We’ve come a long way since air travel was just for the moneyed, jet-set elite who could afford a luxury that was beyond the means of normal folk. In recent decades, budget air travel has grown exponentially, as airlines across the world have developed more and more routes and methods to make airfare affordable for even the most thrifty traveler.
How do they do it? First off these companies cut costs on their own end. Most budget carriers use a single type of aircraft so that in-flight and service crew only needs to be trained for one model. This also keeps maintenance cheaper.
On the flights themselves, many of the features are trimmed in order to keep things cheaper. For instance, on Ryanair, seats do not recline or have back pockets, and most carriers are more restrictive about baggage allowed, and require a la carte payment for in-flight food and drinks - if these are provided. These operators rely on quick clean-up and turnaround after each flight, to maximize the number of flights in order to make up for the low ticket price. One thing you’ll definitely have to remember is to read the fine print. Often there are hidden costs for things that are included on regular airlines - such as checked baggage - and these can offset the savings of a budget ticket.
What does this all mean? Basically, you’re giving up some of the comforts of traditional air lines in exchange for prices that make air travel more accessible than ever. This has changed the concept of flying for countless people, who no longer see it as a luxury, rather, as something you can do on a whim the next time you have a 3-day weekend.
So without further ado, please put your tray tables in the upright position, and let's take a look at the top low-cost airlines.
This Irish wonder is much more than just a successful budget airline. The company is so popular with travelers that in 2016 it flew more passengers than any other European airline and more international passengers than any competitor.
How does RyanAir do it? With a fleet of more than 400 Boeing 737s that hit destinations in 32 countries in Europe, as well as Morocco and Israel.
Critics would also say that part of RyanAir’s success is due to a cost-cutting nature that goes beyond no frills flying, creating a passenger experience and customer service level that are below many competitors. That said, the company is taking steps to make the airline more family friendly and has added long-haul routes from Europe to the Americas.
The EasyJet orange livery has become a byword for affordability and convenience in recent years, as the company has grown to be the second-largest budget airline, serving destinations in more than 30 countries. The company has used the slogan “making flying as affordable as a pair of jeans,” and that’s not just designer jeans, with flights from Paris to London for less than $40.
And unlike RyanAir, with EasyJet passengers are more likely to fly to the main airport in their destination city, which has helped make the company very popular with business travelers.
EasyJet also operates easyJetHotels, which links customers booking flights to hotels at their destination, helping users quickly book an affordable and convenient travel package online.
No Frills doesn't have to mean no comfort, and jetBlue has become the 6th largest airline in the United States through combining affordable routes to 101 destinations with customer service and a comfortable experience that doesn’t leave you feeling like you got crammed in a flying sardine can.
With low prices and in-air amenities like free snacks, live in-flight television, and ample legroom, the company has been a serious competitor for major airlines as well as low cost carriers.
JetBlue is far from being a pond-hopping domestic airline, with international destinations across the Americas, including Cuba, Ecuador, Jamaica, Peru, and more.
It’s been almost 5 decades since Herb Kelleher and Rollin King reportedly wrote up the idea for Southwest Airlines on a cocktail napkin at a bar in San Antonio, changing the world of domestic US air travel forever.
What worked in the late sixties still works today - affordable flights with quick, easy turnaround, great service, a top of the line customer service and a safety record that remains spotless to this day.
Today Southwest flies to more than 100 destinations in 40 states, as well as Puerto Rico, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, and continues to inspire the biggest names in the aviation industry.
“Norwegian” may be a bit of a misnomer, as this airline has become the 8th largest airline in Europe, the largest in Scandinavia, and the sixth largest low-cost airline of all.
Norwegian has repeatedly won industry awards for its service and passenger experience, and has placed orders for over 100 new Boeing 737 MAX to add to the fleet.
Norwegian has one of the most extensive flight maps of any budget carrier, sering 150 destinations in 35 countries on 4 continents. Simply put, Norwegian is far more than just Norway, and more than just a budget airline.
WestJet was founded in the late 90s in order to pull the carpet out from under the major Canadian airlines,but to do so in a well-mannered fashion like you’d expect from our neighbors to the North.
The airline criss-crosses Canada and is the country’s second largest carrier after Air Canada, with 109 destinations in the United States and Canada, as well as long haul flights to Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.
For a low-cost airline, WestJet offers extensive in-flight entertainment options like live TV and WiFi and fairly extensive buy-on-board meal services.
Virgin America (Alaska Airlines)
In 2016 Alaska Airlines purchased Virgin America, the low-cost branch of Virgin Airlines, one of the most acclaimed carriers in the industry.
The carrier still flies to 2 dozen destinations in the US and Mexico, and is known for a very comfortable cabin with an extensive in-flight entertainment system. In addition, unlike some other low-cost carriers, it has first class seating available.
Virgin America’s parent company Alaska Airlines is known for having great customer service and was voted as having the highest level of customer satisfaction of any traditional airline for 10 straight years.
This Qantas-owned airline gives customers the ability to fly across Australia with ease, and is also a gateway to East Asia and Oceania.
The airline offers a single class service, with buy on board food and drinks on its domestic routes, and offers a business class on international flights. The airline has extensive inflight entertainment for a budget line, including iPads which are loaded with movies and games and given to customers for free to use during international flights, and for a fee on domestic flights.
JetStar also offers an appealing “price beat guarantee”, which allows customers to get tickets for a price that's 10 percent cheaper than a competitor's advertised rate.
Iceland’s national airline, Iceland Air, combines comfort, affordability, and a wide variety of destinations that continues to a grow.
Passengers can currently fly to dozens of destination across Europe, as well as to cities in Canada and the United States. The airline provides 3 separate booking classes, including 2 economy classes and a business class. All flights include in-flight touch screen monitors full of entertainment options.
The airline also prides itself on being family friendly, with a large selection of children’s movies available in flight.
Based out of Malaysia, AirAsia can make all of the world’s largest continent your oyster with 165 destinations in 25 countries.
The airline keeps rates low with some of the most efficient productivity and operating costs in the industry. That doesn’t mean the experience is no-frills though, and the airline has repeatedly won awards for its service and overall product.
As of today, AirAsia flies across the continent, and also has flights to Australia, London, and Honolulu.
The rapid expansion of the low cost air travel industry in recent years has equalized international and domestic travel and made it more affordable than ever to take a vacation. When considering which low cost airline to use, take a look not only at the costs and destinations, but also the hidden fees that could offset the savings. You’ll also want to make sure and check which arrival airport is used, as low cost airlines tend to fly to secondary airports that can be a bit far from the city you’re trying to reach.
Even with these caveats, budget airlines have opened up the skies in ways that would have been hard to imagine in the not too distant past. So take a look around, find the fares and destinations that work for you, and bon voyage!