7 factors that make a great low-cost airline

Mar 5, 2020

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U.K. travellers can have a love/hate relationship with low-cost carriers. They can provide amazingly affordable fares as well as the ability to fly nonstop to places that full-service carriers may not operate to without time-consuming connections. But the actual flight experience may be unpleasant and you may be regretting that cheap fare by the end of the flight.

But low-cost carriers can differ hugely from one to the next — from those that are noticeably uncomfortable through to those that are barely discernible from their full-service rivals. Here is what makes a great low-cost carrier.

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1. Full-size cabin bags included with all fares

Airlines like Ryanair and Wizz Air don’t include a full-size cabin bag with their advertised fares, only a small personal item that must go under the seat in front of you like a laptop bag or purse. If you can travel this way — such as if it’s just an overnight trip — then you can expect some amazing deals.

But if you need to take a full-size cabin bag on board, then the advertised price isn’t the advertised price — you can expect to pay extra. And if you are comparing the fare to other carriers that do include a normal cabin bag, you need to remember to add the cost of the cabin bag to the price of the carrier that doesn’t include it.

Fortunately, comparison sites like Google Flights now note next to the price where cabin bags are not included to help you compare like-for-like.

I like low-cost carriers that include full-size cabin bags as standard so you don’t have to remember whether they do or don’t each time you are looking at prices.

Related: 7 ways to improve your low-cost flight experience

(Photo by Iam Anupong/Getty Images)
(Photo by Iam Anupong/Getty Images)

2. Operating to and from major airports

If you’ve ever landed next to a shed in the middle of nowhere and then spent hours in a bus getting to the city you were travelling to, you will value the benefit of flying to and from major airports. Ryanair, for example, flies to Paris Beauvais (BVA) airport, while EasyJet flies to Paris-Charles De Gaulle (CDG). CDG is significantly closer to Paris — Paris Beauvais is 108 km away — and has much better transport links as a major European airport.

Wherever you are flying to or from, check if the airline flies to a primary airport. The savings could easily be eradicated with the time and cost of actually getting to or from that airport.

Related: Second Cities: The best destinations to add onto a trip to Paris

3. Easy online check-in

Some low-cost carriers have clean, easy-to-use, reliable apps to check-in online and issue boarding passes. Others have frustrating and archaic processes, like Ryanair’s visa check requirement. The last thing you want to be doing the day before the end of your holiday as you are soaking up the last of the beach sunshine is run around town trying to find a printer or internet cafe.

4. Free random seat selection

A key feature of a low-cost carrier is that in exchange for a low fare, you cannot choose your own seat. If you want to, you have to pay extra to do so. I have no issues with this system. On a one-hour flight, I really don’t care if I’m in row 8 or row 28. Most low-cost carriers will allocate you a seat for free during the check-in process if you have not already paid for a seat. In my experience, I’m usually seated next to whoever is on the same booking as me even if the seat is randomly allocated.

But did you know not all low-cost airlines will provide a free randomly allocated seat at check-in? I was stung last year on Vueling as I did not know it only allocates a limited number of seats for free, or you’ll be randomly assigned a seat at check-in. If you don’t grab one of the free seats as soon as online check-in opens, you are forced to pay to select a seat — whether you want one or not. The only other way to get a free seat is to physically check-in at the airport, which can be time-consuming and a hassle.

Related: Rolling the dice and losing — TPG UK staff travel mistake story

07 March 2019, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Stuttgart: An Airbus A321 of the airline Vueling Airlines takes off from Stuttgart Airport. Photo: Fabian Sommer/dpa (Photo by Fabian Sommer/picture alliance via Getty Images)
(Photo by Fabian Sommer/picture alliance/Getty Images)

5. Pleasant ground and cabin crew

Some staff working for certain low-cost airlines seem like they really don’t want to be there. On other carriers, the crew seem to really enjoy their roles and it improves the passenger experience. Jet2 advertises itself as “friendly low fares” and that has been my exact experience throughout the various times I’ve flown with that airline. Smiles from the check-in staff and cabin crew that are happy to have a chat about your holiday plans, especially with the kids onboard, is great.

6. No weighing of cabin bags

All low-cost carriers have strict rules on cabin baggage — usually on their size and weight. But the enforcement of these rules varies hugely from carrier to carrier. I’ve had some awful experiences on carriers like Tigerair (an Australian low-cost carrier) where you must queue up at the gate to have your cabin bags weighed (and tagged as an approved weight) and then line up again for boarding. I really dislike this process.

Other low-cost carriers will perform a visual check of your cabin bag but not weigh it. If the bag looks clearly too big (and remember these gate staff check thousands of bags a day so have a pretty good instinct for what does and does not measure up), they may ask you to fit it into the metal sizer to check. If it doesn’t fit, understandably, they will make you check it in (usually for a fee).

I never try to take on board a bag that is physically larger than the allowed size. But I appreciate those low-cost airlines that don’t actually weigh the bags and will let you on board if the bag looks right (though it might be a little overweight).

Related: Norwegian Air implements fees for cabin bags, increases checked-luggage allowance

A Norwegian Air Shuttle Boeing 737-800 landing at Amsterdam Schiphol International Airport, the Netherlands. Norwegian is a low cost carrier airline and third in size in Europe from Norway. The aircraft has the registration LN-NIA and is painted in a special livery of Johan Ludvig Runeberg. The airplane was manufactured in Renton, US. Norwegian is flying from Schiphol to Copenhagen, Helsinki, New YorkJFK, OsloGardermoen, StockholmArlanda. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
(Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

7. Wi-Fi

I constantly work while travelling for TPG, so I value Wi-Fi on a flight. I know that Wi-Fi doesn’t really fit into the standard low-cost model, but these flights can be more than five hours, which is a long time to be offline. Airlines like Norwegian offer free Wi-Fi, which I think is fantastic.

Bottom line

There is so much choice provided to U.K. travellers when it comes to low-cost carriers — especially on short hops to mainland Europe. Between two particular cities like London and Barcelona, you can have multiple low-cost carriers all competing for your business. The experience can range from downright unpleasant through to really enjoyable. There’s no perfect low-cost carrier, but these are the factors that can take a low-cost carrier from average to great.

Featured photo by NurPhoto/Getty Images

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