Budget airlines: getting your money's worth

Shawn Low
Lonely Planet Writer

Budget airlines. Low-cost carriers. Whatever you want to call them, these no-frills airlines are appealing for the most basic of reasons: wallet-friendly prices and an incredibly extensive and diverse set of flight routes. But really, do you get what you pay for?

The bad bits: things we love to hate

Budget airlines seem to get a bad rap for so many things. Some of it justified, others because people have either set expectations rivalling that of regular airlines, or because they’ve failed to read the fine print.

Delays. These seem to rank high on the list of annoyances, but unless a volcano has just exploded, the situation really isn’t so bad. According to website www.flightontime.info, much-reviled Ryanair flights only suffered an average delay of 13.7 minutes in 2010 and the statistic currently stands at 7.3 minutes for 2011. Not bad at all. Of course, if a volcano does explode, you might be stuck with minimal compensation.

Extras. The other obvious bugbear is the extras you have to pay. You’ll get nickel and dimed for food, entertainment and even a blanket. Want to pick your seat? Sure, you’ll have to pay extra...per sector! Want to check in more than 15kg of luggage? Want to pay for that flight with a credit card? Yep, you’ll have to pay extra. What? You need to pee? For a while there were plans to make you pay for that too.

Landing far away. What about the landing proximity to the ‘actual’ city you want to get to? Forget about it. When a budget airline tells you that it’s taking you to Frankfurt, it might actually mean that it’s taking you to Hahn, from where it’s a two-hour bus ride to Frankfurt proper.

Other future issues could be the reduction of toilets on the plane (more seats!) and even standing room seats. God forbid!

The good bits: why it might be worth it

Tickets can be cheap. Really, really cheap. Zero-cost fares (plus fees and taxes of course)? It’s true!

They’re expanding routes. And these routes are cheap! Budget airlines are moving into long-haul flights and last we checked, you could snag a return ticket from KL to Europe or Australia to LA for US$1000. Expect to pay more than double for a regular carrier.

Regional airports aren’t so bad. Sometimes, a smaller airport means that you’ll clear customs and get out quicker than you would at the main airport. Think Subang Airport versus Kuala Lumpur International Airport or Stansted versus Heathrow.

Image by disparkys

Living with budget fares

Here are some things to note when you’ve resigned yourself to taking a budget carrier.

Use a flight aggregator such as Skyscanner, Kayak, Travelzoo or Lastminute.com to find the lowest fares, but watch out for extra ‘booking’ fees levied by these websites. Sometimes, you’re better off getting details of the booking and jumping onto the actual airline website to avoid booking fees.

Be flexible and be ready to go at any time. Budget deals come fast and furious. You might snag a $1 flight from Melbourne to Hobart…if you book 3 to 6 months in advance (oh the agony of waiting for that holiday to come round). And act quickly because tickets sell out fast. Expect some gnashing of teeth too - websites often crash on sale day, so be patient. Of course, if you go for the cheapest option, you’ll usually have to forfeit the ticket or pay hefty fees if you want to change dates.

Travel insurance. Get some. Make sure your policy covers delays and cancellations. Or get ready to sleep in the airport if your flight is delayed or cancelled (see exploding volcano point above).

Work out actual costs. If you’re planning on getting food (you might have to on a long-haul flight), picking a seat with more legroom, or checking in luggage, prices will creep. Why not check prices against a regular carrier? Also note that in peak seasons, the gap in prices between regular and budget carriers starts to close up.

Read the fine print. We know many peeved travellers who didn’t notice that they had to print out their own boarding pass to avoid paying $25 for it at the airport.

Watch the clock. When a budget carrier tells you that their check-in counters shut 45 minutes before the flight, they really do mean it. Rock up a minute late and you’re off the plane. Some airlines skimp on staff, meaning that there might be only one counter operating, so arrive early to ensure you make the cut-off time.

And buy a Lonely Planet guidebook with the money you’ve saved.

For a list of low-cost carriers around the world, click here.

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