Updated: March 28th, 2019
Hey, I’ve done it too. I’ve been sucked in by the allure of getting something that used to cost $500 for just $50. It’s human nature. Like yielding to a buy one, get one free sale regardless of how badly you actually need two battery-powered ear hair trimmers. You get TWO of them for the price of ONE—how can you pass that up? Besides, don’t you want to be prepared? I hear old age is a bitch. By the way, I’m here to give you tips for flying budget airlines, in case I lost you at “ear hair”.
Sometimes the low, low prices offered by budget airlines are too good to be true, just like Frankie Valli said. “At long last
love my flight has arrived. And I thank God I’m alive.” (Those are the words, right?) But sometimes they’re just the thing to help you explore more and justify to your husband all those charges on the credit card bill. “But I got TWO for the price of ONE!”
TIPS FOR FLYING BUDGET AIRLINES
The majority of tips for flying budget airlines and not hating yourself afterwards revolve around being fully prepared and knowing full-well what you’re getting into. It’s not always as easy as, “Here’s a flight across the U.S. for $20.” “Okay, thanks!” no matter how hard we fever dream it. What you get in return is the ability to pay for what you actually use, and not blow cash on all the stuff you don’t, like blankets in August.
For instance, I rarely get a beverage or snack during my flight (sleep city/nut allergy), so why should I have to pay for that? I bring my own water bottle, pillow, headphones, and entertainment—so why should I have to pay for those? After back-to-back in-flight airplane food-related food poisonings, I no longer eat airplane meals—so why should I have to pay for those? (And, boy, did I pay for them!) Cut out the cost of all the stuff you don’t use and your flight would be hella cheap. Enter: the budget airline.
But just as the pay for what you use concept has been introduced into air travel, so has the pay for what we can trick you into using model by certain, less ethical budget airlines that I’m sure you’ve read about in the not-so-popular magazine Screwing You Monthly. Now, I’ve had great/pleasant/wonderful experiences flying budget airlines but I’ve also had some real dumpster fires too. In an effort to keep you from making the same travel mistakes I have, here are my tips for flying budget airlines. (Blog post on avoiding non-travel mistakes to come at a later date if demand is high enough. Here’s a teaser: don’t get a perm!)
DO KNOW THAT BUDGET AIRLINES ARE THEIR OWN ANIMAL.
Forget everything you thought you knew about air travel. Unless you already know nothing, which anyone could tell by your sense of entitlement and security-line jokes about the “concealed weapon” in your pants. Budget airlines are their own thing—what you know about traveling on full service, “regular” airlines no longer applies. Luggage rules are nothing like you’ve grown to be familiar with; the actual price of your flight will be a complete surprise; and your sense of entitlement is about to be bitch-slapped. And in some cases, literally. (coughspiritcough)
Don’t book a flight on a budget airline and think you’ve simply scored a cheap-as-hell flight. I mean, you can. It’ll be hilarious for everyone around you at check-in when the reality of what you’ve done sets in like a venereal disease. Those cheap-as-hell flights are cheap-as-hell for a reason—the reason being that you no longer get all the goodies of standard air travel, without incurring extra individual fees: beverages, snacks, entertainment, ability to bring luggage on your overnight trip (the nerve of some people wanting to bring a change of clothes, really), basic human decency, and even mandatory things like boarding passes.
Knowing that budget airlines and standard airlines are two completely different things will save you a lot of money, stress, and from potentially going viral in an airport terminal. Going off on a flight crew isn’t a flattering look for any figure. You’re gonna hate the way you look; I guarantee it. Here are some key questions to ask yourself to identify a budget airline:
- Is the price of your flight a double-digit number?
- Have you ever heard of this airline before?
- Does it all seem too good to be true?
- When you Googled, “Is […] a budget airline?” did Google say “yes”?
- Are the top Google results actually news articles on in-flight fist fights, terminal brawls, or said airline forcing a passenger to flush her hamster down the toilet? You may be looking at a budget airline. However…
…DON’T LET ONE BAD AIRLINE SPOIL THE WHOLE CONCEPT.
As far as budget airlines go, I’ve flown domestically with Spirit and Frontier, and internationally with Wow, Norwegian, and Ryan and I can say without a doubt: not all budget airlines are Spirit Airlines. One major point on the list of tips for flying budget airlines is: Don’t let one (or a few) garbage experience(s) on the Jerry Springer of airlines deter you from ever flying with budget airlines again. Budget airlines, after you figure out how the system works, can be just as pleasant, and sometimes even more so, than full-service airlines.
