What You Should Know about Cheap Airlines

Unlike the legacy carriers – American, Delta, United/Continental and US Airways – cheap airlines (known as low-cost carriers) offer few frills and rock-bottom rates.

There are numerous cheap airlines in the U.S. but these are the best known ones:

Some provide more perks than others, including JetBlue and Virgin America which give all passengers free entertainment via individual seatback screens. For the most part though, these are basic transportation options.

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Nevertheless, there are a few things you should know before you board these planes.

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Four Things You Must Know about Cheap Airlines

1. Low-cost carriers aren’t always the cheapest way to fly

Sometimes a cheap airline will have the lowest airfare, and sometimes it won’t. This is why I urge everyone to search for airfares on a comparison search site like FareCompare, so you can see which airline has the flight you want it at a price that works for you.

Comparing prices is vital to getting the best deal because there are times when legacy carriers can be the cheapest way to fly. This is because of fierce competition to show up on page one of an airfare search site (few shoppers look beyond that page), which means no airline wants to be a dollar more than its rivals since that would mean showing up in the “back pages” of search sites.

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Southwest is a special case: it is one of a very few airlines that only allows its fares to be published on its own website. My advice remains the same in this case: after you check out Southwest’s site, compare its prices to other airlines because sometimes you’ll find cheaper fares on other carriers.

2. Those bargain airfares are not quite as good as they seem

Spirit often boasts about its $9 airfares, but to take advantage of that one-way price, you must join its $9 Fare Club (annual membership $60) and if you pack any luggage, you will pay a fee (Spirit charges from $20 to $40 each-way for a carryon bag). Generally speaking, these fares are still relatively cheap but you may be surprised at how much you’ll pay in total.

3. Some low-cost airlines have more fees

Europe’s popular cheapie Ryanair has threatened to charge for lavatory usage, and while Spirit doesn’t go that far, it does charge $34 just to book tickets online. Allegiant also charges an online booking fee.

4. Some low-cost airlines have fewer fees

Two discount airlines offer frills that none of the legacy carriers would consider these days: free bags. JetBlue give you one while Southwest gives you two. Factor this in when calculating total airfare prices to be sure you can tell which airline has the better deal for you.

More from Rick Seaney:

Buying a Ticket? Beware Hidden Fees of Low-Cost Airlines


Published: November 30, 2011