Legacy airlines such as United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and American Airlines are long-established and offer the benefits of scale -- more daily flights and destinations serviced, robust rewards programs and partnerships, airport lounges, etc. Budget airlines, also called low-cost carriers, or LCCs, cater to travelers willing to give up some of those added perks in order to take advantage of sometimes deeply discounted fares. But there's more to choosing a low-cost airline than the ticket price. To determine the best cheap airlines, we consulted assessments from the Department of Transportation, as well as industry experts, and hundreds of consumer reviews. This comparison of six carriers looks at costs, convenience, amenities, and overall flight experience.
A Guide to Low-Cost Airlines
Many travelers choose which airline to fly based solely on which carrier has the cheapest tickets to the desired destination. Travel search engines such as Kayak let shoppers quickly compare airfares, but the prices change so frequently that no single airline is reliably the cheapest choice. And with so many fees for add-ons charged by some carriers and not others, it's nearly impossible to compare the total cost of flying one airline vs. another. To make our picks, we looked past ticket prices and considered what is and is not included in that base fare and what sort of experience passengers can expect for their money, from customer service to in-flight comfort.
Although the term "low-cost carrier" may conjure an image of bare-bones service, lost baggage, and old planes, the category has multiple types of airlines and levels of quality within it. JetBlue Airways and Virgin America stand out as budget airlines that offer above-average comfort and perks. Southwest Airlines is a holdout when it comes to limiting additional fees, and the airline operates more daily flights than the rest of the budget airlines combined. Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines, and Allegiant Air are sometimes called ultra-low-cost carriers. They often offer huge savings on the initial ticket price but have very basic services and charge fees for nearly everything, potentially erasing any savings.
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What We Compared
Destinations and Daily Flights.Traveling on a low-cost airline is not always an option. Many of the carriers fly out of secondary airports, have limited international routes (often only a few within the Americas), and do not have as many daily flights as the legacy carriers.
Travelers who live near a low-cost airline's hub or want to fly a popular route may have several flights to choose from, but others could be disappointed by the limited options. An airport farther from home or a final destination could add transportation costs. Limited flights could also lead to other troubles, such as few alternatives if a flight is delayed or canceled.
Southwest flies the most daily flights of the airlines we compared, about 3,800 compared with a few hundred on most other low-cost carriers. The closest competitor is JetBlue with 925. Southwest also uses a point-to-point system to route planes and doesn't have any hubs, perhaps allowing more direct flights between smaller destinations. At the other extreme, Allegiant flies every flight to, from, or through its 19 "focus cities" and charges separate fees for each segment.
Fees.Some budget airlines, namely Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant, unbundle all their services. As a result, the initial ticket price may appear low, but passengers must pay for everything from advance seat assignments to non-alcoholic beverages. For unsuspecting travelers who don't factor in these costs, unexpected fees could dramatically change the overall price of a trip.
Fees to check bags have become ubiquitous even on legacy carriers. Southwest stands out for allowing two checked bags for free. On the flip side, Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant charge even for a carry-on bag beyond a purse or backpack. Travelers who add a bag at the time of booking pay less than they would during online check-in or at the airport, where arriving with an unannounced bag at the gate can cost as much $60 with Frontier and $100 with Spirit. Adding to the burden, Allegiant's baggage prices vary slightly by route, and a multi-segment trip requires payment of baggage fees for each flight leg.
Changing a flight is often cheaper on budget airlines than with legacy carriers: $75 to $150, while legacy carriers typically charge $200 and up. This is another fee potentially saved by flying Southwest, which requires passengers to pay only the difference in fare. Southwest also breaks the mold by offering ticket-related services such as phone reservations for free. Most airlines now charge for booking reservations through a call center instead of online; prices vary by carrier from $10 to $25, usually per ticket per traveler.
Seats.Seat size on airlines is measured two ways: by width and by pitch. Pitch is the distance between point X on the seat in front of you and point X on your seat; for example, from a spot on the seatback in front of you to the same spot on your seatback. It's also a proxy for legroom. A few inches can make a big difference, both in terms of making passengers feel more comfortable and allowing an airline to squeeze in an extra row of seats.
