Are Budget Airlines Really Cheaper?

On the surface, budget airlines always appear to be the cheapest option. However, fares aren’t always as they seem when it comes to budget airlines. There’s a myriad of hidden charges when flying on budget airlines – whether that’s baggage fees, seat selection fees, credit card fees or flying out of a far flung airport that costs as much as the flight itself to reach by public transport.

Are budget airlines really cheaper than the full-service alternative?

Let’s investigate.

I’ve chosen five key routes from around the globe in order to compare the cost of using a budget airline with using a traditional, full service airline. All fares will be calculated for flights on the same date (Tuesday 1 October 2013) for a passenger with one bag (weighing 20kgs) who wants to select a normal economy seat (not one with extra legroom) and pay by credit card. If flights depart or arrive at alternate airports, I’ll add the cost of public transport into the equation.

London to Berlin

Budget option:

Flying on Easyjet from London Luton to Berlin Schoenefeld – Total journey cost $109.70

(Fare $55.50, credit card charge $2, baggage $21.50, seat selection $4.70, train to Luton $22. train from Schoenefeld $4)

Full-service option:

Flying Lufthansa from London Heathrow to Berlin Tegel – Total journey cost $ 92.55

(Fare $75, no charge for baggage, credit card charge $6.85, no charge for seat selection, Tube to Heathrow $7.60, train from Tegel $3.10)

The full service airline wins this route hands down. It’s a short flight so travelling on Easyjet wouldn’t be awful on this route but Lufthansa would be a more pleasant experience. Not only is the flight cheaper, but departing from Heathrow instead of having to take the train out to Luton airport is a huge bonus. I’d pay extra not to have to head to one of London’s other airports but in this case, I wouldn’t have to.


Bangkok to Singapore

Budget option:

Flying Jetstar from Bangkok Suavarnabhumi to Singapore Changi – Total journey cost $92.85

(Fare $69.25, baggage $14.25, seat selection $5.20 and credit card charge $4.15)

Full-service option:

Flying Malaysia Airline from Bangkok Suavarnabhumi to Singapore Changi via Kuala Lumpur – Total journey cost $198

(Fare $194.50, seat selection $3.50, no credit card charge, no charge for baggage)

The budget option is far superior when it comes to these short hops around South East Asia. Airlines like Jetstar Asia and Air Asia make travelling in the region really quick and affordable. The service on Air Asia is very pleasant and the flights are short enough that you don’t miss the meals and in-flight entertainment. You can by snack on board or pre-order hot meals (which aren’t bad) for a reasonable price.


New York to Chicago

Budget option:

Flying Spirit from La Guardia to O’Hare – Total journey cost $149

(Fare $74, baggage $30 for checked and $35 for cabin, seat selection $10, no credit card charge)

Full-service option:

Flying Delta from JFK to O’Hare – Total journey cost $132

(Fare $107, baggage $25, no seat selection offered at booking, no credit card charge)

Unless you’re flying in a premium cabin, there aren’t any true full service airlines flying domestically within the US. Almost every US airlines will charge for baggage for domestic flights, some offer free snacks but not meals and some don’t have any in-flight entertainment. If those things are important to you check very carefully before you book. Although not a huge difference in price between these two airlines, accounts from other travellers would suggest avoiding Spirit at all costs. Have a look at their reviews on Yelp or and you’ll see why – shabby planes, very tight seating arrangements and poor customer service.


Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur

Budget option:

Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia – Total journey cost $338.75

(Fare $287, baggage $28, seat selection $15.50, credit card charge $8.25)

Full-service option:

Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur on Emirates – Total journey cost $513

(Fare $513, no charge for baggage, seat selection or credit card)

This is a close one! On a flight this long, over nine hours, I think I’d pay the extra to fly on a full service airline with comfier seats, in-flight entertainment and meals. I don’t mind Air Asia for short haul flights but, unless the price difference was massive, I wouldn’t choose to fly them long haul especially when travelling with small kids. For adults or families with older children who can entertain themselves by reading, working on a laptop or snoozing, it’s probably worth the saving especially if you’re a larger family.


