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

Jan. 28, 2022
5 min read
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Budget carriers typically don’t get much love -- and sometimes for a good reason.

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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.

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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 image by Photo by Zach-Griff / The Points Guy
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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Rewards Rate

5XGet 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com
1.5XEarn 1.5X points on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year
1X1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

    Earn 150,000 points
    120,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $695
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Good, Excellent

Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
  • Gold status at Marriott and Hilton hotels (enrollment required)
  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.