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I Ran the Numbers: Budget Airlines Weren’t Saving Me Money

I Ran the Numbers: Budget Airlines Weren’t Saving Me Money
Mariel Loveland

Welcome to FlyerTalk 101, a guide to traveling like an expert from the experts. For more guides like this, check out our FlyerTalk 101 tag or head to the forum links in this article to have any of your questions answered.

I was sitting in a corner at JFK airport, running my phone battery down by constantly refreshing Instagram, when I started thinking: how much money did I actually spend to stuff all my belongings into a single carry-on, cram my body into a middle seat during a sleepless red eye, and subsist the next 10 hours solely on snacks purchased from Hudson News. Did I actually save anything? It turns out that I had a lot of time to think during my four-hour delay, and when I ran the numbers, the answer was a resounding no. I hadn’t saved a dime.

It’s true that budget carriers cost significantly less than traditional airlines on the surface, but they’re not always the value that we think. The hidden costs add up, and you might find your savings shrinking with the legroom. Here are some things you should look at before deciding if a low-cost carrier is the best value for your trip.

Baggage Fees Are a Lot More Than You Think

Extra costs: Around $50 – $200 per person round trip.

The base fare for low-cost carriers almost never includes checked baggage, but it also sometimes doesn’t even include a carry-on. Carry-on rules are notoriously strict, especially for international low-cost carriers. For example, Ryanair only allows a small personal item that fits under the seat with dimensions less than 16 inches x 8 inches x 10 inches. Basically, that’s a backpack.

Weight is also a huge issue. If you think you might game the system by stuffing as much as possible into a large carry-on and a huge backpack, think again. You’ll likely still have to check anything that weighs more than 10 kilograms (or 22 pounds). Often times, low-cost carriers like Mexican-based airline Interjet or Norwegian Air weigh your personal item and carry-on together. If they exceed a combined 10 kilos, you’ll have to pay up. This can cost as much as $100 per leg.

Thankfully, most budget airlines allow you to book your baggage in advance, which saves around 50% compared to purchasing it at the airport. If you have to check a bag on an international flight, the $200 it typically costs can negate the savings altogether. Are those $399 flights to Europe that are advertised online really as attractive when you’re paying $599? In that case, you might as well go with a traditional carrier that includes a checked bag and fly on a lower-cost day like Wednesday or Thursday.

Seat Booking Adds Up

Extra costs: Around $6 – $100+ per person for a round trip.

Seat booking is easy to overlook if you’re a single traveler who doesn’t care where they sit, but it can really add up for a family of four going on vacation. The fees vary on every low-budget carrier. For example, easyJet charges between $3 and $14 to pick your seat in advance. Norwegian Air charges between $8 and $54. In other words: it could cost an upwards of $100 to secure a coveted aisle seat on both legs of your journey. Is the possibility of being squashed in a middle seat really worth it?

Delays Will Absolutely Cost You

Extra cost: It varies, but could end up as much as a hotel room or more.

Flight delays are all-around expensive for everyone, including the airline. According to Mashable, the airline industry spends $8 billion a year on delays, but that doesn’t hold a candle to the $17 billion a year passengers spend on the same thing. Think about it: the more time you spend in an airport, the more money you’re probably spending on food. In the worst-case scenario, it can cost hundreds if you’re forced to rearrange your travel reservations or book a hotel overnight.

It’s no secret that budget airlines have a terrible track record of being on-time compared to their full-service counterparts, but why? As it turns out, you really do get what you pay for. Take the recent engine recall in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which affected a number of carriers like Norwegian and British Airways.

In 2018, the recall grounded most of Norwegian’s fleet, which led to two-thirds of their flights being delayed. British Airways didn’t suffer from the same hit. The airline had more capitol to quickly charter flights and a larger fleet of aircrafts to replace the affected planes. Most low-cost airlines do not have this option, and it’s notoriously difficult to get compensation from them when you are delayed.

Passengers flying in and out of an airport in the European Union are entitled to compensation if their arrival is delayed by more than three hours (per EU Regulation 261/2004). Unfortunately, it’s notoriously difficult to collect, and most passengers don’t even bother. According to The Telegraph, easyJet owed passengers more than $1.8 million in delay compensation, and Thomson (which is now TUI) owed more than $2.8 million (and those were the passengers who filed a claim).

On the other hand, non-budget carriers owed significantly less to passengers who tried to claim their entitled cash. Virgin, for example, owed less than $4,000 in total. If anything, a quick tweet to Delta after an hour-long delay landed me a $200 credit. Good luck getting that from a low-cost carrier.

An In-Flight Meal Might Actually Save You Cash

Extra cost: An average of $46 on terminal and in-flight spending.

In my early days of flying budget for business travel, I established a pretty solid routine. I forgoed the $30 in-flight meal add-on during my lengthy, transatlantic flights and opted to buy snacks in the airport before boarding to sustain me. How much could a sandwich, some chips, a bottle of water, a bottle of soda and a candy bar or two really cost? Turns out it can cost a lot—at least compared to what you actually get with an in-flight meal.

In my efforts to land the cheapest ticket possible, I ended up spending a heck of a lot of money in the terminal trying to make sure I wouldn’t go hungry. That’s not even including the intense willpower I needed to not buy snacks or drinks on the flight when everyone else around me was sipping on wine and enjoying a hot meal.

According to an HSBC study, my spend-happy airport habits aren’t really unique. The average flyer spends $21 in-flight between food, drinks and alcohol. A separate study by J.D. Power found that the average millennial spends about $25 in the terminal. That’s $46 before you even get to your destination. At that point, you’re probably better off just booking the in-flight meal or flying with a carrier that offers one with a ticket—especially if you plan on having some alcohol during your flight.

 

[Featured Image: Shutterstock]

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1 Comment

  1. CaliforniaSteve

    August 29, 2019 at 1:21 pm

    My experience with LCC’s is limited to Asia, specifically Scoot, although I had a flight on Nok once that was decent. If all you need is a seat (albeit, a cramped one at 28”), and you don’t particularly care where that seat is, then it’s fine. If you have luggage, I strongly suggest a mainline carrier. Baggage fees, particularly at the airport, are terribly high.

    As for me, at 6’2” and getting up there in age, I’ve decided I can’t handle last row 28” seats where the guy in front of me reclines immediately and my seat has no recline at all. So I’ve opted for mainline flights. It costs a little more as I only do carry-on luggage, but my back and knees arrive in one piece.

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