Budget Airlines Survival Guide

Ultra Low-Cost Carriers (“ULCC”) or budget airlines have become extremely popular in the past five years by offering sub-$100 roundtrip flights across the United States. The rise of the ULCC forced the traditional carriers to cut prices and implement basic economy on almost all of their routes. ULCCs do have disadvantages, but generally have an undeserved bad reputation by uninformed consumers.

Disadvantages of Budget Airlines

Delays– ULCCs have about the same on-time departure percentages as United, Delta, and American (and even better percentage than JetBlue). However, when ULCCs are delayed, they are delayed for a much longer period of time. At this point in time, ULCCs have fairly small fleets compared to United, Delta, and American. If a plane has mechanical issues, there are no back-up planes. Additionally, several cities are only serviced once or twice a day and ULCCs do not have interline agreements (they won’t pay for your ticket on another airline) with other airlines, so a cancellation of one flight will have a large ripple effect.

  • Tip: Pay for your ticket with a credit card that has great trip delay insurance.

Fees– This is less of an issue with the almost universal adoption of basic economy (you have to pay for carry on, no changes, and pay for seat assignment) by the major airlines. The ULCCs go out of their way to make sure you are aware of their fees. However, if you read the complaints online, most people complain extensively about fees that are now standard on the major airlines.

  • Tip: Factor in the difference in fees between the major carriers and the ULCCs. Additionally, since ULCC’s frequent flyer points are fairly useless, factor in an extra $20-30 for the points or status you would get with a major carrier.
  • Tip: Print your boarding pass beforehand or use their mobile app.

Less legroom: If you are above 6 feet tall, you will likely find the ULCC’s seats to be pretty tight. Spirit’s “Big Front Seat” is basically a first class seat, whereas Frontier’s stretch seating is just a regular seat with 4 inches of extra space.

  • Tip: Spirit’s “Big Front Seat” is worth the extra $50+ on a longer flight. You have only one person next to you, you are the first off the plane, and the seat is way more comfortable.

Newbies– The low prices of ULCCs attract a ton of new fliers and families with young children. These newbies are probably why ULCCs have bad reputations. They complain about having to pay fees that are standard on most carriers and take it out on the customer service personnel.

  • Tip: Be well aware of the fees and disadvantages of ULCCs. Also, bring noise canceling headphones, download shows off Netflix to your tablet, and drink a good amount at the lounge before the flight.

Budget Airline Fee Comparison

Checked Bag Fee$45$70$44
Carry-on Bag FeeFree$50Free
Non-alcoholic Drinks$4-5$3$3-5
Alcoholic Drinks$7-15$7-10$7-10
Fresh Food$10$11.50$10-15
Pre-ordered Meals$45$14$40
Seat Selection$30$10$17-37
More Space Seat$45$40$60-75


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest

Sign up for our Daily Points newsletter