Dubai to Istanbul

Budget option:

Dubai to Istanbul on Pegasus Airlines – Total journey cost $159

(Fare $140, mandatory check-in fee $6, No charge for baggage or credit card, seat selection $13)

Full-service option:

Dubai to Istanbul via Doha on Qatar Airways – Total journey cost $242

(Fare $242, no charge for baggage, seat selection or credit card)

The budget airline wins this route on all fronts. The flight itself is cheaper and it’s direct. Why spend seven hours in Doha airport if you didn’t need to, right?


So…. are budget airlines really cheaper?

On some routes… no!

If you’re flying in Europe or the USA, check the budget airline fares but add in all the additional costs and compare with the alternative airlines. While the budget airline’s fare may appear cheaper at first, that won’t be the case once you add in all the additional charges.

For flights around South East Asia, budget airlines by far represent the best value for travellers. They’re significantly cheaper than full-service airlines even with the added fees.

I was surprised to find budget alternatives to the big Middle Eastern carriers. They’re affordable, the routes are interesting and the networks extensive.

For long haul flights, for example between Asia and Australia or New Zealand, budget airlines are cheaper unless you strike a great sale fare on a full-service airline. Factor in your personal circumstances and decide for yourself whether spending a few extra dollars is worth the comfort.


Have you found flights where a budget airline wasn’t the cheapest option? Or have you ever decided to book a more expensive flight to avoid dealing with a notorious budget airline? I’d love to hear about your travel stories and tips so drop me a comment and let me know.


Cover image: Los Angeles Airport Departure Board by morethanroute66 on Flickr

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  • Reply

    Great post, love this – can you research flights for me 😀
    Travel with Bender (Erin) recently posted..Antigua through my daughter’s eyesMy Profile

  • Kate - CanuckiwiKate

    I rarely pay to choose my seat – I think that is ridiculous, and I dont actually care where I sit for the amount of money they want… and I always try to dodge the credit card fees by using POLi on Air NZ

    Good work laying it all on the line – excellent flight ninja homework :)
    Kate – CanuckiwiKate recently posted..The Quest for Mobile Internet in CanadaMy Profile

  • Talon

    It’s SO important to look at every angle for sure. Even once you’ve decided which airline to fly with, sometimes their options can be confusing. I remember flying with EasyJet from Morocco to France. The difference between their cheapest fare and their flexible plan was significant. However, once I added up all the extra charges you don’t have to pay under the flexible fare, the cheapest option turned out to be more expensive!
    Talon recently posted..Vietnamese CuisineMy Profile

  • Steve

    All very true, and couldn’t agree more about wanting to depart London from Heathrow or Gatwick – getting to Luton adds hours to your journey before you’re even in the air
    Steve recently posted..Sea Dragons at Monterey Bay AquariumMy Profile

  • fotoeins | Henry

    To some extent, the burden of checking-and-comparing has simply slid (back) to the passenger’s side, especially when it comes to the a-la-carte pricing for many/all aspects of flying with a low-cost carrier (LCC). Thanks for including a number of comparisons in your post!
    fotoeins | Henry recently posted..Sydney’s sunset heights: a golden crown at the Harbour Bridge archMy Profile

  • Ourjourneytothesea

    I think it definitely depends on the route and the time. Research is always best when you need to fly somewhere. Sometimes it’s cheaper to fly one way on one airline and return on another. Especially for domestic flights (in Australia).

    Budget airlines do have a lot of hidden costs though. If they end up cheaper it’s not always by much. If you are travelling inside Australia beware of the hidden costs of Tiger Airways.

  • wandering educators

    excellent tips – those comparisons surprised me!
    wandering educators recently posted..San Antonio’s Culinaria simmers year-round with culinary eventsMy Profile

  • Reply

    Great post Bethaney! I always try and find the cheapest flight but I bet if I tried harder Id get even better results!
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  • Reply

    Ooo you savvy travel ninja! great round up and investigatory skills. I’ll be doing my own homework before booking my forthcoming flight back to the UK. With long haul it pays to avoid budget airlines as they often come with long layovers and hidden baggage costs.
    Charli l Wanderlusters recently posted..House Sitting and Lifestyle FarmingMy Profile

    • Bethaney Davies

      Unfortunately from NZ the options are a bit limited but there are a few creative ways I know of getting to the UK from here. Let me know when you’re booking and I’ll help. :)

  • Sally@Toddlers on Tour

    Budget Airlines can be cheaper if you get those bargains when they have specials that you have to be awake at 2am to book and you don’t care about your travel dates.

