You've seen the advertisements, and your jaw has probably dropped once or twice while searching for fares: low-cost airlines, carriers offering fares that seem too good to be true, are bubbling up all over the world nowadays. While many travelers (wrongly) assume that budget airlines will provide the same level of service at a dramatically lower price, savvy flyers know better. The question then, of course, is simple: Can a low-cost airline really help you save on the total cost of your trip?
Getting from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to Chicago, Illinois can be accomplished on a lot of carriers, so we'll use this city pair to break down and investigate the true cost of flying cheap.
American Airlines, a conventional carrier, charges $280 to fly this route round-trip in mid-September, and included in that fare is the ability to choose a seat, carry two items on board (one beneath your seat and one in the overhead bin), and enjoy a free nonalcoholic beverage onboard. (AA's full fee list can be seen here.)
Meanwhile, ultra low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines charges $238 for the flight itself. Tack on $25–$30 for the right to place a carry-on bag overhead, $1–$50 to select a seat (depending on how ideal said seat is), a $10 charge for having an airport agent print your boarding pass, $1–$10 for an onboard drink, and $1-$10 for an onboard snack. If you require those amenities, Spirit's lower fare doesn't save you much – if anything. There are some other fees that the major airlines and their lower-cost counterparts always charge, though: checked bags, change fees, pet fees, and phone reservation fees apply. (Spirit's full fee list can be seen here.)
Southwest Airlines, another low-cost carrier, charges $280 to fly this same route round-trip using the aforementioned dates, with that fare including up to two free checked bags (50 pounds or less), two free carry-on items, no change fees, no phone reservation fees, and gratis nonalcoholic beverages and light snacks. (Southwest's full fee list can be seen here.)
In this specific example, Spirit Airlines can indeed save you as much as $44 if you're traveling with little more than the clothes on your back and don't have any preference regarding the location of your seat. But once you toss in a single carry-on bag and a single checked bag, the low fare loses its value. Southwest, in this instance, comes out victorious because, despite being a low-cost carrier, it actually includes many amenities (namely, checked bags and onboard refreshments) for free. The only downside is the airline's limited route selection, and few options for truly premium service.
While we're on the topic, it's worth talking about AirTran. While the airline recently merged with Southwest, many of its pre-merger policies remain in place. That means that AirTrain flyers still pay for checked bags and change fees, amongst other things – costs you can avoid by simply booking AirTran routes via Southwest's website (really!).
Finally, Frontier hits customers with fees that are similar to those on Spirit Airlines – likely due to competition within the same markets. As a result, it's rarely worth booking these guys over the legacy carriers unless you're traveling with almost no luggage, but you can scope out its full list of fees right here.
In general, it's always worth pricing out a variety of airlines before booking. For example, the above scenario would change further if you attained elite status on American Airlines; at that point, checking a bag would be free, there would be the potential for a courtesy upgrade to first class, and priority boarding would be guaranteed. These perks alone would almost certainly trump the comparatively meager $44 airfare savings if you went through Spirit.
When searching for airline fares via Hipmunk or Momondo, you can sort results via a "pain" factor, which helps you balance raw cost savings with the mental anguish caused by overly long layovers and a barrage of baggage fees. Remember to always search an airline's website for their fees before making the final call – depending on the needs of the traveler (and the trip itself), doing the math each time can reveal whether a low-cost carrier is worth it in the end.