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

Jul 2, 2021

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

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 like 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 are the reasons it makes sense for me to fly a budget carrier over a full-service carrier.

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I’m flying short-haul

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Some may feel differently, but I don’t mind stripped-down service on shorter flights. Budget carriers can offer low fares by unbundling extras and then charging more if you want to add them. Knowing this, I can plan to avoid paying extra and staying 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, which I have access to through The Platinum Card® from American Express (enrollment required). I can avoid buying pricey, bottled water by filling a reusable bottle after clearing security.

Food and drinks are 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, starting 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 the time at which the bag is purchased. You can use a tool on Spirit’s or Frontier’s websites to calculate baggage fees; 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. If I’m traveling for a short period, like a weekend getaway, I’ll only bring a backpack. 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/oversize baggage fees
  • Change fees
  • Phone reservation fees
  • Pet flight fees
  • Airport lounge day passes and annual memberships
  • Seat assignment fees
  • Inflight amenity fees (beverages, food, pillows/blankets, etc.)
  • Inflight entertainment fees (excluding wireless internet)

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.

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. 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.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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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.

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