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A Guide to Surviving Ultra-Low-Cost Carriers (Airlines Like Spirit, Frontier, and Ryanair)

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A Guide to Surviving Ultra-Low-Cost Carriers (Airlines Like Spirit, Frontier, and Ryanair)

Max ProsperiA Guide to Surviving Ultra-Low-Cost Carriers (Airlines Like Spirit, Frontier, and Ryanair)Million Mile Secrets Team

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INSIDER SECRET: Make sure to pay for any add-ons, like carry-on or checked bags, when you’re booking your flight with an ultra-low-cost airline. Fees for these add-ons will only increase as it gets closer to the departure date.

If you’ve ever spent time searching for flights, you’ve probably come across airlines that always seem to offer the lowest fares. These fares aren’t just the cheapest option, they’re downright dirt cheap. In the US, airlines that offer these super-low fares include Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit.

Despite the cheap flights, there are a few things every traveler should know before booking on one of these ultra-low-cost carriers (or ULCCs for short). Here’s your guide to surviving a ULCC flight like a pro.

Slimline seats, fees for nearly everything and billboards in passenger cabins — this is what it’s like to fly with ultra-low-cost carriers (ULCCs). (Image by Khairil Azhar Junos/Shutterstock)

What Exactly Is an Ultra-Low-Cost Carrier?

Ultra-low-cost carriers are quite different from full-service airlines. While full-service carriers usually offer benefits and amenities such as a free carry-on bag, free checked bag, inflight entertainment, or snacks, drinks or meals, ULCCs offer none of these.

Additionally, when you book with a ULCC, you’re only paying for a confirmed space on a flight. Unless you pay in advance at the time you book, you won’t receive a seat assignment until the day of departure. The price of a ticket on a ULCC includes nothing more than a seat on your flight.

It’s true that some major airlines like American, British Airways, Delta and Lufthansa have begun charging for seat assignments too. On ULCCs, however, the fees don’t stop at seat assignments.

Here are other amenities not included in the price of your ticket to consider when booking with an ultra-low-cost carrier:

  • Carry-on bags, other than a personal item like a backpack, purse or handbag, can only be brought on board for a fee.
  • Checked bags will also cost extra, even on longer international flights.
  • No changes can be made to any tickets unless you pay extra for flexibility. In many cases, even if you’ve paid for ticket flexibility, you’ll still have to pay more to change or cancel your ticket.
  • Unless you use a mobile boarding pass or print your boarding pass at home, you’ll also be required to pay for your boarding pass at the airport.
  • You’ll be required to pay a hefty fee should you choose to book a flight or change a flight over the phone rather than online or via an airline’s mobile app.
  • There are no free drinks, snacks or meals. Even water will cost you extra. Long-haul flights are no exception.
Fees like this are the norm at ULCCs. (Image by EQRoy/Shutterstock)

Though these restrictions and fees might be a turn-off, they shouldn’t discourage anyone from traveling with an ultra-low-cost carrier. For many travelers, especially those not loyal to a certain airline, ULCCs are the most practical way to get from Point A to Point B.

Popular Ultra-Low-Cost Airlines Around the World:

  • Allegiant
  • Frontier
  • Spirit
  • VivaAerobus
  • Volaris
  • Sun Country
  • easyJet
  • Norwegian Air
  • Ryanair
  • Vueling
  • Air Asia/Air Asia X

To reiterate an important point, travelers should not be discouraged from flying on one of these airlines because there are ways to survive (or even enjoy) a flight on an ultra-low-cost carrier.

Planning Your Flights

The first thing any traveler considering a ULCC for their next flight should do is plan out their entire trip before booking their flight.

Planning out what you’ll need on your trip is important as it will allow you to have a better idea of what additional services you’ll need to select when booking your flight. Prior to booking your flight, decide whether or not you will have to check a bag or if you can get away without a full-size carry-on bag.

Additionally, if you’re traveling solo, determine whether or not an advance seat assignment is worth the fee or if you’re willing to sit in a middle seat. If you’re traveling with family or small children, visit the airline’s website to see if the airline will guarantee seats together or if you’ll need to select seats for a fee at the time of booking.

Always sign-up for an airline’s frequent-flyer program, not just to earn points or miles but so you can keep tabs on your itinerary and receipts.

Another option to consider is an ultra-low-cost carrier’s discount club. Some airlines, including Frontier and Spirit, offer discount club programs that renew annually. The programs typically cost around $60 a year but can save you hundreds of dollars if you travel with that airline enough. Both Frontier and Spirit offer cheaper fares exclusively to members of their discount clubs. Frontier also allows an adult passenger who is a member of the airline’s discount club to travel with a child 14 years old or younger without having to pay for the child.

Frontier’s Den Deals discount club allows adult members to bring children 14 years of age or younger on a flight free of charge. (Image by Luke. Travel/Shutterstock)

Keep a written list when planning your flight aboard an ultra-low-cost carrier. This list should include things like:

  • How many passengers in my group?
  • Do I need advance seat assignments?
  • How many carry-on bags am I bringing?
  • How many bags do I need to check?
  • Could I possibly need to change my flight?

Once you’ve completed your list, consult the airline’s website for a full list of fees. Finally, calculate how much you’ll be spending on fees plus the cost of airfare. Always be sure to compare the number you come up with to the price of a ticket offered by full-service airlines. If it’s still cheaper to fly on a ULCC, go ahead and begin booking your flight.

