Top 10 Budget Airlines

by  ShermansTravel Editorial Staff | Jul 13, 2009
Virgin America airplane
Virgin America airplane / rypson/iStock

Despite economic woes, the global budget airline boom remains a hallmark of the new millennium, bringing the jet-set lifestyle to the money-mindful masses like never before. With today's exciting crop of chic low-cost carriers, passengers can pay peanuts for their fares, but look forward to much more than peanuts onboard. The 10 budget airlines in our international roundup all boast efficient aircraft, sleek interior design, attractive routes, innovative onboard services, comfortable seating, and a stylish, friendly staff – features that have long since slipped through the cracks of many of the struggling mainstream carriers.


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Air Arabia

Based in the United Arab Emirates, Air Arabia offers service between its main hub at Sharjah Airport (SHJ) – just a 15-minute drive from Dubai – and dozens of routes across Southern Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and to a lesser degree, Europe. Its secondary hub in Casablanca, Morocco (CMN), services 12 European cities, and its third base in Alexandria, Egypt (HBE), offers routes to five more destinations in Africa and the Middle East. Route Map

Air Arabia ( debuted in 2003 as the first low-cost carrier to service the Middle East and Northern Africa, and seven years later, remains the area’s leading budget airline – despite newcomers’ attempts to pilfer away budget-minded flyers. Its competitive edge is supported by a regularly updated fleet of Airbus A320s, generous seat pitch, and an on-demand food and beverage service (dubbed the Sky Café), featuring enticing entrees like oven-baked sandwiches and healthy salads (though at an additional cost). What’s more, Air Arabia has stayed true to its slogan, “Pay Less Fly More,” keeping fares low while still providing the safe and streamlined service that it's become so reputed for. The minds behind the award-winning company continue to brainstorm new ways to keep ahead of other budget airlines – their latest project, announced in June, will amp up service even more with a fourth hub in Amman, Jordan, offering direct flights to Europe, North Africa, and Asia. Outside the airspace, in November 2010 the brand plans to debut its budget-friendly, 300-room Air Arabia Centro Hotel at Sharjah Airport, featuring an eatery, pool, and business center.

Sample Fares (One-Way): Casablanca–Istanbul $90; Casablanca–Paris $51; and Sharjah–Khatmandu $122. Additional taxes and fees apply.

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Air Berlin

This Berlin-based carrier flies to more than 150 destinations worldwide, including to hot spots in North America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean, as well as to more than 100 cities within Europe. Three new long-haul, nonstop flights to Dubai, Mombasa, and Miami join the lineup in November 2010, and a deal inked with OneWorld in July 2010 links the carrier to 11 international airlines, including American, British Airways, and Iberia. Stateside, transatlantic routes service NYC, LA, San Francisco, and Fort Myers. Route Map

Throughout its 32 years of service, this doyen of the budget carriers has enjoyed numerous accolades for its high standards of service, and in 2010 took home its sixth Skytrax “World Airline Award” in the best budget airline category (in 2008 it also earned “Best Cabin Crew” accolades). Little wonder, given Air Berlin’s ( stance on not nickel-and-diming its passengers; offering complimentary snacks, beverages, and newspapers onboard; as well as flexible booking options that allow customers to modify flights sans the exorbitant, industry-standard change fees. For cutting-edge convenience, the MMS (Multimedia Message Service) program permits flyers to reserve a seat, check in, and have their boarding pass sent directly to their mobile phone. The airline also scores points in the family department – while many budget airlines leave parents feeling like they should apologize for flying with their little ones, this carrier makes a family’s flight more enjoyable with amenities like cots for infants, baby bags (filled with a bottle, bib, and nappy), toys, and special children’s dining menus – not to mention the reduced rates for children under 12.

Sample Fares (One-Way): London–Dusseldorf $40; ParisVienna $37; and BerlinNew York $317. Additional taxes and fees apply.

