A cheapskate’s survival guide to budget airlines
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Cheap flights are awesome. They have unlocked the world to travelers on a budget. Sure, that means there’s the occasional riff-raff, awkward body odors and out of control kids that may be dissuaded by higher ticket prices, but it has democratized travel and to us, the more people experience other cultures, the better understanding and educated those types will become.
IF IT’S ANYTHING LESS THAN SIX HOURS, THINK OF IT AS A FLYING GREYHOUND BUS.
Cheap flights are user-pays. You want more leg room, you pay. You want dinner packages? Pay up. You want an assigned seat? $20-30 thanks! It’s the added extras that aren’t included that are saving you money and for us, that’s just fine. If you have the time on hand to sit at the back of the plane rather than the mid-section, aren’t rushing for a connecting flight, couldn’t be fussed about taking an hour layover and change of flights and don’t care about being seated rows apart and are happy to read your book, you can get away with a flight for next to nothing. This is how we do it and live to tell the tale.
Most budget flights give you the opportunity to buy a meal package when you book your ticket. This gets you the typical standard issue airline food. A lukewarm pasta or stew on rice, a bread roll, a brownie or fruit salad consisting of one grape or piece of pineapple and the rest made up on honeydew melon and cantaloupe (rock melon). At least you know what you’re getting. What they don’t advertise at the time is that there’s usually a small menu of edible options in the form of sandwiches, salads, wraps and toasties. We have done big buy ups at the overpriced airport cafes only to find that there are options on board for half the price.
If you’re a nervy flyer, love being next to someone you know or need to be close to the front of the plane to escape and run to a connecting flight, seat assignments are worth every cent. If not and you’re happy to risk either being shunted off an oversold flight or don’t mind being the last to board and having other people hog the overhead lockers, you’ll save even more. Personally, it’s one luxury we usually pay for – especially on longer flights. The most bizarre airlines are ones like Easyjet and RyanAir, where if you don’t book a seat allocation ahead of time, you have to wait until those who have are seated and then make a mad dash like on a peak hour train. That’s a stress no one needs when traveling.
Flying budget usually means not getting to check a bag. That’s ok in the US, where carry-on bags are the size of a New York apartment, but not so handy in other countries. Some newer super budget airlines are even charging for carry-on baggage. Make sure you’re aware of their rules and limitations. Usually you can pay in advance for the best price. If you make that call at the airport, you’ll pay top dollar and potentially undo the savings you’ve made to this point.
ONCE YOU’RE ON BOARD
Internal flights within Europe and America use either really dated planes or the latest that have been tailor to jam in an extra couple of rows to offset the savings. This means floor space is premium (if you’re tall, you may want to upgrade to a more expensive exit row seat or premium economy) and there may not even be proper pockets to stow cables/passports/headphones, etc. It also means there’s less padding to protect you from the annoying nervous kicker behind.
A power outlet for a while there was becoming the norm on the back of the seat in front of you. It’s not a given on a budget carrier. Charge your phone at the airport and carrier at least one portable USB charger.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be on a flight equipped with TVs and even WI-FI. Depending on the carrier, these may be user-pays, requiring a credit card swipe (usually anywhere between $10 and $20) for the privilege of accessing that magic hard drive full of latest release films and obscure mid-season episodes of a series you’ve probably already watched. But that’s if you’re lucky. We’ve had to fly UK to USA without a single screen and one inflight magazine as entertainment source.
Thankfully these days your phone is all you could ever need.
Download magazines, books, games and movies before your phone is in airplane mode. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in the US offer short term downloads of many of their series and movies, giving you an endless source of entertainment and binge watching from your flying armchair. We sometimes fly with a Bluetooth gaming controller too, which means we can play games as if we had a PlayStation in front of us – with everything from Grand Theft Auto to Sonic the Hedgehog helping the hours fly by.
DRINKS AND SNACKS
Buy a bottle of water once you’re through security. Buying it beforehand you’ll have to tip it out. While drinks and snacks are user-pays, they aren’t inflated. The prices are normally on par with a standard inner-city bar. Snack options are usually limited to savories like chips, pretzels and nuts, though some carriers now offer healthier options and even the more exotic like ‘tapas’ (as loose a term as could ever be used), cheese platters and granola bars.
OUR FAVORITE BUDGET CARRIERS
Jetblue: These guys just get it. Their customer service is first rate, their marketing is on point, they had surprise and delight happy hours on one flight and they fly to all the best places to escape from the US East Coast.
Virgin Australia: This Australian offshoot of Richard Branson’s empire offers the best reliable budget travel in Australia with super friendly, beautiful staff and a relaxed vibe.
Norwegian: After a horror experience the first time around, they are back in our good books – only because they offer flights from the US to Europe from under $400. The great – brand new planes, with most trans-Atlantic flights in Dreamliners. Food is included and an awesome entertainment offering. The awful – if you don’t get a Dreamliner flight you’re screwed – no USB, no entertainment for 8 hours; they’re only as good as their subcontractors – we’ve experienced extensive delays and chaos at check-in on one flight and baggage that went missing on the next (for a week!)