Just because you fly on a budget airline doesn’t mean you’re getting the best deal. Budget airlines are sneaky. They lure you in with attractive cheap flights, then nickel-and-dime you with fees.
If you want to find the cheapest flights possible, you need to know how the system works. If not, you could end up paying more money for a lower-quality experience.
How Budget Airlines Can Bust Your Budget
Budget airlines offer attractive base ticket prices. But unless you’re OK with a no-frills flight, the cost of extra fees can add up to more than the price of a ticket on a better airline.
For example, during a recent search, I found a round-trip ticket from New York to Medellin, Colombia, on American Airlines that cost $455, while Spirit Airlines only charged $337.
That’s a steal, right?
Not so fast.
If I weren’t willing to fly no-frills, Spirit Airlines would start nickel-and-diming me:
- One Carry-On: $97 round-trip
- Upgrade to an Emergency Exit Seat With Extra Legroom: $112 round-trip (There’s no direct route on Spirit, so you must upgrade your seat on four separate flights)
- Fee to Check In at the Airport: $20 round-trip
- In-Flight Snacks and Drinks (or Airport Food During Layovers): $22
That’s a total of $613, $158 more than the American Airlines flight, which includes these amenities in the ticket price.
And since Spirit flies out of LaGuardia airport instead of John F. Kennedy, you would pay more for transportation if LaGuardia is further from your house. For example, if you live in Lawrence, New York, an UberX to and from LaGuardia would cost a total of $39.34, more than if you flew out of JFK. If your budget flight lands in a remote secondary airport in your destination, you must factor in those costs as well.
To top it off, the American Airlines flight is nonstop, while flying with Spirit requires one connecting flight and three extra hours of travel time. And if your flight is canceled or you miss a connection, you risk shelling out even more money waiting for the next Spirit flight or buying a ticket with another airline.
Some budget airlines offer discounts if you bundle upgrades together, but you can still end up paying more money for a lower-quality experience.
13 Ways to Save Money Flying on Budget Airlines
Budget or low-cost airlines are carriers whose low overhead costs allow them to offer cheaper flight prices than legacy carriers — the large carriers that offer full-service flights, like Delta, American Airlines, and United Airlines. Unlike legacy airlines, low-cost carriers started after the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which removed federal control over many airline rules.
But budget airlines aren’t always the best for your budget. They make the most sense if you’re willing to pack light and fly with no frills.
Legacy carriers have multiple amenities built into the price of the ticket. Budget airlines start with a lower base rate but charge extra for each amenity. These additional charges don’t seem like much individually, but they add up fast. If you can forego the amenities, you save money.
To keep operating expenses to a minimum, many low-cost carriers use older planes, fly out of smaller airports, and avoid long-haul routes, which tend to be less profitable.
But not all budget airlines are created equal. For example, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways started as traditional low-cost carriers but gradually morphed into hybrid airlines that offer perks similar to legacy carriers, like free checked bags and snacks.
On the other end of the spectrum, ultra-low-cost carriers like Sun Country Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Allegiant Air, and Ryanair are as bare-bones as it gets.
Lumping all budget airlines together is a mistake. Different airlines have different policies, and it’s crucial to understand those policies when flight shopping.
The easiest way to save money flying on low-cost carriers is to understand the extra fees, then create a strategy to avoid them.
1. Sacrifice Your Legroom
It’s not always easy to find out how much legroom you get on airline websites. But Airfarewatchdog compiled this information using seat maps from their sister site SeatGuru when they couldn’t find it on airline websites. The average seat pitch on most legacy airlines in the United States is 30 to 31 inches. “Seat pitch” is the space from one point on a seat — like the backrest — to the same point on the seat in front of it.
Compare that to an ultra-low-cost carrier like Spirit Airlines, where you have to squeeze into 28 inches.
If you have long legs, you’re in for an uncomfortable flight.
Sure, you could upgrade to the 36-inch big front seat or the emergency exit row. But big front seats cost between $12 and $150 per flight, depending on the route. At that point, you’re often better off paying for a full-service carrier with more spacious economy seats.
Surprisingly, Southwest and JetBlue — both low-cost airlines — lead the industry in legroom at 31 to 33 inches, according to Airfarewatchdog. The range in legroom depends on the type of plane you fly in.
So to save money, choose your budget airline wisely. If you end up in a cramped seat, speaking with a flight attendant and “volunteering” to sit in the emergency exit row doesn’t hurt. It’s worked for me in the past, and the worst they can say is no.
2. Be Flexible With Seat Location
Nowadays, most airlines charge for seat selection, whether you fly on a budget or full-service carrier. But on some low-cost carriers, that fee is outrageous.
For example, to choose a standard seat on Frontier Airlines, you’re looking at $17 to $55 each way. That adds up fast if you’re traveling as a family.
