Your Survival Guide to 8 Low-Cost Carriers
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Like many purchases, airfare is frequently a trade-off between cost and comfort. Today, TPG Contributor Mitch Berman offers some tips for those who prefer to save on flights and spend their travel dollars elsewhere.
Meet Adam West. No, not the former Batman, but this guy too is a sort of legend, also has an alter-ego and could even be called a certain type of crime fighter.
Let me explain. Adam West was the Facebook pseudonym for Manchester student Adam Armstrong. That’s normal. His girlfriend’s stepdad wanted to buy him a ticket to Ibiza. That’s normal enough too. So when the stepdad booked Adam on low-cost carrier Ryanair under Adam’s Facebook name, it was an entirely normal mistake. Except that to put it right by simply changing the surname on the ticket, Ryanair wanted to charge Adam $337. Now that is not normal — at least for someone expecting to get a great deal on a flight.
Instead of paying Ryanair’s ticket change fee, Adam Armstrong legally changed his own name and had a passport issued for his new identity, because it was almost $200 cheaper than flying under his birth name on Ryanair. That’s not only abnormal, it’s stark raving mad.
Whether flyers like it or not, charging a low base fare and then piling on extras is the new business model for low-cost carriers (LCCs) — and increasingly for regular economy carriers as well. In this post, I’ll explain the extra charges you can expect to encounter on eight prominent LCCs, and I’ll offer some tips to help you avoid paying those charges so you can keep your “low-cost” flights from becoming high-cost pains.
What to Expect
The experience on low-cost carriers is vastly different from what you find on other airlines, and passengers who are caught by surprise are generally the ones who end up paying the most. To help you be prepared for your next low-cost flight, the following chart summarizes the policies of several popular (or, in some cases, unpopular) budget carriers. You’ll find more details on each carrier below (note that you’ll need to pay the fees below for each direction of travel).
|Low-Cost Carrier||Main Service Region||Free Personal Item||First Carry-on bag||First Checked Bag||Seating Choice||Free Food and/or Drink||Rewards Program||Safety Rating (out of 7)|
|Frontier||USA||Yes||$30-$60||$25-$60||$4-$10||No||Yes, and card||7|
|Sun Country||USA||Yes||Free||Usually free||$0-$25||No||Yes, and card||7|
|WOW||Europe||Yes||Duty-free bag only||$48-$67||$5-$19||No||No||5|
Charges in the First Carry-on and First Checked Bag columns depend mainly on when you pay to take a bag — earlier is cheaper, and during the reservation process is best. Charges can also vary based on other factors unique to the airline.
In this context, “Seating Choice” simply means the ability to choose among the available regular seats, not from among premium seats. The scores in the Safety Rating column are taken from airlineratings.com; you’ll find that safety is one area where most low-cost carriers fall consistently below the major airlines.
How to Save
LCC extra charges can often come as a surprise. Here are some tips to help you avoid sticker shock at the airport:
- Know what the airline charges for each extra.
- Choose which extras you want long before you get on the plane, preferably at time of booking. If you wait until you’re at the airport, the charges can increase dramatically.
- Check maximum luggage dimensions and weight on each LCC (from personal item to carry-on to checked bag), since airlines differ not only in luggage measurements, but also in strictness of enforcement.
- Proofread every screen you enter while buying your ticket.
- Proof it again when you receive the confirmation email. If there are any inaccuracies, phone the airline immediately.
- Check in online, print your ticket and do not forget to bring it with you.
- Travel light (as in, bring the clothes on your back, a personal item and maybe a sandwich from home).
- Expect A-to-B transit, and no amenities (unless you’re willing to pay extra).
