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Dale Investigates: Are Budget Airlines Really Saving You Any Money?

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Travel is expensive, and with rising ticket prices, airfare can eat a good portion of your travel budget. To fill the void left by rising prices on the major airlines, budget airlines have been popping up right and left. They promise surprisingly cheap flights and advertise click-worthy specials. But are you really saving any money with a budget airline? You may be surprised by the answer.

Once upon a time, there were two ways to fly: first class and economy. Eventually, airlines started to offer more gradations. Business class was added between first and economy. As legroom and food offering began to shrink in economy class, some airlines added Economy Comfort, basically economy with a few more inches of legroom and a full can of Coke instead of just one cup.

Today, buying a ticket can be a maze of options, premium add-ons, and amenities you never knew you had to pay for. Everything from early boarding, to exit row seats, to onboard WiFi can be had for a price. This growing menu of options presented by the major airlines is both a response and a threat to budget airlines.

So how do budget airlines do it?

Viewed in the most favorable light, budget airlines promise that you only pay for what you use. Don’t really need a glass of tomato juice mid-flight? Don’t pay for it! Don’t plan on bringing a large carry-on? Don’t pay for it! Of course, that offer can be flipped on its head. Want a drink on your flight? You’ll have to pay for that! Want to bring a carry-on bag? You’ll pay for that, too! 

And that’s the secret to the survival of budget airlines. The reason they are able to charge such low base fares is that almost nobody actually gets away paying just the base fare. While most airlines charge for checked bags, budget airlines usually charge for carry-on items, too. Many budget airlines have extremely restrictive size limits on your “personal item” and then charge you for a second carry-on. So if you plan on bringing anything more than a purse or a snack to your destination, you will be paying a fee.

If you plan to check a bag, matters can be even more complicated. Most budget airlines will offer you the opportunity to pay for your checked bag at the time you purchase your ticket. If you decide to wait a bit and add that checked bag later, you’ll find that the price has increased. And if you want to add a checked or carry-on bag at the airport, you may face charges up to $100 or more. Suddenly, that cheap ticket you bought just got a lot more expensive. It is also worth noting that all baggage fees are one-way. So you can expect to pay for your carry-on twice, once on the departing and again on the return.

Don’t expect the same experience as a major airline.

If you are used to flying the major airlines, you will be in for a bit of a surprise with a budget airline. As a whole, they tend to score very low when it comes to flight quality. AirlineQualityRating.com collects and analyzes data about customer complaints and flight on-time records. In 2017 their lowest ranked airlines were ExpressJet, Spirit, and Frontier. Those are all budget airlines.

If you are used to major airlines, you’ll have to lower your expectations a bit. Typically, amenities like in-flight entertainment and even reclining chairs are not available on budget flights. Other things you take for granted, like a quality ground crew, may also be a matter of luck. Budget flights are often delayed. But don’t expect constant communication and a table of snacks. Often, flights are inexplicably late with very little information from the ground crew.

Another hidden cost of budget airlines is simply getting to the flight. Many budget airlines fly into secondary airports, and sometimes even into smaller regional airports. So if you’re flying into London, you may not be landing in Heathrow. Taking a flight to New Jersey? Don’t bet on Newark as your point of entry. Budget airlines often fly in and out of regional airlines, making transportation to and from the airport a factor in the overall cost of transportation. Many smaller airports are served by limited or no public transportation. So if you need to get to your flight or your hotel, you may need to calculate the cost of a taxi into your ticket price.

Have you considered Basic Economy?

To complicate matters more, American, Delta, and United now offer Basic Economy as a no-frills ticket option that directly competes with the budget airlines. You won’t get to pick a seat ahead of time, groups (like families) are not guaranteed seats together, and your carry-on may be limited. But you’ll get all the other amenities that come with a major airline. While you give up a little convenience, you get the same plane, the same crew, and the same airline as the first class flyers. You’ll get the same standardized fees for checked bags, the same (somewhat) comfortable seats as regular Economy, the same in-flight entertainment and beverage service, and all the other niceties of working with a high-quality ground and aircrew. And without all of the nickel-and-diming, you may wind up spending close to or even less than you would at a budget airline.

But don’t just write off the budget airlines!

Even with all of the potential hidden fees and inconveniences of budget airlines, if you do your research and set reasonable expectations, you can get some great deals. If you don’t need to take much with you and you don’t care about what seat you sit in, you could get from point A to point B pretty cheaply with a budget airline.

One of the best uses for budget airlines is when you need to make a quick trip and you aren’t going too far. For instance, if your flight is only a couple of hours long and you will be leaving one day and returning the next, you are in an ideal situation to save some money with a budget airline. You hardly need more than the clothes on your back, and many of us are okay with being uncomfortable for a couple of hours on our way to and from a destination, especially if we can save $100 or more roundtrip.

So how do you decide if a budget airline is for you?

Like most purchases, saving money on a plane ticket requires a little research. You don’t need to be an investigative reporter. (Though if you need one, Dale is here for you!) But you will need to read the fine print and think about what you need when you fly. If you know you will be checking one bag and bringing a carry-on, find out ahead of time what that will cost and factor it into the total cost of your flight. Same thing with transportation to and from the airport. In other words, don’t just look at the published ticket price. Figure out which conveniences and amenities you want and need. Then calculate what it will cost to get you door to door, both on a budget airline and on a major airline. With that information, you can decide on what the best product is for your money.

Always do your research.

As you can see with airlines, it always pays to do your research. But it also pays to have some help. When you’re looking for all sorts of services, make TrustDALE.com your first stop. You’ll benefit from Dale’s 7-point investigative review process. With a full investigative review and Dale’s Make-it-Right Guarantee, you can feel confident that you are dealing with a quality business. So make TrustDALE.com a regular part of your online shopping experience.