Are Budget Airlines Truly Budget? Crunching the True Cost of That "Cheap" Flight
They fly to the most popular vacation destinations, and they almost always grab attention with the lowest fares. The so-called ultra low-cost carriers, or budget airlines, have become a huge part of the air travel landscape.
Take Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines, two of the most prominent such no-frills carriers in America. Both flourished over the last decade, with Spirit serving three times as many passengers in 2022 as it did in 2012, and Frontier doubled its 2012 mark, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. Those gains eclipsed industry-wide growth on standard airlines in the same years.
You’ll find Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant Air, and plenty of similar budget airlines on the departures boards at airports in many places popular with tourists, including beach towns, Vegas, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
But budget airlines are no longer sticking to regional or domestic markets. Now you can even fly airlines with similar pricing concepts across the Atlantic Ocean: French bee shuttles travelers to Paris, PLAY can take you to Iceland and then on to Europe, and Norse Atlantic flies from the U.S. to London and Oslo, Norway.
Exactly what is the budget airlines concept? Any average traveler would likely point to two features: low fares and add-on fees.
"It’s their entire business model,” says airfare expert Scott Keyes, founder of Going.com (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights). "When you search for a flight, the cheapest fare that pops up will almost always be a budget airline."
For that reason, even flyers who have shied away from taking one of the budget airlines may, at some point soon, find themselves wondering what the experience is like—although even the largest, longest-running airlines now emulate the budget airline formula in some way with the addition of basic economy tickets.
To show you in detail what flying a no-frills airline entails—and where the pricing pitfalls are—we took a day trip on a cheap flight to one of the nation’s most popular leisure destinations: Orlando, the land of Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter.
When we booked our trip from North Carolina to Orlando, Frontier’s $78 base fare (for non-“Discount Den” members) stood out among the $100s you’d otherwise pay for a ticket on other airlines, and that low fare was comparable to ones on other no-frills carriers such as Spirit and Avelo Airlines.
As soon as you start the booking process, though, the deluge of add-on offers begins, starting with a choice of pricey bundles offering some combination of these perks that are all separately charged: checked bag, a full-sized carry-on bag (because carrying hand luggage of a decent size isn't free at many budget airlines), priority boarding, seat selection, and flight flexibility.
If you want any of them, you have to pay more.
And yes, you’ll get hit with those prices—$108 or $139, depending on the bundle, in this case—for the outbound and the return trip.
Just the lower-level bundle, which only gets you bags and seat selection, would bring our $78 round-trip ticket to an actual total of $293 including tax.
Skip the bundle options and the potential fees don’t end, though.
How about just a bag? That's $49 for a checked bag or $54 for a carry-on—again, that's each way, so you'll probably have to multiply it by two.
Or how about just seat selection? That, by itself, is $30 or more—again, for each flight you take—unless you want to risk waiting for check-in to be assigned what's left.
At points in the booking process, the airline interrupts to pressure you and strongly recommend that you choose one of its sales pitches.
The online pressure campaign to pay extra for your bags is a sign of what’s to come at the airport, where size-check bins and warnings about bag restrictions are seemingly everywhere you look.
For those of us skirting fees by packing small bags, our stuff will have to fit into the smaller, "personal item" bin pictured above to ensure it will also fit under the seat in front of us.
When it’s time to board, the use of the priority and standard lanes ostensibly has less to do with your level of status with the airline and more to do with how much you have spent on extra fees, such as whether you paid for a full-sized carry-on.
The boarding process empowers gate agents to stringently enforce carry-on bag policies. It's common for passengers who thought they could escape the fees to be stopped at the gate and asked to pay extra money for what they're carrying.
"That’s what you get for the cheap fares," one passenger remarked on the jet bridge, shaking her head, after agents stopped and requested additional payment from two members of her traveling party.
On board, Frontier’s Airbus A320 cabin looks like a typical domestic aircraft, minus a first class section.
There is no seatback entertainment system and tray tables are puny (as you'll see later on). Standard seats on Frontier, just like seats on many budget airlines, do not recline—that's another perk you have to buy an upgrade for.
A quick measurement of the seat pitch (the distance from the back of one seat to the same point on the one in front of it) logged a below-industry-average 28 inches, but to be fair, the seat design helped prevent the legroom from feeling much more cramped than standard coach conditions already bemoaned by thousands of travelers on other airlines.
Again, if you truly want to take advantage of low fares with no fees, everything you pack will have to fit under the seat in front of you. That's not much space.
Then there's the problem of seat assignments for people who haven't paid extra.
"My family’s way up there," one Disney-bound father in the rear of the plane remarked moments before arranging a seat swap with a fellow parent.
(It’s worth noting that Frontier gets credit on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s dashboard for making sure that children age 14 and younger are seated with at least one parent for no added cost. On other airlines, families may not do so well.)
You’ll encounter a few other no-frills memos along the way.
"Just a reminder, Frontier does not have Wi-Fi," the flight attendant mentioned during one of her first announcements. And, she added, "For an à La carte airline, that does mean we charge for beverages and snacks."
Expect to pay a few more bucks (or more) for a soft drink or bag of pretzels. It’s $10 for a signature "Buzzballz" cocktail.
Despite all the fees, though, the experience may be a worthy purchase for budget-concious travelers as long as it ultimately saves money.
And it often does, Keyes says.
"You’ll usually, though not always, get a cheaper trip, even after accounting for extra fees," he said. "Of course, this often comes at the cost of smaller seats."
With that in mind, there are some steps you can take to make sure your no-frills airline flight is as cost-friendly as possible:
Figure out what you really need
In a perfect world, you’d select the cheapest round-trip flight and skirt all the add-ons, like we did—but that’s not a realistic option for most. Most people need to pay more, especially to travel with bags—that's why the budget airlines' business model works.
Take time to determine what you can’t live without. Do you need a bag bigger than a backpack? (Probably—then you'll have to pay more.) Do you really need to pick your seat? (Usually, especially if you're with other people—so you'll have to pay more again)
Your line in the sand informs a lot of other decisions, like:
Bundle or à la carte?
Knowing what you need will help you decide whether to pay for the bundle you’ll inevitably be offered. Those can be expensive, and they might include extras you don’t actually need, like ticket flexibility or early boarding.
For a hypothetical $188 Memorial Day weekend ticket on Spirit from Chicago to Tampa, the cheapest bundle (which gets you seat selection and a checked bag, but not a full-sized carry-on) would bring your total to $294—and that total cost is actually in line with what a similar itinerary on American Airlines would cost that includes the same things.
Ask other people in your traveling group to go no-frills.
Can you consolidate your packing into fewer bags and have a few family members go backpack-only? Does every family member need to select a seat? Sacrifices like these can slash the per-person costs drastically.
Don’t write off the checked bag.
Hoping to free up overhead bin space, some no-frills airlines' offerings make it cheaper to check a bag than to bring a full-sized carry-on. If your airline does that, it could be the rare case where checking a bag actually saves money.
Bring bottles and snacks
With no free snacks or drinks available, refillable water bottles (filled after the TSA checkpoint, of course) will save in-flight money.
Factor in the legacy airline costs, too
Thanks to the basic economy class of fares that is available industry-wide, you can no longer assume that the ultra low-cost airlines are the only ones tacking on fees.
Basic economy tickets on the legacy carriers like American Airlines, United Airlines, and on even many international airlines, can restrict or hit your wallet with baggage and seat selection, too. Be sure to factor in each airline’s ticket type into your cost analysis.