Not all budget airlines exist solely to screw you in holes you didn’t even know you had. Not all budget airlines operate under the myth that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Not all budget airlines have naked “babes” on their website. I’m not kidding—there are boobies. And she strips for you.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, Spirit Airlines was my first real experience on a budget carrier. These still-coulda-been-worse experiences with this nightmare company almost ruined budget airlines for me. I wonder, how many other travelers have been scared off by Spirit Airlines, whose mere mention conjures up the image of Chucky from Child’s Play? Since then, I’ve traveled with a handful of others and am more pleasantly surprised each and every time.
My most recent budget flights—just a month ago—were with Frontier Airlines and they were some of the best air travel experiences I’ve had. I’d go so far as to call them the Anti-Spirit but that sounds mildly Satanic so maybe I’ll come up with something else. The staff and crew were courteous and polite; they didn’t hesitate to print a boarding pass for me (even though I’d already printed mine out at home); the terminal and plane were clean (why is this something I even have to applaud?); and I didn’t at all feel like I actually had made a deal with the Dark One.
The same could be said for all budget airlines that aren’t Spirit, probably. The staff on Wow Air couldn’t have been nicer (or more otherworldly gorgeous—what the hell, Iceland?) and the pilot wakes you to see the northern lights out your window. The Norwegian Air planes are made by Rolls Royce and are some of the highest tech gadgets I’ve flown in. The Ryan Air flight I took was back in 2012 from Rome to Munich and I remember nothing of it. So, there’s one publicity cliché that rings true in the context of air travel: no news is good news.
DON’T FLY SPIRIT AIRLINES.
I could write 4,621 words on why one of my biggest tips for flying budget airlines would be to avoid Spirit like a housewife to a Jehovah’s Witness. Oh, look—I already did.
The article contains every warning you need before considering Spirit Airlines a worthwhile option: an in-depth look at my experiences with them which can easily be compared to a kidnap and ransom, a look at all the ways they’re going to unfairly and unethically squeeze money from you, a hefty depiction of Spirit’s complete lack of a moral code, and some side-boob. Seriously, when Spirit comes a knockin’ just play it safe and pretend you’re not home.
DO KNOW ALL THE WAYS BUDGET AIRLINES WILL TRY TO MAKE MONEY ON YOU.
Everyone’s first thoughts when rationalizing a trip on a budget airline are: I can bring my own water and snacks. I can travel with just a carry-on. I don’t need to check a bag. I love rectal exams! But the bits and pieces for which budget airlines have come to charge their passengers have extended far beyond free pretzels and ginger ale. Maybe once upon a time budget airlines only charged extra for the gratuitous extras—snacks, drinks, earbuds—but they’ve since gotten creative.
Things you can and will be charged for now include:
- Luggage of every kind, including carry-ons
- (And different amounts depending on when you pay: upon booking vs. at check-in vs. at the gate)
- (And different amounts based on what month of the year you travel)
- Printing your boarding pass at the airport
- Choosing a seat ahead of time
- How much legroom you need/want, and by the inch
- Correcting a misspelled name
- Calling the call center
- Being an unaccompanied minor
- Flying in and out of Colombia
- Missing your flight
- Using a corporate credit card
- Having a connection (because you control that)
- and, yes, snacks, bevs, pillows, blankets, and earbuds
Are these charges straightforward and upfront? Sure, if you’re already nosing around the fine-printed section labeled “Optional Services” despite the fact that many of these are about as optional as growing fingernails. Budget airlines profit from your cluelessness and not knowing what all you’re going to be charged for keeps them in business. Don’t you think it’s in their best interest to keep you in the dark as much as possible? You must self-advocate—only you can prevent forest fires getting screwed. Besides, don’t you at least want to wait until you get to Europe to get pick-pocketed?
The best way to know how much your “cheap” flight is actually going to cost you is to check out the airline’s list of “optional services” before booking (because after you book those prices go up). Maybe luggage is optional for some people, but I like to change my clothes at least once during a week in Mexico, high maintenance American traveler that I am. Here are the Optional Services pages for the budget airlines that I’ve flown:
It’s true that some of these fees can be optional and your flight can remain cheap-ish, if you plan accordingly and are willing to sacrifice and/or make a deal with the devil. So what are some ways around these fees that’ll still get you through those pearly gates? Here are some tips for flying budget airlines cheaply:
Read every airlines’ terms and conditions, “optional services” pages, and all fine print thoroughly and with the assumption that they’re trying to trick you. Because they are.
