What to Expect When Booking With a Budget Airline

We've done the digging to find the tips and tricks to help you get the best deal, and knowing what to expect, on your next budget-airline ticket.

It seems like advertisments are always screaming about the latest and greatest plane-ticket sale. With language crafted to make you want to spring on the deal, sometimes it's hard not to get excited and spend an hour or more researching and planning a perfect trip just to find out that the sale wasn't as good a deal as you originally thought. 

These tips and tricks could help save you that misery of a failed trip-planning experience and help you get around unexpected fees and stipulations. 

Checking In: Where and When

One of the biggest notes to make about budget airlines when you start your search into the low fares is the airport location. Many airlines don't service the large, in-city airports and stick to smaller, regional airports to keep costs lower. 

Some airlines also have a minimal staff to cut down on costs. This means that when you check in, there might be only one person working the airline's single check-in counter. It's advised that you make sure to check in online and arrive at least an hour early for your flight.

Some airlines, such as RyanAir, require that you check in online—and pay for this required online check-in, too—before your flight and print your own ticket. Fees for these missed steps at the airport are, in some cases, more than $40 per instance.

When planning your arrival time at the airport, note that there are several budget airlines that advertise a closing time at check-in and bag check 40 minutes before boarding. If you arrive 38 minutes before boarding, expect to have to buy another ticket, because many airlines won't let you on the flight.

Hidden Fees

One way that budget airlines keep ticket prices low is by charging extra fees for services that regular carriers typically include in their full-price ticket.

Though not all these fees are hidden, they're good to keep in mind. If you're on a tight budget, you can cut costs by opting out of many of these extras.

Baggage fees can sneak up on travelers who are unwary of extra baggage fees and restrictions.

Extra Baggage

Frontier Airlines has a $25 fee per checked bag and a $30 fee for a second carry-on bag, each way. Most airlines will allow you a laptop bag or purse free, but anything bigger could result in extra fees at the airport.

Some flights, such as those on JetBlue, charge by the pound for buldging luggage that's more than 50 pounds at the time of ticket purchase. JetBlue also has policies against accepting luggage more than 100 pounds.

A note about avoiding baggage check: If you're in the serious budget game of totally avoiding baggage fees, wear several layers of clothing that you're planning on bringing with you. It might be uncomfortable or feel silly for the flight, but you'll save those checked-bag or extra-carry-on fees.

Seat Reservations

Be aware that some airlines will charge an extra fee—on both departing and inbound—for seat reservations. This is contrary to the many standard service airlines that will seat patrons in the selected ticket class and call it a day. 

Budget airlines such as Frontier Airline charge $6 and $20, depending on how much leg room you want for pre-booking tickets, which is a mandatory fee and step in the booking process.

Flight seat assignments on Southwest aren't an extra fee but are "first come, first served" after check-in. Patrons of Southwest can pay a fee for priority boarding, though, to get into the craft closer to the front of the queue.

Airline food is one cost associated with budget airline fees that travelers may not expect.

Food, Beverages and Alcohol 

Many airlines have prided themselves on great in-flight snacks and complimentary beverages. Though the quality of food is typically the same, most budget airlines will require patrons to pay for beverages and meals out of pocket either before or during the flight. 

If you can stand a short to medium-length flight without a full meal, bringing snacks and liquids—bought in the shops after security checks, of course—on board to stave hunger is a workaround for these pesky extra-food fees.

If you want adult beverages on your flight for cheap, bring mini-bottles in your carry-on's liquid allowance. That's right: Most airlines allow liquid containers under 4 ounces in carry-on luggage as long as they're all in the correct packaging. You can even buy mixers after security checks. Check with the airline first, though, to clarify the constraints about liquids on board. 

In-Flight Entertainment

Expect to pay for Wifi, headsets, movies and TV shows while on budget airlines. Though this is standard procedure for many airlines, there are extra costs associated with these items.

Some budget airlines also play videos and music from sponsors and advertisers. This is par for the course when trying to keep fares as low as possible.

Though none of those fees are outrageous, they add up quickly and turn a budget-fare ticket into a "could have gotten a better deal with my rewards miles" scenario.

Smaller Spaces

Most budget airlines operate out of a one-class airplane, typically a small (think less-than-400-seats Airbus such as Frontier Airlines) or a medium-sized (just-more-than-700-seats Boeing), like RyanAir.

The one-class designation means that there's no spacious first or middle class. The seats are, on average, the same space apart throughout the whole craft. There are some seats that offer a little more leg room, but come at a higher price.

VirginAir's budget planes feature mood lighting in cozy, close seating.

Interestingly enough, though, there's not that much variety between the economy seats in a full-service airline and a budget airline, as far as seat width. On a budget airline, you can expect between 17 to 18 inches—the same amount—of seat width and between 2 to 5 extra inches less legroom than what you'll find for economy seats on a full-service airline such as Alaska Airlines.

Also worth noting is that on many budget airlines, the seats either don't recline at all or recline very little when compared to the full-service seats that fully or partially recline.

Delayed and Rescheduled Flights

Though all airlines make a point to be on time when arriving and departing, there will be inevitable delays or cancellations with flights, no matter the carrier. 

Some budget airlines will give partial or full refunds, depending on the situation. It's good to know this information ahead of time, because the policy is different for each airline. Even if you don't spend a lot of money on a flight, it's nice to get the insurance that guarentees a refund in case of cancellations.

Also be aware that when you buy an airline ticket at a great deal—"$1 flights six months from now!"—the departure times and dates may change without warning. This could throw off planned connecting flights and travel plans.

In-Flight Customer Service

Though some budget airlines have a smaller staff to accommodate smaller spaces and offer inexpensive prices, the customer service you experience in budget and regular-priced airlines can be either bad or good. There are no definite bad-service budget airlines just as there are no airlines that have fantastic service all the time.

Is It Worth The Hassle?

Budget airlines can definitely be worth the time spent planning and booking tickets if you're looking for truely budget travel. If you can skimp on the extras, there are definitely good deals to be had.

Jamie Jackson
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