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GOL Linhas Aereas Inteligentes

Headquartered in Brazil, GOL Linhas Aereas Inteligentes (Intelligent Airlines) operates hubs throughout the country in Rio de Janeiro (GIG), Belo Horizonte (CNF), Sao Paulo (CGH and GRU), Brasilia (BSB), Recife (REC), and Porto Alegre (POA). Though focused largely on the domestic Brazilian market, GOL also flies to select destinations throughout Latin America, from Panama to Peru. Route Map

Born of the leading Brazilian highway transportation group, Grupo Aurea, back in '01, GOL ( has quickly evolved into Brazil's second-largest airline, offering up some fierce competition to current lead contender, TAM ( Its modernized Boeing fleet (which operates at speeds that are 12 percent faster than similar competitor models) and super-low fare policy, has coupled well with onboard niceties like a nutritious snack menu and a smartly dressed staff (two of Brazil’s most famous stylists, Gloria Coelho and Ricardo Almeida, designed the uniforms). What’s more, GOL has branched out for an expanding international presence, most recently (in July 2010) announcing a frequent-flyer agreement with Delta ( that’s sure to put GOL more squarely on the radar of an American clientele. Strutting on the runway of success, GOL has plans for route expansions and continues to pioneer the low-cost, high-quality movement of budget airlines in Latin America.

Sample Fares (One-Way): Rio de JaneiroSão Paulo $41; São Paulo– Belo Horizonte $46; and Brasilia–Rio de Janeiro $41. Additional taxes and fees apply.

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JetBlue Airways

Operating largely out of the tricked-out Terminal 5 in NYC’s JFK airport, JetBlue has additional focus centers in Boston (BOS), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Orlando (MCO), Los Angeles (LGB), and Washington, D.C. (IAD and DCA). With a strong emphasis placed on routes within the continental U.S., JetBlue flies to more than 60 destinations in all, including cities in 15 countries across the Caribbean and Latin America. Route Map

When JetBlue ( first took to the skies in 2000, it was a tiny two-line carrier connecting New York City to Buffalo and Fort Lauderdale. Ten years later, the airline’s vast network (some newer destinations include Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; Bogotá, Colombia; San Jose, Costa Rica; and Montego Bay, Jamaica) and stellar reputation (it's held the highest ranking among low-cost carriers for customer satisfaction by JD Power & Associates for five straight years) have exploded on the aviation scene. Its success has been in no small part due to its modern fleet, which touts innovative in-flight extras, from small-fee upgrades for seats with extra legroom (though their standard leather seats are already quite roomy) to complimentary snooze kits with eye masks and earplugs handed out on red-eyes. Its onboard technology is what has really set JetBlue ahead of other budget airlines, with seatback personal entertainment units that include 36 channels of DIRECTV, XM radio, and pay-per-view movies. What’s more, JetBlue was the first U.S. airline (back in December of '07) to offer free in-flight e-mail and messaging for Wi-Fi-enabled laptops and BlackBerrys – a perk cherished (at long last) by both business and leisure travelers.

Sample Fares (One-Way): NYC–San Jose, CA $189; Fort Lauderdale–San Juan, Puerto Rico $69; and Orlando–Bogotá, Colombia $119. Additional taxes and fees apply.

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Jetstar Airways

This Australian carrier was first launched to exclusively service the domestic front (and still flies to some 20 cities across the country), but the Melbourne-headquartered (AVV and MEL) Jetstar has since expanded to markets in New Zealand and Asia (the latter has been largely implemented via routes on its sister companies – Singapore-based Jetstar Asia and Vietnam-based Jetstar Pacific), flying to cities like Auckland (AKL), Bangkok (BKK), Hong Kong (HKG), Tokyo (NRT), Ho Chi Minh City (SGN), Taipei (TPE), and Osaka (KIX). It also operates one route to Honolulu (HNL) via Syndey (SYD). Route Map

Awards have been jetting towards this Australian budget airline, including its 2009 ranking as the top Australia and New Zealand carrier in the coveted Skytrax’s “Best Low-Cost Airline” category. Launched in 2004, the carrier's domestic and international services stretch the globe, but not your wallet, with low fares that have been known to tumble below rates of $5 one-way (not including taxes and fees). In fact, the airline – along with sister carriers Jetstar Asia and Jetstar Pacific, all of which parent company Qantas ( has stakes in –  is so confident in its rates, that they've put a price-beat guarantee into place for routes to and from Singapore (and select other cities) that will beat any competitor airline’s rates by 10 percent. All Jetstar planes boast dapper charcoal-leather seats and slick amenities (onboard iPad rentals made a trial run in June 2010), and meals are available for purchase ahead of time, upon booking. Unlike many budget airlines, Jetstar Airways ( also offers upgrades to StarClass on international flights, a premium seating area that's inclusive of food, drinks, and entertainment.

