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TravelBudget airline survival guide: Avoid fees and enjoy your flight

Budget airline survival guide: Avoid fees and enjoy your flight


I will come right out and say it: Ultra-low-cost airlines have gotten a bad rap.

Yes, you have to pay for a cup of water and overhead bin space for your carry-on bag, but if you know what to expect with a budget airline and plan accordingly, you can travel all over the U.S. — and even to a few international destinations — without busting your vacation budget.

Flying with a low-cost carrier can be as enjoyable as it is affordable … as long as you know these seven important tips.

Know what to expect at booking and on board

Seating on Frontier’s Airbus A321neo. DAVID SLOTNICK/THE POINTS GUY

If you book a base ticket with an ultra-low-cost airline, you are booking a seat on the aircraft (including space under the seat in front of you for your personal item) and nothing else. Add-ons like water or soda, snacks, Wi-Fi, printed boarding passes and seat selection are not included in the cost of your ticket.

Related: I canceled my first-class ticket home for a Spirit Airlines flight with $3 Wi-Fi — and loved it

You can pay an additional fee for drinks and snacks, inflight Wi-Fi, checked and carry-on baggage and the option to choose your own seat. However, those fees can add up quickly. For example, bringing a checked or carry-on bag can add nearly $80 to your ticket’s cost each way, negating the point of purchasing a low-cost ticket.

Related: Hoping for a federal crackdown on airline seat size? Don’t hold your breath

You will have roughly one or two fewer inches of legroom than the industry average of 30 inches. Depending on the carrier and aircraft, you may be surprised that your seat doesn’t have a seatback pocket or full-size tray table. Economy seats aren’t exactly known for being as comfortable as your favorite recliner at home, and truthfully, seats on low-cost airlines don’t feel much different from a seat on any other airline.

None of these details should discourage you from booking with a budget airline; you just want to be prepared with everything you need for a comfortable flight before you step on board.

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Pack everything in a personal item

Frontier Airlines carry-on sizer. CAROLINE TANNER/THE POINTS GUY

There is only one way to avoid baggage fees on ultra-low-cost airlines: Pack everything into an appropriately sized personal item bag. A personal item is a small bag — like a purse, briefcase, duffel bag, small backpack or small hard-sided suitcase — that can slide all the way under the seat in front of you.

Most budget airlines require that your personal item not exceed 18 inches by 14 inches by 8 inches (including handles and wheels). If you bring a bag larger than that, you may be required to pay for your bag at the gate, and the fee will be higher than if you had prepaid.

Related: Travel gear and packing tips to help you avoid rising checked bag fees

Whether the gate agents actually check the size of your bag depends on the airport and the day. Some agents are better about checking bag dimensions than others, but they can verify the size of your bag at any time, so it’s not worth risking it.

Some hacks, such as putting some of your items in a stuffable neck pillow like the DreamShore Stuffable Travel Pillow for $19.99 (normally $35.99), can help you save space. However, the gate agent may count it as a second item, in which case you would need to be able to stuff it inside your bag. So, make sure you don’t stuff it too full.

Regarding which bags are best, the Take Off Luggage Personal Item Suitcase for $99.99 (normally $119.99) is a space-saving, hard-sided suitcase with removable wheels designed to fit under your seat. For a soft-sided option, you can search for “Spirit Airlines personal item bag” on Amazon to find several options in different shapes and sizes that meet the size requirements.

You can do a few things to ensure everything fits in such a small bag:

  • Only bring the shoes you wear on the plane, if possible. Shoes can take up a lot of room in your bag.
  • Wear your bulkiest clothing items (like a hat, sweater or jacket) on the plane.
  • Do laundry at your destination so you can pack less.
  • Don’t bring a hair dryer if there will be one at your hotel.

Bring a water bottle and snacks

Spirit Airlines inflight menu. SPIRIT.COM

Depending on the length of your flight, you may be able to get by without a drink or snack. Air travel can be dehydrating, though, and sometimes a little snack can cure an upset stomach caused by turbulence, so we think it is best to always have food and a drink on hand.

Related: Airline ‘snackdown:’ Who has the best free snacks in the sky?

To save money on drinks, bring a water bottle from home and fill it at one of the bottle-filling stations after you pass through airport security. You can pack a few snacks like protein bars, chips or crackers in your personal item bag. You can even pack an entire meal if it’ll fit in your bag.