Print your boarding pass at home. Printing your boarding pass at an airport kiosk or—dare I say it—having an agent print it for you will cost you. And don’t think you can get by with saving a digital boarding pass to your phone because Spirit Airlines is a bunch of lying, manipulative assholes.
Bring everything you think you’ll need during your flight. That includes a water bottle to fill up after security, some snacks, your own headphones, a travel pillow, meditation tapes if that’s what it takes, and, if you don’t care to read all the fine print, an industrial sized jug of lube.
Spell your name right. Because correcting a misspelling of your name is something they charge for leads me to believe this happens more often than I, a fellow member of the human race, would like to think.
Try to keep all your interactions with the airline online. If you have to use the spoken word to communicate with them, consider your meter running. Try to limit all questions and concerns to email, live chat help, and relentless Twitter shaming.
If you have to pay for luggage, do so as early as possible. Paying for your luggage choice at the same time you book the flight will be the absolute cheapest option. If you have to go back and add a bag you didn’t think you were going to take, that price is now more and your hair a bit more gray. If you wait until you get to the airport and want to check a bag, the price of that bag has skyrocketed. And, HEAVEN FORBID, you make it to the gate before realizing you have to check your bag (because no one has stopped to warn you along the way), that piece of luggage now costs double, maybe even triple, what YOUR FLIGHT cost. You know when Wile E. Coyote accidentally eats a stick of dynamite, turns all red, and steam comes out his ears? THAT’LL BE YOU! You know when Dr. Evil puts his pinky up to his face and evil-laughs? THAT’LL BE THE AIRLINE! Getting off on the ONE MEEE-LLION DOLLARS you’ve just given them.
Share luggage. On most budget airlines, one checked bag costs less than two carry-ons. Provided you’ll be together for the whole trip, share a much larger checked bag with your husband or whoever you’re traveling with (different colored sets of packing cubes help!).
…DON’T PAY TO CHOOSE YOUR OWN SEAT.
A lot of where budget airlines stand to profit is in fear. “Pay extra for this or ye shall perish!” This is not unlike the wellness industry or standard insurance agency operating procedure. “Well, WHAT IF a rhinoceros falls out of a cargo plane and lands on your house? Then what’ll you do, huh?” One such instance in budget air travel is in choosing a seat. I’m not referring to choosing a “special” seat, as in one with more legroom, at the front of the plane, in an exit row, or next to that mega hot Australian bloke. I’m talking about the sheer act of choosing.
They’ll say things like, “We’ll try to make sure you sit by your husband, but we can’t guarantee anything.” The thought of being trapped between won’t-shut-up-lady and clips-his-toenails guy sixteen rows behind your husband has you whipping out your credit card before that flying toenail can even land in your imaginary bag of Lays. And just like that your flight costs $25 more, which in some cases may be what you paid for your flight in the first place.
I’ll admit to feeling a slight twinge of fear when these warnings pop up but I refuse to give in. Never have I paid extra to choose my seat for a budget flight and never have I been separated from my husband. I imagine it’s harder to keep a larger family together but with just the two of us, paying extra is as ludicrous as not arresting someone for clipping their nails in public, be it finger or toe.
DO WEIGH AND MEASURE LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT.
When making a profit comes down to, literally, ounces and inches, you better believe budget airlines aren’t gonna f*ck around. When they say your bag can’t weigh over 40 pounds, you better take that as seriously as a faulty crockpot. When they list dimension limitations, you betta get out the yardstick, bruh. These numbers aren’t estimates; they’re strict limits and any bag over the limit will suddenly, remorselessly double or triple in price.
Not only do they weigh your bags but they also don’t bluff with those “your bag must fit inside this box” boxes. Think your standard carry-on is fine? THINK AGAIN, SUCKA! I mean, there’s a chance you’re wrong. On one trip, my travel buddy and I both had “carry-ons” by any sense of the word. Mine fit without issue. Hers broke the metal box. When it broke it made a noise that sounded an awful lot like “CHA-CHING BITCHES!”
Don’t take the airline’s listed weights and size dimensions as estimates, recommendations, or preferences. This is not the form you filled out in the gynocologist’s waiting room.
