They lure you in with dirt-cheap prices. Then when you’re hooked, they slap you with hidden fees. Flying with budget airlines can end up being quite pricey if you don’t know how to maneuver yourself through the fees and restrictions.
How bad can these fees be?
Let’s say RyanAir is having sale and advertises a ticket from London to Dublin at £19.99. Great price! You buy it without getting any add-ons and congratulate yourself for having scored such a great deal. On the day of the flight, you check in online and smugly take the cab to the airport.
At the airport, you realize that RyanAir’s cabin bag dimensions are slightly smaller than other airlines’. You have to check in that small bag (£50 for one bag under 15 kg in high season).
Also, it’s raining outside and the boarding pass you pre-printed at home is smudged. You have to pay a reprint fee (£15).
Your flight ends up costing you £84.99 — 325% more than it was originally!
You tell yourself it could’ve been worse — you could’ve forgotten to check in online (£70) or misspelled your name on the booking form (£110).
Love budget airlines, love their fees
Flying with a budget airline can be risky, but it can also be great value if you play by the rules. I’ve learned to embrace budget airlines — fees and all — because the low airfares are worth the trouble. Why pay a premium for services I don’t need if I can get from point A to point B for a lot cheaper without them?
If other passengers don’t play by the rules, then let them pay the fees that allow the airline to be profitable in the first place. Thanks to the fees that others pay, these airlines continue to operate and you can fly cheaply because you know how to play by the rules.
15 Commandments of flying budget airlines
Nervous about booking discount flights? Don’t be. Stick to these rules and you’ll be fine.
1. Thou shalt know thine airlines
Many budget airfares don’t show up on flight search websites. You have to know which airlines fly your route, then go to the airline website to find out what airfares are available.
It seems like more and more budget airlines appear every day and their routes keep changing. I could spend hours compiling a list of all these airlines and tomorrow the list could be obsolete. For an updated list of discount airlines, check out Wikitravel. There are enough low-cost routes now that you can actually fly around the world exclusively on budget airlines!
2. Thou shalt do everything online
One of the reasons why budget airlines are so cheap is because they exist mostly online.
Do as much as you can online — booking, checking in, modifying your reservation, etc. Anything you do over the phone or in person will cost more, so make sure you enter all your details correctly online at the time of booking so you won’t have to contact the airline for further assistance.
When you make your booking, be sure to provide them with an email address that you check every day. If there’s any urgent news about your flight, you’ll get it via email and you don’t want to miss it.
3. Thou shalt book thy flight on the airline website
When you book, do it on the airline website. Even if the airline appears on a meta-search website that shows a lower airfare, you’d probably end up with a higher price after fees and taxes elsewhere.
By booking with the airline directly, you’ll also be enjoying the best customer service possible. If you think dealing with the airline directly is frustrating, try being bounced between the airline and a third-party booking agent when you need assistance.
4. Thou shalt subscribe to newsletters
I don’t like clutter in my inbox, but I don’t mind newsletters from budget airlines that announce airfare sales. With budget airlines, it’s a good strategy to wait for sales before making your purchase. These sales happen frequently, so you won’t have to wait long until you find a good airfare.
These are the airfares you get when you have a lot of flexibility. You have the money, the time and you don’t mind where you go as long as you get good value. When a budget airline announces a sale, quickly jump onto the website and book the flights.
5. Thou shalt not change thy flight
A budget airfare generally doesn’t have much flexibility; you can’t change your dates or times without incurring outrageous fees.
If you’re not sure you can fly on that particular flight, you should probably go with another airline. Or if it’s not an important trip, just abandon the ticket and re-purchase when there’s another sale. You can always pay an extra fee to get the ability to change your flight details, but your airfare probably won’t be much cheaper than it would be on a regular airline.
6. Thou shalt know thine airports
Many budget airlines fly into small airports away from city centers to cut costs. Before you book a flight, take into account the extra cost of car rental or taxi fare — it could wipe out any savings you get from the lower airfare. And if you have a tight schedule, it could mess up your entire trip.
When I flew Air Asia to Bangkok, I only realized that the airport was a minor one when we landed. We wanted to take a bus to another city, but it was going to leave from the main airport. Luckily, we weren’t in a rush. We simply took the free shuttle bus to the main airport, then got on the inter-city bus later than we previously scheduled.