Now let’s take a look at each of these LCCs, beginning with four domestic airlines and concluding with four based in Europe. In each case, I compared a fare on the respective low-cost carrier to a similar fare on a major airline in order to see whether flying cheap is actually cheaper.
|Sample Itinerary — Las Vegas-Indianapolis, October 26-30|
|Ticket on Southwest with two checked bags, free carry-on and drink||$351|
|Starting fare on Allegiant with no extras||$189|
|Ticket on Allegiant with one checked bag, carry-on and drink||$249|
Headquartered in Nevada, Allegiant offers service extending over Florida, Hawaii and much of the southern US. With extra fees that are lower than most of the LCCs, Allegiant has no rewards program and no codeshares with other airlines. On Allegiant’s website, be prepared to jump through many flaming hoops before you’re actually allowed to buy your tickets.
|Sample Itinerary — Seattle-Denver, November 4-11
|Ticket on United with free carry-on, seat choice and drink||$186|
|Starting fare on Frontier with no extras||$158|
|Ticket on Frontier with carry-on, seat choice and drink||$241|
As you can see, United wallops Frontier’s price for an equivalent ticket; Frontier beats United only if you select the no-frills flight. This will be a recurring theme for many of the comparisons below.
Frontier Airlines — one of our only two LCCs with the highest safety rating of 7 — is based in Denver and serves over 50 destinations, mainly in the US but with a few international routes as well.
A relatively no-nonsense carrier with lower fees than most, Frontier has several programs that would be useful to a loyal flyer living in its service area, including a frequent flyer program (Frontier is the only LCC miles rated in TPG’s monthly valuations). The airline offers two co-branded credit cards, including the Frontier Airlines World MasterCard, which offers a pretty good sign-up bonus of 40,000 miles after spending $500, along with an annual fee of $69. That’s enough for two domestic round-trip awards. In addition, Frontier’s Discount Den would save you $60 on the above fares alone for a $50 annual fee, and would continue giving you similar discounts for the rest of the year.
|Sample Itinerary — Fort Lauderdale-Lima, January 9-17
|Ticket on JetBlue with free checked bag, carry-on, seat and drink||$721|
|Starting fare on Spirit with no extras||$467|
|Ticket on Spirit with checked bag, carry-on, seat and drink||$621|
Based in Florida and serving 39-plus destinations in North, South and Central America, Spirit Airlines offers low base fares — in fact, it’s often called the cheapest US airline, and offers frequent fare sales. While Spirit dishes up a lot of extra charges, they’re clearly spelled out when you make a reservation, so at least you know what you’re buying. Spirit does have a frequent flyer program, but redemptions come with fees.
Spirit’s website is even more unwieldy than Allegiant’s, and the airline has a reputation for its seedy marketing campaigns (like last year’s “Many Islands Low Fares” promotion). More importantly, Spirit is the only US airline to get a 2-star rating from the independent airline review and rating company Skytrax. TPG Special Contibutor Eric Rosen ranks Spirit dead last among domestic carriers, and according to Seatguru, two of Spirit’s three types of aircraft include seats that don’t recline and have only 28-inches of pitch — the least of any US domestic carrier.
To Spirit’s limited credit, the airline has enough sense to be self-deprecating, and has even offered miles for complaining about the airline. To its lasting discredit, Spirit levies the cruelest set of charges of any of the 8 LCCs featured here. Expect to pay if you fail to prepare properly for the Spirit experience and do something crazy like bring a carry-on to the gate without noting it online when you check in. That little mistake in particular will cost you an extra $100!
|Sample Itinerary — Minneapolis-Orlando, September 11-15|
|Ticket on Delta with free carry-on, seat choice and drink||$336|
|Ticket on Sun Country with free carry-on, seat choice and drink||$210|
Of all the LCCs discussed here, Sun Country (based in Minneapolis) is probably the most reasonable in terms of extra charges, and has a pretty straightforward website. Like Frontier, Sun Country received the top safety rating of 7. It’s an especially good option if you regularly fly into or out of Minneapolis. Sun Country operates a frequent flyer program and co-branded credit card, both of which offer decent value.
|Sample Itinerary — Amsterdam-Belfast, November 8-12
|Ticket on KLM with free carry-on, seat choice and drink:||$121|
|Starting fare on easyJet with free carry-on (no personal items):||$138|
|Ticket on easyJet with seat choice and drink:||$152|
Based out of London Luton, easyJet is one of the most hated airlines in the industry. Fares routinely become so inflated with extra charges that tickets wind up being considerably pricier than comparable fares on other carriers (though in the example above, even the basic ticket cost was higher on easyJet). easyJet is also known for grossly overbooking flights in violation of EU regulations (thus selling seats that don’t exist) and for well-publicized fiascos like when the airline sent an elderly woman in a wheelchair who spoke no English to Malta instead of Athens (which is what her ticket said and where her luggage went), and then left her stranded without assistance.
