Buyer beware: the hidden costs of budget air travel

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Travellers are spoiled for choice when it comes to scoring a deal on a cheap flight. With budget carriers offering more routes around the world and websites like Jetradar, Skyscanner and Hipmunk making it easier than ever to compare the prices on offer, consumers are getting used to lower fares (and foregoing certain passenger services). But before you hit ‘buy now’, ask yourself a few simple questions to uncover the potential hidden costs before they mount up.

Backpacks at the ready in California's Mojave Desert. Image by Ken Chernus / Taxi / Getty Images.

Backpacks at the ready in California's Mojave Desert. Image by Ken Chernus / Taxi / Getty Images.

What is the real cost of this flight?

In the pursuit of a bargain, it’s easy to overlook or forget about the real costs of that flight. Consider some obvious pitfalls: is your return flight also a bargain? Does the quoted price include taxes? In your haste to click through, make sure you’re not opting in to pay for services you don’t need. For example, some low-cost carriers' websites require you to opt out of travel insurance (which you may already have covered by an annual or multi-trip package). There may be a few boxes to untick before you whip out your credit card.

Related article: Beat jet lag: top tips for travellers

Lower fares mean you’re not paying for inclusions offered by full-service airlines. Remember to print out your boarding pass before you travel or risk paying an additional fee for forgetfulness. Carefully check the names as well as travel dates; changing just one letter can be costly. If you’re really organised, pack something to eat or expect to pay airport or airline mark-up for meals (but finish your drinks before you go through security, or you'll lose your Evian to on-board liquid restrictions). Not all budget airlines allocate seats (although easyJet started doing so this year), so expect to queue for the privilege of being early to board if you want to guarantee cosying up to your travel companion.

Prop open your bleary eyelids, dawn is breaking and you're in Terminal 3. Image by Benson Kua / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Prop open your bleary eyelids, dawn is breaking in Terminal 3. Image by Benson Kua / CC BY-SA 2.0.

What will this flight time cost you?

Weigh up what your time (and tiredness) is worth when deciding which flight to book. Cheaper flights may not take the most direct route, so you'll need to factor in the time and potential inconvenience of a stopover. And what time will it be when you do arrive? If it's an early start, you can't bank on checking in at your hotel, so see if you can stash your luggage there or in a locker at the train station. Or even drag your rucksack around town, if you can bear it. (And ask whether you have the stamina to do dawn sightseeing while awaiting your room key.)

Unless you have a chauffeur willing to drop you off at the terminal for your flight, factor in the costs of making it to the airport. If you’re already part of the poverty jet set, you’ll know the cheapest flights are offered at off-peak times: that means yawningly early in the morning, or very late at night. It’s easy to convince yourself you’ll be able to make that 6.15am boarding time, but remember that if you’re travelling internationally you'll need to be at the airport at least an hour or two before your departure time to check in (and in some airports up to three hours). Sometimes public transport schedules won’t get you there on time, which means paying for a shuttle or a taxi, opening your wallet for an airport hotel, or if your budget is really tight then sleeping in the airport itself.

Pillow, blanket, sleep deprivation: the perfect recipe for an airport nap. Image by OakleyOriginals / CC BY 2.0.

Pillow, blanket, sleep deprivation: the perfect recipe for an airport nap. Image by OakleyOriginals / CC BY 2.0.

Then there are the non-financial costs. That cut-price fare might have seemed too good to pass up when you were daydreaming of your next mini-break, but the glamour of a weekend in Milan transforms into cruel and unusual punishment when your alarm is set for 4am to ensure you can check in on time. You might be able to buy yourself another 30 minutes of snoozing if you’re able to check in online and you’re only taking hand luggage.

What’s in the fine print?

Make sure you look at the fine print of the terms and conditions for your carrier. Don’t get caught out by excess baggage fees. Know the dimensions of what you’re allowed to carry on as well as the weight limit. Each airline has their own rules about cabin baggage and some seem to delight in charging you if your luggage doesn’t conform. At best, you might end up having your luggage put in the hold; at worst it might cost you more than your fare. If you’re travelling with a child and have a buggy or pram, or plan to take sporting equipment, it's useful to know what’s included in your ticket and where you’ll have to pay extra.

Queuing for an airport bus, the final hurdle! Except of course that six-hour wait to check in at the hotel. Image by Oran Viriyincy / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Queuing for an airport bus, the final hurdle! Except, of course, that six-hour wait to check in at the hotel. Image by Oran Viriyincy / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Where am I going?

Budget carriers often fly into secondary airports. If you’re used to speedy rail links from airports, it can be a shock to find you have another long journey to the city centre. For example, Girona Barcelona Airport is 12km south of Girona but 92km from Barcelona. Do a little homework to find out how to get to the city centre from your destination airport. Is there public transport? Is there an airport shuttle transfer service? If you’re travelling in a group it can be cheaper to book a car service or share a taxi.

So to ensure your bargain flight doesn't deal you an unexpected budgetary blow, review the fine print with a critical eye, consider the added costs and pack light. The sights, smells and flavours in your new destination will be even sweeter knowing you've perfected the fine art of budget travel.