People Always Ask Me About: Flying Budget Airlines

Today I’m beginning a new series called “People Always Ask Me About” (PAAMA). Unsurprisingly, each PAAMA post will address something I’m frequently asked about. In addition to hopefully serving as interesting reading, next time I’m asked – and there will be a next time – I can just give people the link.


Ah, budget airlines. The mode of transportation that people love to book on major sale and then love to complain about. The reviews for Frontier and Allegiant, two of the most recognizable budget airlines in the USA, are pretty dismal: they have an average rating of 2/10 and 3/10, respectively. That’s – well, that’s not good. You should definitely avoid them at all costs, right?

Wrong. Well, at least, it’s wrong if you can read, pack light, and be flexible.

If you look at those negative reviews, you notice that most of them are complaining about being nickel-and-dimed for everything: carry-on bags, checked bags, food, choosing your seat, and so on. They say that by the end of their flight they had paid more than they would’ve on a traditional airline, and suggest that you save yourself and just go straight to Southwest. Now, Southwest is my favorite domestic airline, but it has never come close to getting me to Denver and back for $90 or to Philadelphia and back for $56.*

Every single one of those fees people complain about on the internet is laid out for you before you pay for your flight. Every. Single. One. And you don’t even have to go through the motions of booking to find out what they are; you can just go to their sites and look at their fees (Frontier, Allegiant) whenever you’re bored. (I’m not claiming that reading those will make you less bored, but hey, at least it’s something to do, right?) But when you do actually go through the booking process, you’ll see that all those fees are completely optional.

I’ve flown Frontier twice, will be flying Allegiant in May, and have flown RyanAir (European budget airline) once and WOW Air (Icelandic budget airline) roundtrip – and I have never paid for bags. N-E-V-E-R. For all but WOW you are allowed a regular school-sized backpack, and it doesn’t matter what that sucker weighs when it’s full as long as it fits under the seat in front of you. WOW also limits you to 5 kg (about 11 lbs) for your free personal item, and they do enforce it and weigh all hand luggage. I’m not the least bit ashamed to say that my husband and I were wearing so many layers when we went to Iceland in October that we looked like the kid in A Christmas Story.

We look totally normal, right? Why are you so sweaty?

But it was worth it: we spent six days there with minimal luggage to deal with (this came in handy since our rental car was a Prius!) and didn’t have to pay extra for luggage.

Here are some tips on how to pack for budget airlines:

This is all that we brought for two people and three weeks in Europe!

– Wear your largest clothing items and shoes (and heaviest, if you’re flying WOW)
– If you’re bringing extra shoes, stuff them with socks and underwear
Roll your clothes!
– Plan to wear things more than once. We packed three outfits each for six days in Iceland and wore them all twice. For three weeks in Europe I think we each had four or five shirts and three bottoms. We alternated them out and also did laundry once, plus washed underwear and socks in the sink as necessary.
 Don’t forget that most of those layers you’re wearing have pockets!
– If space is an issue and weight isn’t, get some roll-up Space Bags (NOT the vacuum ones!)
– If you think you’ll be traveling budget airlines a lot, consider clothing with lots of pockets like those made by SCOTTeVEST**
– Don’t forget a water bottle to fill at the airport water fountains and some snacks; you know they aren’t included in your fare!

To this day the only extra expense I’ve ever paid on a budget airline – and I knew it was extra because I can read – is to choose seats. This only mattered for Iceland because that’s a semi-long flight and I wanted to be with my husband (in addition to being awesome, he’s a great pillow), and for Philadelphia because I was with my kids, who are young. None of the budget airlines will guarantee that families will sit together unless you pay for it – yes, they will stick your kids with strangers just like Southwest will if you’re in boarding group C – so be sure to factor that into your budget if it matters to you. When I went to Denver with two introverted friends we ended up all over the plane, but dangit, we flew from Florida to Colorado and back for $90!

. . . . . . . . .

Now that I’ve tackled 90% of the complaints about flying budget airlines, let me address the other complaints I’ve heard/read:

1. “The seats are uncomfortable.” Well, yes, they are. But I’ve flown in coach probably a hundred times and only flown in not-coach twice, and every single coach seat I’ve sat in is uncomfortable. Frontier is interesting because their seats really are no less comfortable than your average coach seat, but people see that they are different – a space-saving design that has less padding but I swear is not less comfortable for me – and it automatically makes them grumpier. This is just anecdotal and potentially more than you wanted to know, but my butt has never gone numb on a Frontier plane, including the four-hour flight to Denver. It has, however, gone numb on several traditional padded coach seats on flights half the distance.
2. “The customer service is terrible.” I haven’t flown Allegiant yet, but Frontier and especially WOW had great customer service for me. They were very friendly and helpful. I don’t remember actually having any interaction with employees on RyanAir (it was 7 years ago that I flew that airline), so clearly they weren’t bad either.
3. “They canceled my flight and there were no other flights till the next day!” Now this is potentially a legitimate concern. One of the ways these airlines save money is by running fewer flights, full to capacity. (Try saying that five times fast.) If there is only one flight from Orlando to Philadelphia each day and your flight home gets canceled, you’re going to be spending some unexpected quality time in the airport. But here’s my (admittedly also anecdotal) answer to that: I’ve traveled a lot of places on a lot of airlines, and only spent the night in an airport once. You know who canceled my flight, wasn’t the least bit apologetic about it, and made me sleep on the floor of Chicago-O’Hare on my birthday? United Airlines. And you can bet I spent a lot more than $50 on that ticket!

. . . . . . . . .

Obviously, whether or not budget airlines are worth the hassle to save lots of money is an individual choice based on individual priorities. There is no right or wrong here. If you’d rather take one trip a year and bring as much luggage as you want and get “free” peanuts, that’s no better or worse than packing light and paying peanuts to go four different places in a year on Frontier. If travel is important to you and you don’t have a big budget for it, don’t write off the nickel-and-dime airlines because you’ve heard the horror stories from the people who didn’t pay attention. Take a look when they’re running their sales and maybe you can swing a long weekend at a far-away friend’s house after all.

Speaking of which, Frontier is offering me $19 each way to Houston. Oh, Houstonian friends…!

Places I’ve gone thanks to budget airlines:

One more thing: If you like the idea of saving money on travel but don’t like budget airlines, consider following TheFlightDeal. They post good prices on flights from anywhere in the USA to anywhere in the world, and do not usually post budget airline sales. Some TFD finds are better than others, but they only post them if they’re better than average. You can watch for a specific place, or you can just up and go anywhere that sounds interesting. Often these deals are out of places that budget airlines like Frontier fly to, so you can combine a great sale fare on a budget airline with a great sale fare on a legacy carrier and still come out ahead. Now you have no excuse: go see the world!

* Without using credit card points, that is. An upcoming PAAMA post will be about travel hacking!
** None of these links are affiliate links. I should probably work on that! 😉


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