Sample Fares (One-Way): Perth–Bali $129; MelbourneGold Coast $69; and Brisbane–Christchurch $159. Additional taxes and fees apply.

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Kingfisher Airlines

With a primary hub in Bangalore (BLR), Kingfisher Airlines connects 69 cities in India, including popular tourist destinations like Mumbai (BOM), Delhi (DEL), Jaipur (JAI), and Goa (GOI) with a fleet of 66 aircraft, operating nearly 400 flights a day. After landing government approval in February 2010 to launch seven new international routes, Kingfisher announced plans to offer flights from Delhi to Bangkok (BKK), Dubai (DXB), Hong Kong (HKG), and London (LHR), and service to Colombo, Sri Lanka (CMB); Bangkok; and Dubai (DXB) via Mumbai (BOM).

Part of the namesake Indian beer empire, Kingfisher ( launched in 2005, emerging among a new crop of privately owned Indian airlines that offer great service, decent food, and clean, modern planes at reasonable prices – others include SpiceJet ( and IndiGo (; another, Jet Airways (, is priced higher. Primarily serving India’s rapidly growing and increasingly mobile middle class, these airlines have also transformed the average visitor’s India experience, largely removing those tediously slow, if romantic, train journeys from the equation. What’s more, Kingfisher finalized a contract with OneWorld in June 2010, linking the airline to both American Airlines’ ( and British Airways’ ( frequent-flyer programs. Despite some financial problems (nothing new among budget airlines), Kingfisher continues to promise passengers the “royal treatment,” offering on-demand entertainment in its red leather seats (though not in its low-fare class), complimentary gourmet Indian dishes, and a choice between business, economy, or low-fare class seating (on its domestic routes).

Sample Fares (One-Way):
MumbaiDelhi $80; Mumbai–Goa $47; and Mumbai–London $375. Additional taxes and fees apply.

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Kulula Air

This South African carrier flies from its Johannesburg hub (HLA and JNB) to five cities in South Africa, and also provides service to Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE); Windhoek, Namibia (WDH); and Plaisance, Mauritius (MRU), in partnernship with British Airways. Route Map

If you ever hear a flight attendant tell passengers that if they “don’t know how to operate a seat belt, then you probably shouldn’t be allowed in public unsupervised,” you're most likely flying Kulula Air ( The Johannesburg-based airline is known for its sense of humor, along with its affordable rates. Started in 2001, Kulula Air has brought budget air travel to South Africa and beyond on the African continent. Named for a Zulu (the largest South African ethnic group) word meaning “light, easy, and simple,” Kulula offers a full service of straightforward travel options, including car rentals, adventure outings, and even cellular phone packages. Tip: It has been rumored that wearing green onto the wildly decorated green and blue planes will get you a free Kit Kat from the comedian attendants on board (a fun perk compared to many budget airlines). That same cheekiness even got the airline in trouble with FIFA before the 2010 World Cup, when Kulula splashed pictures of soccer stadiums, national flags, and those now-infamous vuvuzelas on its advertisements.

Sample Fares (One-Way):
Cape Town–Johannesburg $83; Johannesburg–Port Elizabeth $105; and Johannesburg–Harare (British Airways) $237. Additional taxes and fees apply.

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Centered in Vienna (VIE), NIKI's routes are largely within Europe, with services to 21 countries, including England, France, Germany, and Spain, plus several cities in Egypt. Its affiliation with Air Berlin (which owns a 49.9 percent stake in NIKI), expands its scope with code-shared routes around the globe, including to the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba, South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, Maldives, Thailand, and China. Route Map

Taking speed from the road to the sky, former Formula One race-car driver Niki Lauda founded quirky discount airline NIKI ( in 2003. Rather than cutting luxury to conserve cost, NIKI relies on quality patron perks to keep bookings booming (it seems to have worked – profits rose by 75 percent between 2008 and 2009, and NIKI added flights from Vienna to Nice, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Belgrade, Sofia and Bucharest to its roster in 2010). Extras include complimentary in-flight snacks that forego the peanuts in favor of hearty sandwiches, plus entertainment options like free magazines, newspapers, TV shows, movies, and radio stations. If you’d like to spend some of the money you saved on the cheap flight, indulge in their onboard store (which hocks everything from earphones to Frisbees to Swarovski jewelry). Or, eat like royalty and upgrade your food to gourmet Demel (think minced veal or yellow chicken curry a major upgrade from budget airlines' usual staples), purveyor to the Habsburg court in Vienna.

