What to Know Before Booking a Low-Cost Airline

Hint: Not every low-cost airline will provide the best deal available.

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••• Ben Pipe Photography
Table of Contents
Table of Contents

Most consumers have certainly heard about low-cost airlines, with the assumption that these carriers offer drastically lower prices than conventional airlines. Based on the name of the category, that belief makes perfect sense -- but it isn’t always necessarily true. Before you book a low-cost airline, carefully consider a few factors and find out when they are -- and aren’t -- your best option for the most cost-effective travel.

The Basics of Low-Cost Airlines

Low-cost airlines refers to the category that includes such carriers as Southwest, Frontier, JetBlue and Spirit. These airlines typically offer flights at lower fares than traditional airlines, but tend to also provide fewer amenities. For instance, on a Southwest flight, you don’t select your seat ahead of time, but instead pick a seat when you board the plane. In Frontier’s case, you typically have to pay to bring any baggage on board that’s bigger than a laptop bag. Spirit is an American ultra-low-cost carrier that follows a fare model that decouples amenities like picking your seat ahead of time, paying for carry-on and checked bags and even snacks, ultimately giving you the choice to get what you pay for. By employing strategies like these, the airlines are able to keep costs low, which they then pass on to the travelers.

In most cases, you won’t find low-cost airlines listed on sites like Expedia, so if you go to an aggregate travel site like that, you should check the lowest prices there and then separately go to the individual low-cost carrier’s website to see if you can get a better deal from them. However, the low-cost airline will not always have the lower fare on every flight. Traditional carriers are increasingly competing on price with the budget airlines, so you may not find as many deals, especially if you add up baggage fees on a lower-cost airline when the traditional airline offers free carry-ons.

For example, we calculated one-way flights from Miami/Fort Lauderdale area (all airports) to Los Angeles area (all airports), all for the same date, and got the following outcomes:

JetBlue: $134, direct flight

Frontier: $165, with one stop

Southwest: $187, with two stops

Expedia: $201 via American, direct flight

In this situation, JetBlue offers the lowest fare. However, when we calculated the same flight from New York to Los Angeles on the same date, the traditional carrier (in this case, United) offered the lowest price.

Popular Destinations

One feature you’re sure to notice right away when you look at low-cost airlines is the fact that they may not always travel to the destinations you typically visit. In addition, some less expensive carriers force you to fly to their hub before traveling almost anywhere else, cutting their costs even more by filtering all traffic through their central location. Therefore, you may have trouble finding direct flights in many cases, and you should be willing to spend extra time traveling since a layover may be required.

However, if you happen to live near one of these so-called “hubs,” you are in a lot of luck. For Frontier, that’s Denver and for JetBlue it’s New York’s John F. Kennedy airport. Therefore, if you live near those airports, you can typically find direct flights at great fares. Southwest doesn’t have a traditional hub, but you’ll find that many of their flights route through their original home of Dallas, so if you live there, you could find better Southwest options.

How to Save

On these airlines, you’ll usually find bargain-basement prices, but then the carrier will encourage you to spend more on amenities as you go through the reservation process. For instance, Southwest and Frontier will ask you to spend more money to board early or to buy a specific seat rather than to simply choose your seat when you board. In addition, they may offer you the chance to pre-pay for extra baggage at a lower rate. For instance, on Frontier, you can usually pay for a carry-on during the reservation period at $30, but if you wait until you get to the airport, your charge will be $45.

In most cases, there’s no need to pay extra to pre-reserve a seat or board early, but in some cases you may feel the need to pay for a carry-on. However, many people just pack strategically to avoid having to pay these fees—you can pack a lot into a backpack or laptop bag if you’re just traveling for a day or two.

In addition, bring your own snacks if you’re traveling on these airlines, because in some cases (and always for Frontier), you won’t get anything served to you unless you pay an upcharge.