DO KNOW THAT NOT ALL BUDGET AIRLINES ARE CREATED EQUAL.
I’ve already mentioned how your experience on budget airlines can vary from wildly pleasant to might-as-well-be-one-giant-flying-toenail, but besides how likely you are to be treated like a flaming bag of feces on the humanity scale, these airlines also vary in their requirements. For instance, most airlines on Planet Earth have a checked-bag weight limit of 50 pounds. This has become so standard you don’t even need a scale anymore to know if your bag is in the clear. So what’s Spirit Airlines’ checked-bag weight limit? Well, 40 pounds of course. Norwegian and Ryan are 44 pounds because I guess “20 kg” sounds better than “22.68 kg”. And Frontier is 50 pounds and that’s why I love them. That and the fact that they give out free trading cards of cute animals.
My point being: Just because you flew Spirit once, don’t think that on your upcoming Frontier flight you’ll have to wear all six sweaters you’ve packed to keep your bag under the 40 LB weight limit. Do it because you run cold and because want to stand out as “ballsy”. Do these differences apply to more than just bag weight? Like size limits and check-in times? I’d bet my stack of polar bear trading cards on it. Check all the things! Read all the pages! Every time you fly with a new-to-you budget airline, start the process all over again. Budget air travel is a continuing education program.
DON’T READ REVIEWS AHEAD OF TIME.
Says the girl who wrote a 4,621-word review of a budget airline. But you’re not going to fly Spirit Airlines anyway (right!?) so you can go ahead and read that one. Actually I encourage you too; it’s pretty funny.
I say not to read reviews because:
- Your experience might differ greatly from someone else’s. I mean, I’ve never been beaten and yanked off a plane by my shirt or lost a beloved family pet in the overhead bin, but that doesn’t mean that other people haven’t.
- Chances of you finding any positive reinforcement online are as slim as an Oscar nominee after a juice cleanse. That’s just the way it goes with the internet. And juice cleanses.
- If you’ve already booked a ticket with a budget airline, or absolutely have to, reading reviews is only going to scare the shit out of you because YOU TRAPPED, SUCKA! After my handful of flights with Spirit Airlines, I was terrified of what I was going to experience with Frontier—a ticket I booked because the times, dates, airports, and price were as ideal as if I’d dreamed it up myself. I prohibited myself from looking up anything on Frontier because buyer’s remorse is a real thing I get enough of from visiting Target
If, after all the research and reading all the tips for flying budget airlines, you do book a ticket, OWN. IT. Have confidence in your decision, weigh and measure like your life depends on it, and earmuff yourself to all your Facebook friends’ opinions. Let your experience be your experience.
DO EXPECT TO BE SURPRISED BY SOMETHING AT SOME POINT.
As vigilant as you’re going to be about your budget airline’s terms and conditions, limits and specifications, there’s still a good chance they’ll get you somewhere because THEY WROTE THE RULEBOOK. By booking a ticket on a budget airline, you’ve officially signed up to playing the game—a game with so many rules and regulations, it might as well be that ridiculous drinking game your friend made up in college. And just as it’s almost impossible to remember how many drinks and what actions go with each of the 52 cards in the deck (🙄), so is trying to remember all the budget flight rules. Don’t feel bad if you were so concerned with bag weight that you forget to print your boarding pass ahead of time. Try to curb your shock when you check in and they want to charge you a $40 fee for wearing a blue shirt. That may be an inflated example but it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility.
When you’re playing a game where you can’t possibly win and your opponent always has the upper-hand, just go ahead and accept it for what it is:
bullshit reality. Knowing ahead of time that there’s a good chance you missed something will help cushion the blow against a $100 left-handers fee. Even the most seasoned of travelers aren’t immune to this kind of defeat.
DO PREPARE TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE.
Budget airlines succeed by combining two operation models to be able to offer you the lowest possible prices:
- the “pay only for what you want/use” model
- the “let’s offer passengers the absolute barest of minimums… no, lower than that. Keep going… lower… almost there…” model
Model #1 works because all services and “optional extras” are priced a la carte, like those restaurants that sell you a steak without an included side item. And are you going to eat that filet without some sort of $7 potato option? Of course not. You’re not an animal, pshh. Model #2 works because, technically, they can still offer you what everyone else does: a “flight”, which is to say, they will pick you up in one place and drop you off in another via the sky. We’ve already discussed Model #1, so let’s move on to what you’re going to feel like after your budget flight, a big ol’ number two.