    In general though I find it’s not a lot of difference.

    Currently we are looking to book Perth to Phuket. It is $100 cheaper in total for the 3 of us to fly with Virgin rather than the full service of Thai Airways. However Thai will provide meals and movies at no extra cost.
    Fly Virgin I will buy a meal for each of us on both legs and have to deal with my 2 men (55 & 5yrs) complaining of boredom for the 6 hours.

    I’ll pay an extra $100.
    Sally@Toddlers on Tour recently posted..3 Developmental Stages to Avoid Travel with Babies and ToddlersMy Profile

    • Bethaney Davies

      I totally agree with you! Especially when travelling with kids you have to evaluate if saving a few bucks is worth the pain.

  • Kathryn

    I have certainly found budget airlines the way to go for my S-E Asia flights. Great article Bethaney!
    Kathryn recently posted..Eating Vegan Using Hostel KitchensMy Profile

    • Bethaney Davies

      Definitely Kathryn. Air Asia is probably my favourite budget airline.

  • thelazytravelers

    ughh i flew ryan air one time, and by the time i got my luggage on board i couldn’t flown first class on a regular airline. budget airlines definitely get you with the extra fees!
    thelazytravelers recently travel required: #frifotosMy Profile

  • Jess

    I found this out about Spirit the hard way. After all the extra charges, I ended up paying more and being a lot more aggravated then if I’d just gone with a standard-price airline.
    Jess recently posted..Listening to the Chicago Cultural CenterMy Profile

  • Reply

    I love that you wrote this and investigated routes. You and my dad are in like in that sense – total flight ninjas! My dad was able to use a combo of points, rewards and a longer route to get my mom from Chicago to Madrid on June 20th and back the 28th for $250!! She’ll be flying American/Iberia, which I have found to be easier than trying to patch together budget flights once in Spain.

    I did fly Aer Lingus from Madrid-Dublin-Chicago and back, but leaving Dublin meant getting down to Seville, and the hidden bag charges were atrocious! I’m shocked at how many national airlines are beginning to charge for baggage, using a credit card, etc.
    Cat of Sunshine and Siestas recently posted..Preguntas Ardientes: Tips to Get the Best Exchange Rate When You Move to SpainMy Profile

    • Bethaney Davies

      Your dad does sound like a travel ninja. Being from NZ I really struggle with the whole points thing. If I were American I’m sure I’d be racking them up!

      Air NZ have begun to charge for seat selection, bags, meals on some routes. It’s a slippery slope. I’m opting not to fly with them on my next trip because of it. Why pay more for less when Emirates will do the job in style!

  • Reply

    Fascinating — all those add-on fees add up. Looks like old-fashioned bundling — and non-budget flights — can be the best way to go.

  • lola

    i think i need your help finding the best deal for me on airfare to Europe in late June! the fares are astronomical right now :(

    • Bethaney Davies

      YES! I’d love to help you. Send me a FB message with the details and I’ll start digging around.

  • northierthanthou

    Amazing how effective baith-and-swtch can be, especially when you don’t have much choice left at the switch.
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  • Malin

    Great post! I love the existence of budget airline for the competition but very often I find that they are not THAT much cheaper to fly with after you have added on luggage and credit card fees.

  • Paz

    Great post! We recently thought Spirit would be cheaper but it hasn’t been at all, especially for travel within the U.S. However I did just find a budget airline in Mexico and that seems to be A LOT cheaper than any other airline within Mexico although I haven’t flown on it yet. 😉
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  • Justin @ True Nomads

    Great post! I do look for the cheapest flights, but usually through Skyscanner, and thats just the easiest, not really the cheapest. But it just depends on how much searching I want to do compared to how much saving haha.
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  • Claudia

    I have used budget airlines widely. They are ONLY convenient if you can fly on certain specific days and for periods of time short enough that you only carry on a small bag and don’t check in any. If you add the extra costs of getting to a far away airport, and the amount of time you have to add, I’d say they are not really that great!
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