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Are budget airlines worth it?

Frontier recently set new fees for some services, but budget airlines are still a good deal for passengers who shun amenities.

By May 15, 2014 12:39PM
This post comes from Louis DeNicola at partner site on MSN MoneyFrontier Airlines recently announced it will charge $25 for a carry-on bag. Although disappointing for Frontier customers who previously skirted this fee by booking directly on, the move isn't all that surprising. Frontier, after all, is a budget airline, and like its peers, seems increasingly wedded to the a la carte pricing model.

Frontier Airlines planes wait at their gates at the Denver airport © Rick Wilking/Reuters
Which begs the question: Are the so-called budget airlines still a deal for frugal flyers? The answer, it seems, depends whether you value consistently low fares or free amenities (some of which you may not use) and how much flexibility you need in terms of luggage size and flight plans.

Who charges what?
The new fee at Frontier is just one of several changes to its revenue stream. The carrier now charges for choosing a seat but slashed base fares by an average 12 percent. Like Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, Frontier is luring customers with low ticket prices and making up the difference with individually-priced services.

An analysis of common fees charged by airlines reveals that only Allegiant, Spirit, and Frontier charge for carry-on bags and only JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines give travelers a free checked bag. The three legacy carriers -- Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and American Airlines -- allow one free checked bag for passengers who use their co-branded credit card.

Baggage fees are just the beginning for beleaguered frugal flyers. Budget carriers charge for onboard water or soda. (Tip: fill up a water bottle once you're through security). Allegiant, Spirit, and Frontier also charge for seat selection, which can seem onerous when traveling with a family. Allegiant and Spirit ticketholders also pay to print a boarding pass at the airport.

On the large fees, however, budget airlines charge less than legacy carriers. Changing a flight on one of the big three costs $200, but doing so on the no-frills carriers is just $75-$125. (Think of how many onboard sodas or seat selections that covers.) Passengers traveling with overweight or oversized bags likewise come out ahead with budget airlines, whose fees usually settle in the $50-$100 range compared with penalties up to $200 with the legacy carriers.
Most budget airlines don't try to hide the association between minimal services and low prices. Indeed, Spirit's CEO, Ben Baldanza, in interviews has compared the carrier to a fast food restaurant. And he seems less than apologetic about the lack of onboard amenities, asserting that passengers are happy to bring along their own snacks. Surely many travelers balk when caught off guard by fees for conveniences that once were free, but those who know the rules can save a lot of money. A travel blogger who writes for Heels First Travel details how she shaved more than $300 in fees for a family of four that booked with Spirit.

The best airlines for frugal travelers
Should you commit to these no-frills carriers? Well, if you're a frugal spender willing to trade minimal leg room and a bevy of service charges for cheaper fares, than the answer is probably "yes."

Low ticket prices paired with low fees (although there are many) ensure that no-frills airlines live up to their budget classification. But know what you're buying. If you'll be irritated by the nickel-and-dime approach, the unpacked pricing model at least lets you decide whether you want to pay for water rather than having the cost buried in the ticket price.

When Cheapism compared discretionary fees assessed by 10 airlines, the budget carriers landed at the bottom of the pack: these airlines charge for more services than the rest. Southwest, JetBlue, and Alaska Airlines sit atop the list owing to policies like no (or minimal) fees for a checked bag, a free carry-on, no charge for seat assignments, and reasonable rates for changing flights or travelling with oversize or overweight bags. The legacy carriers settle in the middle with policies that include some free amenities and hefty charges for others.

Bottom line: If base fares (plus taxes and regulatory fees) offered by the budget airlines (Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier) are significantly lower than all the others, forget the list and book on one. You'll come out ahead even if you pay for a carry-on bag or a drink.

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May 15, 2014 3:34PM
I can only speak for myself when it comes to airlines...I would rather have the fee "all inclusive" which includes baggage fees, soda & a sandwich.  Buying food inside the airport is not cheap and just about everyone needs to carry luggage with them so I would rather have a "delivered price" than all the nickle & diming that starts adding up to big bucks.  If you are going on a plane with only the clothes on your back & don't need a drink or food  or luggage there should be a price for that &  a wristband for those people who want to travel frugally.  From a marketing standpoint all these extra charges piss most people off.
May 15, 2014 4:05PM
We only fly Southwest, no rip-off fee's.
May 15, 2014 3:52PM
We fly Southwest for all domestic flights. We have Chase Southwest Visa charge cards and have not paid for flights for years with the points rewards for flying, auto rentals, hotels and shopping on the Southwest website. No change fees, no baggage fees, no snack fees and we always check our bags. We fly out of Phoenix to Vegas, LA, San Diego, Albuquerque, San Antonio, Jacksonville, Chicago, St Louis, Denver and Boston. We bring our own sandwiches and snacks. My wife reads and I do crosswords. No grief, we arrive, have a good time, leave, arrive home and we are ready for the next trip. The shortest drive is to Vegas which is five hours each way. Not worth it.
May 15, 2014 4:54PM

I will never check a bag again.  Sorry, but every time I've ever had a connecting flight they have lost my bag that I have checked.  I can't tell you how many holidays I spent wearing my Dad's 1978 style clothes because the airline lost my checked bag.


