The Truth About Low Cost Carriers: Are You Really Saving?

If you are planning a trip you are going to look for the best deal. Those two things go hand in hand. No one in the history of travel has decided to plan a vacation and said,  “You know what? Let’s look at the most expensive flights and hotel options possible and not compare any pricing.” It doesn’t matter if you’re Richard Branson or Mark Zuckerberg, the attraction of a “good deal” is impossible to ignore.

 Just an example of what shows up when you google "good travel deals". These are almost all OTA's (Online Travel Agencies)

Just an example of what shows up when you google "good travel deals". These are almost all OTA's (Online Travel Agencies)

This promise of the lowest price is the foundation that many online travel agencies (OTAs) built their businesses on.
Websites that scream “lowest price” or the “best flight deals” attract travelers who prefer to meticulously plan and book their own travel, and ostensibly save a few bucks. Which is fine, many people enjoy the journey of planning their trips. I sure do! (of course, it is my job.)

So there is a constant need to compare hotels/airlines/tours etc for the best price, and these OTA's know that, of course, that's why they exist.  Not to mention, now they have competition, something they haven't had to deal with until recently; the introductions of hotel alternatives like Airbnbs, home rentals, and even couch surfing. Now so more than ever a traveler has seemingly unlimited options for accommodations. And there is a constant push for who has the best price, and who can save you the most money.

So you have more than enough choices when it comes to accommodations, but what about airfare? The cost of flights can be the real dream killer for that perfect budget vacation. Maybe buying tickets on different days of the week may help, (or maybe not) or taking advantage of 72 hour sales that airlines like Southwest or Jetblue often have. (If your home airport and the destination you want is included in those sales, of course.) But if you’re a budget minded traveler your ticket price will probably makes you cringe, and maybe force you to heavily weigh the pros and cons of making your vacation a road trip. (Guilty)

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the popularity of “low cost” carriers are on rise. Travelers are turning to these carriers to help offset high airfare costs. These low cost carriers advertise themselves as no frills, a la carte, or use words like "bare fare" to describe their services.

 Spirit advertises what they are best known for right on the side of their planes.  Source

Spirit advertises what they are best known for right on the side of their planes. Source

What really is a "bare fare" What does it include? What does it not?
 

You are going to get way less for the price of your ticket than what you are used to when flying a major airline.  You get space on the plane for what you paid, and that's it. The airline will charge extra for picking your own seat, for  checked bags, carry on bags, (yup, you don’t get a free carry on) and even small things like printing your boarding pass at the airport instead of online ahead of time, among other things.

Along with the less expensive prices, extra charges, and no soft drinks or snacks, you might face other difficulties. If you make a mistake with your ticket, it might be cheaper to just change your name than to pay the change fees or pay for the cost of new ticket when you go with these carriers. (That article is about a UK budget airline, but the basics of operation are similar between many of these companies.)

My customers ask about these low cost options frequently. I encourage them to compare, weigh the pros and cons, and think about the risks that these low cost airlines hold. But I find many travelers just assume that Spirit, Allegiant or Frontier are less expensive than the major airlines.
 

So, are They Worth It?

Are the risks worth the reward for these airlines? No pre-reserved seat, no carry on luggage, no food or drink, tickets that are difficult to change etc. But, the cost so astronomically lower than other airlines that those things don’t matter?
Since this question comes up so often in my work and my personal travel life, I decided the only proper thing was to do was to research as thoroughly as possible.

Spirit is arguably the largest name in low cost carriers. Their website was my first spot on the journey of price exploration.

Spirit does not fly out of our main Buffalo airport, they fly out of the Niagara Falls about which is about 20 minutes away. Technically it is a commercial airport, but only Spirit and Allegiant fly out of there.

Just to make it easier to compare dates I came up with a fake scenario
Dates : September 7th – 10th (that’s a Friday – Monday, so this a fake long weekend vacation)
Location : Miami
People : Two

When pulling up Spirit’s availability, I notice that there is only one flight option to Miami on September 7th.  Well, technically they are flying me into Fort Lauderdale, but Miami and Fort Lauderdale  an hour apart so, whatever.

I scroll down to pick the return and notice that Spirit only flies back from Fort Lauderdale on Monday or Thursday the 13th. One flight a day.  Which is good, of course, that Monday is the day I want to come back, but kinda worrying. What happens if my flight gets cancelled? 

The flight back to Buffalo leaves early. I guess that's okay (I don't really have a choice anyway.)

A little popup warns me that I picked a super early departure on the 7th which is nice of them, In case I wasn’t paying attention.  I read another pop-up.  I have the option of adding on all the below for a fee of $80.49

 Just a note, the "9 dollar fare club" is a membership you pay yearly for. It's like 60 bucks and gets you discounts. My personal opinion is that probably wouldn't be useful unless you fly Spirit a lot.