Although seat size can vary depending on the exact model of plane, we compared the pitch and width of standard coach seats on each of the airlines. JetBlue won out with a 32- to 33-inch pitch and 17.8- to 18.25-inch width, depending on the plane. Spirit and Allegiant have notably smaller seats, while Southwest has narrow seats with a 31- to 33-inch pitch. Surprisingly, considering its low-cost, bare-bones business structure, Frontier has 18.1-inch-wide seats, and the middle seats on many of Frontier's planes are a little more than an inch wider still. However, the pitch on standard seats is only 28 to 31 inches, and some passengers complain about discomfort. Some budget airlines offer larger seats for a fee, and a few have business- or first-class offerings.
Amenities.For many travelers, the basic amenities offered in-flight can make a difference when choosing a carrier, especially for a long-distance flight. Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America offer complimentary drinks and entertainment options that include free live TV. Southwest and JetBlue also provide free snacks and all three airlines offer Wi-Fi (free on JetBlue). JetBlue and Virgin America have electrical outlets by the seats.
Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier do not have entertainment systems and charge $2 and up for soft drinks and even bottled water. Travelers who are flying with children, must remain "connected" at all times, or have certain medical conditions may not be willing to leave themselves high and dry when it comes to food, drink, or screen accessibility. Others are fine without widely available amenities (free or otherwise) and prefer the option to buy an inexpensive ticket and deal with an uncomfortable flight, especially for a short trip. After all, passengers can always bring their own entertainment (such as a phone, tablet, or book), fill up a water bottle before boarding, and cross their fingers that battery life is long and thirst is limited.
What We Ignored
Rewards Programs.Allegiant Airlines is the only low-cost carrier we reviewed without a frequent flyer program. Although becoming a member can decrease the long-term cost of flying with an airline, frequent travelers may have different expectations than people who fly only occasionally and likely have a good understanding of the carriers' offerings and their own preferences already. This guide focuses on one-off trips and leaves aside rewards programs when comparing airlines.
Low-Cost Airline Reviews
So much about the experience of air travel is circumstantial that budget airline reviews must be read with a grain of salt. After all, flights get canceled or delayed based on many factors, and inclement weather is not a very good reason to give an airline a negative review. Travelers also shouldn't be surprised to find that rerouting is often more difficult when flying a smaller airline than one with a larger fleet and pricier tickets.
To get a sense of the airlines' performance, we read through individual traveler reviews on AirlineQuality.com, a forum created by air travel reviewer Skytrax. The site also shows the aggregate score for each carrier based on individual feedback. We also considered industry assessments from the Department of Transportation and others, such as Wichita State University's annual Airline Quality Rating, as well as J.D. Power and Associates' yearly Airline Satisfaction Study.
Customer Service.Airlines have to compensate passengers if they lose or damage bags, but many people would rather avoid the hassle altogether. Similarly, many travelers would rather arrive on time at their destinations than receive credit for a delayed, overbooked, or canceled flight. How an airline's staff treats travelers and what they do during and after the delay or cancellation can make all the difference.
In terms of baggage handling, Virgin America had the fewest reports per 1,000 passengers in the first quarter of 2016, according to the Department of Transportation. JetBlue took second, and the next runner-up among the airlines we researched was Spirit at fifth. Southwest was the lowest-ranked, at ninth out of 12.
JetBlue is a perennial winner of the J.D. Power and Associates award for the best low-cost carrier in terms of customer satisfaction. On the other end, Spirit has earned almost legendary status with a widespread reputation for poor service. Of the 13 airlines reviewed for the Airline Quality Rating list (which included all the domestic budget airlines except Allegiant), Spirit ranked last, with the lowest on-time performance and the highest number of customer complaints. Yet, while stories of travel nightmares abound and the airline has fairly consistently received poor ratings from consumers and experts, Spirit continues to be one of the most profitable American carriers and has grown rapidly in the past few years.
