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Travel hacking isn't just about tons of premium cabin international travel. Sometimes you just need to get from point A to point B as cheaply as possible. Especially on domestic flights under four hours, we typically don't care much about the ride itself, we care about the price.
So we fly low-cost (or "ultra low-cost") airlines, like JetBlue, Southwest, Frontier and even Spirit. Flying low-cost might not be for everyone, but it can be a great way to save. Here's our guide to flying and surviving low-cost airlines.
Introduction to Low-Cost Airlines
While there is no official, industry definition of "low-cost airline," the term usually refers to airlines that charge for (or don't offer) smaller things typically included in an airline fare, like snacks, drinks, seat selection, and, most importantly, checked or carry-on baggage. Probably the number one surprise people encounter when flying a low-cost airline is that most low-cost airlines charge your for a carry-on (much more on this below).
In the U.S., we're typically talking about the following airlines when we use the term "low-cost": Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin America, Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant (the last three being sometimes called "ultra low-cost." These airlines are usually contrasted with legacy carriers (American, Delta, United) and regional carriers (mostly Alaska these days).
Obviously, not all low-cost airlines are the same. Southwest, for example, allows for two free checked bags, a rarity even among ordinary airlines. Southwest's fares, though, are typically higher than those of the other low-cost airlines. Always check with your airline for the specifics of your fare. We are trying to prepare you for the most typical low-cost scenarios in this post.
Comparing Prices & Booking Your Low-Cost Flight
Before you book a flight with a low-cost airline, you need to make sure it is actually going to save you money compared to other airlines.
Prices are often, but not always, lower
The reason you're looking at low-cost airlines is price. Flying out of Chicago (ORD), we 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 or Google Flights to compare prices before booking—don’t just assume your favorite low-cost airline will have the better price. And remember, Southwest fares can only be found on Southwest.com.
|Suggested Reading: We have a Guide to Getting the Lowest Prices on Flights|
As recently as last year, you would often find fares on American, United, and Delta that included carry-on or checked baggage that were cheaper than low-cost airlines charging for those options. Now, with those airlines introducing basic economy fares, chances are that when a legacy carrier beats a low-cost carrier on price, it is with a basic economy fare.
Basic Economy Fares vs. Low-Cost Airlines
Basic economy fares are (airlines claim) the answer to low-cost carriers. Basically, you're paying to fly a legacy carrier (like United) and be treated like you would on a low-cost airline. There are huge differences though, that make us prefer low-cost airlines.
We're going to use United as an example here, and you should know American and Delta are somewhat better along some of these points, but here are reasons to prefer low-cost airlines to United basic economy:
- Personal items (your only free bag) on United are smaller than those on most low-cost airlines, including Spirit.
- You can't bring a carry-on on United basic economy. You can at least pay for one on low-cost airlines.
- United basic economy has no advance seat selection (you can usually pay for it on low-cost) and specifically states there is no "group seating" even for families.
- You're in the last boarding group on United basic economy, while in low-cost it's mostly random or by check-in time.
- You can't check-in online for United basic economy, because they want to make sure you don't carry on a bag.
- You can't earn miles flying United basic economy, while at least you'll earn crumby low-cost airline miles flying low-cost airlines.
These are important differences to us, but they might not be a big deal to everyone. Many of the same principles apply to flying low-cost and basic economy, so stick with us if you're considering a basic economy fare.
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, we 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.
|Note: Your options for getting rebooked in case of cancellation could be slightly better in basic economy on a major airline than on a low-cost airline.|
Book An Early Flight As Insurance
Low-cost carriers tend to have the best prices at the worst times, including really early in the morning. The thing is, when you're flying low-cost, you probably want to be booked on the earliest flight. Because of their limited operations, you need the most flexibility possible if something goes wrong, and you'll get that at the beginning of the day. If your flight gets delayed or cancelled, you might still be able to find a flight out the same day on your airline or another.
|Mouse Hacking Tip: Book with a card with good travel protection, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve to get reimbursed for expenses relating to delay or cancellation.|
Earlier flights tend to be delayed less. As things happen at airports throughout the day, delays become more common. Most importantly, you're less likely to have to wait on your plane to arrive in the morning (since they have all night to get one there). A 10AM flight from Chicago, for example, will probably only depart on-time if nothing goes wrong with the 7AM flight bringing the plane in from New York.
How To Pay More For Low-Cost Tickets
Sometimes people get so swept up in a low fare, they forget about the high fees they'll pay down the road, This is particularly a problem when it comes to checked and carry-on bags. We've seen many cases searching for flights where the difference between price of a one-way low-cost ticket and a regular ticket was almost exactly the price of a carry-on on the low-cost airline.
That is, if you added the carry-on that you'd get for free flying a standard fare, you'd be paying the same price. Sometimes, the carry-on fees push the price over that of a standard fare.
Mind Your Packing To Actually Save With Low-Cost Fares
There are two tricks to know when it comes to packing to avoid baggage fees eating into your low-cost savings, but they require to to know the difference between the three types of airline luggage.
Three Types of Luggage
Most people only think of two types of luggage - checked bags and carry-ons. Checked bags go under the plane and have to be recovered at your destination from the baggage claim. It is common for airlines, even ones that aren't low-cost, to charge for checked bags on flights.
Carry-ons are carried onboard with you and stowed above you in the overhead bins or underneath the seat in front of you. It is uncommon for airlines that aren't low-cost to charge for carry-on luggage.
But there's actually a third type of luggage - the personal item. When most people think of personal items, they think of purses. Purses are an example of a personal item, but on most airlines, including low-cost airlines, your personal item can actually be a fairly reasonable size. With good packing tips, you can actually fit quite a bit in the personal item.