If you don’t pay for seat selection, you risk getting split from your group. That said, most airlines try to keep groups together. I’ve flown extensively on Spirit Airlines, and they’ve only split me up once on a last-minute flight.
For the best chances of sitting together, set an alarm to check in for your flight online as soon as the check-in window opens. The airline assigns your seat when you check in. So the more passengers that check in before you, the fewer seats are left for your group. If you wait until you arrive at the airport, you’re more likely to be separated.
3. Plan Carefully to Avoid Change Fees
Budget airlines are notorious for inflexible change and cancellation fees. While most relaxed their policies during the pandemic, flexible booking on budget carriers won’t last forever.
Even amid the pandemic, low-cost airlines like Allegiant charge a $25-per-flight change fee. So if you had to reschedule a trip with one connecting flight in each direction (four flights total), you’d be out $100 per ticket.
Compare that to Delta, who isn’t charging change fees during the pandemic, even on economy-class tickets.
When you stumble upon a cheap flight, it’s tempting to buy first and plan later. Nobody wants to miss out on a deal. But unless you’re willing to risk a change fee that erases your savings, solidify your travel plans before pulling the trigger.
4. Create a Backup Plan
Compared to legacy carriers, budget carriers have fewer available flights to each destination. They also have fewer agreements with other airlines. If the airline cancels your flight or you miss a connection, you could be stranded for days. If that happens, you either have to buy a new flight on a different airline or pay for food and accommodation until the next flight rolls around.
Either way, it’s money out of your pocket.
That happened to us flying from Colombia to Los Angeles. We had a short layover in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, customs held us up, and we missed our connecting flight.
The airline’s next available flight was the following afternoon. Fortunately, we had friends in the area to lend us their couch. Otherwise, we would’ve had to pay for a hotel and transportation, which was more than the cost of the flight itself.
It’s always wise to have a backup plan. And if you can’t find a direct flight, ensure your layover is long enough to accommodate unexpected issues, especially with international flights.
5. Factor in Extra Transportation Costs
Budget airlines often fly into less desirable locations, especially in Europe. It’s cheaper for airlines to operate out of small airports, which lets them discount their flight prices.
The problem is these smaller airports can be further from your target destination. That means you have to pay extra for transportation to and from the airport.
For example, Ryanair’s closest airport to Paris is in Beauvais, France, an hour-and-20-minute drive from the city center in Paris.
If you have to pay two $70 taxi rides in addition to your flight, it makes more sense to pay to fly on a legacy carrier into a more convenient location.
6. Plan Your Vacation Around Destination Airport Locations
If you fly to a small, out-of-the-way airport, you have to eat the extra transportation costs to your final destination.
So why not choose a final destination located near the budget airline’s airport?
If you’re savvy, you can even find a vacation spot where the secondary airport is closer than the primary airport. For example, Ryanair’s Paris airport is over 58 miles from the Eiffel Tower, but it’s less than 8 miles from the Parc Saint Paul amusement park.
There are no secondary airports in some cities, so budget and legacy airlines all arrive at the same place.
For example, if you plan a vacation to Malta through Ryanair, you fly directly into the Malta International Airport and save yourself the extra transportation.
7. Be Flexible With Travel Dates
When flight shopping, the less flexible you are, the more you pay. That goes for both date and destination flexibility.
One day, a flight from New York to Iceland might cost $300. The next day, it could cost $800. If you don’t have leeway with your departure date and it happens to land on an expensive day, you’re out of luck.
That means if you request specific dates off work before buying your flight, you could be shooting yourself in the foot. If possible, buy your flights and get your time off simultaneously. That way, you can choose the cheapest days to fly without getting hit with change fees if your boss doesn’t approve your vacation.
Google Flights lets you quickly check the cheapest dates to fly. When you enter your departure and arrival cities and click on the date, you can compare prices for two months at a time.
8. Pack Smart to Avoid Baggage Fees
Most budget carriers charge you for every carry-on or checked bag. On some routes, your luggage fees could cost more than the ticket itself.
For example, a one-way flight on Frontier from Denver to Las Vegas can cost as little as $15. If you add a carry-on ($40) and a checked bag ($35), your expenses increase by 500%.
Many low-cost carriers include a free small personal item, like a large purse or small backpack. On Frontier, it must be less than 18 inches by 14 inches by 8 inches. If you pack light and fit everything into your personal item, you can avoid paying hefty fees.
For extra room, you can wear your bulky clothes onto the plane and stuff everything else into a fanny pack around your waist. If you use a large fanny pack, you can carry a passport along with anything you need quick access to while flying, such as a Kindle, headphones, snacks, or medicine. I’ve flown with my fanny packs for six years, and nobody has ever bothered me about it.
If you need to check a bag, weigh it beforehand. Low-cost carriers often have lower weight limits than legacy carriers.
For example, the checked bag weight limit on most American Airlines flights is 50 pounds. On Spirit, it’s only 40 pounds.
