Budget airlines can be your best friend or your worst nightmare. If you don’t mind forsaking some of the creature comforts offered by commercial airlines (free checked bags, reclining seats, headphones, in-flight entertainment), they can be a great way to get the most bang from your budget travel buck.
A majority of the horror stories that I’ve heard regarding budget airlines come down to one thing: not knowing the rules. I’m not discounting the tales of atrocious customer service or random flight cancellations, but I feel like those things happen when you’re an economy class passenger on any airline. So here are some things to think about if you’re considering flying on a budget airline:
Check luggage restrictions. They change frequently, and most likely will get more restrictive, not less.
Icelandair (which due to its many amenities I did not consider a budget airline, but it is!) used to offer the most generous luggage allowance – two 50 pound suitcases on flights from the US to Europe. In January, they recently reduced this to one 50 pound bag, which is still more generous than most budget airlines.
Restrictions also apply to carry-on luggage. For example, Spirit Airlines allow passengers one carry-on bag, the size of which was recently reduced from 16 x 14 x 12 inches to 8 x 14 x 8 inches.
United’s new Basic Economy class (read: United’s attempt to milk more money from passengers without calling itself a “budget airline”) has similar restrictions.
Note any extra fees. This is where most people are caught off guard and is an overwhelming source of anxiety and frustration. But if you know the fees in advance, you can avoid most of them.
Let’s take Spirit Airlines again. There are four tiers of prices for checked bags and the prices may vary by the length of the flight. On a flight from Atlanta to Boston, for example, you have the following options for paying for one piece of checked luggage: $32 when you book; $42 before or during online check in; $52 at the airport; or $65 at the gate. Believe it or not, the fees for carry-on luggage are more expensive than the fees for checked bags. If you’re a member of Spirit’s loyalty program (which, of course, costs extra), you receive a tiny discount off of checked luggage.
One time when Spirit really worked to my advantage was when I flew to the Jersey Shore last summer. All I needed was my flip flops and my bikini, which fit easily in a small backpack. I’ve also heard of people wearing multiple layers of clothing onto their flight to conserve space in their carry on.
Spirit also charges extra to book your ticket online or over the phone – it’s actually cheaper to go to the airport and purchase the ticket at the Spirit ticket counter.
Additionally, you will pay $10 extra if you get a boarding pass at the Spirit ticket counter. But not to worry – you can print them for free at home or at Spirit’s self-serve airport kiosk. Note that at the time of this post, Spirit Airlines does not offer mobile boarding passes and their app is pretty much useless.
Also, while Spirit does not offer in-flight entertainment, other airlines like Icelandair do. But be prepared to pay for headphones.
Before you hit “book,” it’s a good idea to work out exactly how much the ticket will cost you and compare it to other more expensive fares that include these “extras” as part of the ticket price. More likely than not, you’ll find the prices to be comparable.
And then there’s…
Food. Food could be included along with other additional fees, but I think it is always worthy of its own category.
Buy a soda or fill up your water bottle before you board – unless it’s Icelandair because, as my family agreed, their water tastes like you’re sipping on a melted glacier that’s been blessed by fairies.
Because Icelandair is so well-appointed (hello, 32-inch seat pitch, wide leather seats and amazing movie and TV selection) and asked for my menu preference when I made my reservation, I assumed there would be food in their economy class. Surprise! You have to pay extra! Luckily, there are some pretty good options on board from skyre (Icelandic yogurt) to sandwiches, which are priced about the same as you’d expect to pay if you grabbed something in the airport.
I recommend bringing a huge bar of chocolate and taking generous bites as you stare down unruly children. They will be awed into silence and their subsequent begging to mom or dad is the perfect revenge for laissez-faire parenting. You will also be doing your civic duty by teaching the kids a valuable lesson about the delicious freedom that comes with being an adult.
Many budget airlines use smaller airports which may cause unforeseen problems. I flew Spirit from Chicago to Atlantic City, a tiny airport with one terminal. While this does have some advantages like quicker security lines and less jockeying at baggage claim, it can also be a hindrance. Bring a good book because there’s not a whole lot to do while waiting in a smaller airport. More importantly, smaller airports have fewer daily flights. So if your flight does get cancelled, you have less chance of being re-booked in a few hours on the next flight because there might not be a next flight until the following day.
The loyalty programs of budget airlines are usually pants. Loyalty programs cost money to administer and are a revenue loss when people redeem points for flights and other perks. As mentioned above, Spirit charges for membership to its loyalty program. A good hack for maxing out points on loyalty programs is to find one that’s in a network of global carriers. For example, my Icelandair points accrue on my Alaska Airlines account, which can also be used for the super posh Emirates Airlines.
There may be other weird quirks you don’t think about until you’re at the airport. I discovered that even though I paid for five years of TSA pre-check, Spirit Airlines didn’t participate in the program until February 2017. And of course I found this out when I was running late. This is because airlines pay money to the TSA for their passengers to have this privilage.
As important as it is to learn the rules, it’s equally important to make sure you give yourself a refresher before you book your next flight on a budget airline. They change fast and often.
Another rule of thumb is to know the extent to which you’ll sacrifice your own personal comfort. While I have no problem taking Spirit Airlines on quick jaunts around the US, I’d be hesitant to take longer trips to other countries. Personally, I’d rather pay a few extra bucks for checked bags and a seat that reclines than to arrive in another country with only the shirt on my aching back.