Booking Your Flight

With your list of required extras, head to the airline’s website to complete your booking. It’s important to note that most ULCCs do not include most or any of the airline’s fares on sites like Kayak, Expedia or Google Flights. To find the cheapest flights an ultra-low-cost airline has to offer, you’ll need to be on their website.

Booking is no different than booking with a traditional carrier. The only major difference is that you’ll have to navigate a few pages dedicated to an airline’s additional fees and add-ons.

I recommend that if you want any of these additional add-ons, purchase them at the time of booking. ULCC fees and add-ons are the cheapest then. Once you book your flight, fees will only increase.

For example, Spirit charges $37 for a carry-on bag at the time of booking. That price jumps to $47 before and during online check-in and at the airport, the fee increases to $55. This is a common theme with nearly every ultra-low-cost airline.

Spirit increases fees for things like carry-on and checked bags the closer you get to the day of departure. (Image by Markus Mainka/Shutterstock)

If you have a credit card that offers primary trip protection like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, it’s also smart to use that card to book your flight. The trip protection offered by some credit cards will provide you with assistance in the event that an airline cancels your flight or loses your bags.

Checking In for Your Flight

When flying on a ULCC, always use online or mobile check-in services. Never wait till the date of departure to check in at the airport. ULCCs charge fees to print a boarding pass at the airport. Additionally, these airlines will always attempt to up-sell you on services you probably don’t need when using a kiosk or visiting a ticketing counter.

Online check-in is also the final opportunity to save money on add-ons like bags or seat assignments. Once you’ve completed the check-in process, fees will increase once more.

At the Airport

Ticketing counters and kiosks can make or break your savings. If you paid for add-ons and extras at the time of booking or at least during online check-in, you shouldn’t even have to stop off at ticketing or check-in. Unless you’re checking a bag, you should be able to proceed straight to your gate.

To repeat, have all of your extras paid for before you arrive at the airport.

Preparing for the Flight

Again, most ultra-low-cost airlines, especially those in the US, do not offer any complimentary onboard services. There are no free drinks or free pretzels. Though Spirit plans on adding inflight Wi-Fi in the future, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a ULCC that offers any sort of inflight entertainment or Wi-Fi. The only thing you’ll get on board is a seat. That’s it.

My advice: Buy snacks or drinks in the airport before you board. On most ULCCs, you’ll have to pay for everything, from a bottle of water to a can of Coke, in flight. A nearby shop in the terminal will have a wider variety of snacks and drinks and they will probably be less expensive. The only exception to this is that alcohol may only be served by flight attendants on board any flight. It is against the law to consume your own alcohol aboard a commercial flight, unless a flight attendant agrees to serve it.

With little to no inflight entertainment, you’ll also want to download movies, TV shows, music or apps to pass the time in flight. I personally cannot survive a flight over 45 minutes unless I’ve got some music. Your Spotify or Apple Music playlists will not be available on board ultra-low-cost airlines unless you’ve downloaded them to your device. The same goes for any movies, TV shows or e-books.

Essentially, bring your own snacks and entertainment as it’s slim pickings aboard any ULCC flight.

It doesn’t get much more boring than the inside of an Allegiant Airbus A319 or A320. (Image by Ryan Fletcher/Shutterstock)

In Flight

Once you’ve survived being bombarded with fees and are ready for a flight devoid of nearly every amenity you’ve come to expect in the air, you’re past the worse parts of flying aboard a ULCC. Now it’s time to relax and try to enjoy the flight.

Bottom Line

Ultra-low-cost carriers are a fantastic way to score super cheap flights. These airlines have earned a bad rap over the past few years. Yes, you can end up paying for services and amenities many airlines offer free of charge, but the cheap fares offered by ultra-low-cost airlines can often outweigh any fees. If you’re smart when it comes to flying with a ULCC, you can save hundreds and maybe even enjoy the flight.

For the latest tips and tricks on traveling big without spending a fortune, please subscribe to the Million Mile Secrets daily email newsletter.

Featured image by Ken Wolter/Shutterstock, Robert Cicchetti/Shutterstock, Angel DiBilio/Shutterstock

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Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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Thank you so much for this valuable savings information and how to plan ahead before buying your airline ticket. I had not heard of ICCU airlines but I will certainly check it out and do my comparisons. I have been looking for low fare deals to go see my brother who is very ill but could not afford it on regular airlines. Southwest was my only choice to save on luggage fees and I like their Low Fare Calendar. ICCU may work out if I follow your instructions.

Have flown many times on Frontier and never had a problem. Always a pleasant experience.

Our family of four travels multiple times a year on Frontier. I’m super thankful for ULCCs as we have made many priceless vacation memories, plus been able to stay in touch with long-distance relatives–which we otherwise would definitely not have been able to afford.
We pack light and cash in on some of our annual $100 airline incidentals credits from our AmEx Gold and Bank of America credit cards to pay for baggage (Note: remember you have to add the extras in a separate transaction from buying the tickets to use the Airline credit).
We almost never pay the extra for the seat assignments, but I think every time we have still been assigned seats together. (Our kids are old enough it wouldn’t be a big deal if we did get split up. In fact, pretty soon it will probably be worth it to them to pay the extra to make sure they DON’T sit with us–lol!)
I hate spending even airport snack prices so we bring everything from home, including empty water bottles which we fill once past security. Yeah, we’re cheap and I will keep using Frontier.
That said, once when we got horribly delayed (v-e-r-y long story) and they gave us vouchers for another trip in compensation, my son said, “You mean we have to fly AGAIN??” He thought it was a punishment!

I would rather crawl to my destination on broken glass before ever flying Frontier again.