Many of the common mistakes connected to low-cost airlines are rooted in the assumption that the experience will be identical to every other type of flight, but at a lower ticket price.
Let's look at the ways this assumption is incorrect.
The Airline will Print my Boarding Pass
Start with the boarding pass. It's required for boarding a plane, so isn't it safe to assume that the airline will print it for you?
Check to see if your intended carrier provides boarding passes. No kidding.
Ryanair, for example, will charge €70 or £70 ($95-$115 USD) if you show up at the airport without an online check-in. In late 2013, amid many complaints about this policy, Ryanair agreed to lower the fee to €15 or £15 ($21-$33 USD) for those who checked in online but can't produce a printed boarding pass.
Another low-cost airline turns the tables, asking you to pay for the privilege of arriving at the airport with a boarding pass printed at home.
Allegiant charges a fee of $17/person for the privileges of printing the boarding pass outside the airport and reserving a seat.
Although the procedures and fees vary, many low-cost carriers don't offer terminal kiosks for printing boarding passes. The first issue you must research is the boarding pass policy, and then plan for the cheapest option that still suits your needs.
Baggage Fees will come at Budget Prices
The a la carte pricing model so critical to low-cost carriers concentrates on amenities such as checked baggage.
You see, the idea is to keep ticket prices as low as possible, and only make passengers pay for certain desired services. Do you want to bring three heavy bags on your trip? No problem. But you will pay the privilege.
At this writing, the first checked bag on Ryanair will cost €15 or £15 ($21-$33 USD), but only if you make the arrangements at the time of your reservation on the airline's website. If you decide to check your bag at the airport, the cost will double.
Those quotes are for a 15-kg. bag in low season. Adding 5-kg. to the weight and traveling in high season raises the airport checked bag charge to €55 /£55 ($75-$90 USD).
Low-cost airlines will reward people who either travel with a carry-on bag or make arrangements to check well in advance of the flight.
One warning: if your carry-on is deemed too large and must be checked, low-cost carriers might impose a hefty penalty for taking it down to the baggage crew. At Ryanair, the penalty is €100 ($136 USD), which doubles if you've already exceeded your checked baggage allowance.
Ryanair publishes all of these fees. Smart budget travelers pay as little as possible. That requires some diligence before you leave home. Be certain to know the checked baggage fees for the airline you intend to fly.
Failing to Budget for Ground Transportation
London is a hub for many low-cost airlines. But London has five major commercial airports.
You might enjoy views like the one pictured here when using Heathrow or Gatwick. But many low-cost carriers fly out of Luton or Stansted, both of which are more than 30 miles from central London.
Flying to Frankfurt? Some airlines will use Frankfurt-Hahn airport, which is 75 miles from Frankfurt. The airlines are not practicing deception, at least not in this case. Frankfurt-Hahn is the official name of the airport.
This trend is not limited to European-based low-cost airlines.
Allegiant serves the Orlando market. But the airline actually flies into small, efficient Orlando Sanford International, which is about 27 miles north of Orlando. On Allegiant's pulldown airport menu, it states clearly "Orlando/Sanford." But if you don't take notice, you could face some hefty ground transportation charges for which you did not budget.
You must factor in the added costs of ground transportation when pricing fares with low-cost airlines.
Change Fees will come at Budget Prices
As with baggage fees, change fees do not necessarily come at budget prices on a low-cost carrier.
At AirTran and JetBlue, that charge ranges from $75-$100. American, Delta and United each charge $200.
Don't expect these fees to diminish or disappear at most low-cost airlines.
For example, Spirit Airlines lists its change fees on a webpage titled Spirit Optional Services. Some might snicker, but that's actually very much in keeping with the business model of Spirit or any other low-cost carrier. If you need anything beyond a ticket, you'll pay for it.
At Spirit, the cost for modification of an existing reservation at the airport is $125. If you can make the change online, there is a $10 discount.
Kudos to Southwest, which allows changes to non-refundable tickets at no charge.
Tip: read up on all the airline's fees prior to booking. For example, some low-cost carriers charge a 2 percent premium for making payment with a credit card.
No Assigned Seating means Free Choices
Low-cost carriers typically don't have first-class or business-class sections. The idea of selecting a seat as you board, much as you would on a city bus or subway train, has great appeal. But in reality, you'll have fewer choices than you'd imagine.
That's because some low-cost airlines offer priority boarding for an added fee.
Another common practice is to sell seat reservations at time of booking. For example, easyJet allows passengers to reserve seats for an additional $5.50/person during online booking.
As with other items and services on a low-cost carrier, if you want better seats, you'll pay for them.
Snacks and Cabin Comforts will be Free
Low-cost airlines offer basic transportation at the lowest possible price. They make money on everything else that might be connected to air travel -- even refreshments.
This comes as a surprise to the uninitiated. They weren't expecting an airline meal. But a soft drink and a bag of peanuts? That's not asking much, right?
When you start adding up the cost from the airline's perspective, it is a significant expenditure. If you want a snack, bring it with you from home or expect to pay for it.
Some airlines are now charging for pillows and blankets, too. Never assume anything beyond a seat-belt is included.
Daily Flights between Cities Served
Be careful about assuming that flights between cities served by a low-cost carrier are scheduled daily. In some cases, the route might only involve a few flights each week.
Much of this has to do with the demand for tickets. These airlines operate on thin profit margins, and they cannot afford empty seats any more so than a major carrier.
In small-to-medium sized cities, check to see how frequently your chosen route is serviced.
Response to Complaints will be Swift
Because many budget travelers are unprepared for a low-cost airline trip, they encounter fees and situations that cost more money than expected. They frequently complain about their travel experiences.
If a fee is properly applied and is published on the airline's website or in some fine print, you won't be getting any refunds -- even if you consider it surprising, outrageous or unfair. As a budget traveler, it is your job to find those added fees and avoid them.
Nonetheless, some will file complaints about such things, and clog the system for other people who have legitimate problems that actually deserve attention.
Whether you fall into the first category or the second, don't assume the airline's response will be swift.