Sample Fares (One-Way): Vienna–Belgrade, $37; StockholmMunich $77; and New YorkLondon (Air Berlin) $378. Additional taxes and fees apply.

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Porter Airlines

Based in Toronto (YTZ), this Canadian carrier services domestic destinations in Montreal (YUL), Ottawa (YOW), Halifax (YHZ), Quebec City (YQB), Mont Tremblant (YTM), and Thunder Bay (YQT) – it also operates U.S. routes to New York (EWR), Myrtle Beach (MYR), Chicago (MDW), and Boston (BOS). Route Map

Experience Porter (; established in 2006) at its prime by flying one of its classy planes out of Toronto, its hub city and the site of a sleek departure lounge touting comfy chairs – perfect for unwinding airport stress. If you’d like to stay up and alert, indulge in a complimentary self-serve latte in a heated mug, or opt to get some work done at the business center, where passengers can surf the web with free wireless Internet. In-flight is truly refined: Sip a complimentary glass of beer or wine, stretch out with lots of legroom in the two seat-only configurations (no chance of being the cramped middleman), and enjoy it all in peace and quiet (aircrafts feature a noise and vibration suppression system to dull that flying buzz). Bonus features for those who can’t commit or have busy travel schedules (and more proof that Porter is decidedly atypical among budget airlines): Passengers may purchase their tickets in bulk with a pre-paid “Porter Pass” of up to 100 one-way trips, or opt for a "Freedom Fare," which allows free flight changes all the way to the day you take off.

Sample Fares (One-Way): ChicagoMontreal $180; Quebec–Toronto $96; and Toronto–Halifax $125. Additional taxes and fees apply.

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Virgin America

With a main hub in San Francisco (SFO), and secondary hub in Los Angeles (LAX), Virgin America offers flights to New York (JFK), Boston (BOS), Washington, D.C. (IAD), San Diego (SAN), Seattle (SEA), and Las Vegas (LAS), and one international route to Toronto (YYZ); flights to Orlando (MCO) from San Francisco and Los Angeles are set for takeoff in October 2010. Route Map

Aboard Virgin America (, innovation, aesthetics, and comfort blend seamlessly for a flight that will make you feel like a VIP whether or not you splurge for premium seating. Its ambition to “bring great service back to the skies” has inspired a forward-thinking business strategy invested in style, entertainment, and relaxation, as well as the maintenance of attractively low fares. In-flight absinthe sales and a new frequent-flyer mile link with trendy hotel chain Joie de Vivre ups the cool quotient even more, but passengers need only turn on the TV to know that this is a different kind of affordable airline: The CW’s “Fly Girls” reality show (which aired in early 2010) chronicled the lives of five Virgin America flight attendants. Onboard, indigo and violet mood lighting changes throughout the flight, responding to the time of day to help passengers relax. The black leather seating is both comfortable and attractive, supporting passengers as they plug into the personal entertainment center embedded in every seatback. The perfect flight amenity, these touch screen interfaces rival any home entertainment center (and certainly other budget airlines' seatback entertainment): Expect live satellite television, 20 new pay-per-view blockbusters, more than 3,000 MP3s (plus radio and audiobooks), in-flight food ordering, gaming, and a chat function that enables seat-to-seat conversations.

Sample Fares (One-Way):
SeattleSan Francisco $69; BostonLos Angeles $149; and New York–Los Angeles $149. Additional taxes and fees apply.


The soft lighting, chipper service, and comfy leather seats of Virgin America are a great start, but the seat-back entertainment system really sets the relative newcomer apart. In addition to satellite TV, new movies, and meals on demand, passengers can now order everything from lip balm to sleeping pills with a poke of the finger. See more Smart Luxury Award winners

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