Just a note, the "9 dollar fare club" is a membership you pay yearly for. It's like 60 bucks and gets you discounts. My personal opinion is that probably wouldn't be useful unless you fly Spirit a lot.

Remember, Spirit doesn’t allow any carry on bags or pre-assignment of seats, so they are giving the opportunity to  bundle all that extra stuff together. This is definitely interesting, but I kind of want to see what the price is without these options, since some of it don’t really apply to me. For example, the free change. Okay, I can change my flight for free, but there were no other flights from Buffalo - Miami on the day I was flying.  What would I change my flight to, besides one on a different day. Also, you can earn double miles, but I’m not a frequent flyer on Spirit so I’m not 4
sure if that’s worth it.


I fight my way through pages offering me hotels and cars (no thanks Spirit!) to get to a final price, and it finally spits out a number.

spirit base price.JPG

Well, I mean $313.50 per person isn’t bad at all. But remember, I didn’t add on their package combo, so this is purely the flight price.

I want to be fair, and I have not checked ANY other airlines yet.  So let me look at some of the major carriers.  Spirit could blow them out of the water, but the only way to find out is to check.

So, if you aren’t going to book with an agent, I would recommend you look for flights on Google Flights.  This isn’t a plug for them, I just think they are really one of the best options online. They are super easy to use and just visually a clean looking site.

 So I’ll pull up the same dates and airports on Google flights. Even though Spirit is flying me into Fort Lauderdale, I decide that's more Spirit's problem than mine, so I go with Miami like my original intention. There’s going to be a layover, but there always is flying out of Buffalo so it doesn’t really bother me.

Delta flight price.JPG

Delta is going to be the best option.

Now, here’s what I love so much about Google flights.

It shows me my price and I hit “Select” …..

And it send your right to airline’s website! I love this, and I think it is so smart and great of Google to do.  

delta flights 2.JPG

So as you can see from the price, the total is $732.00 or $366.00 per person. More than Spirit? Absolutely. Does this include more than Spirit? Absolutely.

Delta will include one free carry-on, one free personal item, (purse, packup, laptop the usual) and the ability to choose your seats beforehand.  All of these are things you can do that are included in the price. Checked bags? No, those are going to be $25 dollars for one bag and $35 for the second. But if you’re going for a long weekend and are a good packer, a checked bag isn’t going to be necessary.

I also want to point out that there were maybe 5 or more flights a day between Miami and Buffalo on Delta.  If your flight gets delayed, cancelled, or if YOU happen to miss your flight, than you are going to have a decent chance of at
least making it home that day. If you miss your flight, or if your Spirit flight gets cancelled, then you won’t be able to get on another one for a few days.  You might have to end up buying new tickets on a different airline, which is a pain and could be outrageously expensive for a last minute booking.

I did want to pop over and check Southwest. Just and FYI, Southwest purposely doesn’t allow its inventory to be sold on Expedia, google flights, or anything else. You always have to go directly to their website to check options.

southwest1.JPG

See the above total which is $355.92 total, not per person. That includes TWO free checked bags, and Southwest is currently the only major US carrier to still allow free baggage. So, If you have a big family or are a bad packer (me, I’m terrible at packing) the service of two free bags in pretty invaluable.

Southwest also allows for free changes to tickets, with just the traveler owing the change in fare, if any. Most other airlines charge a fee for as much of $200 PLUS the change in fare.  Spirit was also offering free changes, if you bought their little extra package, so that’s a plus for them.
There are also many flights a day between Fort Lauderdale and Buffalo. 

 Now, thinking back to the extra what Spirit was offering.  The base price was $313.50 per person. Plus the $80.49 to have the privilege of choosing my seat, checked bags, and anything else.

That brings us to a price of $393.99 per person. 

(Just so everyone knows, Frontier Airlines only flew through Denver to Miami from Buffalo. And Allegiant Air doesn't fly from Buffalo to Miami. I really checked all three major low cost carriers !)

So what this ultimately comes down to is a personal decision. Without the luxuries of choosing your seat, bringing on luggage, or anything else, than yes at $313.50 Spirit airlines IS less than both Delta and Southwest.  But is it the best price by a significant number? No, it's not. 

As a traveler, you have to think what is important to you. I know many people who fly Spirit and do so with minimal problems. I also know people who were burned once and now vow that the lower price is not worth it.  There are also travelers who may have similar stories about Southwest, Delta or American.  In truth, it takes just one bad experience to ruin your view of a company forever.

So, I continue to urge what I always tell travelers who ask my advice. Do. Your. Research. Know what’s important to you and know what your options are. The best kind of traveler is an informed traveler. Happy Flying!