5 Things You Need to Know When Flying With Budget Airlines

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  • Budget airlines offer cheaper flight prices than other airlines.
  • However, the base fare normally only covers a seat and a personal item, and everything else costs extra.
  • Route options are more limited, and budget airlines are more likely to have delays and cancellations.

Found a rock-bottom fare with a budget airline? Here's what to know before you book.

Here's a situation many of us have been in -- you need to book an affordable flight. You go to Google Flights or your travel tool of choice and start comparing options. And right there, when you sort by price, is a flight that's much cheaper than all the rest. What's the catch?

These fares are typically offered by budget airlines, also known as low-cost or ultra-low-cost airlines. Flying with budget airlines can be a great way to travel on the cheap, but there are some important things you need to know before you pull out your credit cards and make a reservation.

1. Almost everything costs extra

The price you see from a budget airline gets you the bare minimum: A seat and allowance for a personal item. Most budget airlines charge extra for everything else, including:

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  • Choosing a seat
  • Carry-on luggage
  • Checked luggage
  • In-flight drinks and snacks

Make sure to add up how much everything you need will cost, and then compare that to what other airlines are charging. If you need to bring a carry-on bag, and you want to choose your seat, you may find that a budget airline isn't the bargain it originally appeared to be.

Many budget airlines even charge a fee for printing your boarding pass at the airport. For example, Spirit Airlines charges $25 at its check-in counters for each boarding pass. To avoid this, check in online and print your boarding pass at home.

2. Add-ons are usually cheaper the earlier you buy them

If you book with a budget airline, purchase all the add-ons you need as early as possible. Prices generally go up if you buy later. For example, adding a carry-on or checked bag to your reservation will most likely be cheapest if you do it when booking your flight. The price will then be higher if you do it while checking in online, and even more expensive at the airport.

3. They're more likely to have delays and cancellations

Budget airlines recorded lower on-time percentages and higher cancellation percentages than legacy carriers, based on Bureau of Transportation Statistics data from 2021 and 2022. These aren't common occurrences, especially cancellations, but they're more likely with low-cost and ultra-low-cost carriers.

It's always smart to be ready for flight issues, just in case. If you're flying with a budget airline, it's even more important. Consider purchasing a travel insurance policy. Or, look into travel credit cards that include this as a complimentary benefit.

4. They don't have as many routes

The largest airlines have the fleets to cover a massive number of routes. Their size also means they can offer more routes per day. Budget airlines, in contrast, are more limited. That means:

  • They may not have direct flights available when legacy carriers do.
  • They often fly into smaller airports, because those airports charge airlines less in fees.
  • They may have a much more limited schedule for the flight you want, such as one departure per day or even just a few per week.

This is another reason why budget flights aren't always such an amazing deal. If flying with a budget airline will include a stop and take 12 hours, while a legacy carrier will get you there nonstop in three hours, that's a lot of extra time to save $100 on a ticket.

5. Lines at the airport can be long

Budget airlines are known for having some seriously long check-in and bag drop lines, which aren't great for the whole air travel experience. Always check in online, especially since you'll avoid extra fees for printing your boarding pass at the airport. And if possible, stick to a carry-on. If you need to check a bag, arrive extra early and be prepared to wait awhile.

If you're looking for the lowest price on a flight, a budget airline could be a good choice. They work especially well for people who travel light and don't need any bells and whistles, like the option to upgrade to first class. But it's important to know what to expect so you aren't in for any unwelcome or expensive surprises.

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