If you realize your checked bag is overweight, pack heavy items in your personal bag, which the airline is less likely to weigh.
On Southwest Airlines, you don’t have to worry as much about packing light, as they include two free checked bags, a carry-on, and a personal item.
9. Research to Avoid Unnecessary Fees
Some fees are easy to avoid. But you can only avoid them if you know what to look for.
For example, Spirit charges $10 for an agent to print your boarding pass, and Allegiant charges $5 at certain airports. If you print it at home, download it using the airline’s smartphone app, or print it using their self-serve kiosks, it’s free.
Many carriers also charge service fees to book airline tickets online or over the phone. Spirit calls this a passenger usage fee. It costs $22.99 on most routes, and Spirit includes it in the prices you see online. Frontier charges a $19 carrier interface charge on most routes. And Allegiant charges an $18 electronic carrier usage charge. Unless you read the fine print, you don’t realize you’re paying it.
The only way to avoid these fees is to buy your tickets in person at the airport.
It may not make sense to drive to the airport and wait in line to save $22.99 on a single one-way ticket. But if you’re buying round-trip flights for a family of six, that’s $276.
Each airline has its own policies, so if you’re serious about saving money, you need to do some digging.
10. Bring Your Own Creature Comforts
When flying low-cost airlines, don’t expect in-flight entertainment, pillows and blankets, complimentary headphones, or food.
Budget airlines nix these amenities so they can afford to offer lower fares. If you don’t want to be bored and uncomfortable, you have to bring your own amenities.
That means packing snacks, downloading movies onto your phone or tablet, and packing a travel pillow.
The alternative is paying extra for everything.
If you’re hungry, you can swipe your credit card on Allegiant for a $3 can of soda or $4 bag of Cheez-Its. If you have a long day of flying and forget to pack snacks, expensive airport and in-flight food adds up fast.
Norwegian and JetBlue offer free in-flight Wi-Fi to stream your own entertainment, but other low-cost carriers, like Southwest, charge $8 per day per device. Airlines like Allegiant and Frontier don’t offer Wi-Fi at all, which is why it’s crucial to download entertainment to your gadget.
And if you think you can save money by snoozing through your entire flight, think again. Most low-cost seats have less legroom, and they rarely recline.
11. Sign Up for Alerts on Flight Deals
Most people don’t have time to check flight prices every day. That’s where cheap flight alerts come in. These are email newsletters that periodically send out alerts on cheap flights and mistake fares (when airlines accidentally misprice a ticket).
One of the most popular is Scott’s Cheap Flights, a service that sends alerts for flight deals of up to 90% off.
Scott’s Cheap Flights is a powerful tool, but they exclude certain low-cost airlines that offer less-than-comfortable services, including Frontier, Spirit, Scoot (Asia), and Sun Country.
If you want to stay on top of discount airline promotions for all carriers, sign up for each airline’s email newsletter individually. That way, you can jump on any deals before they sell out.
12. Compare Pricing on Multiple Flight Search Engines
Not all flight search engines are created equal. Some offer useful search options. Others have fewer bells and whistles but search more airlines in their database.
For example, Google Flights lets you quickly scan prices on two months’ worth of flights at a time. That helps you see the cheapest days to fly, but it doesn’t always show the lowest prices for those days.
On the other hand, Momondo doesn’t show prices for as many dates simultaneously, but they often find lower prices for any selected date.
Skyscanner and Kayak are two other search engines that offer unique search functions, allowing you to search for flexible dates and nearby airports easily. Each of these search engines also allows you to set custom price alerts. On Kayak, you can even set price alerts for things like their “Top 25 Cities.” So if you haven’t decided where you want to go, you can receive deal alerts for the most popular destinations to help you choose based on price.
Trying to keep all these straight sounds like a hassle, but it’s easier than it seems. Once you know your dates, just open a few tabs with different search engines to find the lowest prices possible.
13. Add a Stopover
At a certain point, a long layover shifts from being an annoying wait to an opportunity to explore a new city.
Stopovers are layovers long enough to leave the airport, sometimes lasting multiple days.
It’s like adding a bonus destination to your trip, and it can sometimes save you money.
For example, I once flew from Colombia to Michigan and realized I could save $150 by spending two nights in Chicago over St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve always wanted to see a sculpture there called The Bean and the Chicago River while it was green for the holiday, so I added it to my itinerary.
Flying budget airlines can help you save money on vacation, but it only makes sense if you’re prepared for a no-frills flight.
If you need extra luggage, don’t want to worry about expensive in-flight food, or are very tall and don’t fit in miniature seats, you’re probably better off paying for a full-service carrier.
Fortunately, even full-service carriers can be shockingly cheap if you know what you’re doing. For more cheap flight hacks — including how to score free flights — check out our guide to saving money on airfare.