Best Cheap Airlines
Published on By Louis DeNicola
Southwest Airlines Review
Southwest doesn't charge for checked bags, changing flights, and many onboard amenities. It flies to nearly 100 destinations, and with about 3,800 daily flights, it's the largest budget airline.
Southwest Airlines is the busiest of the low-cost carriers we compared. With a fleet of more than 700 planes, it operates more than 3,800 daily flights -- more than the rest of the budget airlines combined -- to nearly 100 destinations.
The airline also sets itself apart when it comes to many of the fees commonly charged by its competitors, legacy or budget. Travelers on Southwest are allowed free carry-ons and can even check up to two bags without incurring fees. Likewise, tickets can be changed at no added price aside from the difference in fare.
Southwest is not completely devoid of fees. There are the usual overweight and oversize bag fees, as well as charges for a third checked bag, early check-in, and alcoholic beverages. Wi-Fi and in-flight movies also require payment ($8 and $5, respectively), but at least they are available on many flights and offered alongside free TV options. The same cannot be said for many other low-cost carriers. Travelers on Southwest can also pay $2 to use iMessage, WhatsApp, or Viber while in the air.
The seat pitch is 31 to 33 inches, depending on aircraft. But the seats are among the narrowest, at 17 inches (they may be wider on new planes).
Southwest performs well in consumer surveys and industry reports. It placed second among the six low-cost carriers included in the J.D. Power 2016 Airline Satisfaction Study. The Department of Transportation reports that Southwest had the lowest number of complaints among the airlines we compared during the first quarter of 2016. According to the same government study, however, Southwest does have more than its fair share of mishandled baggage.
On AirlineQuality.com, reviewers give Southwest an average 3 out of 5 stars for value, service, comfort, entertainment, and food and beverages. Some critics gripe about lack of assigned seats and being separated from family, or encounters with rude crew members, and there are comments that suggest the Department of Transportation's luggage-handling figures are not in error.
Nevertheless, Southwest does have some loyal followers, as suggested by its status as one of the top five domestic airlines chosen by readers for Travel & Leisure's 2015 World's Best Awards. Overall, Southwest is a top pick because it's low on fees and high on flight volume.
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JetBlue Airways Review
JetBlue may be the most luxurious of the low-cost carriers, with free entertainment, Wi-Fi, power outlets, snacks, and other amenities. However, the base fare doesn't include a checked bag.
JetBlue averages more than 900 daily flights to nearly 100 destinations, including routes to Latin America as well as the Caribbean.
JetBlue breaks the bare-bones budget-airline model with many complimentary onboard amenities outshining the options available on other low-cost and even legacy carriers. Passengers can expect free snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, Sirius XM radio, and power outlets near their seats. Depending on the plane, there are either 36 or more than 100 free DirecTV channels on entertainment systems in each seatback, with movies available for a $5 fee. Complimentary Wi-Fi is also standard on most planes, and passengers can pay for faster connections. On red-eye flights, JetBlue provides Snooze Kits with earplugs and an eye mask, although a blanket or pillow costs $5 or $6.
JetBlue's seats are quite spacious. The coach seats have a pitch of 32 to 33 inches and a width of 17.8 to 18.25 inches. For an extra cost, travelers can upgrade to Even More Space seats with a 38-inch pitch, and Mint seats (similar to business class) are offered on certain coast-to-coast routes and on select flights to the Caribbean. The airline has even arranged access to two airport lounges in Jamaica -- especially uncommon among budget airlines.
Travelers can choose among different fare types -- Blue, Plue Plus, and Blue Flex -- when booking a flight. With the most basic Blue fares, there is a $20 or $25 fee for the first checked bag and a $35 fee for the second (JetBlue waives the fee for the first bag on some international flights). Blue fares have a change fee of $70 to $135 depending on the price of the ticket, although it's only $50 for same-day changes.
Of the airlines we compared, JetBlue scored second for fewest incidents of mishandled baggage and fewest general complaints during the first quarter of 2016, and it has been at the very top among low-cost carriers in J.D. Power's Airline Satisfaction Study for the past 11 years. On AirlineQuality.com, JetBlue reviewers give the airline an overall score of 6 out of 10 (relatively high compared to the other low-cost carriers), with 4 out of 5 stars for seat comfort and staff service.
The low fees, decent number of travel options, luxury amenities, and praise from travelers and industry professionals make JetBlue one of the best budget airlines.
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Virgin America Review
Virgin America is a relatively small airline with just over two dozen destinations, 60 aircraft, and two hubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles. However, it flies the routes often and has an average of 210 daily flights. The airline flies primarily to major U.S. cities, as well as Maui, Honolulu, and several destinations in Mexico.
Like JetBlue, Virgin America is a low-cost carrier that promises luxury. It has four lounges, power outlets by the seats, and free live Dish Network channels. Wi-Fi is available for a fee, as are additional TV options and movies. Passengers can also use the entertainment system to chat with other travelers and order themselves -- or someone else! -- a drink, meal, or snack.
With a 32-inch pitch and 17.7-inch width, Virgin America’s standard coach seats are relatively spacious compared with the other low-cost carriers. There are also more expensive Main Cabin Select and first-class seats available, which come with additional space and perks.
There are a few potential fees when flying with Virgin America. The first checked bag costs $25, but up to 10 bags can be checked at the same price (most other airlines up the price starting with the second bag). The cost to make ticket changes is $100 to $150 depending on the route -- relatively high compared to the other budget airlines. The fee is waived for passengers who pay an additional $25 upfront for a Plans Change Pass.
