Do You Really Save Money by Flying With a Budget Airline?

In the United States, there are several budget airlines:  Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit, Sun Country, JetBlue, and Southwest Airlines. I’ve flown with and/or have purchased tickets with all of these airlines except Spirit and Sun Country Airlines. I’ve found out the hard way there are some things to keep in mind before you hit the button to purchase tickets with budget airlines.

We’ll break it down by airlines, beginning with Frontier Airlines. Frontier Airlines often has sales for flights, sometimes cheaper than it would take you to drive to a place, especially if it would take you several hours to drive there and you’re going by yourself. However, you do have to pay for every little thing, which can and does add up. If you want to sit with someone else or you want a specific seat (like an aisle), you have to pay extra for that in advance, otherwise you will be assigned a seat for free upon check-in. You also have to pay extra for carry-on and checked bags. To save money, it’s cheapest to pay for bags online, more expensive if you pay at the ticket counter, and even more expensive if you pay at the gate. The size restrictions are strict, so be sure to measure all of your bags to make sure they are within the limits.

With Frontier Airlines, you also have the option of bundling to save money. You can purchase “The Works,” which includes a carry-on bag, checked bag, seat selection, priority boarding, flight flexibility, and 100% refundable ticket. “The Perks” includes all of that except flight flexibility and 100% refundable ticket. You can also save money by joining the Discount Den for $59.99/year. For that you will get access to exclusive low fares, free flights for a child age 14 and under with every adult on valid Kids Fly Free flights, and Frontier miles for every purchase. One final thing to note is you are often limited by the available days to fly. For example, if you need to fly on specific dates, Frontier may not be an option for you. I’ve also found that you may see a really cheap flight on the outbound flight but then the returning flight is much more expensive, negating the potential savings over other airlines.

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Allegiant Airlines is a smaller airline with not nearly as many flight options as far as destinations. Similar to Frontier, you will pay extra if you want to choose your seat in advance, otherwise a seat will be assigned to you at check-in. You also pay extra for checked and carry-on luggage and there are strict weight and size limitations. However, you can buy a bundle when you purchase your ticket (not later, though) to save money if you know you would like to choose your seat in advance and save on baggage fees. You will also save money if you print your boarding pass at home or have it on your phone; if an agent prints it for you at the airport, there’s a $5 fee. You also have to pay for any drinks or snacks onboard.

JetBlue is my favorite of the discount airlines. With JetBlue flights, you get more legroom than other airlines in coach, free snacks and non-alcoholic drinks, free wi-fi, movies and TV shows, plus you’re allowed one personal item and one carry-on item at no extra charge. There are several options, depending on your specific wants/needs for a flight:  Blue Basic, Blue, Blue Plus, Blue Extra, and Mint (for some coast-to-coast and some flights to the Caribbean).

Only Blue Plus and Mint fares include checked bags. As you might imagine, you get only the very basics with Blue Basic, plus no changes are allowed and you board last. Both Blue and Blue Plus allow changes or cancellations for a fee, but changes and cancellations are allowed for free with Blue Extra and Mint. You board first with Blue Extra and Mint while both Blue and Blue Plus are with general boarding. You also get special discounts and reductions or deductions of fees with JetBlue’s membership program, Mosaic. You can qualify for TrueBlue Mosaic by earning 15,000 base flight points within a calendar year or by flying 30 segments plus 12,000 base flight points within a calendar year. Base flight points are the 1-3 points per dollar spent that you earn on the base fare of JetBlue-operated flights.  Blue Basic fares earn 1 point on the base fare and Blue, Blue Plus, Blue Extra and Mint fares earn 3 points on the base fare.

I’ll admit that I’m not a huge Southwest Airlines fan, but I also haven’t flown with them in a while now and I know they’ve made some changes in their policies since then. Two nice perks for everyone that flies with Southwest is there are no bag fees even for up to two checked bags and no change fees if you change your reservation. You can pay an extra fee (from $15 one-way per passenger, which really adds up if you don’t have direct flights and are flying with your family and thus have multiple tickets) to give you automatic check-in, a better boarding position (but not necessarily an A boarding position) and earlier access to overhead bins.

