When budget flights actually make good budget sense

by Сашка

Cost-conscious airlines are not always a good deal after you weigh luggage fees and the price of getting to remote airports.

Some flight deals seem too good to be true. $26 for a one-way ticket from London to Rome? $29 from Boston to Miami? $44 from Denver to New York?

Such flights, all on budget airlines, are popular because they offer fast travel to in-demand locations at a lower price point.

But between the extra baggage and seat fees, the limited flight options and the lack of amenities, the costs of flying budget can become much more than expected. Tom Varghese, owner of the travel agency Travel Tom, said he tries not to book budget airlines for his clients for that reason.

“Sometimes it can work out, if the cost differential can be dramatic, but these days that’s not the case,” Varghese said. “When things go wrong, it can go really really wrong.”

That’s not to say budget airlines are always a bad option. Here’s what travelers should keep in mind when deciding whether to book a budget-airline flight.

What is a budget airline?

According to travel experts, airlines fall into one of three rough categories. Legacy carriers, like American Airlines, Delta and United, offer more varieties of ticket and seat options, and are often higher-end. Low-cost carriers (think Southwest and JetBlue) still provide competitive amenities like WiFi or better legroom.

Budget airlines are the cheapest of the three, offering savings that typically accompany little to none of the usual free flight perks, such as carry-on bags or refreshments. Often, budget carriers also will have less legroom and more limited routes and flight times.

In the United States, popular budget airline options include Spirit and Frontier. In Europe, customers can book EasyJet, Ryanair, Vueling, Wizz Air and a host of other carriers. And in Latin America, travelers can look at Viva Air Colombia, Sky Airline and Amaszonas, among others.

How fees can ‘really, really quickly’ add up

While budget airlines can offer flights with 50 percent savings on a ticket, those sticker prices aren’t the whole story.

Budget carriers almost always charge travelers extra to pick seats, get a drink or snack on the plane, or print their boarding pass in the airport. In addition, virtually all budget airlines require passengers to pay extra for their checked luggage and carry-on, regardless of the length of the flight.

These luggage charges can sometimes cost more than the flight itself. Charges can get even more dramatic if travelers don’t conform to the often smaller bag-size standards that budget airlines set. On Spirit, for example, checked bags that weigh more than 40 pounds can cost up to $125 — and oversize bags are an additional $150. And on Frontier, bags between 41 and 100 pounds come with a charge of $75 to $100.

“These things add up really, really quickly,” Varghese said.

Budget airlines can also cause problems in the case of canceled or delayed flights. Because these carriers have fewer flights per day and more limited routes, getting on a new flight in the case of a cancellation can take a day or more during busy season.

“If you’re going during peak weeks … you better pray that everything goes well, because there’s not a chance in heck that you’re going to get your issue resolved in a timely manner,” Varghese said. It’s almost like “canceling your whole vacation.”

You should also consider that many budget airlines, especially in Europe, service airports that are far from the city center. In London, for example, EasyJet and Ryanair often use Gatwick and Stansted airports rather than the much larger Heathrow. The cost of taxis or other transit from these airports can be high, in some cases outweighing the money saved by booking a budget flight.

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Are budget flights right for you?

Budget airlines can be a sound financial choice for a specific traveler. Betsy Ball, co-owner of the Wisconsin-based agency Euro Travel Coach, said she often uses Ryanair and EasyJet to hop between European cities, since these flights can sometimes be faster and cheaper even than other forms of transportation.

“Depending on what it is you’re trying to do, you can save a lot of time by getting a flight,” she said.

While that may not work as well for families or couples traveling with luggage and trying to sit together, budget airlines may make sense for the lone backpacker wanting to save. While the cheap Frontier or EasyJet flight can make financial sense for the lone backpacker, the same won’t be the case for families or couples traveling with carry-ons and luggage. Mike Heck, a vice president at Fox World Travel, where he’s responsible for liaising between Fox and its travel partners, said it comes down to the type of traveler and the trip they have in mind.

“If you’re looking for the absolutely lowest ticket price — no seat assignment, no baggage, no amenities, no food or beverage — budget is a good thing to do,” he said. “It’s when you start to upgrade things — getting baggage, seat assignment, a snack on board, access to WiFi — that’s when it starts to increase the cost and it isn’t as affordable as people think when buying the ticket.”

It helps if you’re flexible, too. Budget flights, Heck said, are “generally not for business travelers and generally not for people who don’t want to have the inconvenience” of having to reschedule a flight.

Double-check the airline rules, and do your math

Travel experts agreed that the key when booking is to compare entire flight packages. Ball recommends using websites like Skyscanner or Google Flights, and then taking your search to the specific websites for each airline.

“I’ll narrow it down to two or three and then, it’s a pain, but go through the process of getting a ticket” on the airline’s website, she said. “That’s when you see how much is going to cost and can look at the luggage requirement.”

Fliers may find in their searching that there are other options available that offer close to the price of a budget airline with the protections of a low-cost or legacy carrier. Some standard carriers, for instance, now feature basic or reduced-amenity fares.

If you decide on a budget carrier after doing your calculations, experts recommend that you check whether you need to print your boarding pass. If you need to purchase a bag, make sure to do it well in advance, since some airlines like EasyJet have a limited amount of bag space that they sell, and missing that window can mean additional fees.

“Just read all the fine print so you know what you’re getting into,” Ball said.

More travel tips

Vacation planning: Start with a strategy to maximize days off by taking PTO around holidays. Experts recommend taking multiple short trips for peak happiness. Want to take an ambitious trip? Here are 12 destinations to try this year — without crowds.

Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

Airport chaos: We’ve got advice for every scenario, from canceled flights to lost luggage. Stuck at the rental car counter? These tips can speed up the process. And following these 52 rules of flying should make the experience better for everyone.

Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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