How Can Budget Airlines Offer Such Cheap Flights?


Short Answer: By charging you every extra possible. 

Keep reading to find out how to avoid these fees. 

In my previous post I gave some examples of the astoundingly cheap travel possibilities that can be found flying Budget or Low Cost Airlines. Read that post first if you haven't already.

In this post I'll help deepen your understanding of how Budget Airlines work, and what they charge you for.

Their pricing model is to offer a very low “base fare” and then charge extra to add on anything else. Many things you’ve come to expect for free from airlines now come with a price. By doing this they can offer very low prices—sometimes prices so low that the airline makes almost no money at all from your ticket price. Instead, they’re hoping that you’ll buy additional upgrades for things like baggage, coffee, or a seat assignment.

While many find this pricing structure annoying, I don’t see this as a bad thing necessarily. Why pay for something you’re not using? I don’t really care if I get food on a flight, or free coffee, or a big baggage allowance. I’m happy to get a super cheap fare, in exchange for giving up a few creature comforts.

I remedy the above problems of food, coffee, & luggage by:

1. Bringing my own tasty food

 2. Buying a cup of coffee before I hop on the flight (and with ULC ticket prices, I can totally justify the few extra bucks)

 3. Packing light and getting charged zero extra in fees. 

Of course, you always have the option of paying the extra fees for your luggage or meals or seat assignments or whatever if you need to. And though this might feel like you’re getting nickeled-and-dimed, often this price still comes in cheaper than what the legacy carriers are offering for “free.”

To paraphrase the travel guru Rick Steves, “A ‘good flight’ is one which leaves on the scheduled day of departure and arrives at your intended city.”

This is a good bit of advice to remember when dealing with ULC's. After all, YOU’RE FLYING HIGH ABOVE THE EARTH, covering vast distances in the span of mere hours, and doing it for far cheaper than you could ANY OTHER WAY.

Here’s a quick overview of what most Low Cost Carriers charge for and some ways they cut costs:

You'll Pay Extra For Add-ons

  • A seat assignment (useful if you want to sit with a friend)
  • Food & drink (most all offer a purchase option aboard)
  • Luggage fee for each direction of travel—including carry-on luggage (but none charge a fee for a personal item! More on this later.)
  • Some carriers charge to check you in at the airport (opposed to printing your own boarding pass at home. Spirit and RyanAir are the biggest offenders here). This one I do find annoying. I mean seriously who has a printer anymore?? I’d love to see an e-boarding pass option added.
  • Early boarding (to avoid jockeying for overhead space, and maybe to feel important? I never pay extra for this am grateful I've learned to pack light)
  • Itinerary changes (duh. Pretty much everyone, whether Budget or not, is doing this now)
  •  Extra leg room

How Low Cost Carriers Save Money

  • Fuel efficient planes to reduce fuel costs (For instance like  the Boeing Dreamliner Norwegian Air uses).
  • Minimize empty seats to maximize profits
  • Some ULC’s cut costs by boarding or disembarking using runways stairs. This means some short walks across the tarmac , stairs, or possibly or a quick shuttle ride from the plane to the terminal.
  • Quick turn-arounds at the airport to maximize their time in the air.
  • One of the major ways budget airlines save money is by avoiding terminals with high fees in favor of smaller secondary hubs. These can be less convenient for getting into cities (though not always). Some terminals are older and not as nice. Others can be far from actual destination so it's always good to verify how long it will take you to reach your final destination if you're unfamiliar with airport. 
  • Selling you other non-related products while you’re buying your ticket online. Again RyanAir is ridiculous about this. No I 
  • Additional fees if you don’t buy your luggage allotment before you show up at the airport
  • Only book-able online, thus saving money on staff.

Some Advantages of Low Cost Carriers

  • Encourage non-stop routings. Convenient and quick
  • Only pay for what you use.
  • Ability to purchase one-way flights instead of being charged a premium for this like many legacy carriers.  This creates some very useful possibilities, especially when you have the option of using points for the other leg of travel. It also allows you to see a few different cities by piecing together a few one-way flights.