LIKEWISE... as one of the few light travelers in the world (my backpack that's it), too many of you bring too much crap on vacation.  I am amazed when I have to stand in the check-in line (very rarely) and I see these morons checking bags larger than they are.  And don't get me started with the carry on passengers.  Being one myself I cannot deny that free carry ons are essential for me, but I also get perturbed when I see 80% of the carry on passengers bringing suitcases that are obviously over the size limit, and are bulky... thus holding up the lines, taking up too much room yada yada.  Don't hate the game here.  Hate the player(cheater).

May 15, 2014 4:11PM
Getting Rid of carry-ons solves 90% of travel problems. No long lines at security or getting on and off the plane. Just think of how much more efficeint travel would become. Airlines could probably book more flights and charge cheaper prices.
May 15, 2014 4:30PM
We tried Allegiant in January, WORST EXPERIENCE EVER! Our flight was cancelled and no offer of any help from Allegiant. I had to buy new tickets on Delta. After having to ask for a refund and 3 months of waiting, they refunded our cost of the unused flight. We lost 1 day of vacation, missed a luau in Waikiki and had additional hotel expense. NEVER AGAIN!
We fly Southwest whenever we can. Great service and pricing. If only they flew to Hawaii.
May 15, 2014 4:18PM
I try always to fly the cheaper price but I draw the line when I have to sit on a crate with a chicken in it and tie myself in with a rope.
May 15, 2014 4:16PM
if any airlines have any "amenities", they all charge out the wazoo for them, so all airlines are pretty much budget. You ever have to fly Golden Eagle service operated by American Airlines? I'd feel safer in an airborne bounce house! Southwest Airlines is still the best as far as I'm concerned.
May 15, 2014 3:23PM
Any normal person can sit on a plane for six hours and not need to be treated like a Princess.  Those that need all the cushy amenities will need to pay for that service.
May 15, 2014 4:29PM

Southwest is the best!1 The flight attendants are the nicest. I've flown on a lot of others and there is none better!

May 15, 2014 6:21PM
I found it easier to stop flying and enjoy a road trip and see the country. I used to be an airline pilot with over 12,000 hours experience and now, I would not get on one of their planes for all the tea in China. Now I get to stop when I want to, eat where I want to, and sight see when I want to. No one charges me $5 for a pillow, or $3 for a soda. Next thing they will start charging $2 to use the bathroom. Flying is just not worth it any more. It used to be fun.
May 15, 2014 5:06PM
I don't mind shorter flights on these carriers, however I am 6'3" tall and they have made the space for legroom so tight when someone reclines I get broken knee caps and a back ache from the non ergonomic make you lean forward designs the seats have. Long flights I fly the good airlines that offer extra leg room in the first 12 rows

I vote all tall people unite and sue all airlines for tall people discrimination, pain and injury!! :-)
Or at least a little courtesy from the person in front of me to give fair warning when about to recline at full speed into my knee caps !!

I do know first hand that while Spirit is cheap they have so few flights to each airport that if they are delayed or canceled you will NOT get where you are going that day. So beware of that. I think Spirit if a full blown rip off all the way around IMHO, screw that CEO and his take it or leave it talk.... I left it !!
May 15, 2014 5:35PM
I'm pretty sure Frontier will still allow a Personal Bag free, the size of a purse or briefcase. I flew Frontier to Denver and stayed for a week. Planned on traveling light with just a computer bag. It held my meds, IPhone & cords, flight snacks  coat, underwear & socks, short pants. t-shirt and sweatpants. The 9 bottles of meds was the hard part...had to stress the zipper to close it. When I go back this summer it will be just swim shorts, tank tops and flip flops and meds.  I was going to mail my dirty clothes back home and not carry them on the plane. It would have cost 9 bucks...So I spent 3.50 and washed at the hotel the night before I left'.  The worst part of flying these days is all the crap people carry on.  The frontier plane I flew was brand new and there was no closet to hang anything in a suit was crammed in the overhead.  They need to get serious about the carry on that are bigger in size than  allotted. They should pay extra and make them go to the baggage part.
May 16, 2014 12:37AM
I'm still trying to figure out why they are calling Frontier a Discount Airline?  When I have shopped around for tickets, they aren't any cheaper than the big airlines.
May 15, 2014 3:19PM
I will seek out airlines that charge for carry on luggage.  I'm so sick of checking my bags only to have to sit 30 minutes or more waiting for morons to lug their suitcases down the aisle, getting hit in the head by them trying to heft their bags up to the bins, getting knocked around by people shoving over bin space.  Then the whole thing is reversed when we land.  Listen up, airlines!  There are a lot of us who support you on this!
May 16, 2014 2:25PM

Frankly none of them are worth it.


I use my BC to fly if I had to pay for a real flight they wouldn't see me on any airline.

May 15, 2014 3:21PM
May 15, 2014 7:45PM
  Why are you idiots mesmerized by phones if you still have to fly? Ok well bring your phone so you dont feel naked as the nazis feel you up at the airport and enjoy your tax.
May 15, 2014 4:29PM
They need luggage racks in the airplane, not just the overhead bins.  Nobody likes to go to baggage claim, and wait.
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