Flying with discount airlines and on basic economy tickets

One thing that I see over and over again in my travel groups is that people don’t quite understand how discount airlines and basic economy tickets work. I wanted to write a quick post explaining this to help people understand that with a little planning, these can be a great deal!

When frequent travelers talk about “discount carriers” versus “legacy carriers” we are distinguishing between two types of airlines. In the USA, the three main legacy carriers are American Airlines, United, and Delta. Southwest and JetBlue are somewhere in the middle between legacy and discount, but for purposes of this article I am going to focus on the “bare bones” of airline tickets, which in the USA are Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant. Note that other countries and continents also have their legacy and discount carriers, with similar differences, but these are beyond the scope of the post.

The reason why Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant offer such incredible deals on flights is because their business model is that you pay for a seat but anything else is extra. This includes your seat assignment (choosing where you will sit), a checked bag, and a carry-on bag. Spirit even charges you to print your boarding pass at the airport, however if you check in online it’s free. Also when you fly these planes, expect to have very thin seats with a tray table about the size of a paperback novel. Oh and if you want soda or snacks in the air you need to buy them, but water is free.

In the last few years, the legacy carriers have jumped on the bare bones flying bandwagon and now offer “basic economy fares” with most of the same limitations as the discount carriers. If you buy one of these tickets, you do not get to pick your seat in advance. You can bring a carry-on for free and get the same beverage and snack service in the air. You also do not get a free checked bag when traveling overseas and you forgo any ability to upgrade.

I am a big fan of both the basic economy tickets and the discount carriers, because frankly I don’t care that much about luggage or leg room. I much prefer to spend as little money as possible on a ticket.

When we fly on a discount airline where we have to pay for a carry-on, we try to pack everything into one carry-on for all of us, and then put a lot of our stuff in our personal items, which is usually a Jansport sized backpack. I have also on occasion just packed everything in my personal item. If you google “personal item luggage” you can find specially made luggage that fits the personal item dimension restrictions for most of these airlines, although I tend to just use a back-pack.

If you think there is no way you can do that, I assure you can! Packing cubes and rolling your clothes make a huge difference. Check out my page on packing for other ideas. It helps to think about what you really need and if and how you can do laundry at your destination.


The magic of packing cubes. Three people in one carry-on for three days

The seat assignment is no big deal to me if I am traveling alone or even with other adults. It can become tricky when traveling with kids. What tends to happen is that parties who are booked together will be seated together, even though the airline can not guarantee this. I spent about 10 minutes on the phone with a Frontier representative recently because it was unclear whether their policy is to sit children with their parents regardless of a paid seat assignment. While it was clear he was not allowed to tell me over the phone that we would be seated together, he assured me I should not worry about it, and chances were extremely high we would be seated together. If we were talking in person I am sure he would have been winking at me. So that is something you may have to take your chances on, but some of the airlines do have policies stating that they will not separate parents and children, even on basic economy tickets.

If you do feel that you want to pay for a seat-assignment or luggage, you can use on of the credit cards, such as several from American Express, that will offer you a certain amount of “airline incidental fee” reimbursement to pay for these add-ons and you will get reimbursed as one of your perks (the Platinum, Gold, and Hilton Honors Aspire cards all have this, and it offsets the annual fee). The problem here is you have to pick a “preferred airline” each year and you can only use this reimbursement for that airline, so choose wisely.

I think if you know what you are getting into, and you know how to pack light, these fares can be an awesome way to get somewhere you want to go, cheaper.

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