and Sun Country Airlines are quite basic.
It is incorrect to group all low-cost airlines together. When comparing airfares, it’s important to be aware of each airline’s specific restrictions. If you want to save money when traveling low-cost airlines, it’s best to familiarize yourself with their additional costs ahead of time so you can plan accordingly.
- Sacrifice Your Legroom
Finding information on legroom on airline websites might be difficult. When Airfarewatchdog couldn’t discover this info on airline sites, they went to their sister site, SeatGuru, and used their seat maps to put together this guide. Most U.S.-based “legacy” airlines have seats with a pitch of 30–31 inches. The distance between a certain position on a seat, such as the backrest, and the corresponding point on the seat in front of it is referred to as the “seat pitch” of the seat.
If you want to go somewhere cheap, like Spirit Airlines, you’ll have to squeeze into a space that’s only 28 inches wide. There isn’t enough legroom for those with extended legs.
You could, of course, pay more for a seat in the 36-inch-wide front row or in the row closest to the exits. However, the price of a front row seat can range from $12 to $150, depending on the airline and the distance traveled. At that point, it’s usually wiser to shell out the extra money for a full-service airline with roomier economy seats.
A surprising finding from Airfarewatchdog is that low-cost carriers Southwest and JetBlue offer the most legroom in the sky, at 31 to 33 inches. There is a wide variety in legroom depending on the type of aircraft you’re flying.
So, pick your low-cost airline with care to keep your cash in your wallet. Talking to a flight attendant and “volunteering” to sit in the emergency exit row isn’t going to hurt if you’re stuck in a small seat. The worst they can say is no, and it has worked for me before.
- Seating Location Should Be Flexible
Whether you’re flying with a discount or a premium airline, you’ll likely have to pay more to choose your seat. However, on some budget airlines, that charge might be exorbitant.
To give you an idea of cost, a typical seat on Frontier Airlines may cost you anything from $17 to $55 one way. If you’re taking the kids with you, it may add up quickly.
You may be separated from your party if you don’t pay extra for the option to choose your seat. However, most airlines make an effort to keep families together. After several flights with Spirit Airlines, I was separated from my companion just once, and it was due to a last-minute schedule change.
Make sure you get on the plane at the same time by checking in online as soon as it becomes available. When you check in, the airline will place you in a seat. This means that the fewer people in your party who check in before more people, the fewer seats your party will have. Waiting until you get to the airport increases the likelihood that you may become separated.
- Plan Ahead of Time to Avoid Change Fees
Low-cost airlines are notoriously rigid with their cancellation and alteration policies. Although several businesses loosened their rules in response to the epidemic, passengers can’t count on low-cost airlines to keep their lenient booking procedures indefinitely.
Low-cost airlines such as Allegiant are still imposing flight change fees of $25 per passenger, despite the pandemic. You would lose $100 per ticket if you had to postpone a vacation that required one connecting flight in each direction (four flights in total).
Whereas Delta is waiving all change costs, even for economy class, throughout the epidemic. It’s tempting to just buy the ticket and figure out the details afterwards when you find a great deal on airfare. Not everyone would like to pass on a bargain. But if you don’t want to lose your money on a change charge, be sure your plans are set in stone before you buy.
- Make a Backup Strategy
Budget airlines often provide fewer flights to each destination than do legacy airlines. The number of airlines with whom they have an arrangement is likewise less. You might be stuck for days if the airline cancels your flight or you fail to make your connection. In that case, you’ll have to shell out extra cash for either a new ticket with a different airline or meals and lodging while you wait for the next flight.
In any case, you’ll have to part up some of your hard-earned cash.
Something similar occurred on the flight from Colombia to California. We missed our connecting flight because of a delay at customs during our brief stopover in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
A flight with that carrier wouldn’t be available until the next afternoon. The good news is that we have local friends who kindly offered us the use of their couch. If we hadn’t been able to fly, we would have had to spend more on a hotel and transportation than on the flight itself.
Having a contingency strategy in place is essential. In the event that you are unable to get a nonstop flight, you should plan for a lengthy layover in case of any delays, since this is especially important for foreign flights.
