Why I (sometimes) choose to fly a budget airline over a full-service carrier

Jan 28, 2022

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Budget carriers typically don’t get much love — and sometimes for a good reason.

For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

America’s ultra-low-cost carriers have had a bad reputation for years, and you will unmistakably find a different passenger experience than on full-service airlines. Budget carriers such as Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Allegiant Air have made considerable inroads in the U.S. commercial aviation market by offering passengers extremely low prices and charging an extra fee for just about … everything.

Snacks? An extra fee. Water? An extra fee. Want to sit next to friends or family? Prepare to open your wallet. But you can find some value and save a lot of money if you’re flexible and a light packer.

Here’s why it sometimes makes sense for me to fly a budget carrier over a full-service carrier.

I’m flying short-haul

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Some people may feel differently, but I don’t mind stripped-down service on shorter flights. Budget carriers can offer low fares by unbundling extras and charging more if you want to add them. Knowing this, I can plan to avoid paying extra and stay as close to the original flight price as possible.

No snacks? No problem. There’s no complimentary drink or snack service on budget carriers, but they are available for purchase. I have bought snack packs on Frontier and enjoy Spirit’s “BuzzBallz” cocktails, but prices can add up if you’re trying to save some cash.

To get around being hungry on budget airlines, I typically eat beforehand at home or a Priority Pass lounge or Amex Centurion Lounge, which I have access to through cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express (enrollment required). After clearing security, I can avoid buying pricey, bottled water by filling a reusable bottle.

Food and drinks aren’t the only things you’ll need to grab your wallet for. While you typically can pick your seat in advance if flying a full-service carrier (unless you booked a basic economy ticket), budget carriers charge a fee to choose your seat in advance. These fees typically start at $5 but can easily top $100.

If the airline picks your seat, there’s a chance it’ll be a middle seat. I’m staunchly anti-middle seat on medium- and long-haul flights, but for a short-haul flight, it’s acceptable. I’m totally fine letting the airline assign a random seat at check-in for free for a short flight.

I’m only bringing a personal bag

(Photo by Techa Tungateja / Getty Images)

I love luggage. I have more than a dozen suitcases, backpacks and duffle bags, ranging from economically friendly bags from Target to luxury bags. Budget carriers are notorious for charging hefty fees for bags — even carry-ons. But as a light packer (I haven’t checked a bag in five years) I’m able to avoid the pesky fees.

On budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier, you’re allowed a single personal item, like a purse or laptop bag, free of charge. Checked bag fees vary based on the route and when you purchased the bag. You can use a tool on Spirit’s or Frontier’s websites to calculate baggage fees. Keep in mind that paying for bags during booking on Spirit’s website is the cheapest while paying at the gate is the most expensive.

However, once you get to the gate, the checked bag fee is the same as the carry-on bag fee. If you’re a heavy packer or you’re traveling for an extended period, you may want to consider a full-service airline. I’ll only bring a backpack if I’m traveling for a short period, like a weekend getaway. I can maximize space by using packing cubes and leaving larger electronics like my laptop or tablet at home.

But if you still want to bring a bag and fly on a low-cost carrier, you can save some money with the right credit card.

One of the most generous perks of The Platinum Card® from American Express is the annual statement credit for up to $200 in airline incidental fees (enrollment required). Each January, you can select or change your airline choice. You can choose a handful of airlines, including Frontier and Spirit.

Generally, the following incidental fees will be reimbursed by using the Amex Platinum credit, as long as you purchase them separately from the airline ticket (so the purchase will show up as a different transaction):

  • Checked baggage fees.
  • Overweight or oversize baggage fees.
  • Change fees.
  • Phone reservation fees.
  • Pet flight fees.
  • Airport lounge day passes and annual memberships.
  • Seat assignment fees.
  • Inflight amenity fees such as beverages, food, pillows and blankets.
  • Inflight entertainment fees excluding Wi-Fi.

You could select Spirit Airlines as your airline, for instance, and then use the credit to purchase Big Front Seats or snacks and to check bags.

Bottom line

Budget carriers won’t work for everyone. In fact, they don’t work for me most of the time because I fly primarily medium- to long-haul routes.

Sure, the seats likely won’t be the most comfortable, there isn’t much room to stretch your legs, and you won’t get a complimentary cocktail. However, if you’re trying to get from point A to point B and travel with just a backpack, a budget airline can be a great option. But when I do need to fly short-haul, I’ll look up budget carrier fares even before checking Delta Air Lines or American Airlines.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide including takeout and delivery in the U.S., and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $80 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® after you apply through any Authorized Enrollment Provider. If approved for Global Entry, at no additional charge, you will receive access to TSA PreCheck.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
17.24%-26.24% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.