Almost all airlines allow all customers a personal item, free of charge. United's personal item size (at least as enforced against basic economy fares) is absurdly small and useful only for the shortest trips. Emirates is an example of an airline that doesn't allow personal items to economy passengers (though they get one free carry-on). But we've flown flights on Spirit and Frontier for trips to Walt Disney World with nothing more than our personal items.
Family Travelers Have Better Chances to Save
The fewer carry-on or checked bags you have to pay for, the better. If your family of four needs two carry-on bags, then you'll wind up paying more in fees than a solo traveler with a single carry-on. But on a per ticket basis, the family with fewer bags than people is better off. Here's a quick example.
On a one way flight from ORD to MCO, a legacy airline charges $100 for a standard (not basic) economy ticket. A low-cost airline charges $76, and they have a $25 fee for a carry-on. A solo traveler who needs a carry-on is better off flying the legacy airline for $100 instead of low-cost for $101. But a family of four who needs only two carry-ons is better off on the low-cost airline, as they'll pay ($76 x 4 + $25 x 2) or $354 to fly low-cost instead of $400 to fly legacy.
|Suggested Reading: Over at Lattes & Runways, we've written about using our Ritz Carlton Visa to save on baggage fees.|
But that's not all! Every fare-paying passenger, including children, on the low-cost airline stills gets a personal item. Depending on your packing skills (see below), the personal items for your children can go a long way. There's no airline that we're aware of that says a child's personal item has to be child-sized (by contrast we have heard too many tales or airlines pulling this garbage when it comes to carry-on baggage).
Pack Your Luggage Perfectly to Avoid Baggage Fees
We used our favorite JanSport, personal item-sized backpacks to get through a 10-night European vacation. We're light packers, definitely, but we 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. Emily has previously written Eight Tips on Packing For a Low Cost Airline. Remember to apply these not just to your personal item, but to the entire family's items and to any carry-on you have to bring.
While you're packing, don't forget some of the essentials you'll need for Disney travel. If you're not sure what to bring, check other people's lists. Kait Around the Kingdom has a great post on her Disney park essentials.
An Important Note For Disney travelers
It's really hard to go on a Disney trip and not come back with more than left with. On a recent Disney Cruise Line cruise, we had to stuff both a Castaway Club bag and a Disney Vacation Club bag (won at a cruise event) into our personal items on the way home. Be aware about whether you’ll need that carry-on for your return flight. Have you ever been to Orlando International Airport on a Sunday night? The place is filled with Disney shopping bags!
Since 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. We’ve never had our personal item challenged for size at the gate, but we keep ours reasonably close to the size limit. We both use the JanSport Digibreak Backpack as our primary personal item and highly recommend it.
Take Advantage of the Small Things Before Your Flight
There are some small things you can do to prepare for your low-cost flight and make it more tolerable.
Check In Online Whenever Possible
The lines to check in for low-cost airlines are always worse than other lines. Why? First, they're filled with lots of inexperienced travelers (no offense, just that inexperience leads to questions), which slows things down. Second, everyone is angry when they get to the front of the line and have to pay for something. That should be reason enough to avoid waiting to check in at the airport. But here are some more practical ones.
- Some low-cost airlines charge to print your boarding pass at the airport. Avoid this by checking in online and printing or getting a digital boarding pass.
- Many low-cost airlines escalate fees for bags as you get closer to the gate, so you'll pay less for baggage if you note it an online check-in than if you checked in at the airport.
- For airlines that assign seats at check-in, you'll have a better chance of keeping your party together the earlier you check in.
- If something is wrong with your reservation, you want to know ASAP. Low-cost customer service is nothing to write home about, but we'd much rather talk to them for an hour the day before our flight than talk to someone at a desk outside security 30 minutes before our flight.
Load Up Your iPad or Kindle
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!) But low-cost airlines tend to be the bottom of the barrel. Check with the airline for specifics, but generally you'll need to prepare for you and the kids to be without wifi or entertainment for the flight. This means you should bring your own entertainment, as necessary. A Disney movie on the iPad is a great way to get your trip started, we think.
Make Sure You take Advantage of TSA PreCheck
Most low-cost airlines are now enrolled in TSA PreCheck, which will allow you to get through airport security faster. This is especially important if something necessitates you wait in the long check-in lines at the airport. TSA PreCheck and Global Entry are great programs to save you and your family.
Buy Snacks and Beverages After Security
This one is elementary, but if the airline is going to charge you for drinks (Spirit charges for water) and snacks, you'll be better off buying something after you've gone through airport security. Remember, you can't bring beverages through security!
Your Low-Cost Flight (And Beyond)
With good preparation, you shouldn't experience too much different on your low-cost flights. But here are some quick things of note.
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 our experience. But we've had legacy carrier crews who were awful, low-cost crews who were amazing, and everything in between.
The Seats On Low-Cost Aren't the Best
Low-cost airlines tend to have barebones seats. We’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. The seats can be wider than some legacy carrier seats, though. (We're small people with a high tolerance for suffering on flights, to be clear.)
It's best to mentally prepare yourself for a bit of discomfort and to plan for something to do to distract you until you're off the plane.
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.
Low Cost Carriers Have Worse Mileage Programs
The end of a flight is a great time because it comes with a reward: miles! Low-cost carriers tend to have really bad mileage programs. Like all airlines, if you’re loyal you’ll accrue points to use on flights. Flying even a couple times a year won't be enough to earn free flights, though, and since they don't have transfer partners or business class seats, your options for real value are going to be limited.
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. One of our favorite pilots 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.
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. 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!