- Factor in Extra Transportation Costs
The destinations served by low-cost airlines tend to be less glamorous, especially in Europe. Since operating from smaller airports costs less, airlines may offer cheaper fares to their customers.
The issue with using these secondary airports is that they may be located further away from your final destination. Getting to and from the airport will cost you extra. One such airline is Ryanair, whose closest airport to Paris is in Beauvais, France, an hour and twenty minutes away by car.
It makes more financial sense to spend extra to fly into a more convenient location on a legacy airline rather than take two $70 cab fares before and after your flight.
- Plan your vacation around the locations of the destination airports.
When flying to a smaller, less convenient airport, you will be responsible for covering the additional transportation charges to your ultimate destination.
Why not pick a cheap airline and go to a place close to their hub? Vacation spots with secondary airports closer than principal ones might be found if you do your research. Example: the Ryanair airport in Paris is more than 58 miles from the Eiffel Tower but closer than 8 miles to the Parc Saint Paul entertainment park.
In certain places, there is just one airport, therefore low-cost and major airlines must all land there. If you book your flight to Malta with Ryanair, you won’t have to worry about transferring to a different airport to begin your trip.
- Travel dates should be flexible.
The less adaptable you may be when looking for flights, the more you’ll end up spending. That freedom extends to both the travel date and location.
There may come a day when a ticket from New York to Iceland just costs $300. It may be $800 the next day. Unfortunately, if you can’t change your departure date and it falls on a more costly day, you’ll be out of luck.
Which implies you could be setting yourself up for failure if you ask for time off from work before purchasing your plane ticket. Get your vacation time and airline tickets at the same time if at all feasible. That way, if your supervisor doesn’t allow your trip, you won’t be penalized for picking the cheapest days to travel.
Google Flights makes it easy to find the least expensive times to go. Enter your origin and destination cities and select a date to get pricing comparisons for the next two months.
- Pack wisely to avoid baggage fees.
When flying with a low-cost airline, you may expect to pay more for each bag you bring on board or have checked. Luggage costs may even exceed the cost of the ticket on some itineraries.
For $15, you can take off from Denver and land in Las Vegas courtesy of Frontier Airlines. There is a 500% increase in cost if you bring a carry-on bag ($40) and a checked bag ($35).
There are many budget airlines that throw in a complimentary bag, usually a handbag or a backpack. If you’re shipping anything by Frontier, its dimensions can’t be more than 18 by 14 by 8. You may avoid having to pay excess baggage fees by packing lightly and fitting everything into one carry-on piece of luggage.
Wear your bulkier clothing on the aircraft to save space, and carry your other belongings in a fanny pack. Carrying a passport and other items you’ll need quick access to during the flight in a big fanny pack is a great idea. During the six years I’ve been bringing fanny packs on planes, no one has ever ever made a fuss about it.
Baggage check-in requires that you weigh your bags in advance. Weight limitations are often lower on budget airlines compared to traditional airlines.
Typically, American Airlines has a 50-pound restriction on the total weight of all checked bags. Spirit only has a 40-pound limit. Overweight checked bags can be avoided by transferring heavier items to carry-ons, which airlines are less likely to weigh.
With Southwest Airlines, you may bring more of your belongings with you without worrying about extra fees, as they cover the cost of two checked bags, one carry-on, and one personal item, at no extra cost.
- Investigate to Avoid Unnecessary Fees
It’s possible to avoid these costs by taking some precautions. However, if you know what to look for, you can avoid them.
For instance, at some airports, Allegiant costs $5 for a printed boarding permit, whereas Spirit charges $10. It’s free if you print it at home, get it from the airline’s app, or use one of their self-service kiosks to get one.
Airline ticket bookings made online or over the phone are often subject to additional service costs. This is a “passenger use charge,” as Spirit puts it. Most journeys cost $22.99, and Spirit adds that in the web pricing you see. On most trips, Frontier adds a $19 carrier interface fee. In addition, Allegiant adds $18 to your ticket price to cover the cost of using your electronic carrier. You don’t know you’re paying it unless you read the tiny print.