If you happen to be a very frequent flyer on the airline, you might want to look into EasyJet Plus, which gives you benefits like seat choice, Fast Track, and an additional cabin bag for $266 annually. EasyJet also operates a frequent flyer program that is bizarrely partnered with Emirates, making for quite the odd couple!
|Sample Itinerary — NYC-Oslo, September 22-27
|Ticket on SAS with free carry-on, 1 checked bag, limited seat choice and complimentary meal with drink||$681|
|Starting fare on Norwegian with free carry-on||$635|
|Ticket on Norwegian with Lowfare+*||$736|
*Norwegian’s Lowfare+ is a bundle package including one checked bag, seat choice and a meal if one is served on the flight.
Based in Oslo, Norwegian serves 139 destinations in 40 countries, including Bangkok and Dubai. Norwegian has recently offered a series of outstanding round-trip deals to the West Coast, including Oakland-Stockholm for $369, LAX-Oslo for $404, and NYC-Stockholm for $313. Just a couple of weeks ago, the airline announced low fares to several new destinations in the Caribbean.
Norwegian’s fees tend to be moderate by LCC standards, but they can be quite high on long-haul routes like those involved in the West Coast deals above. Norwegian has further complicated its extra charges with its City Pair system. Based on distance and inconvenience to the airline, it assigns every route a letter from A through G, from the shortest to the longest (and most expensive). This generally means that travelers get a good deal for shorter flights and a poor one for longer flights. For example, you’ll only pay $12 for the first checked bag from Oslo to Stockholm, but you’ll pay $42 from Copenhagen to Orlando.
|Sample Itinerary — Boston-Reykjavik, October 5-13
|Ticket on Icelandair with complimentary 2 checked bags, carry-on, seat choice and free drinks||$756|
|Starting fare on WOW with no extras||$500|
|Ticket on WOW with carry-on, checked bag, seat choice and drink||$669|
Based in Reykjavik, Iceland, with destinations in Europe and the US, WOW might be familiar to TPG readers for its recent $99 one-way fares between Boston-Amsterdam and Baltimore-Paris. While WOW offers no-frills service, it can be a great option for an inexpensive trip.
Fees on WOW are moderate, with checked bags generally costing more than on other LCCs. WOW has a peculiar pair of US destinations in Boston and Baltimore. If you don’t live in either of those cities, you have to take into account the cost of getting to them.
|Sample Itinerary — London-Barcelona, December 10-16|
|Ticket on British Airways with checked bag, seat choice and a drink (from Gatwick)||$152|
|Starting fare on RyanAir with no extras (from Stansted)||$ 78|
|Ticket on Ryanair with checked bag, seat choice and a drink (from Stansted)||$145|
Ryanair offers service to 191 destinations in 31 countries, and will charge you for everything other than carry-ons, which are free. When I say the airline charges you for everything else, I mean it never stops selling you things. Expect to pay more for everything from your seat selection and reprinting a ticket to parking and text updates. Ryanair backed down after its initial plans to install coin-operated toilets, but the fact that it was even being discussed speaks volumes.
I’ve flown Ryanair, and I admit that I had no major complaints, but my flight was less than an hour long. TPG has asserted that Ryanair is the worst airline in the world, and he’s not the only one who feels that way. The scary part is that Ryanair is considered an innovator and pioneer within the LCC industry. The airline carried 86 million passengers last year, ranking second among European airlines and sixth among all airlines in the world. Flyers can complain all they like, but from the corporate standpoint, the business model seems to be working.
Much as we might protest the extra charges, this approach to air travel isn’t going away anytime soon. If that makes you feel sick, just remember that now you can advertise on Spirit Airlines barf bags!
What experiences have you had on low-cost carriers?