Another time, I bought cheap Jetstar tickets to Melbourne, but forgot to take into account the cab fare from Melbourne’s Avalon airport to the city center. It cost a little over $100, but there were four of us, so it wasn’t too pricey, all things considered.
7. Thou shalt measure and weigh thy bags
Each budget airline has a different set of rules when it comes to baggage allowance. The best way to go is to pack light and bring only one carry-on bag per passenger.
But what’s considered a carry-on bag? As I mentioned before, a budget airline may have more stringent standards for baggage dimensions and weights.
Read the fine print before you pack, then measure and weigh your bags. Baggage fees can be obscenely high, so don’t risk it.
8. Thou shalt get creative with thy stuff
What are you supposed to do if you can almost fit everything in one carry-on bag? Check in one measly little bag? No. You wear as many things as you can.
Wear the heaviest clothing items you have, such as your sneakers, wool jacket and jeans. If you still have some overflow, stuff things into your pockets — these won’t count towards your baggage allowance. And if you still have even more stuff to bring, get this ugly wearable:
This vest won’t earn you any fashion points, but it’ll get you through the check-in desk without incurring extra fees. (It has pockets big enough to stuff laptops in!) I haven’t tried wearable luggage before, but I imagine it would feel really satisfying to beat the budget airlines at their own game.
9. Thou shalt check in online and print out thy boarding pass at home
Most airlines allow you to check in online 24 hours before the flight. If you forget to do this, you may be slapped with a check-in fee at the airport. You may also be charged with another fee if you turn up without a pre-printed boarding pass.
10. Thou shalt arrive early
In 2009, RyanAir infamously only had 11 check-in desks for 255 flights. While not all flights will be as crowded, it’s not uncommon for budget airlines to have long lines at the check-in desks. If you don’t get to the front of the line in time, you may have to purchase a new ticket at whatever price they have available (or the difference between that price and the old price, plus a change fee).
I know it sucks to have to wait at the airport, but arrive early if you want to get on that flight. Another upside is you’ll have enough time to resolve any issues that arise from missing things in the fine print. And if the seats are not assigned, you’ll have better chances of scoring a good seat.
11. Thou shalt plan for delays
Budget airlines may not provide any help at all in case of delays or cancellations, so plan your itinerary accordingly.
Don’t schedule anything important too close to your arrival time. If possible, avoid the last flight of the day; if your flight gets cancelled, you don’t want to be stranded overnight at the airport.
12. Thou shalt be extra careful with connecting flights
Leave a lot of time between flights because budget airlines may not handle the transition for you. You may have to clear security and customs, then check in again to catch your connecting flight.
Additionally, if your first flight is late, you may not get any compensation to help you get to your final destination. Read the fine print carefully to check the airline policy if you miss a connecting flight. If necessary, purchase travel insurance to protect yourself against missed connecting flights.
13. Thou shalt get thine own insurance
Generally, any extras budget airlines offer are not good value for money. This includes insurance. You’re better off getting travel insurance elsewhere — from World Nomads, for example.
14. Thou shalt bring thine own entertainment and snacks
Prepare for the flight by saving some good movies on your laptop or tablet, downloading good books to your Kindle or bringing a paperback. Buy food and drinks at the airport after you pass the security checkpoint. Airport food is expensive, but not as expensive (or bad) as airplane food.
15. Thou shalt know thine airline’s rules
As much as I want to, I can’t possibly cover every budget airline’s rules in one blog post.
Fine prints are tedious. That’s exactly why discount airlines hide their crazy policies and fees in there. You don’t have to read all of the fine print, but at least Google the airline for common rules that trip up other passengers.
If you have any special requirements at all, always check how the airline handles this. You could probably lower your expenses by paying the fee online at the time of booking. For example, RyanAir charges £20 if you have a travel cot for a baby, but only £10 if you pay the fee when you purchase the ticket online.
Budget airlines are not always the cheapest…
If you need some flexibility and good customer service, budget airlines are not the answer. In certain cases, flying discount airlines can end up being more expensive. If budget airlines aren’t your thing, here are some other ways for you to save money on airfares:
- Quick Trip Booking: 3 Easy Steps to Finding Travel Deals
- How to Take Advantage of Flexibility in Flight Booking