Virgin America wins big in industry studies, expert comparisons, and traveler reviews. It was named the best domestic airline by Travel & Leisure readers and also placed first in the annual Airline Quality Rating study. According to the Department of Transportation, Virgin America had the lowest number of baggage-related complaints for the first quarter of 2016 among all the airlines assessed. And more than 250 Virgin America reviews on AirlineQuality.com give the airline an overall rating of 7 out of 10, the highest score earned by any of the low-cost carriers we compared.
With its many amenities, large seats, and positive customer feedback, Virgin America would be among our top picks. However, it misses the cut due to the limited number of destinations served. A merger planned with Alaska Airlines, which bought Virgin America in April 2016 (pending approval by the Justice Department), is projected to dramatically increase flight options.
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Spirit Airlines Review
Spirit is one of the most pilloried airlines in the industry. Although travelers can find cheap tickets, the customer service is minimal, the flight experience is austere, and fees abound.
Spirit Airlines reviews posted at Viewpoints are hostile. Passengers contend that customer service is disrespectful and condescending, the planes are cramped and dirty, and the a la carte pricing (for drinks, bags, checking in with a live person, etc.) eats up any savings on the fare itself. Numerous travelers insist in reviews that they would not choose this no-frills carrier again. Complaints also surfaced in reviews at Airline Quality where passengers bemoan all the extra fees, long lines, irritable staff members, flights missed due to uncooperative personnel, and inconsistent application of policies. One review at this site relates how a couple was pulled aside on the jetway and made to pay for a small carry-on that fell within guidelines while other passengers with small bags sailed through.
Few reviews for Spirit Airlines mention the $9 Fare Club, which entitles members to dirt-cheap prices when the airline makes them available and savings on bag-check fees when booking online; annual membership fee is $59.95.
Spirit charges a lot for a lot. It allows each passenger one personal item at no charge and demands $30 for a carry-on bag. The first checked bag costs $28, the second costs $35, and bags three through five are $85 each. There's also an extra fee for bags weighing more than 40 pounds (other airlines typically set the weight limit at 50 pounds before a fee kicks in). Passengers should expect to pay for each beverage and snack, extra leg room, and seat selection. Seats are 17 to 18 inches wide with pitch of 28 to 36 inches. Spirit services 50 destinations and runs 150 flights each day.
What with all the extra add-on fees, Spirit gets you coming and going. That, plus the proliferation of passenger complaints, suggests that Spirit falls short of the budget airlines spirit.
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Allegiant Air Review
Allegiant offers low base fares but charges for almost all amenities. Travelers beware: Most fees are charged by segment. A layover typically means paying twice for baggage and other perks.
Allegiant Air wins decent ratings at Airline Quality, where Allegiant Air reviews commend the staff's friendliness and professionalism, clean aircraft, and fast and efficient baggage handling. Other reviews are less complimentary, however. At Viewpoints, passengers assert that it's often difficult to get help at the airport when you need it because staffing and on-the-ground services are limited, getting a boarding pass is not guaranteed if you don't arrive at the airport far enough in advance, an opt-out approach to avoiding automatic charges for certain items when booking online is a rip-off, and extra fees mount up fast. Similar gripes are shared in reviews at Epinions.
Allegiant Air offers an incentive to check bags when purchasing a ticket online. If you take the bait, the fee ranges between $14 and $35 for each bag for each leg of the trip (depending on all the airports involved) compared to a flat $35 rate for the first two bags ($50 for bags three and four) when checking luggage at the airport. The weight limit at Allegiant is 40 pounds, with a $50 surcharge for each overweight bag for each leg of the trip ($75 if the bag weighs between 71 and 100 pounds). Oversized bags also incur an extra fee. Nothing is free once you board, with payment required for snacks and beverages, as well as seat selection and pre-boarding privileges; if you choose not to pay to select a seat, seating is first come, first served based on check-in time. Seats are 17 inches wide with 30 inches of pitch. Allegiant Air flies to 71 destinations and focuses on vacation hot spots.
There's little that makes Allegiant Air stand out, although its checked-baggage fees seem excessive. If you're on a route that requires a stop-over and you've got more than one bag, you could wind up paying almost as much for your luggage as for your seat. Some travelers like the service and value the no-frills approach, but the fees and limited route system might make you wary.
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Frontier Airlines Review
Frontier has some fans who appreciate the low ticket prices, but the uncomfortable seats (more legroom costs extra) and many widely variable fees make many travelers regret their choice.
Like others in its class, this discount airline is the object of both praise and scorn in Frontier Airlines reviews. At Viewpoints, for example, passengers generally commend the responsive, friendly customer service and low ticket prices although some gripe about confusing check-in, rigid reservation-change policies (e.g., for an active-duty soldier), and arbitrary responses to problems caused by delayed and cancelled flights. Likewise at Review Centre some reviews report easy check-in, comfortable seating, acceptable in-flight meals (for a fee), and value for the money while others find fault with the carrier's online reservation system, tendency to overbook, indifferent customer service, and misleading information conveyed by ticket agents.
Frontier assesses a $20 fee for each of the first two checked bags and $50 for a third. There's a 50-pound weight limit unless you're willing to pay up. You'll also be charged for in-flight entertainment (movies and DirecTV start at $3.99) and for snacks; non-alcoholic beverages are complimentary. Extra leg room costs $15-$25, depending on the type of seat; seats are 18 inches wide with a pitch that ranges between 30 and 35 inches. Frontier flies to 80 destinations and operates 350 daily flights.
We like the relatively low checked-baggage fees, budget ticket prices, and the absence of loud complaining about uncomfortable seats. Although Frontier Airlines reviews are lackluster, this is an acceptable choice if the route system meets your needs.
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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.