Is it worth it to fly on a budget airline?

Planning a vacation is equal parts exciting and overwhelming — or perhaps a bit more overwhelming than exciting when you have to stick to a budget. With so many moving parts — from lodging to food and flights — there are also many opportunities for saving. The question, then, is which opportunities should you actually take, and when is it better to just spend the extra money? It’s certainly a fair question when it comes to flying, especially when budget airlines are regularly working to entice you with jaw-droppingly cheap fares that seem too good to be true. As tempting as they are, it’s worth taking time to make sure you understand the full offering before you book.

Investigate all of your options

Depending on where you’re flying, you may have several low-cost ways to get there. “Spirit Airlines is one of the biggest budget air carriers in the U.S., with bases in Chicago, Las Vegas, Dallas and Orlando,” said Justine McDonald, a travel expert with CheapTickets.com. “Frontier Airlines out of Denver is also gaining notoriety for its no-frills model.”

If you’re looking to get out of the U.S., “internationally, probably the best known low-cost carrier is Norwegian [Air],” said Julian Kheel, a senior analyst at The Points Guy. “They’ve grown a ton in the last several years with many departures from multiple U.S. cities to Europe.” The airline also offers limited routes to the Caribbean and parts of Asia. Within Europe, both McDonald and Kheel highlighted the popular budget airline Ryanair.

And, “frequent travelers to Mexico and Central America will also be familiar with Volaris for its budget fares to hotspots throughout the region,” McDonald said.

But these aren’t your only options. In fact, as part of its World Airline Awards, aviation rating agency Skytrax published a list of 20 of the world’s best low-cost airlines in 2018, with AirAsia leading the list. Before you book, consider checking out airfares with the big names as well as doing a quick search on a site like CheapTickets.com or another aggregator.

Beware of hidden or additional fees

Those super-low airfares aren’t necessarily all too good to be true — but you could end up paying more than initially meets the eye. “All of these airlines follow the same low-cost model, which means very low fares but a lot of fees as you travel,” Kheel said, adding you’re likely to encounter additional fees “for seat assignments, early boarding, checked baggage [and] sometimes even carry-ons.” McDonald noted that many airlines also charge for food and beverages.

That said, you don’t have to go into your flight experience blind to the potential costs you might incur. “CheapTickets.com and other online travel sites like Orbitz or Expedia notify customers throughout the booking process about what is and isn’t included in a ticket,” McDonald said. “That’s important because while a roundtrip flight from Austin to Denver for less than $100 may sound like a good deal, if you end up paying for bags and seat assignments later you may not be saving all that much more money.” If you’re not quite sure or want to be extra certain, you can contact the airline and inquire about any potential additional fees — like overseas taxes for international flights — before booking.

And if you do move forward and buy the ticket, you can take steps to minimize extra costs. McDonald also recommended packing your own water and food (in your large pockets if need be, to avoid bringing an extra bag and being charged for it); and keeping your heaviest items on you. “Wear your bulkiest items on the plane,” she said. “Most carriers [that charge by weight] also won’t weigh your personal item [such as your handbag], so stash heavy things like shoes or toiletries in there if you can.”

While these sneaky fees can make the cost of your flight just as expensive as the other options; that’s not always the case. “The key with low-cost carriers is if you know what you’re getting into as far as the fees and are either ready to pay them or ready to jump through the hoops necessary to avoid them, any of these carriers can be a decent experience,” Kheel said. “It’s just a matter of being familiar with all of the policies before you book your ticket so you’re not surprised down the line during your travels.”

Expect a frill-free experience

Budget travelers are often willing to make significant tradeoffs to save money throughout their travel journey, and that is certainly no exception with budget airfare carriers,” McDonald said. “It’s important to know what you’re getting into when you purchase.” And in large part, that means a frill-free experience without certain allowances and comforts you may be used to on other airlines.

Aside from things like the additional fees you may have to pay for standard-size luggage (“Most budget carriers are very strict about luggage allowances, and baggage sizes and weights may be different than what U.S. travelers are accustomed to,” McDonald said), your in-flight experience may provide little more than a seat to get you where you’re going. “Bring your own snacks, beverages and entertainment,” McDonald said. “People are often surprised when budget airlines don’t offer in-flight entertainment. Pre-download TV shows on your phone through Netflix, and wear your headphones onto the plane to save space in your carry on.”

Don’t fret about safety

One area where budget airlines don’t scrimp? Safety. “The price of a ticket has no correlation to customer safety,” McDonald said. You may be paying less, but that doesn’t mean the airline can (or will) cut corners when it comes to getting passengers from point A to point B safely and responsibly.

“Any carrier that operates or within or travels to and from the U.S. is under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board,” Kheel said. “The safety record of those agencies is unparalleled no matter what you are paying. If you are traveling on an airline that’s been certified safe by those agencies, you can rest assured that you are in good hands.”

Ultimately, if you thoroughly research the full cost of your flight and reasonably set your expectations, flying with a low-cost airline can be a great way to save money on your next vacation. That said, if you’re not into it, it doesn’t mean you have to go over budget. “Travelers should consider what tradeoffs they are really willing to make on their next trip and create a plan from there,” McDonald said. “Booking on a no-frills airline is certainly one way to save, but vacationers can also stay on budget with low-cost lodging, activities, public transportation and much more.”