On Skytrax's AirlineQuality.com, one Virgin America traveler shares how a delayed flight would have led to a missed connection, and the staff worked to book a nonstop JetBlue flight instead. Contrast that with a warning that Spirit canceled a flight and left a reviewer stranded -- with a rebooked flight the next day and no place to stay -- or provided a refund of the original amount even though a reservation made at the last minute cost more.
Of course, each flight is its own experience. One reviewer gives JetBlue a 10 out of 10, saying everything from the ground service to the legroom, crew, and snacks were good -- plus the fare was cheap from Albuquerque to New York's JFK -- while another JetBlue passenger says the agent at the counter berated passengers and the flight attendants were "robotic." That said, there are trends to keep in mind. Based on hundreds of reviews at AirlineQuality.com, JetBlue and Virgin America score an average of 4 out of 5 stars for staff service. Southwest and Allegiant have 3, while Frontier and Spirit earn only 2.
Customer service may come down to expectations in some cases. Just as a shopper would not expect the same level of service or attentiveness when shopping at a high-end boutique and a local discount store, knowledgeable travelers flying budget airlines set their expectations accordingly. Passengers traveling on an ultra-low-cost carrier such as Spirit may have to grit their teeth and remember the savings.
In-Flight Experience.The human component aside, there are certain tangibles that can affect the in-flight experience. Online comments indicate that passengers evaluate airlines on seat comfort as well as their seating policies. Southwest has first-come, first-served seating but offers priority boarding for a fee, which can reduce some anxiety. Passengers are assigned a seating order based on check-in time (either online or at the airport), which determines where they stand in line to board. They choose seats once they're on the plane. Southwest's seating system is a frequent topic of discussion in reviews. Many passengers either like it or don't object, reviews indicate, usually because they take advantage of online check-in to get a good seat. Families with children under 6 are also given some preference in boarding. Critics of Southwest's seating policy seem to be travelers who don't check in online or for other reasons earn low-priority seating status. On the other hand, airlines such as Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant require a fee to reserve seat assignments, forcing parents traveling with young children and other travel companions to pay to guarantee seats together.
Cramped quarters and uncomfortable seats are frequent complaints about budget airlines. One Frontier passenger complains on AirlineQuality.com that the seats are so uncomfortable there's no way to sleep, and the tray tables kept falling down when the plane hit turbulence. CNN reports that a seating overhaul in 2015 included widening middle seats while making other seats narrower and taking away the option for travelers to recline. A company spokesperson said the new seats might require some "breaking in" before becoming close to cozy.
JetBlue's seats get positive feedback from travelers in terms of the legroom, but there are complaints about a lack of cushion and limited recline. Spirit, which has the tightest pitch of all the budget airlines (28 inches) takes a few hits in posts where passengers gripe about inadequate legroom for taller travelers; more than one says it's commonplace for knees to touch the seats in front of them.
Tasty treats and TV screens can help the time fly by, even in a seat that's not entirely optimal. Southwest, Virgin America, and JetBlue have screens in each seatback with free music and live TV, as well as movies, on-demand shows, and Wi-Fi (on some flights) -- JetBlue even provides its Fly-Fi broadband internet service at no extra charge for all customers. It's not surprising, then, that these three are favored overall among the airlines we compared. They even beat out legacy carriers in many respects. In Travel & Leisure's annual reader polls, all three airlines rank among the top five domestic airlines, and Virgin America and JetBlue were voted the top two domestic airlines for food.
Reviews on AirlineQuality.com echo this praise. One Southwest passenger enjoyed being able to watch NCAA tournament games while flying, and many Virgin American passengers compliment the planes' interiors and are impressed at being able to order food (for a price) and drinks to their seats using the touchscreen, although there are some complaints of small portions and/or slow service. Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant, which charge travelers for all onboard food and drinks and lack entertainment systems, unsurprisingly don't earn high marks for in-flight comfort, but they never really promise that in the first place. As Spirit says on its website, "A ticket with us gets you and a personal item from A to B." Period.