Because budget airlines are their own thing, they have their own sky fleet. These airplanes are built to the budget airlines’ specifications of:
- As many rows as can fit
- As cheap a seat as can be manufactured with about as much cushion as an autopsy table — If you’ve ever ridden a horse without a saddle, this won’t be foreign to you.
- While you’re at it, sit those sons of bitches at a 90° angle without the ability to recline.
- A tray table about the size of your smartphone, if there’s even one at all
- A thin piece of bungee cord instead of a seatback pocket (That reminds me: “Alexa, add ‘dental floss’ to my shopping list.”)
- No entertainment whatsoever – let them use their imagination
Needles to say, you’re going to be more than a little physically and mentally uncomfortable during your budget flight*. Seriously, only attending your ex’s “fur coats in Phoenix”-themed wedding ceremony would be less excruciating. So what can you do about it? “Be preparrrrrrreeeedddd” – Uncle Scar
Take with you the following items:
- A travel pillow (can also be used for lumbar support, score!)
- Maybe one for your butt too (3,100+ reviews!!)
- A book to read or more likely a Kindle instead because I’m the only person left reading ink on paper? (On one budget flight I was so bored I read my entire passport cover-to-cover. Even all the inspirational quotes. Even all the rules on what to do in case your child gets kidnapped.)
- A laptop with preloaded movies (that will literally be atop your lap the whole time)
- An airplane blanket
- Maybe a travel journal in which to write all the things you wish you’d done differently when planning your trip. Just a thought.
*Now, having said all this, I’d like to give major props to Norwegian Air. My last couple of flights with them were aboard their Rolls Royce 787 Dreamliner. It was comfortable, enormous, had oodles of personal entertainment, and fancy windows you controlled with a button instead of a shade (entertainment in and of itself).
DON’T USE BUDGET AIRLINES FOR LONG FLIGHTS.
Seeing as how I just told you all the ways you’re going to be uncomfortable and/or butt sore on your budget flight, I think this point is a given. My friend Tim of Annual Adventure says his number one piece of advice regarding budget air travel (after “READ THE F*CKING TERMS”, of course) is: “only use budget airlines for short flights.” Personally, I’d say… three hours, max. Or however long a dose of Xanax will last you. Results may vary.
The reasoning is 4-fold:
- It’s only for so long that your body can handle being contorted like that set of earbuds in your purse.
- Eventually, you will run out of movies to watch and passports to read.
- There’s no possible way you can sleep on these planes.
- If you have to wear all the clothes you’re bringing with you to save money on luggage fees, you’ll thank me for this piece of advice.
However, there are exceptions to this rule. Flights from the U.S. to Europe on Norwegian are, at the very least, 5 hours long. These planes tend to be more comfortable (with cushioned seats that recline and adult-sized tray tables) but often still suffer the lack of entertainment. Plus, when flying over the Atlantic Ocean, YOU AIN’T GOT NO CHOICE, SUCKA!
DON’T ASSUME THEY ARE THE CHEAPEST.
The thing about budget airlines… they’re enticing AF. Is there anything sweeter than finding a $50 flight… to ANYWHERE? Especially when that same flight is $300 on a standard carrier? Well, maybe a flight crew composed of Chris Hemsworth, Channing Tatum, and Shemar Moore. Ladies and Gentlemen, prepare for turbulence!
Just because that flight was listed at $50 does not mean that’s how much you’re going to pay for it. Add up luggage costs, various “optional fees”, something that surprised you at some point, and, heaven forbid you’re one of those lucky tall people, a seat of your choosing. There’s a prettay, prettay, prettay good chance that $50 flight now costs just as much as one on a “regular” airline. But with less comfort and more buyer’s remorse.
When searching for plane tickets, don’t automatically assume that your best bet is on a budget airline because the word “budget” is in it. (I’ve seen $400 base fares on Spirit Airlines before.) Before you confirm that purchase, visit the airline’s website and review all the costs you can potentially incur. Add them all up to get a roundabout estimate of what your budget flight would actually cost and compare that to the other flight options. #READTHEFCKINGTERMS (I wouldn’t be surprised if it said somewhere in there, “Are you serious? You really think we’re going to fly you to California for $42!? HAHAHAHAHAH LMAO”)
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