What you need to know to Survive on Low-Cost Airlines

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As I’ve started to travel more, I’ve found myself (counter to what many expect) often sticking to low-cost airlines for short, domestic flights. This is mostly because I take lots of short trips where the things you lose by flying low-cost don’t really matter to me. This definitely doesn’t mean flying low-cost is for everyone. Let’s talk about what makes low-cost airlines different.

Prices are often, but not always lower

So, obviously, a big part of what separates low-cost airlines from other airlines is price. Flying out of ORD, I generally see low-cost airlines coming in about $40 each way cheaper than American, United, and Delta. Sometimes this difference is more, sometimes it is less, and, importantly, sometimes the low-cost airline isn’t the cheapest option. Always use a site like Kayak to compare prices before booking—don’t just assume your favorite low-cost airline will have the better price.

The cheapest low-cost option was Frontier for $207.

The cheapest low-cost option was Frontier for $207.

Most Low-Cost Carriers have TSA Precheck Now

As of this writing, Frontier and Spirit are not enrolled in TSA PreCheck. If you have PreCheck and it makes a big difference for you, you’ll want to avoid these two airlines until they’re added to the program. If you don’t have PreCheck, you should consider it.

Most low-cost airlines, including Spirit, Frontier, Southwest, and Allegiant are now enrolled in TSA PreCheck. If you do not have TSA PreCheck (or Global Entry), you should consider both of these options.

You'll Need to Mind your Packing to Actually Save with Low-Cost Fares

That $40 each way you'll save flying low-cost? It is usually nearly offset by the cost of adding a carry-on to your flight. I usually make due with a small backpack that fits the personal item restrictions of Spirit and Frontier. (In fact, I used my favorite backpack to get through a 10-night European vacation. I’m a light packer, definitely, but I also rely on the folding technique found in Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.)

If you’re flying with children, you might, counterintuitively, actually be better off than others on the low-cost airline. Equip your kid with an adult-sized personal item and with their smaller items you might wind up with more space than expected! Alternatively, even adding one carry-on to a four-person itinerary isn’t that great of a marginal cost.

The carry-on issue is especially important for Disney travelers. I’ve never been on a Disney vacation and not left with markedly more stuff than I came with. On a recent DCL cruise, I had to stuff both a Castaway Club bag and a Disney Vacation Club bag (won at a cruise event) into my personal item on the way home. Be aware about whether you’ll need that carry-on for your return flight. Lots of flights from MCO have people with gigantic Disney shopping bags doubling as luggage.    

Low-cost airlines tend to charge more the later you add a carry-on. Having to add it at the gate is much more expensive than adding it early on. I’ve never had my personal item challenged for size at the gate, but I keep mine reasonably close to the size limit. My wife and I both use the Jansport Digibreak backpack as our primary personal item, and highly recommend it.

Low-Cost Airlines Charge For Everything Else, Too

Moreover, low-cost airlines often charge for everything else. Look, non-stop flights from Seattle to MCO take 5 hours and 25 minutes—that is a long time. Flying from ORD for 2.5 hours, I have no trouble going without water. On a longer flight, I might wind up paying for that water. If you want to avoid paying for food and drink on the plane, buy it at the airport after security.

Similarly, keep in mind that some airlines, like Spirit, will charge you to print your boarding pass at the airport. (Yup!) To avoid this, check-in online and print your boarding pass at home or have your mobile pass ready to go.

The Seats On Low-Cost Aren't the Best

Low-cost airlines tend to have barebones seats. I’ve never minded them from a comfort standpoint, but the tray tables do tend to be laughably small. And you won’t be utilizing in-flight entertainment on any of these planes. That said, they can often be wider than some legacy carrier seats.

Not overflowing with space here.

Not overflowing with space here.

Low-Cost Carriers Have worse Schedules and more Limited Operations

Low-cost airlines tend to have fewer flights and worse schedules than other airlines. If you’re not picky about the time, this is less of an issue. Even so, you have to remember that if your flight gets cancelled you’re probably not going to wind up on another flight from the same airline the same day. Finally, I can only speak from some anecdotes, but when low-cost carriers cancel flights for weather, they often cancel all the flights at an airport. Here's a short post from the Cranky Flier that exemplifies this problem. Other airlines will tend to keep a few flights, so you might be able to rebook if they have another one headed to your destination.

Walt Disney World Resort Airline Check-In Doesn't Include All Airlines

This isn't so much about low-cost airlines, but to use Disney World's Resort Airline Check-In service, you have to be flying Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, The check-in service allows you to check in for your flight and check your luggage at your Disney resort.

Service Varies more by Crew than Airline (On Domestic Airlines)

Airline service varies greatly by crew. With the exception of some foreign airlines, you’re simply unlikely to get stellar service in America. That said, low-cost airlines seem to have slightly lower-quality service, in my experience. For what it's worth, here's a story about things going really, really wrong on a Spirit flight (and, er, bus...).

Entertainment and Internet Options Vary Greatly

Entertainment and internet options vary by airline, route, and plane type. They even vary by more random factors. I’m drafting this post on a United flight where we got free tv because of some delays associated with our flight. This is a great day for it, too, because it means we’ll get to watch Monday Night Football! If having in-flight entertainment or wifi is important for you, you may need to avoid the low-cost airlines.

Low Cost Carriers Have Worse Mileage Programs

Low-cost carriers don’t tend to have great mileage programs. Like all airlines, if you’re loyal you’ll accrue points to use on flights. Redemption options and earning rates are often better than with legacy airlines. However, these airlines often have fewer transfer partners and worse elite programs. Frontier doesn’t have business class, so you’re not going to earn your way to business class upgrades.

What Isn’t Different—Safety

Flying is incredibly safe, and low-cost airlines are also incredibly safe. Yes, some airlines seem to test the boundaries, with Allegiant Air being notably criticized. When reading that article about Allegiant, bear in mind that none of those incidents resulted in death or any noted injury. Spirit boasts of having the youngest fleet in America. As far as pilots, they’re all going to be certified to do their jobs. My favorite pilot was on a Frontier flight from MCO to ORD. While we dealt with flying through a storm system and then faced turbulence from the jet stream, he kept us informed as to what to expect and for how long.

Conclusion

In life, you'll often get what you pay for, and air travel isn't much different. That said, how much do you need on your flight? If the answer is not much, then it might be worth it to save the money. Low-cost airlines get a bad rap they often don't serve because they're deviating downward from the baseline. But think about this: how often are spending hundreds more for First class on a short flight? Probably not often. It's okay to decline to deviate upwards from the norm because you're still at the norm. There's no reason that, if you can make it work, you shouldn't consider a low-cost airline for your next trip. Take those savings and put them toward something you'll remember a lot more than a small tray table!