Know what you're giving up when you choose a discount airline

How to Choose a Discount Airline

by Lee Doppelt

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You could hardly believe your eyes when, while shopping around for affordable flights from Los Angeles (LAX) to Chicago (ORD), you stumbled upon Spirit Airlines for only $160 round trip, a fraction of the price of major airlines such as American ( or Delta ( You consider yourself to be a savvy consumer, so for obvious reasons you wonder if you read something incorrectly or possibly missed something. What's the catch?

Airlines such as Spirit ( , Jet Blue ( and Allegiant Air ( are a few of the many airlines that are considered to be discount airlines. These air carriers can keep their costs down and are therefore able to pass that savings along to their passengers, frugal people like you. You are likely pondering why all airlines cannot provide these kinds of low prices to their customers.

Discount airlines fly to fewer cities, travel less frequently, and make more stops.

People in Bloomington-Normal and nearby Central Illinois towns were excited to learn that Frontier Airlines ( was coming to their airport, the Central Illinois Regional Airport ( . They would now be able to fly non-stop from Bloomington (BMI), enticed by free airport parking, to Denver, and points beyond. Too good to be true? Perhaps.

It turns out there are only flights on certain days of the week, and on those days there is only one inbound and one outbound flight. That might work well with your specific travel plans, or it might not. Similarly, aspiring Las Vegas travelers could leave Peoria, Illinois (PIA) and fly non-stop for cheap on Allegiant Airlines, but with very limited travel dates and times. Apparently, providing many travel choices for passengers is one service that contributes to higher prices with major airlines.

Don't expect any of the basic amenities that you receive complementary with the major air carriers.

When flying on United, US Airways or some other major airline you expect to have an assigned seat, typically located with or near your family or travel companions. Additionally, you assume that that seat will recline and have a bit of leg room to assure you as much comfort as possible while in flight. And if you're chilly in the cabin or needing a little shut-eye before the family wedding or big business trip, there's no problem because, if you are flying with a major carrier, those little amenities are part of the service.

Not so with the discount carriers. One single dad was flying from the west coast to the east with his eight and ten year old to visit Grandma and Grandpa. He opted for the red eye flight, in part because of the incredibly low fare. He assumed the kids would sleep, but it wasn't meant to be! For this tired and cranky family, it might have been worth it to spend more money and have a more comfortable cross country trip.

Be sure to read the fine print when travelling on low-cost and discount airlines.

Baggage, both carry-on and checked, is the main way that discount carriers can turn your very affordable flight into a very pricey one. Before clicking on "add to cart," be sure to know exactly what the charges are for carry-on bags and checked bags, and know size and weight restrictions of each. For example, very affordable Jet Blue was charging an additional $40 for the second bag and $75 for the third. A long trip with winter clothing packed for an average-sized family could become very expensive with baggage charges like these.

Compare that with the very popular Southwest Airlines ( . At the time of this writing, they allowed two bags checked free and the third checked for only $50. So, again, know exactly what the baggage charges are before booking any flight.

Likewise, be informed on cabin service. On Southwest Airlines, snacks such as pretzels and beverages like soft drinks were free, too. These days, a complementary soft drink, fruit juice, or coffee is about all the sustenance you can expect with major carriers, but even that may be considered to be far too generous when you're flying with a discount carrier.

Passengers who routinely fly with low-cost or discount carriers have learned to navigate this "flying a la carte" approach to getting from Point A to Point B in the air. It can be done if you learn how to read the "frequently asked questions" of airline websites, watch for hidden costs, and make peace with giving up some of the amenities that you have been accustomed to receiving in the past. So, take the time to carefully scrutinize the websites of carriers that fly to the places you want to visit from an airport near you and perhaps you, too, can find ways to fly affordably with what the discount airlines are offering.

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