Skip to main content

Budget Airlines: What Are Your Actually Paying For?

Pay toilets, standing-room-only tickets, and “optional” oxygen masks?

These (mostly) fictitious bits are the stuff of legend among the world’s ultra-low cost carrier (ULCC) airlines. In Europe and the U.S., the three biggest players — Spirit, Ryanair, and WOW air — promise dirt-cheap fares but often at substantial trade-offs in comfort. So, it’s essential to manage your expectations. If you know exactly what each airline will and will not be providing, you can strategically save a boatload of money. Here’s what to expect from three of the biggest (read: stingiest) budget airlines in the game.

Spirit Airlines

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Where they operate: The United States, Latin America, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, and Cuba

U.S.-based Spirit Airlines makes no bones about their Bare Fare tickets which promise only to get you to your destination. Every last creature comfort — including a cup of water, snacks, choosing your own seat, even carry-on baggage — garners an upcharge. The key to flying Spirit as cheaply as possible then boils down to three things: be flexible about where you sit, bring your own food and beverage on board, and travel only with a bag that’s small enough to fit under the seat in front of you (the one “luxury” that’s surprisingly free). With a little ingenuity, it’s possible. If you require any of these options, be sure to reserve them well in advance as purchasing a seat upgrade or room for your bag after boarding costs two to three times as much as doing so beforehand.


Image used with permission by copyright holder

Where they operate: Throughout 28 countries in Europe

Over the years, Ryanair has developed a reputation for its complete lack of customer service. They’ve wisely played into that hatred by publicly bandying about such money-saving schemes as pay toilets and standing room seats. Neither came to fruition but, of course, any publicity is good publicity. The bottom line: they want air travelers to know that they are cheap (the average one-way ticket is around $60 USD). Flash sales frequently offer one-way specials between European countries for just $20 USD. Like Spirit, the fares include little more than a non-reservable space on the plane. Anything else — drinks, food, carry-on baggage, and any semblance of customer service — comes at a premium. One big way the airline saves money is by operating on a skeleton crew — Ryanair has just 20% of the employees of Southwest, for example. This means European travelers are required to be far more self-sufficient. The translation here is obvious: if you experience a flight delay, missing baggage, or just about any other problem, you’ll need to figure it out on your own or wait (a long, long time) until one of their few call center employees can help.

WOW air

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Where they operate: Mainly Iceland and Europe from the United States and Canada

Iceland’s WOW air grabbed headlines in 2012 when they debuted transatlantic flights starting at $99 (USD) one-way with all taxes and fees included — a promise on which they mostly delivered. While their standard rates have increased over the years, the airline offers occasional flash sales with some of the cheapest tickets from North America to Europe. But, like other ULCCs on this list, basic tickets entitle you to little more than a seat somewhere on the plane. Snacks, water, and reserved seats all require additional fees, and the airline relentlessly pitches upgrades and add-ons before and during the flight. Carry-on bags will cost you around $40-50 USD in advance, but that price skyrockets to $100 at the gate. Customers traveling between North America and Europe are also required to stopover in Reykjavik, which may or may not be a bad thing, depending on your travel plans. On the flip-side, they offer one of the newest fleets among competing carriers. Their planes are appointed with basic amenities like food trays, personal reading lights, and reclining seats. Even the bathrooms and overhead bins are comparable to standard low-cost carriers.

Editors' Recommendations

Mike Richard
Mike Richard has traveled the world since 2008. He's kayaked in Antarctica, tracked endangered African wild dogs in South…
Hit the open road with one of these top 5 motorcycle road trips
Capture the last of summer and first of fall with these moto road trips
motorcycle road trip routes in the sunset

As summer begins to fade into the fall, we start to settle in for the cooler months. We start to make preparations to wear cashmere sweaters and start layering for the cold and wet weather. Our summer clothes get packed away, and we start to make room in the closet for the next few months. But don't relinquish your summer too soon; you still have time to break out the motorcycle for one of the more beloved road trips in the United States.

All of the best road trips have a combination of open spaces, great views, and tourist stops that will keep you entertained the entire time you are gone. Once you ensure you have the right bike for your height and weight, you should pack tools for every eventuality on the road and clothes for every environment, from sun-baked deserts to snowy mountain tops. Also, you should absolutely pack for frequent snack breaks.

Read more
The best breweries in America: The ultimate bucket list if you love craft beer
Want to combine craft beer and travel? These breweries have great ales and more — worth booking a vacation for
Prairie Artisan Ales Brewery

If you didn’t know it, there are currently more than 9,000 (yes, you read that right) breweries operating in the U.S. That’s a lot of IPAs, pilsners, and barrel-aged stouts. Honestly, it’s way more beer than you or I could ever hope to drink. This also means there are a ton of breweries that, to put it a bit bluntly, aren’t worth your time. There are also a lot of great outfits, brewing award-winning beers. There are also a few that stand above the rest both in terms of quality and atmosphere. These are the bucket list breweries that every beer fan should visit at least once.

The best part? These gems can be found all over the country. There are Chicago breweries, Asheville breweries, and outstanding, can’t-miss breweries from Petaluma to St. Pete. We’re talking names like Tree House Brewery, Russian River Brewing, Brewery Ommegang, and Portland, Maine’s stalwart Allagash Brewing to name a few.

Read more
Turn your trip to Puerto Vallarta into a wellness retreat at this stellar resort
Here’s a closer look inside the Westin Resort & Spa, Puerto Vallarta, and their abundance of wellness offerings. 
A view from Banderas Bay of The Westin Resort & Spa, Puerto Vallarta, in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico.

Can you really enjoy a relaxing “spa weekend” in Puerto Vallarta? Can you really enjoy a chill wellness-centric trip at a hotel that caters very much to families with children? Can you really stay at a resort with a private beach that’s minutes away from the airport and downtown? If you’re staying at the Westin Resort & Spa, Puerto Vallarta, all your wellness travel dreams may really come true.

Today, we’re taking you inside the Westin and all-around Puerto Vallarta to show how you can enjoy your own perfectly chill wellness retreat under the hot Jalisco sun, even when you’re so close to the best action in town.

Read more