Bring your own entertainment

Download music, movies, books or podcasts before your flight. JOEL GUAY/GETTY IMAGES

Not all ultra-low-cost carriers offer inflight Wi-Fi. For example, Allegiant Air, Avelo Airlines and Frontier Airlines do not offer inflight Wi-Fi or entertainment. Spirit Airlines does offer Wi-Fi, though it’ll cost $3.99 for basic Wi-Fi and $6.99 for streaming-quality Wi-Fi.

If you are stuck on a flight without Wi-Fi or want to opt out of add-on fees for inflight internet, download entertainment options before your flight. You can download books, games, movies, podcasts or music to your smartphone or bring a good old-fashioned book or magazine.

Charge your devices and pack an external battery

Charge your devices before you get to the airport. FRAZO STUDIO LATINO/GETTY IMAGES

If you want to use your phone as an entertainment source during your flight, ensure it is fully charged before you board. Budget carriers do not offer USB or standard outlets at your seat, and books and movies can drain your battery quickly.

In addition to bringing a fully charged device on board, it’s also smart to bring a portable charger that can help keep your device at 100% when you land. Whether or not you use your phone on board, you will probably need it after your flight to pick up your rental car or call a ride-hailing service.

Join the airline’s loyalty program

Spirit Airlines airport counter. KATIE GENTER/THE POINTS GUY

If you want to check bags or select seats, you can do so by joining an airline’s loyalty program. Each one works a bit differently, but once you spend enough with a given airline, you will reach an elite status level that comes with certain perks.

For example, Spirit’s Free Spirit program is free to join and allows you to earn points for every dollar spent with the airline. Once you earn 2,000 status qualifying points, you will earn Free Spirit Silver status; it comes with free add-ons like complimentary exit row seat assignments and shortcut boarding. You can reach Free Spirit Gold status after earning 5,000 SQPs; it comes with additional perks, including one free checked and carry-on bag, free seat selection at booking and a free inflight snack and beverage.

The Frontier Miles program works similarly to Spirit’s. The four status levels are Elite Silver, Elite Gold, Elite Platinum and Elite Diamond. Each comes with its own set of perks like free seat selection, priority boarding and free bags, based on how much you spend with the airline.

Allegiant’s Allways Rewards program is even simpler to use. Once you join, you earn points for every dollar spent and can redeem them at a rate of 100 points per dollar for flights and add-ons.

Have the right credit cards

TSA PreCheck security lane. PATRICK T. FALLON/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES

If you fly ultra-low-cost airlines like Spirit or Frontier often, you may benefit from signing up for one of their cobranded credit cards to earn annual flight vouchers and elite qualifying miles.

But that isn’t the only way to make your budget flight experience feel more luxurious. If you have The Platinum Card® from American Express, you can use the card’s up to $200 airline fee credit toward add-ons with several airlines, including Spirit. You have until Jan. 31 each year to enroll and choose your airline for the year. After enrolling, you will automatically receive up to $200 in statement credits for add-ons like seat assignments, upgraded seats, checked and carry-on bags, and inflight food and beverage purchases throughout the year.

Credit cards can also help you fast-track your way through airport security with statement credits that will cover the TSA PreCheck application fee. Once enrolled in the TSA PreCheck program, these cards will reimburse the fee you pay for new applications and renewals.

Related: 7 ways to get free or discounted TSA PreCheck, Global Entry and Clear

Among the popular cards that feature this benefit are:

A handful of credit cards also cover a $189 annual Clear membership, which can further shorten your time in the security screening lane. Clear is an expedited security program that utilizes biometric data to verify your identity. Clear members go through a separate security lane with dedicated kiosks rather than waiting for a Transportation Security Administration agent to review their license or passport.

You may not be able to get free snacks and drinks on your flight, but you can get them in an airport lounge if you have the right credit card. Several credit cards offer complimentary airport lounge access so you have somewhere to eat, relax, charge your devices and freshen up while you wait for a flight.

Related: Best credit cards for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck

Bottom line

For budget-conscious vacationers, low-cost airlines like Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant and Avelo have opened up a world of travel that wouldn’t be available otherwise. Other travelers prefer how cheaper flights leave more money in their travel budget for a hotel stay, meals and activities once they reach their destination.

Regardless of the reason, I’m a big fan of budget airlines because they get me where I need to go without breaking the bank.

Related reading:

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