The main reason why I don’t like Southwest is the fact that you don’t have the option to choose a seat until you board the plane. Southwest’s boarding has been called a “cattle call,” because the people are like a bunch of cattle being round-up. When you check-in for your flight, you’re assigned boarding group A, B, or C and a boarding position from 1-60. Those in boarding group A have first-dibs on seats and those in C are the last to board. Even though you’re not supposed to, I’ve seen people trying to hold seats for other people who are boarding later than they are. If you’re traveling with family members that you like and actually want to sit beside, you have to be in group A to even have much of a chance at that, especially if you’re a family of four or more and even then there are no guarantees. I’d rather just have the option to purchase a seat in advance.

Although I’ve never flown with Spirit Airlines, I hear they have a pretty bad reputation especially for delayed and cancelled flights. Spirit Airlines has a similar program to the Discount Den from Frontier Airlines, which Spirit calls the $9 Fare Club, with a fee of $59.95 per person per year and similar discounts like those with Frontier but not actually $9 flights. At the time of purchasing tickets, you have the option to “Book it,” and you’ll be assigned a seat and can only bring on a personal item. You have the choice to pay for a seat, bags, and other options separately. Alternatively, you can “Bundle It,” which includes a seat that you choose up to and including the exit row, a personal item, carry-on bag, one checked bag plus 10 lbs. extra, early boarding, one-time ability to modify your flight, and 2X flight miles. For an example, when I was playing around with booking a one-way short flight, I was given the option to bundle it for $68.99 per person per way, which they said was a savings of up to $174 per person. Spirit Airlines also has a frequent flier plan, Free Spirit.

Sun Country is based out of Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport but they also have flights out of Madison, Wisconsin; Portland, Oregon; St. Louis, Missouri; Mankato, Minnesota; and Duluth, Minnesota. Baggage fees are similar to the rest of the airlines mentioned here, with only a small personal item that fits under your seat included. You have three options for your seat:  1) Standard, which includes a USB port and free entertainment streamed to your personal device for most flights, 2) Better, which includes that in standard plus an extra 2 inches of legroom, and 3) Best, which includes that in standard plus an extra 4 inches of legroom, 150% more recline, preferred boarding (zone 2), and one alcoholic beverage.

When I played around on the Sun Country website, I was forced to put in traveler information including an email address and phone number (of course I made up phony ones) before I could even see flight information. Immediately, the fees began. A carry-on bag was $30 and a checked bag was $30 for the first bag then $40 for the second and third. If you want priority boarding in zone 1, that’s an extra $5. Seats ranged from $33-$39 in the front of the plane to $15-21 in the zone behind the first one to $24 for the emergency exit row and $9 for the seats at the back of the plane. I chose a standard seat for $15 and $30 for a checked bag so my extras were as much as the price of the ticket when I started out. For comparison, a similar flight on Delta that included seat selection and a carry-on bag cost a few dollars less.

One last thing to add is these budget airlines often run sales a month or two in advance. If you’re like me and purchase your airline tickets farther out in advance (say four months out) you may end up paying more than if you would have waited. An example is I purchased tickets through Allegiant Airlines only to get an email a couple of months later with much lower prices than what I paid for the same destination. I changed my reservation and re-booked the same route but instead of getting my credit card refunded, I was given an online voucher to use on a future Allegiant flight, good for one year from my date of original purchase. In other words, unless I book another flight through Allegiant within a few months (which I wasn’t planning on doing), I’ll never actually see that refunded money. Lesson learned here is I should have waited to purchase my tickets until I saw a sale, as is common with Allegiant (and Frontier and most of the other budget airlines).

So do you really save money by flying with a budget airline? The answer is, maybe. The bottom line is you should check around with different airlines before you make your reservations. Just because an airline is a low-cost airline doesn’t mean that’s the best choice for you. If you don’t care where you sit, bring your own snacks and water bottle on a plane, don’t have to fly on specific dates, and only fly with a small backpack, you could likely save some money with one of these budget airlines. However, you really need to put in all of the information and look at all of your options first.

Have you flown with any of these budget airlines? What was your experience like?

Happy travels!

Donna