Choosing low-cost airlines for finding a cheap flight might not be as simple as it would seem. Low-cost airlines follow a much different business model than most other carriers. The emphasis is on rock-bottom airfares, so other services that might be included in a more traditional airfare such as meals, movies, or even a printed boarding pass often come at an additional fee on a budget carrier.
The idea is a sort of a-la-carte approach in which you pay for only the services you need and keep airfares affordable. But some travelers approach these airlines as if they are making unfair or extravagant charges for basic services.
Another common mistake is to assume that all low-cost airlines operate in precisely the same manner. What follows is a series of reviews for individual budget airlines. Consider the way each low-cost carrier operates before you shop for airfares.
Allegiant serves about 75 destinations, with a focus on leisure destinations in warm climates in North America. Technical services before arrival at the airport are minimal. You must pay an additional fee for a choice of seat, and only then will you skip the lines in the terminal for boarding passes. Allegiant often operates from mid-sized airports in large cities or small markets. Before booking on Allegiant, always check to see if that airport is connected to others in the region.
This budget carrier is headquartered at London's Luton airport and serves more than 120 destinations. Locked in a fierce rivalry with Ryanair, easyJet tends to offer flights into larger airports as it caters to the business sector. The airline flies from Morocco to Turkey and serves most European countries. It offers single-class seats and sells snacks/beverages through its easyJet Bistro service.
Frontier has a major hub in Denver and serves many cities that are close to national parks in the western U.S. The airline frequently offers excellent fares between Denver and places like Orlando and Nashville. Frontier merged with Midwest Airlines in 2011, cutting service and employees at the former Midwest hub in Milwaukee. Primarily a domestic U.S. budget airline, Frontier does send a few flights to Costa Rica, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic.
JetBlue does much of its business along the high-traffic east-coast corridor, with a hub at New York JFK. It is a frequent choice of budget travelers bound for the beaches of Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and San Juan. Its code-share agreements provide convenient connections with larger international airlines such as American and Lufthansa. JetBlue's customer service and legroom have become anchors of the overall marketing strategy.
Jetstar started as the low-cost carrier of Qantas, its parent company in Australia. Its hub airport is Melbourne, but Jetstar serves Japan, the South Pacific and other parts of Asia as well. In the years since its inception in 2003, Jetstar has moved toward independent operations and is now separate from Qantas. The airline provides a budget alternative in a part of the world where budget fares are not always easy to find.
One of Europe's largest carriers, Ryanair operates from its Dublin hub and offers low-cost fares to more than 160 destinations. The airline frequently receives criticism for allegedly poor customer service and its string of fees for basic services such as printing of boarding passes. There are also pay-toilet trial balloons and canceled third-party reservations that steal travel headlines on occasion. But the airline continues to expand, the product of airline deregulation in Europe and the quest to travel as cheaply as possible within Europe.
Many low-cost airlines tend to be fairly small and concentrated on a particular service area. Southwest has become the largest low-cost airline in the United States, and the nation's largest overall domestic airline. Southwest grew because it offered an alternative to sky-high last-minute bookings. Flights operate with only economy-class seats. A central part of the marketing strategy has focused on emphasizing free baggage checks, and lower overall fees than other airlines charge. The Rapid Rewards frequent flier program was revamped several years ago to credit travelers for money spent rather than mileage or segments flown.
A relatively new cousin of the Virgin Group family, Virgin America made its debut in 2007, offering low-cost fares between the east and west coasts in the U.S. Unlike some budget airlines, Virgin America does offer first-class seating. Depending upon the section in which they are seated, passengers might pay extra fees for pillows, snacks, and in-flight movies.
Volaris is the largest low-cost carrier based in Mexico. It serves a limited number of destinations in the U.S. and has code-share agreements with Southwest. In addition to Mexico City, Volaris also maintains a focused presence at Los Angeles International (LAX). One customer service perk offered by Volaris rewards a portion of your airfare for future travel in the event a flight is delayed for more than 30 minutes.
WestJet is second only to Air Canada for volume of service within Canada. Headquartered in Calgary, WestJet serves cities throughout North America—71 destinations in all. The airline's list of code-share partners is impressive: American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Delta, KLM, and Korean Air. Unlike some budget airlines, WestJet does offer a frequent-flier program (called Frequent Guest Program) and on occasion includes some free snacks or soft drinks. But most meals must be purchased separately.