You can avoid these charges by purchasing your tickets at the airport itself. There’s no guarantee that saving $22.99 on a one-way ticket is worth the hassle of driving to the airport and waiting in line. However, if you’re looking to fly a family of six round trip, you’ll need to budget $276.
If you’re serious about saving money, you’ll have to conduct some research into each airline’s individual regulations.
- Bring Your Own Animal Comforts
Don’t count on getting free food, headphones, or a cushion when traveling on a budget airline. In order to cut their prices, budget airlines eliminate certain features. You’ll need to bring your own comforts if you don’t want to be bored and uneasy.
A travel cushion, some food, and some movies on your phone or tablet are all things you should consider bringing along.
If you don’t do this, you’ll have to pay more for everything. Cans of Pepsi cost $3, and bags of Cheez-Its cost $4 with a credit card swipe on Allegiant, so stock up on snacks before your flight. It’s easy to rack up a large bill for airport and in-flight meals if you have a long day of travel and fail to carry snacks.
Low-cost airlines like Southwest charge $8 a day per device for in-flight Wi-Fi, while Norwegian and JetBlue provide free in-flight Wi-Fi so passengers can stream their own content. Because low-cost carriers like Allegiant and Frontier don’t provide Wi-Fi, it’s important to load up on entertainment before taking flight.
Don’t kid yourself into thinking you can save money by sleeping through your flight. Most inexpensive chairs don’t recline and have less legroom.
- Sign Up for Flight Deal Alerts
There is usually not enough time in the day to constantly monitor airline fares. For this reason, notifications for low-priced airline tickets are available. These are electronic newsletters that notify subscribers about error fares and other airfare deals (when airlines accidentally misprice a ticket).
Scott’s Cheap Flights is a well-liked option since it notifies users of discounted airfare discounts of up to 90%.
Scott’s Cheap Flights is an effective resource, however it does not include several low-cost carriers that provide less than desirable services. These airlines include Frontier, Spirit, Scoot (Asia), and Sun Country.
Sign up for the email newsletters of all of the airlines you’re interested in if you want to know about their latest deals. This will allow you to act quickly on any sales that come up.
- Compare Prices from Various Flight Search Engines
Different flight-booking sites have different features and advantages. Some of them include convenient search features. Some are more basic, while others have a larger number of airlines to choose from in their search.
As an illustration, Google Flights allows you to view travel costs for up to two months in advance. This will show you the days of the week with the lowest airfare, but it is not guaranteed to be accurate.
Momondo, on the other hand, does not display pricing for as many dates concurrently but often locates cheaper fares for any given period.
Search engines like Skyscanner and Kayak also have special features that make it simple to look for flights that depart and arrive at convenient airports and flexible dates. As an additional feature, you may use any of these search engines to create personalized price alerts. If you haven’t yet chosen where you want to travel, but know you want to visit one of the world’s 25 most populous cities, you may use Kayak to receive price notifications for these locations so you can make your decision based on cost.
Keeping them all straight may sound like a lot of work, but in reality, it’s not that difficult. Once you have your travel dates figured out, you can simply open multiple browser tabs to various search engines to locate the best deal.
- Include a stopover.
At some point, a long stopover stops being a nuisance and starts becoming an exciting opportunity to see a new place. Layovers that allow you to depart the airport, known as “stopovers,” might stretch for many days.
It’s like saving money and seeing an extra place at the same time! While traveling from Colombia to Michigan, I discovered that by spending two nights in Chicago around St. Patrick’s Day, I could save $150 on my flight. I planned a visit to Chicago specifically so that I could view the city’s famous “Bean” sculpture and the festively decorated Chicago River.
You may utilize layover-specific search engines like Airwander and CleverLayover to locate convenient stops throughout your journey. You may also hunt for layovers by yourself by discovering hub cities and playing around with dates.
If you’re looking to save money on your next trip, consider flying a low-cost carrier. Just be sure to pack accordingly.
A full-service airline is the preferable option if you have a lot of luggage, don’t want to buy meals on the plane, or are over six feet tall and find economy seats uncomfortable.
If you shop around, you might find surprisingly affordable options among full-service carriers. Visit our guide to cheap airfare for additional money-saving tips, including information on how to win free airfare.